Presentation Skills: An Analysis of MLK’s Most Memorable Speech

presentation skillsAugust 28, 2013 marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. King delivered his electrifying “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial which became the flash point for a movement.

Dr. King heightened awareness of civil rights issues across the country, bringing more pressure on Congress to advance civil rights legislation and end racial segregation and discrimination — using only his voice.

Nancy Duarte analyzed Dr. King’s speech to uncover what makes it so powerful, and visualized it in the interactive multimedia version of Resonate.

The analysis has the following insights into the structure:

Contour: King’s speech structurally moves between what is and what could be rapidly, which is an appropriate pace for the heightened energy of the gathering.

Dramatic Pauses: The transcript has a line break each time King pauses. The speech looks like poetry. As you listen to the speech featured in Resonate, breathe for a second or two at the end of each line.

The transcript is color-coded so you can see the actual words Dr. King said.

Repetition: King uses repetition often. Throughout the speech, he repeats word sequences to create emphasis. Toward the end, he repeats, “I have a dream” several times, like the refrain of a hymn.

Metaphor/Visual Imagery: King masterfully uses descriptive language to create images in the mind. His words paint scenes in the mind of the audience.

Familiar Songs, Scripture and Literature: King establishes common ground by referencing many hymns and scriptures familiar to the audience. He even rephrases a small sequence from Shakespeare: “This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn…”

Political References: King pulls lines from political resources like the Declaration of Independence, Emancipation Proclamation, Constitution and Gettysburg address, making it clear that the promises to him in those documents have been broken.


Dr. King’s address is still widely revered as one of the world’s most memorable speeches, even 50 years later. We can all learn from the message he shared that day, as well as his powerful use of illustrative visual language, resonant references, and repetition.