Richard G. Jones, Jr.
Scholar, Educator, Author


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On the 50th Anniversary of MLK's "I Have a Dream" Speech…

Aug 27, 2013

It Still Stands as a Triumph of Extemporaneous Speaking

The 50th Anniversary of "I Have a Dream"

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s world famous “I Have A Dream” speech hits a milestone on August 28th, as it turns 50 years old. On that day, fifty years ago in 1963, King used the power of his voice and the public speaking skills he had developed as a preacher, teacher, and activist to effect social change.

While many public speaking teachers and educators of all stripes have used King’s speech as an example of effective delivery and appeals to emotion, it is not as often analyzed as a great example of extemporaneous speaking.

Extemporaneous Speaking

In my book, Communication in the Real World, I outline the four methods of delivery, which include memorized, manuscript, impromptu, and extemporaneous. Extemporaneous delivery entails memorizing the overall structure and main points of a speech and then speaking from keyword/key-phrase notes. This delivery mode brings together many of the strengths of the other three methods.

Since you only internalize and memorize the main structure of a speech, you can adapt much of the content to a specific audience, an audience reaction, or an occasion since every word and sentence isn’t predetermined. Extemporaneous delivery brings in some of the spontaneity of impromptu delivery but still allows a speaker to plan the overall structure of a speech and incorporate supporting materials that include key facts, quotations, and paraphrased information. This is the preferred method of delivery for most classroom and workplace presentations.  

"The Dream" Wasn't Supposed To Be In The Speech

Many people don’t know that the last half of King’s speech was a deviation from his planned remarks. Although he had been testing out the “dream section” of his speech with various audiences in the previous months, he hadn’t prepared to include it in this monumental speech. Before we get to that crucial “dream section” let’s go back and analyze the earlier, and less familiar, first half of the speech.

Setting Up Historical Context: The First Part of the "I Have A Dream" Speech

Jamie York, in a story for On The Media notes that King started the speech by working quickly through themes, such as the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address that he had invoked many times before. After setting up some historical context for the current Civil Rights Movement and using analogical reasoning to compare it to previous moments of greatness in U.S. history, King begins to transition to the “plan” part of the speech. (See the first section of the speech in the video below)

Transition to "The Plan" Part of the Speech

During this transition (which begins at 3:17 in the speech), King uses the metaphor of the promissory note to create cognitive dissonance. In short, he is saying that although our country was founded on notions of equality, it is not realized in practice for “her citizens of color.” The thunderous applause and cheers following this section of the speech (seen in the video at 5:03) indicates that the audience is ready for a plan and a call to action, in which Dr. King speaks about the purpose of the march and the goals going forward.

"The Plan" And A Call To Action

This part of the speech (5:05 – 12:15) is the most concrete and substantive and is still in line with the prepared remarks that King took with him to the podium.

Until this moment in the speech, King is employing the manuscript method of delivery, which can be seen as he frequently checks his notes (especially during the first several minutes of the speech). Although used to speaking without notes, much of the content of the first half of the speech was only jotted down the night before during a meeting between King and close advisors. Clarence B. Jones, King’s speechwriter, was tasked with turning the notes from the meeting into something cohesive.

"The Dream"

Although the prepared remarks were inspirational and courageous, the switch from manuscript to extemporaneous delivery also marked a switch in tone and content. From the 12:15 mark on, King rarely looks at his notes and shifts even more into his comfort zone of the allegorically inclined preacher.

Why the Switch?

Famed gospel singer and good friend of King, Mahalia Jackson, took advantage of one of King’s pauses to allow for audience response, and shouted from the platform party, “Tell them about the dream Martin. Tell them about the dream.” Had King stuck to his manuscript and not made the switch to extemporaneous delivery, the phrase “I have a dream,” may not carry the same cultural, emotional, and social significance as it does today.

The Difference Between Impromptu and Extemporaneous Speaking

King was not delivering the final and most famous part of his speech “off the cuff.” He had incorporated the idea of a dream and a prophecy into other speeches and sermons, work-shopping them in a sense before he unveiled them in a larger setting. He had even worked into previous sermons the references to the song “My Country Tis of Thee.” King had already internalized the framework for the most influential speech of our time, but without a little prodding from Mahalia Jackson, the speech would have had a different conclusion.

We are not likely to find ourselves speaking in comparable circumstances to MLK, but we can learn from this world famous speech.

Although it can be comforting to have every word we plan to say in front of us, it often diminishes the connection between speaker and audience. Even though King's skills as an orator allowed him to connect with his audience, despite relying on notes, in the first half of his speech, the last half is unquestionably more immediate and evocative. Extemporaneous delivery gives us the power to be audience-centered and adaptable while still having the comfort of a pre-planned and organized framework. While striking a balance between structure and spontaneity is challenging, it is a goal that all speakers should work toward.