Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have A Dream speech is one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century. Here to help decode this famous work is Dr. Nick Morgan, one of America’s top communication speakers, theorists, and coaches. Nick joins host Elizabeth Bachman to enlighten us with insightful and comprehensive analysis to explain just what makes a great speech. He breaks down each aspect to demonstrate the value of content and body language and how to leave an impact on your audience. There’s a lot to learn in this episode, so don’t miss out.
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Decoding The Dream With Dr. Nick Morgan
A Speaker’s Analysis Of MLK Jr.’s Famous Speech
We have a very interesting analysis of a famous speech to give you an idea of some of the ways that presentation skills trainers think and analyze a presentation. In order for you to analyze your presentation and skills, I invite you to take four minutes to try our free online assessment at SpeakForResultsQuiz.com. That’s where you can see where you are strong and where perhaps a little bit of support could get you the results you need and the recognition that you deserve.
My guest is Dr. Nick Morgan, a very experienced presentation skills trainer, speaker trainer, author and professor. We are going to analyze Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream Speech. We are going to think about the context, audience and techniques he used where he began to improvise an ad-lib and how it all fits together to have become one of the most recognized speeches of the twentieth century and still today.
Dr. Nick Morgan is one of America’s top communication speakers, theorists and coaches. As a passionate teacher, he is committed to helping people find clarity in their thinking and ideas and then delivering them with panache. He has himself spoken, led conferences and moderated panels in venues around the world. During the last election cycle, he provided expert commentary on the presidential debates for CNN.
His latest book is Can You Hear Me?: How to Connect with People in a Virtual World, which was published by Harvard in 2018. That was well before the pandemic shut everybody out and put us all into virtual communication. He frequently appears on radio and TV. He has founded his own consulting organization called Public Words, which has been in business since 1997. Kudos to you for that. Nick attributes his success to his honest and direct approach that challenges even the most confident orators to rethink how they communicate. You are in for a treat. Here is the interview with Dr. Nick Morgan.
Nick Morgan, welcome to the show.
Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be with you, Elizabeth.
It’s such a pleasure to be with you too, especially someone who is also a presentation skills trainer with such an illustrious background. We are going to have fun. Before we get into the meat of the conversation, though, I’m always curious who people’s dream interview would be. If you could interview somebody who is no longer with us or someone from history, who would it be? What would you ask them? Who should be listening?
There’s no question for me. I spent a good deal of my early professional life writing a dissertation first and then a book on Charles Dickens. He has always been a great love of mine and a huge amount of fascination for that great creative genius. That would be my choice. It’s a tough question because there are a number of people. I was thinking about JRR Tolkien, whom I would love to interview especially as all these movies are coming out about him. If I had to pick one, it would be Charles Dickens.
What was it about Charles Dickens that got you interested?
His creativity took an interesting form. It was prodigious. We know that he wrote fifteen big books. As I was doing my research on him, I discovered that there were 3,000 pages of miscellanea that he had also written, which would be an output of a lifetime for most people. That was the stuff he did in his spare time. What was particularly fascinating about his creativity was he was gifted at seeing people as curious objects and curious objects as people.
He animated the world around him. He also saw people in very amusing ways, depending on the depth of acquaintance that the reader needed to have with that person. It was the ability to flip back and forth between surroundings and between scenery and actor. That was fascinating to me. He was extraordinarily creative in that way in particular.
As you were teaching it, you had a hard time getting your students to read the 600-page novels. Talk a little bit about audience expectations.
If I can switch the question slightly, I will make it even more pointed, perhaps. We are talking in a sense about attention spans. The reason I want to shift the phrasing slightly is that everybody is so worried about attention spans. These days, we are worried about information overload. We are worried as we spend a lot of time on Zoom about keeping the other person’s attention or the audience’s attention. We were worried about it before the pandemic but we got even more worried about it now. There’s a lot of evidence that information overload steadily increases and how we cope with that is fascinating to me.Martin Luther King’s speech is one of the greatest speeches certainly of the 20th century and still one that lives with us today. Click To Tweet
How you think about your audience and how much you believe that it can pay attention to you is a predilection of ours. It’s something we worry about a lot. Dickens handled it in his day pre-television, pre-social media, pre-internet and pre-everything. He handled it by writing his big stories in weekly parts at first. As he got more famous and slowed down a little bit, he did monthly parts which he liked better although he still struggled with both sets of deadlines.
It’s like the functional equivalent of a TV series or a four-part mini-series, which you then put together and create a full film out of.
Dickens works well as the BBC has demonstrated for us with several of his novels. It works well broken up in parts like that. What is fascinating to me is that while we worry about attention spans and keeping our audience’s attention, we are all known to binge-watch Game of Thrones or whatever your favorite current Netflix show is. Attention spans are malleable depending on how engaged we are. Dickens understood beautifully how to engage people with fascinating stories and lots at stake in the classic issues of love, life, death, riches, poverty and a lot of social commentaries, which he woke up his reading audience too. In a lot of ways, he was a muckraker.
A muckraker is someone who digs into the mud and the muck of the garbage of the world for our international readers.
For example, he wrote about schools, which were designed to be parking lots for kids who were unwanted for one reason or another and the terrible conditions under which those children, laughingly described as students, tried to learn and survive. There was such shock when Dickens wrote about that. There were parliamentary hearings and changes made in the laws. Justice was done in at least some way. He is a powerful speaker.
If you could talk to him one-on-one, what would you ask him?
One of my favorite things about Dickens was that he was known for having a four-hour dinner of an evening. Victorian dinners were prodigious. They often were followed by speeches, toasts and hilarious by-the-day entertainment of these folks giving a witty repartee with each other. At that point, all his friends would trundle off to bed and sleep off the excessive amounts of punch and food they drank and eaten. At that point, Dickens would put on his walking shoes and stomp around London. It’s often from 12:00 to 5:00 in the morning because he had so much energy. He often neglected to sleep.
That’s a lot of where he learned the muckraking, as we referred to. It’s stories of the nastier sides of London life, for example, by investigating it firsthand in the middle of the night. He was famous for getting up early. He is getting up at 5:00 if he indeed had ever gone to bed and starting to work and write for a few hours before the rest of the day. I would love to ask him where he got his energy and creative drive from because this was a guy who, even by Victorian standards, was an extraordinary worker.
It was so much fun too when you wrote down that you wanted to interview Dickens. I thought, “Here is someone who is fascinated by words the way I am.” I would be there for that interview. I would love to listen to that interview. It sounds fascinating. I have asked you here, however, to talk from the point of view, “We are both presentation skills trainers. We help people do speeches. We do speeches of our own.”
One of the most famous speeches of the twentieth century is Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream Speech, which he probably thought was going to be the promissory note speech and it turned into I Have a Dream by accident. I thought what would be interesting to do would be to talk about that speech from your point of view as a senior speaker trainer and my point of view as someone who has been doing presenting her whole life and think about it.
To our readers, we could not play clips of the speech without breaking copyright. We want to honor the copyright of the King family and the King of State. We will be referring to it. I suggest that you go back, read this and then go listen to the speech. Listen for the things that we have talked about. Nick, how do you start talking about this speech? Give us some context for those who were not around in 1963.
It’s one of the greatest speeches certainly of the twentieth century and still one that lives with us now. It’s a speech well worthy of study. It’s seventeen minutes and a bit long. It’s not a long speech for those of you who have not watched it yet. It came near the end of a long day of speeches on a hot day in the summer. The folks who are sitting and standing, listening to Martin Luther King Jr., had been hearing a lot of other speeches leading up to that. He was the finale for the day. There was a huge crowd. It’s something like 300,000 people.
It’s because this was part of the March on Washington.
They reached their destination and now was the time to talk about what they wanted to accomplish and what the meaning of the march was. It’s a high-stakes speech in a lot of ways. One of the things that I always think about and I know you do and any speech coach does is, “What are the circumstances of the speech because that makes a huge difference?” If you are speaking early in the morning, you have got one audience. If you are speaking late at night after dinner, after the wine has been served, you have got another audience.
If you are speaking at the end of a long day on a hot August day with no shade to 300,000 people who have been sitting outside for a long period of time, you have got another audience on your hands. How do you grab their attention and hold it? How do you understand it? How do you sympathize with them in where they are? That’s an important part of the speech. As we will see, Martin Luther King reacted brilliantly to those circumstances to build a little suspense into our discussion.
The place I start is always at every speech like this is two conversations. The first conversation is the content. It’s what you are trying to say. The second conversation is the body language. Roughly speaking, it’s nonverbal communication, as we say if we are trying to sound like experts and scientific. When those two are aligned, you can be an effective communicator. When they are not aligned, what happens is the body language always trumps the content. That sounds more complicated than it is.
In other words, if Martin Luther King had walked up there to the podium and said something like many professional speakers do, “I’m happy to be here today,” I’m way oversimplifying anything a real speaker might do but that’s to make a point here. I slumped a little bit and I said with low energy in my voice, “I’m happy to be here today.” There we have got the two conversations. We have got the content, “I’m happy to be here today.” We have got the body language. It’s the slump and the pitch-forward head and the low energy in the voice.
The question is, “Which do you believe?” The answer then becomes obvious and simple. We believe in the way in which the words are delivered. The exact words are not as important, although exact words often can be important. In terms of decoding the intent of the speaker, the exact words are not as important as the way in which they are delivered, other things being equal.Martin Luther King's speech is a very careful mixture of that sense of hope and realism about how things stand. Click To Tweet
Martin Luther King, like all speakers, has to get two things right. He has to not only deliver some fabulous content on the Washington Wall but he also has to do it in a way that sounds like he means it. With 300,000 people in front of him and if you think about the folks toward the back of the audience, they can barely see him. He is a tiny little figure off in the distance. He has to hammer those words home. That’s his first challenge, “How do I align those two things, the content and the body language?”
Another thing to think about that audience is these are people who had marched up from the South to protest to ask for civil rights when Black people in the South were being beaten, killed and lynched. Voting rights were suppressed. They had marched to the capitol. They got to the Lincoln Memorial, which is also significant because of Lincoln. Having written the Emancipation Proclamation, no accident that it was Lincoln. It’s not Washington or any other monument.
Not only was he speaking to his people who had marched with him but Official Washington and Official America were listening. It was on TV, which is something that a couple of decades earlier would not have been the case. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was not broadcast. Putting yourself in his shoes, how do you think he balanced what the audience in front of him the marchers wanted and what the officials who were on the podium with him and America listening on the TV?
It’s a fabulous question because he had a very fine line to follow in order to provide enough courage, hope and inspiration to the people who were following him and the people in his circles who were demanding more of him all the time. Also, as we know now, the FBI was listening in. They were probably watching it on TV in this case. Official Washington was certainly watching him for signs that he was straying off of the non-violent path, which he had so carefully espoused all the way through.
The speech is a careful mixture of that sense of hope and realism about how things stand. There is no call in any way that could be considered a call to violence. He is careful to stay on that side of the issue. For those who were not alive then, that was very much in the air. People were hoping to catch Martin Luther King becoming an advocate of violence because then it would have been easy to dismiss him.
One of the brilliant things about the non-violent aspect of that movement was that even though the protestors were subjected personally to violence some of them were killed. Many of them were beaten up and abused in many ways. They were arrested. They were treated badly in various counties and state prisons all over the South, especially. They never fell off the non-violent wagon, which gave them a moral high ground that Martin Luther King was very keen to maintain.
On the other side, they had people then like Malcolm X who were pushing him further and saying, “You are not doing enough. You are being too weak in this situation. You need to be stronger. You need to get real here and meet violence with violence.” It’s a difficult, extraordinarily narrow line that he could follow. He does that well in the speech even though he departs from the written speech. It’s the speech that he had prepared eventually in the course of the text and starts ad-libbing, which is another extraordinary thing.
I like to tell my clients when we are talking about the speech. I will say, “We are spending a lot of time preparing the speech. I want you to know that one of the best speeches of the twentieth century and still one of the most evocative speeches in recent American history was half prepared in advance and half ad-lib. Let’s set the bar high here if we can.” If you that is a client starts to ad-lib, I expect great things because now you know how to do it. You model yourself on the I Have a Dream Speech. Their response always is, “Thanks for that. I appreciate the vote of confidence.” It’s a high bar. Let’s put it that way.
He was balancing his rhetoric, his words, for walking that line between inspiring his people, calming down the ones who wanted to go violent and knowing that Official America was listening. What else should we know about this speech? What else should we notice when we go back and watch it?
One of the frustrations is it was not filmed with you and me in mind. It was filmed like a TV show in the sense that the camera pans over to Martin Luther King at the podium. We see him for a few seconds talking and then it swings around and we see other people on the stage. It goes to the audience and we see the audience. I’m thinking, “I don’t care about the audience.” I mean I do but at this point, I want to see this precious artifact. I want to see every single second of Martin Luther King speaking because I want to study every single twitch, every facial expression and every gesture. We don’t get to do that.
You only get to see him occasionally but you do see enough to pick up on some of his nonverbal language. You can hear his voice, which is his biggest and best asset. It’s truly an extraordinary voice honed over many years of Sunday preaching. We can learn enough about the second conversation to be able to make some comparisons and learn some things about his craft and about the way he delivered that particular speech.
He begins with a fairly even pacing and phrasing. He does not start out at a high pitch. In other words, this speech begins slowly. Early in the speech, for the first 6 or 7 minutes, he is reading from a prepared text. As we were talking beforehand, he had been working on the speech for quite some time. There are various accounts. The one that seems to be the most authoritative is a wonderful book, which I recommend highly called Behind the Dream by Clarence Jones, who was Martin Luther King’s speechwriter, co-writer or whatever you want to call it.
They apparently had been working on the I Have a Dream theme for quite some time. They worked on the speech a few weeks beforehand at Clarence Jones’ house when they had a weekend off essentially. They worked on it the night before to finish up. They settled on the opening metaphor, which says, “Black Americans were promised some things and America as a whole has not yet delivered on them.” He used the metaphor of a promissory note. Things are owed to the people in front of him in the audience and around America.
That’s a legal term we don’t use so much anymore. What does it mean?
It’s an official debt, as it were. It’s unlike a mortgage. It’s saying, “You owe this money. We sign the agreement. We agree that we owe this money and this money is now due.” He is using it metaphorically, “It’s the freedom, justice, equal rights and the end of Jim Crow South and so on and so forth that are now due to African-Americans.” The thing about that is you say it’s not a term we use so much. The term was more used then but it’s still a fairly intellectual concept. Think back to 300,000 people on a hot day into the afternoon. That’s a tough metaphor to get across.
One of the things that’s fascinating to me about that speech is that the language in it is quite sophisticated in a sense. Nowadays, we tell our political speechwriters and people speaking to political audiences during a presidential campaign or indeed any political campaign to “dumb it down” to the eighth-grade level or even lower. Former President Trump was analyzed at the fifth-grade level or something like that. You can analyze the level of the vocabulary. Politicians have tended to dumb it down.
One of the extraordinary things about Martin Luther King was he did not dumb it down. He uses words like nullification, interposition, the big 3 or 4-syllable words and sophisticated concepts. He is not pulling any punches for his audience and he expects them to follow. Nonetheless, he sensed early on in this long paragraph or two about the promissory note that it was not getting much of a response. You can see the moment happened. I recommend everybody to look about halfway through the speech after he gets done saying, “I’m not unmindful of all the suffering you have gone through.”
That’s the first time he speaks directly to the audience. At that point, he puts down his text. You can see it because early on in the speech when he is doing the promissory note bit, he is looking down to get the concept and then looking up deliberately like a typical speaker would do reading from a written text. As soon as he gets to the, “I’m not unmindful of your suffering bit,” he starts looking straight out at the audience. He does not look back down at the text after that.One of the best speeches of the 20th century, and still one of the most evocative speeches in recent American history, was half prepared in advance and half ad-libs. Click To Tweet
That’s how we know the second half of the speech, roughly speaking is ad-lib. It was because he felt that he was not connecting with the audience. As a preacher, he was very used to getting the amen, getting the audience’s response. He knew how to do it, what it sounded like and what it should sound like. When he saw that he was not getting it then he thought, “I have got to up the ante here and up the rhetorical stakes and start connecting with that audience.”
That’s when he started using the classic preacher technique that led to the I Have a Dream statement, where you put a phrase like that out, “I have a dream.” You get the response from the audience and then you ad-lib on that. You repeat the phrase and the phrase gets richer each time you repeat it. He repeats the I Have a Dream phrase about six times. At each time, he talks about what that dream would look like and adds a little bit to it. He is getting a response each time.
That’s something I wanted to point out. When I was preparing for this interview, I went back and listened with my speaker trainer hat on where he would talk about the green hills, the valley being lifted and the mountains brought low. Instead of finishing at the end of that phrase and starting the next one with, “I have a dream,” he would say, “The mountains and hills brought low. I have a dream.” Sometimes he repeats. Sometimes he does not. That is a very interesting technique. It’s not something you hear a lot nowadays. I don’t listen to a lot of Baptist preachers so I don’t know.
It’s still a technique used in Baptist preaching. It’s rarer now than in those days. He used it with the kind of brilliance that few people achieve. He sometimes varied the phrase to, “I have a dream and I have a dream today.” Both dream and today are good words to end a sentence on. It was a particularly good phrase to repeat and come back to. That’s important. If you have a difficult phrase to say then the repetition does not go as well.
I say that because after doing about half a dozen, “I have a dream,” remember he is still in ad-lib mode. He still has to finish the speech at this point. We are about ten minutes in and he still got seven minutes to go. He says, “With this faith.” He repeats that a few times. What happens then is the audience goes completely cold. If you think about it, “With this faith” does not sing in the same way that “I have a dream” sings. It’s even hard to say, “With this faith.” There are too many th’s. It’s a mouthful.
The word faith does not ring in the same way that dream does. The E sound is a nice open sound. In terms of linguistics, it’s harder to get that phrase out. It’s not an evocative phrase. He repeats, “With this faith, we are going to do this, that and the other thing.” He realizes pretty quickly that that’s not working. He drops that and he goes into it. This is my favorite moment in the speech because he cites the song Let Freedom Ring and America (My Country, ‘Tis of Thee). He picks up the Let Freedom Ring at the end of the verse that he cites.
Free at last?
That is not yet. It comes a bit later. It’s, “Let freedom ring,” and then he starts using that as a catchphrase. By all rights because that catchphrase, “Let freedom ring,” he repeats that ten times. That comes toward the end of the speech. You are absolutely right. It’s right up to, “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we are free at last.” He is saying, “Let freedom ring.” He is repeating that. By all rights, that should be what we call the speech. We should call it the Let Freedom Ring Speech because it came at the end. It’s arguably a great phrase, “Let freedom ring.” It comes from a well-known song.
The question is, “Why did not we all think of it as the Let Freedom Ring Speech, given that freedom was a big part of what he was talking about?” There are two reasons. There’s both a reason that has to do with the meaning and a reason that has to do with the phrase. The meaning of a dream is it’s a powerful word. When you tell people, “Start dreaming,” they do. They dream big. It cuts them loose. It gives them permission to start imagining what life could be like. It’s like the word imagine. It’s a powerful word to use in a speech in public.
“Let freedom ring,” who knows what that means when you think about it? It refers probably to the bell of freedom but we don’t listen to a lot of bells in ’63. Maybe we listened to more of them than we do now. Let Freedom Ring is a little on the abstract side. What exactly does it mean? It did not resonate in the same way in terms of meaning. A dream is a nice finished sound. It’s got the open E but it comes to the close at an M. Whereas ring goes on and peters out. As a sound, it’s not as effective to say, “Let freedom ring,” as it is to say, “I have a dream.” You can punch that.
It’s the D that gives the plosive attack. It’s all my years with opera singers talking about diction. It’s the D in the Dream as opposed to the F in Faith and the R in the Ring if you can hear how dreams have so much more impact.
He does not get the response in, “Let freedom ring.” When you listen to it, you will see he is saying, “Let freedom ring from the Rockies to the snow-capped mountains of California to Georgia, to Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.” He is citing some of these places that have significance where things have happened in the Civil Rights Movement, as well as places from which the folks in the audience have come. That’s always a popular thing to do. It’s to say, “Anybody here from Dubuque.” This is an elegant version of that. Even so, he is getting some responses but it’s not like the response he got on, “I have a dream.”
He goes into the end of, “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we are free at last.” The crowd goes wild. They go wild for a couple of reasons. First of all, it was a great phrase and he delivers it in perfect cadence. Second, you can see if you are watching the video that he raises his hand, which is a sign in Baptist churches that you are coming to an end. It’s the physical equivalent of saying, “Can I get an amen?” The audience sees that.
I’m sure many of them had come from churches around the United States. We are familiar with that gesture. They knew he was bringing it home and this was time to finish. When you talk about body language in the two conversations, it’s the content conversation and the body language conversation. It’s united perfectly in the end there with the right cadence, the right phrase and everything going together to create a powerful moment. It all began with, “I have a dream.”
I want to point out a couple of other things that I know I have learned from my 30 years in opera, where it’s another thing he may not have been conscious of it. Another factor is if you are speaking into a microphone and you have got 3,000 people listening on loudspeakers, especially the loudspeakers that you had in 1963. Echoes make a big difference. It’s one of the things that I learned early on in my opera days. One of the reasons why Italian is a language that carries so well and why Italians learned how to project their voices is because it comes from the church where the priest had to speak and fill a big echoey stoned church.
By the time you get to Southern Baptists, they are in smaller churches but you still have that tradition of oratory. Through the 18th century and 19th century, you did not have loudspeakers. Abraham Lincoln talking about, “Four score and seven years ago,” would have been speaking loud and pausing so that the echoes could die down and you can hear when he is going to start again. By the time you get to Martin Luther King, you have got the whole tradition of oratory which was featured in the nineteenth century. It’s informing the churches of the Southern Baptist where you are expecting people to sing back and it becomes almost a song. You have to think about sustained phrases and sustained words.
One of the things I have learned in producing operas is that when you are trying to do something outdoors, the ballads will sell better than the fast ones. Comedy is hard to do outdoors. I have produced lots of concerts in churches. Patter songs are hard because that’s where the words are more important than the tune and the echoes get in the way. We would save eleven years of the Tyrolean Opera Program. Sometimes we were in big echoey churches. Sometimes we were in small civic halls. We would save the fast things and the comic pieces for the small places where you don’t have so much echo.
When you are thinking about, “I have a dream,” he is letting the dream echo. Probably by that point in his career, he wasn’t aware of it but I can guarantee whoever trained him as a preacher knew that. That’s one of the interesting things. Another couple of things that I have noticed is he uses a lot of biblical references because he is a preacher and because a lot of his audience comes from the church. Their community is the church. He is not talking about ROI, stock charts and so forth.Dream is a powerful word. When you tell people to start dreaming, they dream big. It cuts them loose. It gives them permission to start imagining what life could be like. Click To Tweet
The other part is in terms of the educated language. It’s the highfalutin tricky words. I wonder if he consciously developed that so that White America would take him seriously. That’s another one. I don’t know if he did it consciously or if maybe early on he started using big words because he wanted White America to pay attention and take him seriously as Dr. King instead of that backward preacher.
He had to work at not being dismissed. People were looking for all kinds of ways to dismiss him in whatever they could do. We talked about violence. They were hoping he would stray into violence so that they could dismiss him in that way or crack down on him. To your point, I’m sure you are right that he wanted to say that this is serious intellectual stuff.
I’m sure there’s a PhD student out there somewhere who has compared Gandhi’s speeches in terms of pioneering the non-violent things to Martin Luther King’s speeches. I don’t speak Gandhi’s language. I don’t know what it sounded like in the original. I’m sure there’s a PhD dissertation out there somewhere that talks about that. We could talk about this for hours but we probably better do it someday with our feet up and an adult beverage. If we ever get a chance to meet in person, we can sit down and take it to this part. It has been such an honor and a joy to have you on the show. Thank you so much for joining us.
Thank you. I will be delighted to talk about this speech with you anytime.
My guest is the great Nick Morgan. If you are interested in how your presentation skills could perhaps get you to speak on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, you can take our free four-minute quiz at SpeakForResultsQuiz.com. You can see whether your presentation skills are strong, where perhaps a little bit of support could get you the results you need and the recognition that you deserve. I will see you at the next one.
- Dr. Nick Morgan
- Can You Hear Me?: How to Connect with People in a Virtual World
- Behind the Dream
- “Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech That Transformed a Nation” by Clarence B Jones
About Dr. Nick Morgan