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7 Presentation Tips from MLK’s “I Have a Dream” Speech

Nancy Duarte

Originally published by Nancy Duarte on LinkedIn: 7 Presentation Tips from MLK’s “I Have a Dream” Speech

Dr. Martin Luther King, one of the greatest orators and activists, persuasively and peacefully drove dramatic results during a very tumultuous time. He used speeches to activate and inspire others to stay engaged through all the stages of his movement.

My analysis of his speech in my TED talk recently surpassed a million views (well, if you add up this YouTube, this one, and Vimeo views, it’s TWO million views, but who’s counting).

Below are seven insights from MLK’s speech that every presenter can adopt:

  • Contour: King’s speech moves rapidly between what is and what could be rapidly, which is an appropriate frequency for the heightened energy of the gathering.
  • Dramatic pauses: He took long dramatic pauses that gave his statements the breathing room necessary for people to pause and reflect on them (today, those same pauses could give an audience time to tweet your statements.)
  • Vocal pacing: King used the speed of his words to create an ebb and flow. He had three distinct arcs to his speed and reaches almost a feverish pace at times. His speed rises and falls as he builds toward a rapid-paced crescendo towards the end.
  • Repetition: King uses the rhetorical device of repetition often. He repeats words and sequences which creates emphasis. In fact, his original title of this speech was “The Fierce Urgency of Now”. The people renamed it the “I Have a Dream” speech because of this beloved sequence of repetition.
  • Metaphor/visual words: King masterfully uses descriptive language to create images in the mind. For example, he states, “Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.”
  • Cultural relevance: King established common ground by referencing familiar hymns, scriptures and literature familiar to the audience.
  • Symbolic setting: He delivered the speech In Washington D.C. from the feet of Abraham Lincoln’s Memorial. One attendee said, “You could feel the sense of collective will and effort in the air.”

King’s speech heightened the awareness of civil rights issues across the country, bringing more pressure on Congress to advance civil rights legislation and end racial segregation and discrimination. The power of the spoken word wielded well, really does shape the results leaders achieve.

For more information on my book co-authored with Patti Sanchez Illuminate: Ignite Change Through Speeches, Stories, Ceremonies, and Symbols, visit: www.duarte.com/Illuminate