First things first: a brief history lesson. Martin Luther King was a great man who fought for racial equality. He was a leader of the African-American Civil Rights Movement and a Baptist minister, a man with a true sense of justice, a fighter for the greater good. He gave his famous speech – “I have a dream” – during a march on Washington, in 1963. Some say it was the greatest speech ever delivered. Indubitably, King played an incredibly important role in history, since the Civil Rights Act was adopted the year after his speech, and the Voting Rights Act the year after that (1965). Make sure to watch it carefully so you pay attention to the sound, as well as to the image. Keep reading to understand why this is important.
What can we learn from Martin Luther King? What makes a good speaker?
There are three things that will make an audience perceive a speaker as a leader or as a person who is worth listening to: appearance (overall visual impression); the way the speaker communicates (communication skills); and the speaker’s attitude. These are the three main things that register in the initial contact with the audience. It isn’t enough for a speaker to say he cares about something. He has to show himself trustworthy, to prove his sincerity, and he does this by using his voice and presentation skills. Martin Luther King was a natural talent when it came to public speaking, which isn’t a surprise given that he was a minister. All of this came very spontaneously to him, since he spoke from the heart all his life. But don’t get discouraged by this! Public speaking is a skill that can be learned. That’s why we can be deceived by the lies of skillful speakers: they may seem like they care about something, but the truth is – they are just so good at presenting themselves that they have the power to convince an audience of just about anything. Keep in mind that communication is a powerful thing. Once you master it, try to use it for good causes.
Now, to show the power of non-verbal communication, try watching Martin Luther King’s speech on mute. Here’s what you can learn from King:
Just by seeing him, you will feel honored that you get to listen to his words. This is the impression that his posture gives us with his confident look, relaxed shoulders, and determination projected in the way he stands tall. His hands are calm, his gestures are controlled. He is in control: he radiates an energy that makes you feel safe. A lot of this has to do with his life calling as a minister.
Appropriate facial expressions
Keep in mind that you cannot always use the universal advice “just don’t forget to smile”, which is something that is heard too often from speech trainers who are specialized in non-verbal communication. It’s not always the right approach. When preparing to deliver a speech, think about what your role as a speaker is, what your subject is, and what you want to say. Martin Luther King’s facial expression communicates anger, determination, a strong dedication to persisting in a fight, feelings of injustice, and firm leadership. All of these can be felt as mightiness when combined with a strong look in the eyes, a frowning face, and controlled movements of the head (nodding and shaking).
Using effective gestures
Martin Luther King most frequently used a gesture called “the preacher’s hand”, which is a raised hand with an open palm. The variation of this gesture is using just your forefinger. Both of these create a certain association with power and credibility. These are not effective if you use them all the time, but they are powerful if you use them at the moment of the climax of your speech. Climaxes are vocally recognizable by increased volume and/or significantly changed prosody. Again, King does it completely spontaneously.
Know the difference between having confidence and being arrogant
There is a subtle line between these two qualities, but the audience will feel the difference. And they will not forgive you for arrogance. An arrogant attitude creates a bad impression and most certainly will backfire. Notice how King shows that he is not talking at his people, but is with them, with all his heart.
When it comes to King’s speech and his vocal skills, here is some advice you can take to heart:
Be in control of your voice
A lot of people aren’t even using the complete power of their voices, so their ideas aren’t being communicated nearly as effectively as they could be. King uses all the voice ammunition he has: tempo, prosody, volume, rhythm, pauses. His voice doesn’t tremble, not even for a second; he doesn’t stutter; he speaks loudly and with clarity. King has a special rhythm that is characteristic of the best minister’s rhetoric, a true preacher’s voice.
Take your time
As you may have noticed, King speaks very slowly, but not on a completely steady tempo. Increasing the speed, and combining it skillfully with increased volume – gives anybody’s speech an increased impression of depth and meaning.
King uses repetition in a very effective way: in order to build to a gradual climax. That means using a certain phrase or a group of words (such as one hundred years in the first part of King’s speech) that will allow you to align the images you wish to evoke in your audience’s mind – by strength. You will notice in his speech that, after every climax, the audience claps or shouts with approval.
Another useful way is to repeat key words throughout the speech, so that they stick in the minds of the listeners. This is an effective way to make your ideas crystal clear to the people you are speaking to.
Use descriptive language (create visual and sound images with words)
In order to grab everyone’s attention completely, you have to learn how to paint images with your words. Powerful images are everywhere in King’s speech.
Use analogies that create or underline the emotional connection you (as a speaker) have with the audience.
One of the greatest rules of public speaking is to know who your audience is. You have to adjust your speech to the people who will listen to you; you have to adapt in order to get your message through. King uses a great metaphor:
In a sense we’ve 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, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable 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, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”
A successful metaphor shown here has a single, fine thread of thought that connects the first and the last sentence of the mentioned paragraph. The first sentence is unexplainable by itself, but it hooks the audience’s attention, given the fact that they are prepared for the revelation of its meaning. As you see, it was greeted with thunderous applause and shouts. In this metaphor, King used something that was well known to him and his people – poverty. Connecting something material (lack of money), which was the consequence of the horrible regime imposed upon African-Americans in the sixties (and many centuries before, of course) – with something spiritual (the idea of freedom, which is a shared goal) – created a unique explosion of approval in the audience, since it underlined the great meaning of their fight.
Know what’s important to your audience and show what’s important to you
Martin Luther King and his people shared the same goal. Still, this connection gets even stronger when he uses shared experiences in his speech, such as references to the lower Mississippi River valley, which was geographically important because of the 86% non-white population that lived there. Connection is also strengthened by using quotes from the Bible and the pronoun we, which erases the barrier separating “me, the speaker – and you, the audience”.
Speak from the heart
It’s not a well known fact that the main part of this famous speech was improvised. Martin Luther King started his speech, which was prepared in advance, and then in a brief pause, his friend and comrade in the fight for equality, Mahalia Jackson, yelled from the back: Tell them about the dream, Martin! She was referring to the dream she and Martin had discussed about two months before, in Detroit, a dream of white and black people living together, in peace. So, King ditched his prepared speech and spoke completely impromptu, from his heart. This became the best speech in history, known as the “I have a dream” speech. The improvised part has been evaluated as even better than the first, prepared part. It had passion, fire, honesty, and determination.
We can all agree that one can learn a lot from this great man, and not just how to speak so that people listen.