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The Anatomy of an Inspiring Speaker

During my research for Communicate You, I came upon a great blog by the public speaking expert Sarah Lloyd-Hughes. In one of her most popular posts, Sarah analyses the legendary “I Have A Dream” speech in minute detail, leaving us in no doubt about the great public speaking qualities of Martin Luther King.

Why is the speech widely considered as one of the greatest, if not the greatest speech of the 20th century?

In the paragraphs that follow, I share some of Sarah’s original comments (shown in grey italics) and add personal notes of my own. Here are 5 things that made Martin Luther King an inspiring speaker:

1) Confidence & Passion

You can see from Martin Luther King’s body language that he was calm and grounded as he delivered his speech. Although you can’t see his feet as he’s speaking, I’d imagine him to be heavily planted to the ground, with a solid posture that says “Here I am. I’m not budging. Now, you come to me.” The 200,000 people at the Washington rally could not have pushed King off-track if they’d tried, so solid was he in his convictions. 

What does this teach us? I think it shows that confidence is directly proportional to passion. As a speaker it’s crucial that you choose to deliver a message that you are passionate about. That passion will transfer to your audience, who will be more likely to listen to (and be persuaded by) what you have to say.

Inspiring Speaker

2) A Powering Voice

It would always take a commanding voice to inspire thousands and Martin Luther King’s booming voice was well practiced in his capacity as a Baptist preacher. His cadence, his pacing and his preacher-like drama bring real passion to the speech. Martin Luther King used powerful, evocative language to draw emotional connection to his audience.

“Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.”

“This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.”

“We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities.”

What can we learn from this? I once read a great description of a voice being like an instrument. Like any instrument it must be fine tuned. The manner in which you use your voice in terms of tone, pitch, and speed, and the language you use has a huge influence in the overall delivery of your speech.

Learn more about vocal variety here. You might also enjoy reading Priscilla Morris’ guest post about vocal influence and persuasion.

3) Use of Repetition

The intensity of King’s speech is built through bold statements and rhythmic repetition. Each repetition builds on the one before and is reinforced by Martin Luther King’s ever increasing passion. As the speech comes to a close the pace of Martin Luther King’s repetition increases, helping to build to a crescendo.

“Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina…”

“Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

Why is the use of repetition so effective? King uses a structure in his speech known as the parallel structure. This structure proves successful time and time again because it highlights the speakers intent early and builds up to a more important point. In this way the audience is constantly engaged. Use of repetition in a speech not only brings clarity, but also encourages the audience to accept an idea. It gets everyone singing off the same hymn sheet, so to speak.

4) Going Off Script

Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech was never meant to even include its most famous sequence and climax. Originally penned under several names, such as the catchy “normalcy speech” and “A Cancelled check”, King put aside his script ten minutes into the speech. This is what gave “I have a dream” its raw power and edge – King was living the words that he spoke.

Should everyone go off script when speaking? Although often not encouraged, particularly for a beginner speaker who may panic and become flustered, it is clear from this performance that going off script does have enormous benefits. It gives the speech a natural feel. It makes the audience feel special, as if they are getting an exclusive, and they appreciate it. As you grow in confidence on stage, you should definitely consider using this technique.

Inspiring Speaker

5) Audience Connection

It’s thought that King ditched the script so that he could connect more with his audience. And it worked. King goes on to talk to his audience and their personal situations directly. King is with the people, fully connecting to them with his eyes and delivering a powerful rhythm in his speaking. So often it is the speaker who is flexible and vulnerable enough to connect with their audience who has the most impact.

“I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations”.

“Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.”

How can you achieve that same level of audience connection as King when you speak? It requires empathy and honesty. Never underestimate the power of emotions. If someone can make you smile or shed a tear, you know there’s a pretty strong bond there. By speaking to his audience on a personal level King develops a special relationship with them, which he uses to convey his message.

Check out my detailed post on how to connect with an audience here.

Inspiring Speaker

An Inspiring Speaker

Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech offers so many useful tips and techniques for the modern day public speaker. His speech can be used as a guide to explain the importance of self confidence, to illustrate the power of the voice, to show effective use of repetition, to highlight the benefits of going off script, and to demonstrate the importance of making an audience connection.

View the text of the speech here and don’t forget to check out Sarah’s detailed blog post on the topic here. If you can spot any more features that make King’s speech effective please add a comment below.

Since this post was published I have gone on to speak with Sarah in a wide-ranging interview about presentations and public speaking. The blog post is packed with useful tips and techniques. Check it out here!