Martin Luther King is somewhat high profile this month, 50 years after making his transformational “I have a dream” speech in Washington on August 28th 1963.

MLK speechEnough has been said and written about the political impact that speech had on the culture, but maybe there has been less by way of analysis of the techniques he used in the speech itself.

Here is my little contribution:  something I think we can all learn from if we want our words to gain influence.  I am thinking particularly of business leaders here, because they so often get this wrong, but it applies equally well to anyone who is trying to persuade a group of people to do something, whether in writing or verbally.

I train people in Presentation Skills, and often use Luther King’s speech during the course.  I get them to listen to the first 7 or 8 minutes (people start twitching after that, they can’t sustain attention beyond it), and to write down every image that comes into their head as a result of the words that he uses.

Today I set myself a little test:  how many of these images are lodged in my brain?  I haven’t listened to the speech for over a year, and yet  I wrote down the following, all of which come up in the first 2 minutes or so.  Amazingly, I got the phrases he uses down verbatim as well, apart from missing out the word “crippled”:

“crippled by the manacles of segregation”

“a lonely island of poverty”

“seared by the flames of withering injustice”

“a great beacon light of hope”

“a joyous daybreak”.

Can you imagine what it would be like if people could quote you verbatim one year after making a speech or presentation?  And how about if they could quote 5 images from your first two minutes?

Have a go yourself:  listen to the speech and write the images down as they come to you.


One of the most powerful things he does is to pause:  this gives you time to let the image build inside your head, and to give it the colour it needs to become vivid and real.  Get in touch with how you feel as you do this:  if you’re anything like me your heart rate will increase noticeably, and your body temperature will rise.  Your eyes might fill with tears a bit too (I’ve seen it get grown men close to tears many a time.)

The point is dead simple:  if you want people to remember your “stuff”, make it visual and tickle their imaginations.  Tell a story, and take them on a journey.  That way your words will stay with them, and because you have stimulated their emotions they will have started to make a decision to do something with what you have told them.

Which, as we all know, is the name of the game.