Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great leader and a great orator who was on a mission to bring rights, dignity, and opportunity to African Americans.
What he fought for is still being fought for today. And as we reflect on what is required of each of us in order to see racism, prejudice, and bias become extinguished in our own hearts by the power of the gospel, we can also learn a lot from Dr. King’s speaking structure and delivery.
Below is a speech entitled, “What is Your Life’s Blueprint” as well as 10 speaking lessons we can glean from it.
10 Speaking Lessons From Dissecting a Martin Luther King Jr. Speech
1. Begin with a question.
After introductions, he starts with a question: what does your life’s blueprint look like?
We’ve talked about how to begin a sermon well. Dr. King begins this speech in a way that causes you to lean in. Why? Because questions do that. We naturally want a question to be answered. In fact, since we can’t actually multi-task, when we ask our hearers a question, it isolates their attention to searching for the answer. In other words, questions engage. And Dr. King seemed to know this.
2. Tell them the weight of the subject in the beginning.
Once he asks the question, he tells them how important their decisions today will impact the rest of their lives – even as Jr. High students. I would call this tension.
3. Show them the weight of the subject in the beginning.
Then to drive the point home regarding the weight of their decisions, he gives them a picture of a house that requires a solid blueprint. And for the rest of the time, he wants to give them pieces of a solid blueprint for their lives.
Illustrations are powerful tools and they should be used. An illustration makes an audience own what is being communicated because they are crafting it in their minds.
Sometimes we need less explanation and more illustration. Especially in the beginning stages of the speech or the sermon.
4. Craft and deliver a sticky statement.
As Dr. King moves to the thrust of his speech, he gives the students he is speaking to a statement they can take with them for the rest of their lives, a statement that will stick: “I am black but beautiful.”
For those students to live out the rest of Dr. King’s call, they had to believe that fundamental truth. They are beautiful. They are of immense worth.
In the midst of a culture plagued by segregation and a history plagued by slavery, Dr. King wanted them to see themselves as they really are, not as the culture and society had seen them.
So since that truth was the linchpin for his speech, he made it sticky. And what made this specific statement a sticky one? It’s repetition of the ‘b’. When you can repeat a consonant in a statement, do it.
5. Use illustrations and application throughout.
As he speaks, he weaves illustrations throughout to give the students he is speaking to a picture of people walking the walk he wants them to walk. By doing this, he is communicating application through illustration.
For each of his truth points, he illustrates and applies. These are good things for us to do as well.
6. In application, start broad and zoom in.
As Dr. King makes the turn from his truth points, he does what great speakers do when it comes to application: they start broad and zoom in and zoom in and zoom in.
What I mean by this is begin with a universal application and then narrow in on more specifics.
7. Create urgency with application.
He creates urgency for these Jr. High students and encourages them that they are a part of the solution. There’s a tendency for our hearers to rest in the perceived comfort that someone else will do what needs to be done and that they can ignore the call to action – especially when the call is so big.
Whenever we are connecting truth to life and truth to action, we must bring with it the friend that is known as urgency. Bring urgency to the party.
8. Conclude with inspiration.
In the end, he utilizes a poem to inspire and brings the speech home to a rally cry: “We must keep moving, we must keep going. If you can’t fly, run. If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, crawl. But by all means, keep moving.”
9. Vary your voice and your cadence.
Dr. King’s speeches and sermons are engaging because of his vocal variation. He has moments when he is loud and moments when he isn’t. He has moments when he extends the vowel of a word to create extra emphasis. In some moments, he speeds up his cadence and in other moments, he slows it down. At times, he extends a pause and at other times, he shortens it.
Pay attention to your cadence and your voice. Don’t be single-minded in either. Vary them both.
10. Focus your focus.
Instead of staring at notes throughout, Dr. King stood behind a podium and focused on his audience.
He understood the thrust of his message and was able to deliver it with his focus on his hearers.
This takes hard work, especially when you connect this lesson to the task of weekly preaching. But it can be done. It just takes intentionality.
What Would You Add?
What are some additional lessons you can see from this Dr. King speech? Join the conversation and let us know. You can do so on social media: Join our Facebook Group, tweet us, or post on our Facebook Page.
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[photo credit: History.com]