How to Give a Persuasive Speech like Martin Luther King Jr.
Ever had that dream where you suddenly realize you have to give a speech on a subject you didn’t prepare for? There’s something about the idea of speaking in front of a group of people that makes us all a bit anxious. And if you have to give that speech in English? How do you prepare for something like that?
A great speech requires more than just preparation – performance and confidence are key. Don’t get me wrong, preparation is important! But the more you use the English you’ve learned, the more you’ll confident you’ll be come speech day when you need to present in front of your peers.
In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we thought we would take a moment to explore the art of the persuasive speech. Probably one of the most powerful speakers of all time, MLK was able to change the minds and hearts of a nation in turmoil. Here are 3 key elements of MLKs speeches that still resonate with us today…
Rhythm and cadence
"In the quiet recesses of my heart, I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher."
As a preacher, King was accustomed to speaking before a crowd. But it’s his style of delivery that sets him apart from some of the more traditional speakers of his time. His speeches, much like sermons, were designed to resonate emotionally, and he does that through the manipulation of rhythm and the overall cadence of his delivery.
Cadence is the rhythmic flow of a sequence of words. Consider the impact of King’s repetition in his “I Have a Dream” speech:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up…
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia…
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi…
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation…
I have a dream today!
If there is a key message you want your audience to remember, then saying it once probably isn’t enough. The phrase “I have a dream” appears 12 times during his speech. His tone vibrates with conviction; he extends selected syllables almost as if they’re notes he’s singing. King uses his majestic voice to match the power of his words and the importance of the historical moment. A great speech involves elements of performance. In this instance, the poetic nature of King’s speech ensures that it sticks with you. This kind of repetitive structure allowed him to clearly make his point while also making it easier for the audience to follow along.
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King’s speech is peppered with complex, multi-syllabic words such as tribulations, degenerate, gradualism and curvaceous. These words can be expressive and unexpected – I’m sure no one saw “curvaceous” coming – and add a sense of range and intellectual heft to King’s prose. But English has a higher number of one-syllable words than most European languages, and it’s these that King turns to for the speech’s most powerful and memorable sections, especially its repeated refrains:
I have a dream
With this faith
Let freedom ring
Free at last
If you’ve read our blog post on the origins of the English Language, you’ll know that longer, Latinate words are often later additions to English, and tend to be associated with abstract, formal or intellectual concepts – while shorter, simpler words are often older, and pack a heavier emotional punch. With the exception of the word faith, all of the above words are all more than a thousand years old, and their age adds a sense of timelessness and grandeur to King’s message.
When you’re composing your speech, try to pay attention to the sound of a word as well as its meaning. If your first language shares similar words with English, be aware that they may feel different in English even if the meaning is essentially identical. Consider using complex words as seasoning rather than as your main ingredient, and express the thoughts you most want the audience to remember in short, simple words.
While few public speakers would even try to emulate King’s resonance and musicality, there’s still much to be learned from his delivery, and that goes for non-native speakers too. Pay attention to how King uses silence as well as sound – he leaves pauses for the audience to absorb what he has just said and build anticipation for what he’s about to say next. When you’ve just finished a point, or asked a rhetorical question, try pausing for a slow count of two. It may feel a painfully long time, but to the audience it will seem no time at all.
Notice how slowly King is speaking, especially towards the beginning of the speech. If you try to read out a speech of your own at a similar pace, it may feel unnatural – and yet to an audience, you’ll simply sound clear and confident. Slowing down this way gives you more time to reach for the next thought and diminishes the likelihood you’ll stutter or say “um” or “er.” Extra time to think is always useful when speaking a second language, but it can be harder to claim that time in conversation. So instead of being intimidated by the audience, enjoy the freedom to take all the time you need!
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