What Made the "I Have a Dream" Speech So Powerful?

“I Have a Dream.” Presented by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, it’s perhaps the most famous speech of all time. If you haven’t watched the speech, take a few minutes to do so now. 

But why does this particular speech have such reverberation? What made it so famous? What is it that cemented that speech in history? I don’t propose any of us could ever match or recreate that moment, but we can learn from the great Dr. King a lot about what it takes to use the power of the spoken word to bring about better tomorrows. In this case, I believe a combination of 3 things made this speech the legacy moment that it is: the language used, the Kairos surrounding the speech, and the life of the speaker.

Language

To create anything of lasting value, a speaker must craft specific words for a specific purpose. He must harness the power of words. Dr. King’s speech is a linguistic masterpiece. In the beginning of his speech he uses the words “five score” to pay tribute to Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address”, which began “four score.” In choosing that specific wording, he calls forth the movement of equality that started long ago.

But the most notable linguistic device used by King is parallelism. He uses several series of parallel statements throughout his speech. From “We refuse,” to “We cannot be satisfied,” to the iconic, “I have a dream.” Dr. King understands that parallelism moves people. So these series of similarly phrased statements capture the audience’s attention and sweep them up in the movement by way of a powerful linguistic device.

Kairos

Kairos is the ancient Greek concept of the opportune moment. It is the right moment to speak. It is the moment when something needs to be said. When Dr. King stepped onto the steps the Lincoln Memorial that day in 1963, something needed to be said. He even alludes to this in his speech when he says, “It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.”

In our own lives, we need to be able to identify the right moment. We must be sensitive to other people and to the larger context in which we speak. We must also be prepared. We can’t let fear of public speaking keep us from saying what needs to be said. We need to train ourselves and believe in ourselves, so that when that opportune moment arises, we’ll be ready to speak with great confidence.

Life

We’ve heard the phrase, “practice what you preach.” This alludes to the fact that our words and actions should be in step with each other. My favorite is the definition of the ideal orator that comes from Quintilian, who says the most powerful speaker is “a good man speaking well.” If there are better words to describe Dr. King, I don’t know them. The fields of rhetoric and oratory have been damaged by speakers whose words are divided from their actions. It leads the audience to believe they can’t trust speakers. But in the life of Dr. King we see a man who lived his words. In his speech he says, “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.” For those of us who present before audiences, we’d do well to keep the example of Dr. King in mind.

I write about this famous speech with great respect and reverence, in an effort, however feeble, to bring honor to Dr. King’s memory. Those who of us who use words to help make things brighter, clearer, and better have important work to do. We can learn a lot from those who have gone before. From all of us at Presentation Mentor, thank you Dr. King, for the legacy of words you left behind, for the courage you had to seize the opportune moment, and for the life you lived as an example to us all.

If you are ready to learn more about public speaking and it’s power to change, register now for our all-new, online course. Motivate. Inspire. Educate. Persuade. Move People!

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