Six Qualities That Made Martin Luther King, Jr. a Great Speaker

Posted 01.18.2010

Several years ago I was given the gift of the recordings of the sermons and speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.  The sermon set is called “A Knock at Midnight,” and the speeches set is titled “A Call to Conscience.”  There are companion books of the same title for each set. Over the course of a couple of weeks, I listened to every sermon and speech in the recordings. I learned a lot about King from that experience and came to some conclusions about what made him an effective speaker.

As we take today to recognize King’s life and its impact on the world, I thought I’d share six qualities in his speaking that I think all leaders should emulate. If you’re pressed for time as you read this, you can skip ahead to the list. If you have eleven minutes more, watch the You Tube clip of King’s “I Have a Dream Speech”.  Most of the six qualities that I identified in listening to his recordings are illustrated in that speech.

Here’s a quick synopsis of some of the qualities that King had as a speaker along with some questions to get you thinking about your own opportunities to be a more effective communicator.

Cadence – Because we usually only see King in 30 second clips of him at the climax of his speeches, we tend to think him of as a very forceful and passionate speaker. Clearly, he was that, but he was more than that. When you listen to the entirety of his speeches, you’ll hear that he almost always started out  at a slow, measured conversational pace and, over time, increased his pace and his volume as he drew the audience in. How can you use cadence to bring your audience along when you speak?

Context – King was a master of establishing the historical context for his message. He regularly started with stories from the Old Testament and modern history to make the point that the people in his movement were part of the broad sweep of history. That imbued them with a sense of mission. What do you need to say to establish the context for your audience and help them understand how they fit in it?

Authenticity – In his book, Leading Minds, Howard Gardner writes that all great leaders have two things in common. They have an overarching story and their life embodies that story. King clearly met that definition of leadership. When he spoke, he told that story. Everyone in the audience knew that he was living that story before and after the speech. What’s your story? Can people see that you’re living it?

Practice – It’s well known that King delivered most of the “I Have a Dream” speech without any notes and that he improvised much of it on the spot. What’s not as well known is that he had been working with much of the content of that speech in other addresses he gave months and years before the March on Washington. He took the time and opportunity to get very comfortable with his content and experimented with what worked and didn’t work in venues that weren’t as prominent as the National Mall. How much practice and preparation are you doing before you speak?

Repetition –  King was also a master of using a simple, yet key phrase like “I have a dream,” again and again in his speeches. That kind of repetitive structure enabled him to clearly make his main point and at the same time make it easy for the audience to come along with him. What’s the essence of the message that you need to repeat again and again?

Connection – In his speaking, King allowed himself to have an almost symbiotic connection with his audience. They drew their energy from each other and he was very tuned into the level of energy in the room. That connection made the event more than a speech. It made it an experience that moved people to act. When you speak are you present enough to tune into the energy of the audience?

I’ll be the first to acknowledge that very few leaders (certainly including me) are going to speak with the power of Martin Luther King, Jr. However, just because he set a high bar doesn’t mean that we can’t learn and improve ourselves from the way he practiced his craft. Of the qualities I noted above, which one would serve you and your organization the most if you were to practice it in your own presentations?  What other lessons can we learn from King as a speaker that I haven’t mentioned here?