Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was, undoubtedly, one of the most superb speakers of his day. Here’s a look at what made his speeches so memorable and how you can use him as a role model in your own public speaking endeavors.
Whatever our interests and aspirations, role models help us. They give us standards for judging our performance and progress, and challenge us to develop our skills beyond current limits.
Are you eager to become a superlative speaker? Then your ideal role model could easily be Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Alabama minister thrust into the international spotlight through his leadership of the civil rights movement, starting with the 1955 boycott of the Montgomery, Alabama bus system by black men, women, and children who refused to wear the shackles of segregation any longer.
Dr. King merits our adoption as a speaking role model for these reasons:
Of prime importance, King’s life was consistent with his rhetoric. He did what he encouraged others to do. Following Gandhi’s example of nonviolent resistance, he led protest marches surrounded by hecklers and racist policemen, endured arrest, remained calm when Ku Klux Klan members labeled him a Communist, shrugged off death threats, and remained so conspicuously visible that ultimately his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee seemed inevitable.
Relate this to the CEO who addresses her staff and employees. “During these tough economic times,” she asserts, “we’ve all got to do some belt-tightening. Until further notice, no one will be attending off-site conferences and training sessions.” How hollow does this announcement become when two months later the CEO’s cabinet travels across two states to spend three days of planning with her at a luxury resort? The more credible decision: Seclude the cabinet to one of her organization’s on-site conference rooms, and hold lunch breaks in the company cafeteria.
Next, King used vivid illustrations that business and professional leaders could relate to quite easily. In his celebrated “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, to describe the injustice and even illegality that Negroes experienced he told his audience, “We have come to our nation’s Capitol to cash a check.” The authors of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, he noted, were “signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” Unfortunately, when Negroes tried to cash the check, it came back marked “insufficient funds.” But hope remained, King said: “We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.” Could any listener with financial expertise miss the power of King’s analogy? Only if prejudice overshadowed his or her reasoning power.
Third, although King used simple, clear language—as every superlative speaker does—he formed catchy, attention-riveting word contrasts and combinations. We get the picture when he refers to “a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” Drawing on his clergy background, repeatedly he said satisfaction would only come when “justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” King recognized that the most effective speeches are not just heard, they are seen. You can generate the same sensation by doing what novelist James Michener advised—taking ordinary words and doing extraordinary things with them.
Fourth, King merits his role model status because he spoke with stirring emotion, which emerged naturally from his genuinely intense belief in his message. Note the word genuine. There’s an old quip among Hollywood actors, “We’ll do great as long as we can fake this sincerity.” They’re mistaken, of course. Audiences detect false emotion, just as we spot a charlatan in individual conversations.
During the peak moments of his speech, King would depart boldly from his text, as speech critics confirm he did in the “Dream” speech. The major lesson for us: Feel your message, feel it with absolute conviction, move away from your standard, safe routine delivery, and demonstrate unashamedly that for you—and for your audience—your message is of paramount importance.
Fifth, King’s message sustained magnetism because his theme was consistent, unwavering. There was no room for delayed or partial solutions to segregation. Racial integration must occur now in every segment of society. Compromise was not in his vocabulary. Had he ever veered from this quest in even one speech—such as, “Well, I suppose it would be acceptable to integrate only our elementary schools”—he would have lost his cause and his constituents.
Even an unpopular theme has to be consistent to remain persuasive. On this point, consider Jack Welch, recognized as one of the most demanding corporate leaders of any era. As General Electric’s outspoken CEO, he earned the nickname “Neutron Jack” for his renowned practice of firing nonproductive workers. In his words, “In those days I was throwing hand grenades, trying to blow up traditions and rituals that I felt held us back.” Welch dismissed employees for two reasons—either they didn’t meet their assigned numbers, or they failed to comply with GE’s values. Throughout his career, Welch never mellowed. Though feared, he kept respect as a communicator because he said the same thing year after year.
To sum up, you can look to Dr. King as your speaking role model because he lived the message he spoke, used vivid illustrations that appealed to business and professional people, coined creative words and phrases, spoke with obviously genuine emotion, and stuck to a consistent, unwavering theme.