Message Strategy Video

Communicate Like MLK and Change the World

This post was updated January 15, 2018.

Martin Luther King Jr giving speech

Thanks to the proliferation and growth of social media and live video today, nearly everyone has a public platform that they can use to convey a message to a large audience. It’s possible to see more clearly than ever who can give a talk that moves people and changes minds.

But in a completely different category are speakers who pass the test of time, and one of them is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. I Have A Dream Speech - Duarte Social Media

Today marks what would be Dr. King’s 89th birthday, and to celebrate the too-short life of this oratory genius, we thought we’d take a look at one of his most historic speeches: “I Have a Dream” – observing what makes it so spectacular and powerful. MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech is not only literarily brilliant, its structure follows the presentation form perfectly, by traversing back and forth between what is and what could be, and ending by describing what the new bliss of equality looks like. In addition, MLK carefully chooses phrases and metaphors that resonate deeply with his audience.

Martin Luther King Jr. I Have A Dream Speech - Duarte Speech Analysis

If you’re struggling to create your next big presentation or even just crafting the message for your next staff meeting, take a few minutes to be inspired by the brilliance of one of America’s most beloved orators.

Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is one of the most famous in history – and when looking at it closely, it’s clear why. He crafted a speech that helped people see the potential ahead of them, and he employed tools that aided them in seeing what the future could be like if they were willing to take action. (Check out another post we published on the power of metaphors in “I Have a Dream” a few year back).

Thank You to Dr. King for standing up and speaking out to change the world.

Martin Luther King Jr. I Have A Dream Speech - Duarte Happy Birthday MLK

While Dr. King was an undoubtedly naturally skilled orator whose talks changed the world, anyone can take a page out of his book and learn how to employ the same effective speaking techniques by keeping in mind the delivery and structural strategies Dr. King employed. When you deliver your next speech, you too can deliver a talk that stirs audiences and has a major impact.

 

Happy Birthday, Dr. King.

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Nancy Duarte

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  • Great post Nancy (as always)! What an inciteful and dare I say it, useful, analysis. Thank you!

  • Hi, Nancy —

    Great analysis of the speech. MLKs speech style uses a “call and response” format when he really gets cranking. He takes a subject (such as reciting the words of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and then drawing a lesson from them) and expands on it, then moves on to another theme as the audience responds, each time taking the rhetoric and the passion higher, and finally ending with “Free at last, free at last, Thank God Almighty we are free at last!” This format is in stark contrast to the first half of the speech, which was more formal, and during which he read from his prepared script (all about the promissory note owed to Black Americans. The second half of the speech, interestingly was ad-libbed). MLK said afterward that he felt he wasn’t connecting with the audience as much as he wanted to in the first half, so he departed from the script and began the famous “I have a dream” sequence in order to get the audience back. It was a theme he had been thinking about for some months. An incredible performance, especially when you realize that some of the most famous words of the 20th century were ad-libbed.

    • Hi Nick, thanks for the note. I’ve heard from so many that the end was adlib (and I believe it) but haven’t found it documented. Do you know where? BTW, I LOVED your recent JFK post. Brilliant.

      • vidhya

        I don’t know if this counts as documentation, but I am almost positive that I saw this explained in CNN’s first season of Black in America–by some of MLK’s closest associates, including Andrew Young. They said that they hadn’t wanted him to use the dream idea when they were all consulting re: the writing of the speech prior to the gathering, and they were caught off guard on the day of when he was speaking and started to use it. As I recall, they described themselves as being a bit irked/ disappointed.

        I totally agree and appreciate your dissection of the brilliance of his communication style, which was integral to his changing of the world. I really appreciate this because often these talents among people of color are spoken about as if they are “merely” instinctive or “simply” absorbed by their surrounding culture rather than consciously perfected.

        But his changing of the world did not stop with his communication style–it was backed up by very concrete analysis, strategy, training, demand, i.e., grassroots direct action organizing. I think the grassroots direct action organizing has gotten short shrift of late–people seem to think the work ends with the communication piece. It is a holistic effort.

  • Tom

    I always MLK because he contributed a lot to make the world we are now a better place.

    Sadly, in politics, words are no more enough. We also need actions and results. This is very true with another great communicator named Obama.

  • OK, this blows me away, Nancy. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant (repitition!) analysis. Truly well done.

  • Hi, thank you for posting MLK’s speech and thank you for your amazing analysis which was both educational and enlightening (love what you said at the end). I am grateful to listen & watch…it’s a reminder of the power we all have within & proof of what our devotion can do to make the world a better place..one dream at a time!

  • Thanks for posting this historical, inspirational, and world-changing speech. NPR’s Fresh Air featured an interview with one of the Dr. King’s associates who said that the “I have a dream” sequence was completely extemporaneous! Amazing!

  • Archee Saw

    Excellent analysis and presentation about … MLK presentation. Thanks

  • Peter Heintz

    Nancy: Have you done the same analysis to President Obamas Victory speech in Chicago ? Does it also follow the same pattern ?
    Thanks for the great book you have produced 🙂 I have both of them and also Mr Reynolds. You are great teachers on presentation design.

    / Peter Heintz

    • I have loosely analyzed some of Obama’s speeches and they follow the presentation form. His style is very close to MLK’s in nature. They use very similar rhetorical devices.

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  • Fresh Air did a nice interview with Clarence Jones, who helped write the original draft of the speech.

    He confirms that the words “I have a dream” appeared nowhere in the written text….

    Link to the audio:
    http://www.npr.org/2011/01/17/132905796/dream-speech-writer-jones-reflects-on-king-jr?ps=cprs

  • LA

    LOVE this. Fascinating how a speech can be broken down and analyzed against an established form. Very well done.

    I have heard that the actual speech was not spoken exactly as it was written and that MLK modified the speech in real time, responding to the audience reaction as he went…like a composer. Imagine if this speech was in front of a podium for a limited audience, it would definitely not have been as powerful. The crowd was as much a part of the speech as MLK himself. Really amazing.

  • Frank

    Could not watch the Video, because it contains Content from Sony Entertainment. (I live in Germany). If Sony does not allow the spread of this type of content we should think about whether we should continue to support it with our money. My next TV will definitely be no Sony!

    • That is SO odd Frank. I’ve licensed the international rights (and paid a FORTUNE) for all my MLK material. What part couldn’t you watch?

  • Nancy

    Thank you so much for creating and sharing this visualization of MLK’s speech. I just showed it in my Honors Speaking class at Southeastern University. Even though the students (and *I*) have seen the speech numerous times, it’s always fascinating to see it analyzed from a different viewpoint. The visualization was quite helpful for us all.

    Looking back at Doug Neff’s comment, I did not realize that the words “I have a dream” were not in the original text of the speech. This is just one more reason that Dr. King is such a masterful communicator.

    Again, thank you Nancy for creating the visualization.

    Barbara Nixon
    Assistant Professor of Communication
    Southeastern University

  • xtked

    MLK – a class act all the way.
    Obama is just a talentless teleprompter reader.

  • Dear Ms Duarte,

    I’m coming to you from Stockholm, Sweden.

    I recently found your analysis of MLK’s speech on Youtube. Thanks very much for a thorough, intelligent and extremely well presented analysis that seems to catch attention from people around the world.

    As a colleague in the field of rhetorical training I would like to ask you which program you used to make this visualization of the speech. It was a very powerful instrument and I would be grateful if you could point me in the right direction on how to achieve this.

    I hope to hear from you and I will definitely keep following your inspirational work!

    Kind regards,

    Ruben Brunsveld
    Stockholm Insititute for Public Speaking (StIPS)
    http://www.stips.se
    ruben.brunsveld@stips.se

  • Hi Nancy! I loved your video! And I put it on my blog! If you wanna have a look, its: http://www.imagemecomunicacao.com

  • Glynne

    Hi Nancy

    When I click on on the MLK video, Youtube shows an error and says “this video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by SME”.

    Do you have another link that you can use?

    Cheers
    Glynne

  • Stephon Ferguson

    Great! I perform as Dr. King at TheDreamLives.com – I am working on a book that breaks down Dr. King speeches  (what he is saying in substance) but never seen such a great analysis like this – Thank you!

    • I am on a crazy deadline for the next 5 weeks. Crazy. So I will be super s-l-o-w at responding to e-mail.
      If it’s urgent, please contact:
      Drew Fleming for questions about a new project: drew@www.duarte.com Laura Wall Klieves for questions about training: laura@www.duarte.com Emily Reginelli for setting up time with me: emily@www.duarte.com

      Thanks for your patience,

      Nancy

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