“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. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.
The above passage is part of MLK’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. If you haven’t taken time to listen to this speech in its entirety, today is a great day to do so. Listen here.
Martin Luther King, Jr. is among our nation’s most famous and talented speakers. But he wasn’t just a speaker, he was an activist. Not matter how small or how large our cause may be, we can learn from King’s model how to become not just speakers, but speakers who act upon on our words and inspire action in others, as well.
King knew the context in which he was speaking. The context involves both the purpose and the physical environment. It is the why and the where people are gathered. The “I Have a Dream Speech” was ripe with context. The speech was the culmination of the March on Washington in the summer of 1963 in which an approximate 250,000 people gathered in support of freedom for all. King knew his speech needed to honor the energy and time of the people who had come to support their cause. He also understood that his speech would be delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in front of the statue of Abraham Lincoln. He references the physical setting in the second sentence of his speech, calling attention to the Emancipation Proclamation and adding the power of the historical movement to his own.
All of this shows his intimate knowledge of the purpose and the physical location of his speech. He adds weight to his own speech by building upon the foundation of context. When we get up to present, we can learn from King to be aware of the setting in which our speech occurs. No message occurs in a void. The context becomes part of our message whether we choose to leverage it or not. We have to understand why and where people are gathered to hear us speak, and how these elements set the tone for our message.
Extension is the knowledge that the speech should reach beyond the minutes that the speaker is talking. It should have a life beyond the actual speech event. Preachers are great at extension, and more traditional business presenters can emulate this speech strategy. Towards the end of the message, King says this:
“Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.”
There is a distinct turn here. A challenge. He has asked his audience not just to listen, but to act. “Go!” he says. At the end of our presentations, we can follow King’s great example. We can answer the question, “so what do we do now?” This is the point at which a message should turn from informative to transformative. What is the change you are hoping your message brings about? Lay it out clearly for your audience and inspire them to act.
In TIME magazine, Zeke J. Miller writes, “Inundated with speaking requests and interviews, and beset by threats of violence, King become a national celebrity both for what he accomplished and how.” We can learn a lot from King’s powerful knowledge and use of both context and extension in his speeches. But most of all, we can learn a lot from his life. Quintilian says the ideal orator is a good man, speaking well. I don’t know anyone who modeled that better than Martin Luther King, Jr. We hope you’ll join us in honoring his memory today.
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