www.wellsaid.comJanuary 2015

Do you have a dream? Today in the U.S., we observe the birthday of a man who did: Martin Luther King, Jr.  Scholars of American public address rank King's 1963 "I Have A Dream" speech as the number one best political speech of the 20th Century on the basis of social and political impact, and rhetorical artistry. In honor of King's life and work, this article explores seven powerful speaking techniques, which he used during this historic address. Please consider using these rhetorical devices to communicate your message with more impact and artistry.


Happy New Year, and thank you very much for your loyal readership.


Kind regards,


Crafting Your Dream:

Seven Powerful Rhetorical Techniques in

MLK's "I Have A Dream" Speech

By Darlene Price, Well Said, Inc.

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin

but by the content of their character."

--Martin Luther King, Jr.



Martin Luther King Jr. knew the art of crafting a compelling message. Through his words and activism, King played a pivotal role in ending the segregation of African-American citizens in the U.S. South, as well as the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.  Whether your dream is a vision for a nation, a goal for your community, or a mission for your company, you can apply the same speaking techniques used by Rev. Dr. King to inspire and persuade your audiences. Here are seven powerful elements of King's "I Have A Dream" speech, which can help you craft your next presentation:


1. Purpose. In classical rhetoric, the 'exordium' is the introductory part of an argument in which the speaker establishes credibility and announces the subject and purpose of the discourse. In King's first sentence, he declares the March on Washington "will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation...and so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition." In the first minute, the audience knows exactly the subject and purpose of his message. For your next speech or presentation, consider crafting a specific purpose statement that clearly announces the reason you and your audience have gathered, and the goal you aim to achieve.


2. Metaphor. Next, to intensify his purpose statement, King uses metaphor by equating the act of cashing a check to the guarantee of receiving freedom and justice.

"We have come to our nation's capital to cash a check...America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which as come back marked 'insufficient funds.' But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt...And so we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice."

Throughout the speech, King uses metaphor more than any other rhetorical device--26 times in total.

As you think of your next presentation, how could you employ a metaphor to figuratively assert that one thing is the same as another?


3. Repetition of a thematic phrase. 'Anaphora' is the technique of repeating the same phrase at the beginning of successive sentences. It adds emphasis and helps the audience remember your key message. For example, King begins eight consecutive sentences with the refrain, "I have a dream that one day..." Moments later, he again begins eight consecutive sentences with "Let freedom ring from..."

What about your next speech? What key phrase would you like the audience repeating as they leave the room?  Consider crafting a series of sentences that begin with this thematic phrase.


4. Repetition of a key word. King says the words 'freedom' and 'free' a total of 25 times in the speech--more than any other word. He says them in the first sentence, the last sentence, and on average every third sentence. Why?  The theme, purpose and heartbeat of his dream is 'Freedom' and being 'Free at last!' If a listener remembers nothing else, King wants these words ringing in their ears; therefore, he repeats them often.  What's the most important word in your upcoming speech or presentation?  For optimum impact, like King, say this word in your opening, your closing, and at least once or twice per minute during the body of your speech.


5. Reference. King uses a technique called 'allusion' where he references significant external sources to lend credibility to his argument. King quotes or refers to Abraham Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address; the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence; the Bible; the patriotic song, "My Country 'Tis of Thee;" William Shakespeare's Richard III; and closes the speech by alluding to "the old Negro spiritual" which declares, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!" What sources could you quote in your next speech to lend credibility to your argument?


6. Brevity. Cicero defined 'brevitas' as "the expressing of an idea by the very minimum of essential words." Consider King's use of it: 

-"1963 is not an end but a beginning."

-"We cannot walk alone."

-"We cannot turn back."

-"I have a dream."

-"This is our hope."

-"Let freedom ring."

As importantly, the entire speech demonstrates the art of brevity. The speech text consists of 1667 words, and King's recorded delivery lasts less than sixteen minutes. When you present to your next audience--especially if they are senior level executives--get to the bottom line quickly and communicate a compelling message concisely.


7. Spontaneity. The March on Washington Speech, now known as "I Have A Dream" was originally entitled "Normalcy, Never Again." The script from which King read did not even contain the phrase, "I have a dream." Why? King had delivered a 'Dream' speech two months earlier at the Great Walk to Freedom in Detroit; he wanted to use it again in Washington, but his advisor called it "hackneyed and trite" and insisted on a new speech. During King's delivery in Washington, eleven minutes into the speech, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson shouted to King from the crowd,  "Tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!" King paused, looked up at the audience, stopped reading his prepared speech, and emphatically declared, "I still have a dream..." King instinctively authentically began 'preaching' and extemporaneously punctuated the remainder of the speech with the inspired legendary words, "I have a dream."  As an effective speaker, most certainly prepare, but also trust yourself, follow your instinct, and say what needs to be said from your heart--even if it isn't written in the script.


For the complete text and audio recording of MLK's "I Have A Dream" speech, please visit:


To see the videotaped version of King's speech, please visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=smEqnnklfYs


If you would like to learn more about rhetorical devices and how to present your message with clarity, confidence and credibility, please read my book, Well Said! Presentations and Conversations That Get Results (available in hard cover, audio, and Kindle). 


Feel free to contact me directly to schedule an in-house corporate workshop for you and your team. I would be honored to support your speaking success!  

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