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The perfect speech

I get chills every time I hear the “I Have a Dream Speech.”  It’s more than just the message, which is extremely powerful in its own right. It is something about how Martin Luther King, Jr delivers the message.

This Fast Company article describes some of the unconscious factors that made that speech so moving:

  • King’s references to the historical importance of the location in which he was speaking, which put the event into a larger context.

  • His direct references to The Gettysburg Address, the Constitution, and the Emancipation Proclamation appealed to the head.  While his references to the Bible, “My Country Tis of Thee,” and an old African American spiritual appealed to the heart.

  • His language was vivid and metaphorical. The article describes one long metaphor about cashing a check that was central to his thesis.

  • He sharpened his ideas through contrast. For example, “The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”

  • His use of repetition. The words “I have a dream…that one day” are the obvious example but he repeats language many times throughout the speech and they drive his messages home.

  • A clear call to action.

  • He ends on a hopeful note – which is the repetition of his various “dreams.”

If you want another fascinating rhetorical analysis of the speech, check out this video from Nancy Duarte, a presentation expert who had written a couple of great books about PowerPoint presentations. Ironically, she says, “It would have ruined it if he would have had slides” because his metaphors were so vivid that an actual image would not have done them justice.

(On a historical note, one of the things that is amazing about this speech, to me, is that the last several minutes of it were unscripted. Imagine being able to speak like that off the top of your head!)

Our presentations will never rise to the level of historical significance of the “I Have a Dream” speech but there are rhetorical devices we can borrow that can make our more workaday presentations more compelling.