Communication Lessons from the I Have a Dream Speech

I have a dream speechFifty years ago today, a speech of less than 11 minutes in length demanded the world stop and listen; and we are still listening today. On August 28, 1963 during the March on Washington, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.

This speech has been studied, watched, commented on, and dissected ever since.

Much has been and will be written about this speech from a political and civil right perspective. That is not my forte, nor my goal. On this anniversary, rather, I want to help leaders and communicators learn from this powerful oration to be better communicators and speakers themselves.

While likely no one reading these words will have the chance to give a speech to a group that size or on national television, the lessons that we can apply are clear, or at least I hope they are after you finish this post.

To get the most from the points I am about to share, I encourage you to watch the speech from the communication perspective, not the historical or political one.

Now that you have watched, here are some of the key lessons to make your next presentation more powerful.

Have a clear focus.  Dr. King had a clear purpose in mind for the speech. He knew what he wanted to accomplish and it didn’t include “covering the topic.” The best presentations can be summarized on a napkin or the back of an envelope. They have a desired outcome, and the speaker makes sure that the desired outcome guides every decision about the content of the talk.

Emotional appeal.  Clearly this speech has an emotional component. Yet far too often, presenters in organizations want to stay with the facts and logic. You are giving a speech to persuade people toward something – and humans make decisions on more than the facts. If you want to give a more effective and powerful speech, find ways to include emotions, energy, and enthusiasm (all of which are evident in Dr. King’s speech).

Have a clear organizational plan.  Dr. King used an historical arc – he talked about the past, the current situation (“now is the time”), and the future (“I have a dream”). This is one of many organizational approaches, and while you may not need to emulate this one, have a clear path that you are following and that your audience can follow as well.

Use of repetition.  Dr. King uses the phrases “now is the time and “I have a dream” repeatedly. This is on purpose. It provides a rhythm, a cadence, and a flow to the talk.  It also enhances memory and recall in the audience. Watch good speakers and you will see them using this tactic. With a bit more planning, you can too.

Common language.  This speech closes with words from two songs – a patriotic one and a traditional spiritual. Using language known to the audience is powerful, because it is a way to engage the minds and hearts of your audience.

Make it visual.  Dr. King didn’t have PowerPoint or an overhead projector, but his speech created powerful mental images. Our minds are image processors, not merely word processors. Whether you have slides or not, make sure you engage the power of visual images to make your presentation more effective and persuasive.

Keep it short.  We are still talking about, writing about and reading about this speech 50 years later. About 10 minutes long. It wasn’t the only or the longest speech of that day. But it is the only one most people remember. Get clear on what you want to accomplish and take out everything that doesn’t move you towards the goal. Almost all talks would be more powerful if they were shorter.

Close strong.  Watch the end of the speech and you see a textbook example of closing strong. Your approach to an ending might be different, but your goal should be the same. Close by driving home the points you want to reinforce and have remembered. Make sure the closing connects people back to your purpose for giving the talk .

There is plenty for any presenter to work on here, and yet there are other lessons in this powerful oration. I encourage you to look for your own as you watch and think about the speech.  Then…  go out and apply one of the lessons to your next presentation.

A final note – in my research for this post, I ran across a video interview with Dr. King’s speechwriter. I strongly encourage you to watch this four minute video – it gives you additional insights and perspective on the speech, and why it was so powerful.


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