Public speaking lessons from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The civil rights icon is remembered for his ability to control a venue with the simple power of his voice. Here are a few reasons why he was a messaging master.

Public speaking lessons from MLK

Each year, we remember the legacy of a man who led the Civil Rights Movement using the power of words—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

His “I Have a Dream” speech is ranked as one of the most change provoking speeches of the twentieth century. King’s ability to shift the hearts and minds of people by using effective dialogue is a testament to the profound impact public speaking can have on an audience.

Powerful delivery is essential for the successful conveyance of any idea, product or service. No matter if it’s for a conference, presentation or broadcast interview, here are four guidelines to follow before setting onto any podium.

1. Positivity

Positive language is powerful because it can invoke a feeling of inspiration from your audience. A positive message gives your audience the promise of a better future.

In “I Have a Dream,” King used positivity to motivate change:

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so,we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

2. Connection

If you work to develop a better understanding of your audience and their goals, you can create a strong bond with them. First, determine what you have in common with your audience, then create a sense of unity and purpose with how you address them.

King made a direct connection with his audience by highlighting two common American values—freedom and religion:

And when this happens, and when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

3. Repetition

Determine the foundation of your message and use a simple, but key phrase throughout to drive home your point. This makes your position clear and easy for the audience to follow along with. Consider too, the delivery of the repeated word. King repeats “I have a dream” at the beginning of several phrases—making it clear, and almost expected for the audience.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

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.

4. Projection

Stand up straight, and project your voice by speaking from the diaphragm, not the throat. This ensures that your voice is grounded, which allows you to project without straining or becoming hoarse.

Silence can be equally as important. Be sure to take long pauses, and avoid words like “um,” “ah,” or “like.” King honed his experience as a preacher in order bring a rich tone and steadiness to speaking. He spoke slow and exerted confidence and intelligence on the issues he addressed.

Read King’s full “I Have a Dream” speech here. Watch the video version here.

A version of this story originally appeared on, and it first ran on Ragan in 2016.


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