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Martin Luther King's 1963 Dream Speech

Posted on the 16 August 2013 by Charlescrawford @charlescrawford

Here I am over at the Sunday Post in Scotland talking about the legendary Martin Luther King speech in August 1963:

What elements make a great speech?

Everything fits like a jigsaw — the words, emotional tone, audience, occasion and message. A great speech is a conversation with the audience, not a lecture. People leave having learned something memorable. My philosophy is “it’s not what you say — it’s what they hear”. The words themselves are only part of making that happen.

What made the Martin Luther King speech so memorable?

A huge audience, a momentous subject and a speaker who soared to the occasion. The now legendary “I have a dream” passage was not, in fact, in the speech script. On the day he pushed his speaking notes aside and improvised. His friend Clarence B. Jones later said: “He could cut and paste in his mind from previous speeches. It was like watching lightning captured in a bottle.”

Did anything else make it special?

It’s miles away from today’s puny focus-group speeches. The words are heavy and difficult. He stood before a mass of people less educated than himself and refused to dumb down his language. Boris Johnson is an effective speaker for a similar reason. He uses a vivid command of the English language to tease and amuse the audience.

Plus some handy speechwriting and public speaking tips:

How important is humor and delivering with emotion?

Humour in our culture is much prized. Elsewhere, it may even be seen as flippant and disrespectful. Make sure that your emotional tone fits the occasion. As Reagan’s speechwriter Peggy Noonan says, “Your speech should never be taller than you are.”

Are there simple rules for making a speech, perhaps at a wedding?

Choose your message in one or two key words and make sure the structure of the speech is simple and strong. Use stories to illustrate points. Don’t be snide or smutty. Be yourself and talk from the heart.

Can anyone deliver a great speech?

Some people take to public speaking easily, others get in a panic. With guidance in basic technique, anyone can do a good job.

Did a speech inspire you to become a writer?

No. In 1985 the Foreign and Commonwealth (FCO) personnel department told me I was Sir Geoffrey Howe’s new speechwriter. When I said I had never written a speech I was told: “Fascinating though that is, just get on with it.”

And so I did. Read the whole thing.


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