“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. I have a dream …” –Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech presented in 1963 at the March on Washington is perhaps the most famous speech in recent history for many reasons. The character and charisma of King was undeniably powerful. The speech had Kairos—the urgent need to speak and to speak now—on its side. But I’d like to focus on one specific linguistic technique King uses which adds to the influence of the speech.
The ancient Greek orators called it anaphora; we call it the use of parallel structure or repetition or mantras. Parallelism is using the same or similarly constructed phrases in repetition. In his article on anaphora, professor of English and rhetoric, Dr. Richard Norquist cites scholar George A. Kennedy who says that anaphora is like, “a series of hammer blows in which the repetition of the word both connects and reinforces the successive thoughts.”
When I teach parallelism, I ask my students to picture waves crashing to the shore. This metaphor allows us to fully understand how parallelism in a speech works. Every time King says, “I have a dream,” another wave crashes to shore. But what exactly do those waves do; what purpose does parallelism serve?
It packs things down. When you walk on beach, there is a big difference between the dry sand and the wet sand. The dry sand is loose and soft, the wet sand is solid and firm. The repetition of waves of parallelism “pack the sand,” so to speak, for your audience. They create a solid foundation that holds, and research consistently tells us that repetition leads to better retention of information.
It moves things ahead. The waves also create movement, pushing debris and shells farther up the beach with each subsequent wave. Repeated phrases in a speech work the same way, catching listeners up in the movement. If you listen to the audio of King’s speech, you’ll notice that when he begins his series of “I have a dream” statements (around 11:20 in the audio), there is incredible forward momentum from that point on. If you are trying to move your audience from where they are in the beginning of the message to where you want them to be at the end of your message, parallelism is an effective tool to help you do that.
It creates anticipation. Parallelism creates anticipation in the audience as they wait for the next wave to crash. It makes them eager to hear the next thing you will say because they know how it starts, but they are waiting to hear how that parallel phrase will finish. In addition, research shows that our human brains crave and thrive on patterns. So repetition will be pleasing to your audience members because of how our brains are wired.
Parallel structure is a technique that is thousands of years old, and great speakers employ it often. Consider putting this ancient and powerful technique to use in your next presentation. Use it to solidify things, create forward momentum, and build audience excitement.
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