The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial is the second stop on my tour of rhetoric and the most recent addition to Washington DC’s impressive monuments. The centerpiece of the memorial is a statue of Dr. King and inscribed on the base is the phrase: ‘Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope’. These words are from his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech, which he made from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. Surrounding the memorial is a crescent-shaped, granite wall and etched onto it are extracts from other speeches by Dr. King. Dr. King was a master of rhetoric and it was so exciting to see so many of his words immortalized by the memorial.
Martin Luther King, Jr. – I have a dream
The first time I heard this speech I was in primary school. I only had a very basic grasp of the concepts of race, equality and freedom. But Dr. King’s words conjured strong images, especially the lines where he describes ‘a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers’. From the naïve perspective of a child, growing up in London, it was unbelievable to me that there had been a time when all children couldn’t play together.
What made the ‘I have a dream’ speech so effective?
To this day, the thing I love about the ‘I have a dream’ speech is the images conjured in my mind’s eye by the vivid language. When Dr. King describes how ‘one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood’ he paints a picture for the audience of what freedom, equality and justice look like. These are complex concepts to describe and Dr. King does it in one sentence by describing a scene. This kind of writing is so effective because as we all know… a picture is worth a thousand words.
There are a few phrases Dr. King repeats in his speech. The most famous two are ‘I have a dream’ and ‘Let freedom ring’. This technique, of starting a series of sentences with the same words, is called anaphora. Churchill used the same device in his 1940 speech to Parliament. He started multiple sentences with the words ‘We shall fight‘. You can get away with repetition in speeches and presentations in a way you can’t with other types of writing. In fact, if you want the audience to remember what you have to say repetition is essential. Anaphora is a very powerful tool for getting your point across and it’s a great rhetorical device to use to close your speech.
Understanding the audience
Towards the end of the speech Dr. King says: ‘I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells.’ With these words he acknowledges the position of the audience and empathizes with them. Empathy for your audience is critical: you should have them at the front of your mind the whole time you’re preparing a speech or presentation. By acknowledging the audience and their perspective, you’ll reinforce your credibility in their eyes.
Look out for the third in this series of posts about my trip to DC where I’ll be discussing the speeches of Eleanor Roosevelt.
Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History, William Safire
Eloquence: The Elements of Eloquence, Mark Forsyth