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January 1, 2020

Learning Public Speaking Skills From Martin Luther King Jr.

Thousands of Americans fought bravely to bring justice to black Americans during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. However, the powerful oration of Martin Luther King Jr. stands out as one of the most iconic fixtures of this critical time in history. King knew how to use his words and his voice to change hearts and spur people to action where prejudice and indifference might have otherwise won out.

In this time of great social and political change, it’s essential that students know how to use their own words and voice to bring about the change they want to see in the world. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech provides an excellent framework for you to teach your students about the elements of effective speaking. In this article, we’ll break down his speech and show you how you can teach these elements in the classroom.

“I Have a Dream”: A Breakdown of America’s Most Iconic Speech

The importance of what King was advocating for in the “I Have a Dream” speech cannot be overstated. But what made his speech stand out among all the others who were talking about the same issue during this time?

King was a master orator, both in the way he spoke and the rhetorical devices he used. Specifically, King:

  • Knew why his topic was important and how he wanted people to respond
  • Understood his target audience
  • Brought passion to his speech
  • Told stories to highlight his points

Let’s take a closer look at each of these elements of an effective speech and discuss some ideas for how to teach them in the classroom.

Know Your “Why” and “How”

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed — we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all [people] are created equal.”

King knew that the Civil Rights Movement had a higher purpose even than winning equal rights for black Americans. He knew that America was failing in carrying out its founding creed and, moreover, that the country was violating God’s law by valuing human beings differently based on skin color. For King, correcting the violation of God’s and America’s principles was why he spoke; changing the country’s laws to reflect these principles was how he wanted things to change.

Steven D. Cohen at Harvard University says that a speaker’s job is to move an audience from “why” to “how.” In other words, a speaker must convince the audience why his or her topic is important and then tell them how they should respond.

The “why” parts of the speech are the persuasive techniques a speaker uses, such as those listed below. “I Have a Dream” uses nearly all of them.

  • Facts, numbers, or statistics
  • Stories or illustrations
  • Repeated words or phrases
  • Quotations from other sources
  • Appeals to emotion (pathos)
  • Inclusive language (e.g., using “we” instead of “you”)
  • Empathizing with the audience (e.g., “I know you must be thinking…”, “I know you’re probably struggling with…”)
  • Addressing possible objections
  • Changing the tone, pitch, or volume of one’s voice
  • Props or physical demonstrations

The “how” parts are the call to action. Effective calls to action:

  • Use strong verbs. In King’s speech, the calls to action start with the refrains “We can never be satisfied” and “Let freedom ring.”
  • Appeal to emotion. In the “We can never be satisfied” section, King recounts real-life examples of injustices black Americans endured.
  • Explain the benefit to the audience. In the last paragraph of the speech, King paints a picture of the entire country becoming stronger and better for bringing about justice for black Americans: “When we allow freedom ring…we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children…join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we are free at last!’”

Fun Fact

Calls to action usually appear at the end of a speech, but part of King’s call to action appears in the middle. Why is that?

The “We can never be satisfied” section was actually toward the end of King’s prepared remarks. However, shortly after he delivered this part of the speech, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson called out from the crowd, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”

At that point, King deviated from what he had written and launched into the iconic “I have a dream” portion of the speech before circling back to the “Let freedom ring” section. That’s right: The most famous part of King’s speech was improvised and spontaneous! That just goes to show that live performances don’t always go as planned—and sometimes for the better!

Using King’s speech can be a great way to teach your students about the “why” and “how” of great speeches. As a class, listen to the audio of “I Have a Dream” or take turns reading it aloud. Then, individually or in groups, have students read through a transcript of the speech to pick out instances where King explains why his topic is important and how his audience should respond. Students might use different color highlighters for each technique he uses. Then come back together as a class to combine your findings, break down examples of different techniques, and discuss why they are effective.

Understand Your Target Audience

“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. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality.”

You can construct an objectively well-written speech, but if your intended audience doesn’t connect with your words, then it will never have the impact you hope for. That’s why it’s so important to teach students how to connect with their intended audience in any type of writing they do.

Because students’ writing is often only read by their teachers or fellow students, they can sometimes have trouble thinking about how an intended audience might affect what they should say. To help with this exercise, the University of Pittsburgh put together a checklist for analyzing your audience. Have your students go through each question to help them connect with their target audience (even if it’s imagined).

  • Expectations: What might an audience expect to hear about this topic in your particular context? What tone is appropriate? You should always conform to audience expectations unless you have a very good reason to deviate (e.g., to draw attention to a point).
  • Knowledge: What does your audience already know about the topic? If you assume they know too much, you’ll confuse them if you talk about highly technical details, but if you assume they know too little, you might bore them going over rudimentary facts they already know.
  • Attitude: What is the audience’s attitude toward the topic? Do they generally agree with the points you’re trying to make, or will they have objections? If the audience is oppositional, you should spend more time addressing potential points of disagreement.
  • Size and location: How large is your audience, and where are you speaking? Casual language is more appropriate for smaller audiences, but if you’re speaking to a large group, you should use more formal language. Similarly, a more casual setting might call for a more casual approach, or vice versa.
  • Demographics: What are the audience’s demographics? This might include factors such as age, gender, religion, ethnic background, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, occupation, and education. What word choice considerations do you need to make based on your audience’s demographic (e.g., slang, jargon, perceived connotations of certain words)?

Bring Passion to Your Speech

“I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream.”

For most students, the thought of speaking without their voice shaking seems impossible, much less speaking with passion and confidence like Martin Luther King. Public speaking usually tops the list of people’s greatest fears, and your students are likely not immune.

Below are some activities from TeachHub and Heart-Mind Online that will help students calm their nerves and speak with confidence and passion.

Word–Object–Person Speeches

Instead of starting off with full speeches about complex topics, have your students practice speaking publicly with an easy-to-follow format. Have students stand up and answer three questions: (1) What’s one WORD that describes you?, (2) What’s one OBJECT that relates to you?, and (3) Who’s one PERSON who has affected you? This type of “speech” allows students to talk about something easy (themselves) in a format that is simple to follow so they can focus on building confidence talking in front of others.

“Intentionally Wrong” Speeches

Students’ underlying fear behind public speaking is that they’ll say or do something wrong in front of a room full of their peers. But what if it was part of the assignment to mess up? For example, say that part of your instruction on public speaking is to tell your students not to fidget, say “um,” or look at the floor while they speak. In the “intentionally wrong” speech, you would assign each student a different “wrong” behavior to demonstrate while they speak, and the rest of the class must identify which behavior each student was assigned. That way, the student speaking will be more concerned about performing the “wrong” behavior and not focus on his or her own anxiety, and the rest of the class will be involved and laugh (appropriately) at the exaggerated behaviors.

Breathing Exercises

Before beginning speeches, have your student sit in a circle and spend three to five minutes doing calming breathing or mindfulness exercises. When students feel fear or anxiety, it’s important to teach them to focus on something they can control, like breathing. To guide your time, you can use an app like Breathr or Stop, Breathe & Think. Then, once everyone is calm, remind students that the classroom is a safe place to try new things, and stay in your circle while students deliver their speeches.

Tell Stories

“We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating ‘For Whites Only.’ We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.”

Although the stories he told were broad, King gave one example after another to illustrate his points. He told stories of police brutality, segregated water fountains and bathrooms, denial of service at hotels and restaurants, and more.

Storytelling in speeches has some commonalities with writing short stories or personal narratives, but with some key differences. Here are some tips from Write Out Loud on how to craft a good story for a speech, and some ideas for how to help your students implement them:

  • Make sure your story relates to the topic. When students are outlining their speeches, have them brainstorm two to five ideas for stories that could support each of their major points. Then they can select which ones they think relate best to the topics they’re discussing.
  • Make your stories personal. Nothing helps an audience feel more connected to the speaker than personal stories. Students can make themselves relatable and even poke fun at themselves by sharing their fears, habits, or misunderstandings about a topic. This might be a good opportunity to discuss social–emotional learning concepts such as self-awareness and social awareness to make sure students strike the right tone and don’t share anything too personal.
  • Keep it short. Unlike in narrative storytelling, stories in speeches should keep the details to a minimum. If stories go on too long, they start to lose their impact and distract from the overall point you’re trying to make. To help students make their stories succinct and impactful, have them write out an exaggerated long version of their story and then swap with a partner. Together, they can highlight which details will best support the speech’s theme, and then students can incorporate the shorter version in their speeches.
  • Introduce your stories well. Write Out Loud also gives several great tips for how to (and how not to) introduce stories in a speech. The idea is that stories should flow seamlessly out of the point you’re making so that the audience is “hooked” by the story before they even realize you’ve transitioned to storytelling. Share with your students some of the acceptable and unacceptable introductory phrases from the Write Out Loud article, and have them practice using the “intentionally wrong” speech method so they can hear the difference.

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