One of the Greatest Speeches Ever Written


Reflecting on today’s holiday — MLK Day — I thought it might make sense to point out something particularly relevant to this blog: Martin Luther King, Jr., was a tremendous communicator!

His speeches were not complex in the words that they used or the structure that they grew from. Their power came directly from ideas, and the way he made simple words work together.

When we think of leadership — in business or politics — much of it is, in fact, communication. Any great leader begins with specific plans, what he or she wants to accomplish, but then must communicate them in a way that motivates others to follow. Absent strong communication, there is no leadership. There may be management, but no leadership.

The Rev. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” is one of the strongest examples of this I have ever seen. Here is the full speech, from a link on the site of the National Civil Rights Museum.

The words work together beautifully:

Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.

Note how the phrases work together, yet contrast:

Dark and desolate valley of segregation … sunlit path of racial justice.

Quicksands of racial injustice … solid rock of brotherhood.

The whole speech is filled with great stuff like this. It’s a treat to read. If you have a few free minutes, I urge you to do so.

Now, in the course of everyday commerce we don’t often have the opportunity to use words quite like this. Business communication deals with far more routine topics, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn something from the Rev. King’s approach. Complex words and structures. Jargon. Cliches. These need not be part of the language we use to communicate.

And there’s nothing about using simple language that makes us sound unintelligent of unsophisticated. In fact, just the opposite. The Rev. King used simple words in an almost unearthly way.

We all might benefit by seeking to make a bit of his technique our own …

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.