Martin Luther King’s Speaking Style, and Barack Obama
As we celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday, we are reminded what a great man he was, and what a great communicator. I have posted before on his speaking style and the use of the great rhetorical and oratorical devices like alliteration, repetition, the ‘rule of three’ and ‘set ’em up and knock ’em down.’ His birthday is a great day to take the time and see his entire 17 minute speech here, or at least the short clip of his famous “I have a dream” ending here.
One of the best articles written on Dr. King and his speaking impact and style was by Mark Oppenheimer in the Wall Street Journal. But what I want to post on today is the ‘communication experience’ that Dr. King created whenever he spoke, and was epitomized with his “I have a dream…” speech at the Lincoln Mall in 1963. We can learn a lot from it, and from some comparisons – particularly to Barack Obama.
Many people think Dr. King read his speech, but he did not. He DID have a
written text, and he referred to it a few times during the first 11 minutes, but he NEVER read his speech. And as Mark Oppenheimer says, “…he speaks brilliantly without notes for the remainder of the speech. It’s like a streetball alley-oop, showing what he can do without even trying.” Although that perhaps diminishes the import of Dr. King’s historic moment, Mark also mentions how “…he had used elements of the speech in hundreds of sermons (and speeches) over nearly 20 years.”
I think Martin Luther King was in a zone. He knew the importance of the event, and while very conscious of what he was doing, he KNEW that he was truly creating an experience not only for the masses at the mall, of which they were an active part of that experience, but for the millions for the ages.
Now, could you imagine what would have happened if he actually DID read his speech. Or used teleprompters. What would the experience have been…
When he won the Iowa primary, Barack Obama gave a great speech. Some said it was his greatest, that it was historic, and a classic speech. But he used teleprompters.
Now I listed Barack Obama as the #1 Best Communicator of 2006, because it was his communicating that got him into the Presidential race in the first place. And his later New Hampshire acceptance speech was a great speech, and I said so at the time, but only gave it a 9 out of 10 because he truly was reading a speech. Look at his eyes as he looks from left to right to left, at the two teleprompter paddles and not at the audience. (In teleprompter speaking you want several focal points which include the audience.) Although very few viewers perceive at the conscious level that he is actually using teleprompters, at the unconscious level it makes a difference in how they feel. They do not get wrapped up in the experience of Obama like they do with Dr. King. Although Obama very successfully uses many of the oratorical devices of Dr. King, he is not LIVING his speech like King was – you can’t live it when you read it.
However, that is changing. Barack Obama is gaining experience fast, and in the terms of Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” – Obama is very quickly surpassing the 10,000 hours and/or 10 years to mastery. He gave a masterful Presidential acceptance speech, was #1 on my Top Ten Communicators of 2008 list, and the headline in this morning’s paper “Speech Of A Lifetime” illustrates the extraordinary anticipation for his inauguration speech.
The Age of Oratory
Although the age of oratory may seem irrelevant to today’s business communicators, we can learn a lot from the best, Dr. Martin Luther King. We can learn how to have a script, and not abuse it. We can learn how to be prepared, yet have a message that comes from the heart. And we can learn by watching a master create a communication experience that changed the course of a nation.
Happy Birthday Dr. King!