How The King of Communicators Inspired Change

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Ever wondered how the great orators of history crafted and delivered such memorable speeches that resonated with their audience?

Nancy Duarte of Duarte Design – the company responsible for turning Al Gore’s Powerpoint slides into an Oscar-winning quality story in ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ – has dissected Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous ‘I Have A Dream’ speech from the 1963 March on Washington D.C., to show how it’s done.

In this fascinating analysis, Duarte extracted each line of Dr King’s speech and organised it according to tense in order to show visually how he moved the audience from ‘what is’ to ‘what could be’, ending with the positive situation the speaker and audience wish to manifest, ‘the new bliss’:

screenshot of Duarte's dissection of King's speech, showing where parts referred to the present, and the future

Don’t worry that you can’t read the words – they’re being used here for a different purpose, to show the structure of the speech.

Duarte then separated out elements of the speech, colour-coded them, and plotted them in accordance with where they were used by Dr King. Here’s a visual overlay of each element:

Repetition (identified in blue), a device to drive a point home, and usually done in threes – here are points in the Dr King’s speech where repetition was used:

screenshot of graphic showing where King's words were repetition

Dr King’s most well-known repetitions from this speech were the words ‘I have a dream…’, but he also used it in other sections of his speech:

But one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. 

This paragraph is also rich with metaphor, or visual words.

Metaphors and visual words (identified in pink) were used liberally by Dr King:

screenshot of graphic showing where King's words were metaphorical

Dr King uses the metaphor of a check, and a bank account – one that would be familiar to most people – to speak of justice:

In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check – a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

Cultural references (identified in green), show where Dr King used songs, scripture, literature that were familiar and dear to the audience:

screenshot of graphic showing where King used cultural references

Dr King referenced ‘Free At Last’, a Negro spiritual song in his rousing finish to his delivery:

Let freedom ring. And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring—when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children—black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics—will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

Political references (identified in orange), show where Dr King refers to political events, dates or documents, like the Declaration of Independence:

screenshot of graphic showing where King used political references

At the beginning of his speech, Dr King invokes abolitionist President Abraham Lincoln and echoes Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (which began ‘Four score and seven years ago…’)

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

It is worth nothing that the most powerful and memorable part of Dr King’s speech combined ALL of these elements: repetition, metaphor, cultural and political references:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” (political)

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. (repetition, metaphor)

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. (repetition, metaphor)

I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. (repetition)

I have a dream today. (repetition)

I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor’s lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers. (repetition, metaphor)

I have a dream today. (repetition)

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. (repetition, metaphor, cultural – scripture)

Each of these elements, along with Dr King’s measured delivery and speaking style, combined to create a powerful emotional call to action. Dr King was not appealing to the ‘logical’ part of the brain, but intent on shifting the heart.

As noted in ‘Motivating Sustainable Behaviour’, it is more effective to inspire and involve people, and give them a sense of agency over their situation than it is to rationalise and instruct. Martin Luther King appealed to people with ‘I have a dream’ – not ‘ I have a plan’.

Here is Duarte’s analysis in full (7 mins):

It would be fascinating to see a similar visual analysis of speeches by another great political orator of King’s era, President John F Kennedy.

A cursory glance at JFK’s Inaugural Address from 20 January 1961 shows all of the elements of King’s speech: repetition, metaphor, scripture, political references:

Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us…

Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce. (repetition, metaphor)

Let both sides unite to heed, in all corners of the earth, the command of Isaiah – to “undo the heavy burdens, and [to] let the oppressed go free.” (cultural – scripture)

And, if a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion…(metaphor)

And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. (repetition, call to action)

In his address at the American University, 10 June 1963:

“When a man’s way[s] please the Lord,” the Scriptures tell us, “He maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him.” And is not peace, in the last analysis, basically a matter of human rights: the right to live out our lives without fear of devastation; the right to breathe air as nature provided it; the right of future generations to a healthy existence? (repetition, cultural – scripture)

For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal. (metaphor, repetition)

Duarte has also applied this technique to other historical speeches, such as Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and from more recent times, Steve Jobs’s iPhone launch speech. You can learn more about creating messages and storytelling approaches in Duarte’s book, ‘Resonate’.

Yet King’s speech is perhaps the best example – not only is it memorable, it has become a cultural icon that has touched audiences beyond those who were immediately involved in the civil rights struggle, and has continued to be influential beyond the time and cultural context in which it was made.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Address at March on Washington, August 28, 1963. Washington, D.C. (17 mins)

It’s success depended very much on the spirit of the man, but also on the structure and delivery of his most cherished message.

Which other great historical or contemporary speeches would you like to see dissected and analysed? 

How well do you know your audience? What metaphors would you use, and what cultural and political references could you tap into when presenting to them? 

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