The Speaking Style of Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King’s Speaking Style, and Obama and McCain and Jobs

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.

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…

Barack Obama

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 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 big 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. (And I’m also very surprised that he does not use the teleprompters very skillfully at that.)

John McCain

Now John McCain is not near the level of either King or Obama as a communicator. But watching him there is a parallel lesson about reading a scripted speech, and using teleprompters. In his New Hampshire victory, McCain gave a victory speech that looked more like a concession speech. Here’s a short edited clip so you can see him actually reading his text – and he is not at all authentic, spontaneous or even enthusiastic. And look particularly at the ending, where he struggles to get the wording exactly right, stumbling, and thereby loses the triumphant experience that he wanted to create. Because he read a script.

(For contrast, look at this short clip from today when Barack Obama spoke in honor of Dr. King at Martin Luther King’s former church Ebenezer Baptist. Obama also was reading a script, but the effect was far different.)

Then when McCain won last night in an upset in South Carolina, he used a teleprompter. Someone must have told him he was very stiff in his speech reading! But this teleprompter is a through-the-lens prompter where you look at the camera, (like the newscasters use,) and McCain doesn’t use it well. Look at McCain as he is looking at the camera (teleprompter) 80% of the time rather than looking at his audience (or two audience focal points.) The camera should just be allowing us, the TV viewer, to observe the triumphant event. The experience should be of us as observers of an event with McCain talking to his supporters, not us being directly pitched to, as it appears. At least Senator McCain is definitely more energetic and confident in this victory, but it could have been so much better if he was trained in how to use the teleprompter well. Or didn’t have to read speeches at all. Like Steve Jobs.

Steve Jobs

There has been much written on Steve Jobs’ communicating ability on this blog and others. He is a fantastic communicator from the stage (and was my #1 Best Communicator of 2005), and he is very prepared and rehearsed. He has a script. But he does not read it, and he communicates as if he is talking directly to the individuals in the audience. It’s almost as if it’s a conversation, but it’s not casual, and is very high energy. Even if he didn’t happen to have great visuals, he connects with his audience. He creates a unique, successful communication experience.

After all, where else in corporate America would we see many thousands of people paying from $50 to hundreds of dollars to stand in line for hours in hopes of getting in to see a CEO announce his new product line. And a thousand or so don’t even get in, but they stand in line in hopes… That’s the Steve Jobs MacWorld experience. And Jobs uses oratorical devices, but he does not speak oratory, or use teleprompters.

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!

3 comments on “The Speaking Style of Martin Luther King

  1. This is a great post on the eloquence of Barrack Obama and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I appreciate the analysis.
    Now I wonder is eloquence a necessary trait for the president, or does the public want more “simple and straight-shooting talk?”
    John McCain is definitely assuming the second, as did George W. Bush’s first campaign in 2000. Of course, this “straight-talk” is just another style of public speaking.
    Nonetheless, neither of them has the sort of pointed and subtle speaking style that Obama has. It is truly amazing that he has come out of nowhere in the last 6 months to take the lead from the apparent shoe-in Hilary Clinton for the Democratic nominee.
    Nonetheless, does this savvy public speaking skill matter to the public?
    I tend to think it does.
    As a public speaking coach / trainer, I present frequently and coach others on their presentations. Hence, I am constantly observing the interplay between presenters and audiences.
    I find that most audiences form accurate general impressions of a speaker, though they may not be able to articulate the behaviors and techniques that led them to form that impression. After all, we’ve all spent a good portion of our lives gaging the truthfulness of the people with whom we interact.
    In his book, “Strangers to Ourselves,” Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia notes that the brain can absorb about 11 million pieces of information a second, of which it can process about 40 consciously. The unconscious brain handles the rest.
    Our unconscious brains are gathering up thousands of subtle signals from the speakers that we observe regularly and forming general impressions such as, “He’s lying.” or “She’s arrogant.”
    In this election in particular, the President’s ability to inspire the American people is critical. Our economy is weakened, our federal debt is growing, and our national infrastructure (schools, roads, ****) is falling apart. The Iraq war is sapping our federal and state programs with it’s huge costs. Health care costs are soaring and beginning to cripple middle class Americans and small businesses. Climate change threatens the delicate balance of the ecosystem and our national dependence on oil has made us vulnerable to terrorist attack while funding the very nations that host the terrorists. Meanwhile, the good will we enjoyed after Sept. 11 has been completely squandered and our foreign polity is universally criticized or detested abroad.
    The current president never asked Americans to sacrifice anything to pay for the war in Iraq. Now, we are beginning to pay the price because other programs have been neglected while the war has sucked up trillions of dollars.
    Can one person solve all these problems and manufacture the political will to get things done? No. No president alone can do this. They need the support and participation of the entire nation, just as FDR needed the support of the American people throughout the Depression and WWII.
    Who is the appropriate candidate to lead us forward? One who can inspire the American people to take part in the recovery of our nation. As JFK said:
    “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
    “This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.“
    MLK Jr. said, “I have a dream that my four little 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.”
    These were all just “words” … but what powerful words!
    Our next president needs to speak the truth, tell us we need to participate, and inspire us with hope.
    Who does that sound like but Barrack Obama?

  2. I’m glad you included Steve Jobs in this post. The first time I heard him speak was in the latest macworld expo. He was amazing. He was an amazing communicator. He knew everything about his product. He spoke with honesty and simplicity. No theatric here and yet he was very effective. I also think that Justin Long, the actor for those Mac vs PC ads speaks well. Granted, they’re commercials and he memorized a script. But he is like Steve Jobs in the honesty and simplicity of his delivery.

  3. Mr. Decker, you are just cranking out the best posts. I’m reading them like crazy, applying them immediately and passing them on to others daily!