Wing it Like Dr. King: Five Lessons for Your Next Presentation

When Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, it electrified the audience gathered on Washington’s mall and inspired the nation. Almost 50 years later, it still shines as one of the great pieces of rhetoric from the 20th Century.

But you might be surprised to know that on that summer day in 1963, the good Reverend essentially winged it. That’s right. The speech was actually a patchwork of various remarks King had delivered at other times. And its most memorable section was mostly improvised on the spot.

As crowds gather again on the mall this week for the unveiling of the King memorial, it’s a good time to look back at that historic moment and see if there’s anything we ordinary presenters can learn.

Writing by Committee 

The process of drafting the speech took a course familiar to anyone who’s helped put together a presentation in a corporate setting, according to King advisor and speechwriter Clarence B. Jones, who recently published an insider account in Behind the Dream.

Lots of people were involved. There was disagreement over what the speech should say. Various themes and messages were considered and discarded. 

And the speaker himself didn’t give the text his full attention until the last minute – in this case, the night before. When the late-night planning session ended, nobody was sure exactly what King would say the next day.

Tossing the Script 

When the time finally came, King started in on remarks that Jones had prepared. He talked about a promissory note for justice that the 200,000 marchers had come to Washington to redeem. But at least one of the people on the dais wasn’t happy with the direction King was going.

Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who had performed earlier that day, knew a thing or two herself about inspiring an audience. “She just wanted him to preach,” according to Jones’ account. So she called out, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin!”

This is how Jones described the moment in the Washington Post

“Martin clutched the speaker’s lectern and seemed to reset. I watched him push the text of his prepared remarks to one side. I knew this performance had just been given over to the spirit of the moment. I leaned over and said to the person next to me, ‘These people out there today don’t know it yet, but they’re about ready to go to church.'”

Calling up themes from earlier sermons, King proceeded to weave together his rhetorical masterpiece and, in that moment, gave full voice to the aspirations of millions of downtrodden Americans. 

Five Key Lessons

OK, few of us have an “I Have a Dream” in our back pocket, but here are five lessons to help get you through your next presentation. 

1. Narrow the circle. When you’re preparing a presentation or speech, gather input from a wide circle of people if you must. But don’t leave the writing to a committee. Close the circle and get the content focused.

2. Go with your gut. Take people’s feedback into account, but learn to trust your own instincts. Ultimately you are the one up there on the stage and on the firing line. If it doesn’t feel right to you, if you don’t believe the words you’re saying, take another direction. Because if you don’t buy it, neither will your audience.

3. Have a backup plan. If you’re a frequent speaker with a specific area of expertise, you should have a catalogue of content that you’ve worked over and internalized. You should be able to call it up when necessary and deliver the “core” while adding topical references, updated anecdotes and ad-libs customised to your audience.

4. Gauge your audience. Expert performers know when they’re bombing. They can sense the energy draining out of the room. But anyone can spot the telltale signs of an audience that’s tuned out. Passive expressions, listless posture, heads buried in their Blackberries. Silence. Be prepared to throw out your game plan and go with something from your mental catalogue that’s worked before. 

5. Interact. You may not have a Mahalia Jackson gutsy enough to get you on track, but you can do it yourself. Ask the audience a question to get a conversation rolling. “I just talked about bad customer service – does anyone have a similar experience they can share?” Or start taking their questions. The Q&A is often the most valuable part of a presentation anyway, since it’s directly focused on concerns expressed by the audience. 

Special bonus lesson: Dr. King didn’t use PowerPoint. Just a suggestion.