5 Storytelling Lessons from Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” Speech

In Resonate, Nancy Duarte uses the “I Have a Dream” speech to illustrate the use of the Duarte storytelling method, which consists of alternately contrasting what is today and what could be in the future.

In fact, there are numerous storytelling lessons we can learn from King’s speech that you can use in your next boardroom or ballroom presentation. I use this speech text in my corporate workshops to illustrate five important storytelling principles.

1. Classic story structure with a beginning, middle and end. King’s speech is arranged along a loose timeline, with a beginning, middle and end. He starts his speech with the past (“five score years ago”), then moves to the present (“but 100 years later, the Negro is still not free”) where he elaborates on the many promises that were broken. Finally, he moves to the future (“I have a dream”), painting a picture of a glorious future. Amazingly, according to Nick Morgan, he may have improvised this section.

2. Inciting Incident. All great stories begin with something happening – a specific incident – that puts the hero’s world out of balance. In this case, the inciting incident was promises broken. The world is out of balance, not because the black man does not have equal rights, but because he was promised equal rights 100 years ago and those promises are still not fulfilled.

3. Picture words. Great stories, the kinds that make an audience holds its breath and get caught up in the speaker’s narrative, use picture words. These picture words direct the audience to imagine an inner world and enter a sort of trance — called the storylistening trance — that makes them more likely to accept the speaker’s words. King sprinkles his speech with picture words of ordinary things that are easy to imagine: flames, ocean, island, check, hills, table. Action words are also picture words: sear, languish, sit down together.

4. Analogies and metaphors. Comparing one thing to another makes audiences transfer the characteristics of one thing (eg. mighty stream) onto the other thing (eg. justice). King was a master of analogies, like calling the broken promises a bad check. Especially, King uses metaphors persistently: the manacles of segregation and chains of discrimination, lonely island of poverty midst a vast ocean of prosperity, quicksand of racial injustice.

5. No slides. This speech would NOT be stronger by showing pictures of a cancelled check, the red hills of Georgia or – heaven forbid — a list of bullet points outlining his complaints. Why? Because the purpose of this speech is to motivate and move an audience, not inform and instruct them. Slides are best used for information transfer. But if you want to move an audience, then draw pictures on the whiteboard of their own minds with the velvety ink of your words.

PowerPoint slides are terrific for influencing and persuading in the boardroom, where the audience wants to see your analysis and to engage in a discussion about your assumptions. And you can still use analogies and stories to enhance your presentation.

But when you want to rattle the chains of your audience’s heart and stir the simmering coals of their courage, then throw off the shackles of the clicker and rain storytelling on them like a mighty storm.

About the author: Bruce Gabrielle is author of Speaking PowerPoint: the new language of business, showing a 12-step method for creating clearer and more persuasive PowerPoint slides for boardroom presentations. Subscribe to this blog or join my LinkedIn group to get new posts sent to your inbox.

6 thoughts on “5 Storytelling Lessons from Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” Speech

  1. I also use Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech when teaching my “Leadership through Storytelling” class. Though it is certainly outside the realm of everyday business communications, it is filled with great technique and provides a lot of lessons that can be applied to how we communicate in work situations. Sharing clips from this historic speech always elicits great discussion. It’s a remarkable piece of storytelling, for all the reasons you give above.

    Here is a blog post I wrote on the same topic, but looking at this speech from the perspective of the three building blocks of great stories – Premise, Plot and Person.

    http://billbakerandco.com/blog/2010/12/10/storytelling-in-three-part-harmony/

    Enjoy!

  2. Great article. I use MLK’s speech to show the power of Shakespearian and James Bible writing for a melodic and influential vocal “wordtrain”.
    It’s the best speech I have heard for many technical/emotional reasons. King knew exactly how to use his voice. Interestingly, to me, some of his other speeches are boring. Also, large sections of this speech had been delivered several times before.

  3. Excellent and timely article, Bruce. I would also add that the classic structure is not so much that there was a beginning, middle and end, but that it contained Situation, Conflict and Resolution.

    People remember the uplifting “resolution” part, but what set the stage for its effectiveness was the conflict (“the fierce urgency of now…”, the sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent…”

    1. Hi Jack – It’s true that one way to write a story is to introduce conflict and then resolution. And this is one of the most powerful formulas and one used a lot by Hollywood.

      But I’ve come to realize after much research that conflict is not a necessary component of story. For instance, in Steve Jobs address to the Stanford graduates, he tells 3 stories. The last 2 use the conflict/resolution formula. But the first one does not, where he talks about attending college, attending a calligraphy class with no real purpose, dropping out and years later using what he learned in calligraphy to design the text in the Mac. His lesson? Follow your passions. They may not make sense today but you can only connect the dots in the past.

      Lots of examples like that. Hans Rosling opening one of his TED talks with a story about his mother purchasing their first washing machine and his grandmother so excited to see her first washing machine actually sits and washes the entire wash cycle. No conflict there.

      What is most necessary is there is an emotional change by the end of the story – sadness turns to happiness, anger turns to forgiveness or, in “I Have a Dream”, despair turns to hope, contempt turns to brotherhood. But I do agree with you that in Dr. King’s speech, he does use the conflict/resolution approach favored by Hollywood. Good observation.


      Bruce

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