If I asked you, "What's the greatest speech you've ever heard in your lifetime?," would you have an immediate answer? Or would you have to think about it for awhile? For some people a great speech and a great speaker will spring to mind without any hesitation just because
they were so memorable.
For many of us, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 is the first to come to mind. We know it as his "I Have A Dream" speech. We revisit that moment every year on Dr. King's birthday and we can hear it any time on YouTube. It's accessible electronically in a way that most other historic speeches are not. How lucky for us.
What made that speech great? Why do we remember it? It touches us in a way that few other speeches in our history have. What did Dr. King say that was so special?
The most basic rule of creating a great speech is to know your audience. Know to whom you are speaking. What are their needs, hopes and dreams? Speak to them in language they can understand, using images and phrases they can relate to. Let your words draw pictures in their minds and awaken the emotion in their hearts. Give them something to take home with them that's easy to remember and repeat the next day. Make it simple for them to share your thoughts, teach them to their children, and call on them to strengthen their spirit when the going gets rough.
How did Dr. King do all this on that August day in 1963?
First of all, he had a great, universal theme: freedom, equality and justice for every man, woman and child in America, not just the privileged few and not determined by the color of their skin. He knew he was speaking, not just to the thousands gathered that day in Washington, but to every person in the U.S., and, in fact, the world. He was speaking about the basic human rights of every person on the planet.
He expressed that theme in several ringing phrases that were easy to understand and simple to remember and he repeated these phrases three or more times so people would remember them.
"Now is the time..." (3 times) for the promises of the past to be realized.
"We can never be satisfied..." (5 times) with the unfilled or broken promises.
"I have a dream..." (3 times) of a better future.
"With this faith..." (3 times) we'll all be free together.
"Let freedom ring...!" (5 times) from every hill and mountainside, state, city and town across America. Each phrase built upon the last, as if he were indeed climbing up that mountainside.
He didn't stop there. He used imagery and alliteration to draw verbal pictures that everyone could relate to. He compared the broken promises of freedom to a bad check that couldn't be cashed, to a Promissory Note that America had defaulted on. He linked 'dignity and discipline', 'sons of slaves and slaveowners', and 'little children who'll be judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their character."
He named every state in the South when he dreamed of seeing blacks and whites joining hands as sisters and brothers, a vivid mental picture. Another: "... to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope." The juxtaposition of large and small, black and white, men and women conjures up visual images familiar to everyone listening.
And for his big finish, the mountaintop he had been leading all of us to climb with him, he rang out the essence of his vision in tones of strength and joy and hope: "Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I am free at last!"