Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day!
This man, from an early age, taught me that words can move the world. HE moved the world. And today – especially now, in this age that feels like we're reeling backward in some ways – I want to highlight what we as speakers can learn from MLK and pay homage to him through his incredible speech, “I Have a Dream.”
And so, I couldn't think of a better speech to start the TMM Talk Club with. The idea behind the TMM Talk Club is to analyze a speech – pull it apart a bit – and think through what the key elements are so that we can learn from them, and bring more of these ideas into our own work. [More on the TMM Talk Club soon!]
So what did MLK do especially well? Three things:
- He wrote like a poet. The script of this talk reads like a poem: alliteration, metaphors, painting pictures with his words – all like a good poet. It is beautifully crafted, written with a sense of the epic struggle – using epic language.
“…they came together to end the long night of their captivity…”
“…languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land.”
“…the fierce urgency of now.”
“…the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” “
“…quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood”
“Let us not in the search for freedom drink from the cup of bitterness and hatred”
“…majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force… the marvelous new militancy must not lead us to a mis-trust of all white people… their destiny is tied up with our destiny.”
I talk about the importance of being simple and plain-spoken. But what I love about this is that though it's fairly simple, it is not plain spoken. Martin Luther King manages to write poetry without it flying above our heads. And I think it's because of the way he utilizes these next two points…
- When he speaks the poetry, it takes a FORM. When we as speakers bring what we've written alive – when we speak it out loud – it takes a shape. This is where the writing meets the delivery, and he wrote this poetry with a structure in mind.
He uses repetition to help him illuminate the poetry, and bring it to life. And, as we know, some of the most famous lines from this speech are exactly this:
Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
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.”
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 the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little 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.
I have a dream today!…
As he says this over and over again, the speech comes to life – and this is exactly when the audience enters into it as more than just passive listeners. During these times of intentional repetition and cadence is when we start to hear them really respond. And why is that?
- That form becomes a song. If we were to ‘map' this talk, putting a pen to paper and moving as MLK's pitch moves, it would look like music. It lifts and moves – spurned on by his passion for what he's talking about. And this is why we as an audience are so moved – because it moves IN him, and so IN us, too.
As beautiful as the writing it, it should be listened to. That's where the magic happens.
So what does this mean for us?
What strikes me about this speech is that it holds very little resemblance to a talk I would write, or that I would help my speakers write. Aside from the fact that we lead very different lives, and that this was a different time that seemed especially rich with flowing civic rhetoric – there are no “stories”; he isn't personalizing it or humanizing himself to this audience; and he is not seeking to be conversational and connected above all else.
No, this talk seems to work on a level above those “presentation” devices. He is singing an aria, not wooing the audience with the latest Top 40 hit. Because the time and the issue called for something more, and begged him to dig deeper.
So what does this mean for us? What can we take from this talk into our own?
We should not try and replicate MLK's style – or his poetry. It is all his.
But our speech CAN have poetry – our poetry. And that poetry CAN have a compelling form – a form that reflects us. And that form can help our talks SING.
In fact – they must sing. There is much at stake for us as speakers and leaders in this world today. And if we can harness the kind of passion and calling that led Martin Luther King to bellow his famous line “free at last, free at last, thank God almighty we are free at last!”… then this world will indeed move.
If you can take the 18 minutes to watch his speech again – do it. Close your eyes, and let the language sink into you. Feel how the structure of this poetry becomes a song – and seeps into us.
Some MLK inspiration for you:
A wonderful compilation of MLK interviews and speech analysis.
- My first post about MLK:
- A great episode about the “lost art of verbal communication” with Graeme Blackman
And a beautiful song written by the amazing Patty Griffin, inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.'s last public speech, Up to the Mountaintop