I Have a Dream

Today is the day we celebrate one of the greatest men in American history who also happened to be one of the greatest orators and speakers of our time. I’ve listened to many of King’s speeches in their entirety, and I believe there is much we can learn if we pay attention to the things that made King memorable and influential when he took the pulpit, podium, world stage, or simply the lead of a small group of people.  

Credibility – More than simply telling a good story, King was a master of weaving historical stories with modern ones to illustrate that his points were supported by the broad sweep of history. When we show a connection between our ideas and those of similar events in ancient and modern history, we build context that people can understand and a case they can believe.  What other events in history support your concepts?

Embodiment – Credibility is also built with congruency. King embodied his ideals and so was experienced by his audiences, students, and constituents as authentic and fully committed. I’m a communication and performance coach. If I do not take the stage prepared, confident, and connected, then I lose before I’ve begun. What is the overarching message of your communication and how can others see and experience you living that story?  

Presence – The audience knows when you are connected with them on this day, about this subject, in sync with the energy in this room. They can feel it and so can you. When others believe that instead of reciting an overly rehearsed speech, you are prepared but fluid and highly present, they lean into you and your message. It’s what charisma is all about, and it moves you from a “presentation” into a “conversation” rich with energy and engagement.  

Repetition – The iconic phrase “I have a dream” is repeated eight times in King’s famous 17-minute speech. If you want to drive your point home and make it stick, consider building a repeatable phrase into your presentation. People won’t remember your speech in its entirety so giving them a way to remember and repeat your main point is a gift to them and to you.  

Modulation – If you’ve only heard snippets of King’s speeches or sermons, you would likely conclude that he was always a fiery and impassioned speaker, but if you listen to his speeches as a whole, you’ll find he almost always starts out with a slow and measured pace and, over time, builds his emphasis, tone, volume, and pace to draw you in and build to a crescendo. Once your presentation is organized, it’s fun to practice and play with this technique of pulling the audience into the passion you want them to feel. 

Practice – And speaking of practice, it comes in different forms but there is no denying its importance if you want to speak well. We’ve likely heard before about the seemingly impromptu nature of King’s speech before the March on Washington, but he had actually been testing out large components of this speech in other presentations and venues and adjusting along the way with what worked and what landed the message effectively. Practice isn’t about making you perfect. It’s about making you confident and ready when the opportunity presents itself. Even if you’re not planning to take a big stage, trying your ideas out on close friends or small groups is a way of practicing what communicates your message in the most clear, concise, and compelling way.  

This week, as you think about how you will communicate effectively with your team, clients, audiences, or family, consider what made Dr. Martin Luther King and all other great communicators memorable and inspiring. Create context. Be the authentic embodiment of your story. Practice or continually try out your ideas. And then, relax into a present, relaxed, and conversational delivery with a varied cadence that builds passion for action.  

We won’t be Martin Luther King, but we can learn from him and be better.  

If you cannot fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward. 

~Martin Luther King, Jr.

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