Wednesday 28th August, 2013

Luther King Jr. and the Practice of Spontaneity

While the public speaker’s mantra is ‘preparation, preparation, preparation’, some of the world’s most memorable speeches owe their longevity and memorability to spontaneity and improvisation.

On the 50th anniversary of civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, it’s worth remembering that these four famous words didn’t appear in the original text of the speech. It was Luther King Jnr’s friend the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson who encouraged him to ‘tell them about the dream’ that promoted Martin to say the words that have come to symbolise the struggle for equality around the world.

Had Luther King Jr. stuck to his script his speech would still have been powerful but it was this simple, repeated phrase ‘I have a dream’ that gave the speech lasting resonance.

Public speaking excellence happens when speakers are both well-rehearsed and present, leaving room for spontaneity and inspiration but without rambling.

So how do you strike that balance, and isn’t making up elements of your speech on-the-fly a bit dangerous?

If done well, you too can deliver a speech that will be remembered decades later.

Here’s how it’s done in four easy steps:

1. An effective speech is a collection of ideas – or a story – told with passion and drama, using varied tonality, using language creatively and using space, silence and gesture to drive a powerful message home.

It is not essential to learn a speech off-by-heart or read it from a script to get it right. It is far more effective to practice and ‘mentally rehearse’ the speech many times, focussing on the delivering of every word for maximum impact. A mind that is too focussed on parroting a written speech fails to focus on its audience. Know what it is you want to communicate, practice, and when the time comes focus on delivering your message to your audience as powerfully as you can. They won’t know – and won’t care – if you stray a little from your script, but they will miss your passion so put plenty of it in there.

2. The words you choose to use don’t have to be fancy or clever to make an impact.

Impact comes from how you say they them and how you link ideas together using words spoken with passion’. ‘I have a dream’ is a sentence and an idea any child could understand and this is what helps make Luther King’s speech inclusive and powerful.

3. When you are truly ‘in the moment’ with your audience magic happens.

I have had the honour – and the pleasure – of seeing audience members moved to tears when I have spoken about something passionately and compassionately in a way that has clearly touched them deeply. I have come to understand that this can only happen when I am standing there in front of them, in the same energy, conducting the flow of that energy between us.

Luther King’s speech-writer Clarence Jones said of the ‘I have a dream’ speech, “I have never seen him speak the way I saw him on that day. It was as if some cosmic transcendental force came down and occupied his body.” Today I think we would simply call it ‘authenticity’.

4. It is absolutely vital to remain present in mind and body when taking a speech ‘off-piste’.

If you don’t stay fully focussed on the now and in the now there is a huge risk that you will start to ramble or lose your train of thought.

The best way to combat rambling when speaking spontaneously is by talking in short sentences and dramatically pausing between each one. Not only does this add power to your performance, it provides your brain with precious seconds to work out where the speech is going next.


If you wish to practice this in a live situation, ToastMasters International have at their meetings a section for improvised speeches called ‘Table Topics’. You are given a word, phrase or idea and three minutes to deliver a speech about that word immediately and with no preparation. It is a superb way to develop the skill of being present ‘in the moment’ with your thoughts and the audience. (When I did this on a visit to a ToastMasters meeting in Hertfordshire last year my word was ‘partnerships’ – I walked away with the winner’s ribbon… and I should think so too! Effective improvisation is my favourite aspect of public speaking practice).

Was it easy for Martin Luther King Jr. to deliver the ‘I have a dream’ speech? No. It took courage and confidence, control and self-awareness on many levels.

If you can master the technique just imagine the impact you might have on your industry, your community, the world.

Categories: How to, Pausing, Preparation, Tonality

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