Why King’s Speech Was So Great: A Speaker’s Thoughts

On August 28, 1963 (50 years ago), Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the March On Washington had such impact it is still being felt today.

What made it so powerful? To begin, it wasn’t just about racism. It was about patriotism, freedom and justice for all, and about unity.

The traits from the speech provide a wonderful lesson for any speaker no matter their cause.

1- Authenticity
King was jailed 29 times in a life of non violent protests. Your words carry more weight when you have walked the walk of your message.

2- Passion
Dr. King, no doubt, had stomach butterflies as he prepared to address more than 200,000 people that day. Obviously, he was able to channel that nervousness into positive energy. He was passionate. Why should anyone care about your topic if you are not passionate yourself? Though civil rights was, and still is, an extremely complicated, he effectively used passion and clarity to convey a simple, straightforward message about his “dream.”

The clarity presented in King’s speech can be outlined in a single paragraph. With effective use of symbolism and visuals, he began with a Lincoln reference with the Lincoln Memorial as a backdrop. He made a powerful case in order to define the injustice that existed, citing specific examples of racial wrongs. While he expressed a defiant tone attacking racism, he also saluted his “white brothers” and called once again for nonviolence. His speech was not simply a collection of powerful rhetoric; it included a call for action to “remind America of the fierce urgency of now.” That call for action was reinforced by a simple yet visionary phrase, “I have a dream.”

If the speech was relevant to African Americans alone, it would not have had the same impact. It was, in part, a patriotic speech, appealing to all Americans to make their country better.  It was relevant to all Americans that one day all children would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

All great presentations have at least one compelling takeaway. King’s takeaway was clear and compelling —- “the situation can and will be changed.” The following year, Congress passed and President Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964

Authenticity, passion, clarity, relevance, takeaways — all great speeches have them. Try to put them in yours.

By the way, the speech was just 16 minutes long. One of the most common mistakes in speaking will come as no surprise to you — they often last too long!

The writer is a professional speaker and speaking coach as well as an adjunct media professor. His book is Everyone Can Be A Dynamic Speaker. Yes, I Mean You!

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