‘I Have a Dream’ holds 5 lessons for speechwriters

Rev. King’s stirring address resonates in oratorical circles as well as historical ones.

Rev. King’s stirring address resonates in oratorical circles as well as historical ones

“I Have a Dream” by Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the most memorable speeches of all time.

Much of the greatness of this speech is tied to its historical context, a topic which goes beyond the scope of this article. Instead, I’ll focus on five key lessons in speechwriting that we can extract from Martin Luther King’s most famous speech.

  • Emphasize phrases by repeating at the beginning of sentences
  • Repeat key “theme” words throughout your speech
  • Utilize appropriate quotations or allusions
  • Use specific examples to “ground” your arguments
  • Use metaphors to highlight contrasting concepts

Lesson 1: Emphasize phrases through repetition at the start of a sentence

Video Watch the full speech here.

Read the speech transcript here.

Anaphora (repeating words at the beginning of neighboring clauses) is a commonly used rhetorical device. Repeating the words twice sets the pattern, and further repetitions emphasize the pattern and increase the rhetorical effect.

I have a dream” is repeated in eight successive sentences, and is one of the most often cited examples of anaphora in modern rhetoric. But this is just one of eight occurrences of anaphora in this speech. By order of introduction, here are the key phrases:

  • “One hundred years later…” [paragraph 3]
  • “Now is the time…” [paragraph 6]
  • “We must…” [paragraph 8]
  • “We can never (cannot) be satisfied…” [paragraph 13]
  • “Go back to…” [paragraph 14]
  • “I Have a Dream…” [paragraphs 16 through 24]
  • “With this faith, …” [paragraph 26]
  • “Let freedom ring (from) …” [paragraphs 27 through 41]

Read those repeated phrases in sequence. Even in the absence of the remainder of the speech, these key phrases tell much of King’s story. Emphasis through repetition makes these phrases more memorable and, by extension, make King’s story more memorable.

Lesson 2: Repeat key “theme” words throughout your speech

Repetition in forms like anaphora is obvious, but there are more subtleways to use repetition as well. One way is to repeat key “theme” words throughout the body of your speech.

If you count the frequency of words used in King’s “I Have a Dream,” interesting patterns emerge. The most commonly used noun is freedom, which is used 20 times in the speech. This makes sense, as freedom is one of the primary themes of the speech.

Other key themes? Consider these commonly repeated words:

  • freedom (20 times)
  • we (30 times), our (17 times), you (8 times)
  • nation (10 times), America (5 times), American (4 times)
  • justice (8 times) and injustice (3 times)
  • dream (11 times)

“I Have a Dream” can be summarized in the view below, which associates the size of the word with its frequency.

MLK

Lesson #3: Utilize appropriate quotations or allusions

Evoking historic and literary references is a powerful speechwriting technique which can be executed explicitly (a direct quotation) or implicitly (allusion).

You can improve the credibility of your arguments by referring to the (appropriate) words of credible speakers/writers in your speech. Consider the allusions used by Martin Luther King Jr.:

  • “Five score years ago…” [paragraph 2] refers to Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address speech, which began “Four score and seven years ago…” This allusion is particularly poignant given that King was speaking in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
  • Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” [and the rest of paragraph 4] is a reference to the Declaration of Independence.
  • Numerous Biblical allusions provide the moral basis for King’s arguments:

It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

evokes Jeremiah 2:13 “…for my people have committed two evils: They have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water

More biblical allusions from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech can be found here.

Lesson 4: Use examples to “ground” your arguments

Your speech is greatly improved when you provide examples that illustrate your logical (and perhaps theoretical) arguments.

One way that Martin Luther King Jr. accomplishes this is to make numerous geographic references throughout the speech:

  • Mississippi, New York [paragraph 13]
  • Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana [14]
  • Georgia [18]
  • Mississippi [19]
  • Alabama [22]
  • New Hampshire [32], New York [33], Pennsylvania [34], Colorado [35], California [36], Georgia [37], Tennessee [38], Mississippi [39]

Note that Mississippi is mentioned on four separate occasions. This is not accidental; mentioning Mississippi would evoke some of the strongest emotions and images for his audience.

Additionally, King uses relatively generic geographic references to make his message more inclusive:

  • “slums and ghettos of our northern cities” [paragraph 14]
  • “the South” [25]
  • “From every mountainside” [40]
  • “from every village and every hamlet” [41]

Lesson 5: Use metaphors to highlight contrasting concepts

Metaphors allow you to associate your speech concepts with concrete images and emotions.

To highlight the contrast between two abstract concepts, consider associating them with contrasting concrete metaphors. For example, to contrast segregation with racial justice, King evokes the contrasting metaphors of dark and desolate valley (of segregation) and sunlit path (of racial justice.)

  • “joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity” [paragraph 2]
  • “the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity” [3]
  • “rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice” [6]
  • “This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.” [7]
  • “sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.” [19]

How can you employ contrasting metaphors in your next speech?

Andrew Dlugan is the editor and founder of Six Minutes, a public speaking and presentation skills blog.

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