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Four learnings from the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech

Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech is one of the greatest in history. It is not only brilliant in a rhetorical sense but also lauded for its social impact. Back then African-Americans used to face discrimination in almost all walks of life despite being promised equality. The speech catalyzed the Civil Rights Movement, which sought to reduce that inequality in the US.  

Just to give a bit of context, there were 250,000 people gathered in Washington that day to listen to him for 17 minutes. So what did he say in this speech that kept such a large crowd listening attentively in the summer heat?

I took a look at the speech and found four key techniques that we can learn from the speech.

1) Reference:

He was addressing the crowd in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. This monument was made to honor one of America’s most popular president, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln himself had freed all slaves in the USA with an executive order about a hundred years before King’s speech. That executive order was known as Emancipation Proclamation.

Right in the beginning of his speech, King draws upon that reference.  As he faced the crowd with the Lincoln Memorial behind him, he said:

“Five score years ago a great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand today signed the Emancipation Proclamation.”  

Doing that helped draw a link between his speech and that incident in history. Slavery affected mostly African-Americans during Lincoln’s era. The same demography was now fighting for civil rights. Drawing the reference helped to create a connection in the mind of the audience.

2) Repetition:

When you hear the entire speech you can hear him repeating phrases throughout the speech.

King used several of these phrases (several times at least). The phrases (and the number of times used) are written below:

“One hundred years later” X 4

“We refuse to believe” X 2

“Now is the time” X 4

“We cannot be satisfied” X 4

“I have a dream” X 5

“Let freedom ring” X 4

Even US ex-president Barack Obama used the same technique. Look at an extract from his 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote speech.

There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.

See how he repeats that “there’s the United States of America”. Here he is able to masterfully create emphasis on unity. Using this rhetorical device helps you to sow ideas in the mind of the audience.

Repeating phrases throughout the speech helped to create emphasis.

3) Alliteration:

Alliterations are a group of two or more words that repeat the same consonant sound at the beginning of the word. Alliterative sounds help create a rhythm and mood. They also help in drawing attention to a particular part of the speech and in helping you remember them. Martin Luther King Jr. used a lot of alliteration in his speech.

Look at these phrases below that King used in his speech. The words with alliterative effect are written in red.

“the dark and desolate valley of segregation.”

“This sweltering summer

“The marvelous new militancy

“great trials and tribulation

“of dignity and discipline.

come to our nation’s capital to cash

4) Structure:

The speech is very carefully crafted and organized. Reading or hearing the speech you’ll realize how he separates the speech into 3 sections.

1. First, he delves into the past, how African-Americans were denied rights over the years.

2. Then, he moves to the present, you can notice this we keep on repeating “now is the time”.

3. Finally, he moves to the future, he paints a picture for the audience by saying “I have a dream”.

Try and apply these 4 techniques whenever you have to go and speak in front of the public. You can find the written speech here to see where he used these techniques. https://www.archives.gov/files/press/exhibits/dream-speech.pdf

Also, if you want to watch his entire speech, please click on the following link.

The author of this post is offering a course on ‘How to Write a Powerful Speech’. To sign up for the course, click here.
September 19, 2017

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