a long read
“People may not remember what you said, but they will remember how what you said made them feel”
Every now and then I enjoy re-visiting classics. These classics are movies, songs, books and even speeches that changed the trajectory of societies and to an extent my own life. Recently I re-visited the “I Have a Dream” Speech by Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK), and while listening I quickly remembered why I was awestruck the first time I encountered it.
To me this speech is a war cry. MLK quite literally commissioned the English language to war against the powers and prejudices that the civil rights movement sought to exterminate. Through painting a perfect picture of the enemy named injustice, he conjured a call to action so compelling that it even stirred those in the opposition. In today’s post I want to spend some time appreciating MLK while also discussing why his speech in my opinion is an excellent demonstration of effective speaking.
Setting the Stage
Effective speaking is an art. By effective I refer to the speaker’s ability to accomplish two things: retain attention and recruit the audience to their ideas. At first glance those two items may seem simple, making it a stretch to call effective speaking an “art”. A case can be made that attention is easily retained by being loud, provocative, or through reward. I mean just try and escape the endless reels that have taken over every social media platform. Going further, recruiting people could be done by a simple presentation of all the advantages and disadvantages attached to an idea.
To this extent I would agree, but that approach only works for specific cases where the situation is so simple and binary that the conclusion is essentially predetermined. These cases do not require the art of effective speaking because no minds are being changed. No values or emotions are corralled as it relies on a very calculated approach based on common sense. For example, if you had the job of moving a large pile of soil with a shovel, then someone offers you their wheelbarrow, the answer is clear as day.
Unfortunately, this simplicity is rarely the case in the practical world. What if there are multiple conflicting parties involved in the idea? What do you do when your idea is not mainstream? What if it involves individual sacrifice? What if it needs more than nods and cheers, but marches and changes in habit? This is where effective speaking is required, and where its application leaves people entranced by its seemingly hypnotic ability to sway minds.
For context, let us unpack the situation MLK was interacting with. The civil rights movement had the goal of ending segregation, protecting black voter rights and preventing discrimination in employment and housing practices. Despite slavery being penned as over, measures were not put into place to protect and support the exploited African American population. Rather, in the name of preservation of white culture, wealth and power, people branding themselves as segregationists took it upon themselves to create a rift between the races with the implementation of the Jim Crow Laws. These laws were deemed lawful (see Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896) and met the democratic majority demands at the time. In this hostile climate, MLK is fighting battles on two fronts: one against the law and another against the prejudice found in hearts all throughout the United States of America.
MLK, through the speech, therefore had the following goals: addressing the clear hostile intent behind segregation, highlighting the separate and unequal environment that black people were forced into, and convincing everyone that the constitution binding all Americans together, both black and white, was in direct contradiction with the state of America at that time. All while reassuring the millions of suffering black people that there is an attainable hope at the end of the long dark tunnel. In my opinion, all these points were met perfectly within the speech.
MLK uses the power of association in his speech through metaphors and shared values. Drawing on ideas and objects that already hold a lot of meaning to the audience, he shaped his ideas into something that was compatible with everyone, making them familiar and oddly at home within each person. MLK did this especially well with the bank metaphor. He compared the feeling of injustice black people felt when shoved to the back of the bus, to the feeling of being denied a cash withdrawal from the bank despite the legitimate cheque you handed them. With a large Christian audience, he inspired many by tapping into the religious ideas of hope of liberty and freedom from the evil that plagued them, paralleling biblical ideas of salvation.
Despite MLK being as articulate and direct as he was, I believe that no matter the speaking skill of a leader, he or she cannot make a person change. It is always the individual who ultimately chooses which way they will go. However, the effective leader is a great power because they act as a catalyst for change, a source of energy that an audience can tap into to make the leap for themselves. MLK knew this and aimed, through his words, to propel the civil rights movement forward, not by giving commands but by urging people to wake up and command themselves to act.
The year after MLK’s historic speech, the movement scored a major victory as segregation was deemed non-constitutional and outlawed in the highest court of the United States. This was a large milestone in flattening the field politically and civilly, but left much more work to be done socially. Unfortunately, prejudice and public attitudes cannot be change by enacting laws, but only by an individual’s genuine effort to reassess the world views they hold (perhaps a post idea for another day).
Of course, there are many other techniques MLK used to make his speech effective such as speaking with a cadence and using grand gestures. I challenge you to not only re-watch this speech but identify why it resonated with so many people and perhaps even with yourself. The link to the video is below and a transcript as well.
Who is MLK to you? Who are some other effective speakers? Comment down below.