We rightly marvel over the genius of Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But when you know the backstory, the accomplishment is even more impressive, and carries powerful public speaking lessons for anyone who has to get up in front of an audience.
A Moment of Improvisation
As I’ve written before, much of King’s remarks were improvised on the spot. What started out as a fairly wonkish policy speech became one of the 20th century’s most treasured rhetorical moments.
And it was due to an assist from gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who urged King to preach like she knew he could. He proceeded to weave together a patchwork of earlier themes and sermons into the masterpiece we know today.
Here’s how a King aide described the moment:
Martin clutched the speaker’s lectern and seemed to reset. I watched him push the text of his prepared remarks to one side. I knew this performance had just been given over to the spirit of the moment. I leaned over and said to the person next to me, “These people out there today don’t know it yet, but they’re about ready to go to church.”
Follow the Link for Five Public Speaking Lessons
On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, here is a link to a piece I wrote a few years ago for Business Insider. It describes some of the behind-the-scenes intrigue related to the speech’s development and delivery.
And it provides a few lessons that everyday speakers can learn from the good Reverend, including the importance of reading your audience, preparation and the ability to turn on a dime.
Happy Martin Luther King Day. If you’re honoring his memory through service, thank you.