public speaking

Made Legendary by Passion and Precision

On the anniversary of the tragic death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I can’t help but think of the powerful and poetic words he spoke. Listening to his speeches gives me chills, and I–like many people in this country–know some of the lines by heart.

Dr. King delivered many inspiring speeches, but one of the most well known is “I Have A Dream”. I am fascinated by the way this speech came together. A committee of Dr. King’s advisors provided input for the speech and Clarence B. Jones wrote the draft. When Dr. King took the stage he started to read from the top but, “he paused. And in that breach, something unexpected, historic and largely unheralded happened. Martin’s favorite gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, who had performed earlier in the day, called to him from nearby: ‘Tell ’em about the dream, Martin, tell ’em about the dream!’ Martin clutched the speaker’s lectern and seemed to reset. I watched him push the text of his prepared remarks to one side.” (Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech that Transformed a Nation)

What followed was the outpouring of one of the most famous speeches of all time. He spoke from the heart, and he only spoke for 15 minutes. The speech was legendary because of these facts, not despite them. Dr. King could improvise such a powerful speech because he had countless hours of practice under his belt.

Another legendary speaker was Abraham Lincoln. His most famous speech,  “the Gettysburg Address” illustrates these principles of passion and precision. Lincoln spoke only a few minutes, but his words echoed for generations after.

He was so determine to speak at Gettysburg that he started his trip there a day early. Some say he scratched out his speech during the train ride; others say he was inspired to craft his remarks after stepping onto the battlefield; but Garry Wills, author of Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America, insists that Lincoln wrote his words carefully and thoughtfully before he even left Washington. Either way, he undeniably spoke with the precision and the passion.

One final example that I’d like to mention is Michelle Obama. Sadly there are few legendary female orators, but this century is sure to see new ones rise.

Mrs. Obama gave many speeches in her role as first lady, and many times brought tears to my eyes. With the help of her (female) speech writer, she took passion and precision to the next level. She spent weeks rehearsing her speeches and spoke with conviction. It’s hard not be be inspired by her words at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, “That is the story that has brought me to the stage tonight. The story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, who kept on striving, and hoping, and doing what needed to be done. So that today, I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.”

The famous speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, and Michelle Obama are legendary because they remind us what it means to be human and they transform our way of thinking. Speaking skillfully, with heart, can bring about change.

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