Speech Analysis- Dr. King Rhetoric Speech

17 Sep

Speech Analysis: I Have a Dream – Martn Luther King Jr.

Much of the greatness of this speech is tied to its historical context, a topic which goes beyond the scope of this article.

Instead, I’ll focus on five key lessons in speechwriting that we can extract from Martin Luther King’s most famous speech.

  1. Emphasize phrases by repeating at the beginning of sentences
  2. Repeat key “theme” words throughout your speech
  3. Utilize appropriate quotations or allusions
  4. Use specific examples to “ground” your arguments
  5. Use metaphors to highlight contrasting concepts

Lesson #1: Emphasize Phrases by Repeating at the Beginning of Sentences

Anaphora (repeating words at the beginning of neighbouring clauses) is a commonly used rhetorical device. Repeating the words twice sets the pattern, and further repetitions emphasize the pattern and increase the rhetorical effect.

I have a dream” is repeated in eight successive sentences, and is one of the most often cited examples of anaphora in modern rhetoric. But this is just one of eight occurrences of anaphora in this speech. By order of introduction, here are the key phrases:

  • “One hundred years later…” [paragraph 3]
  • “Now is the time…” [paragraph 6]
  • “We must…” [paragraph 8]
  • “We can never (cannot) be satisfied…” [paragraph 13]
  • “Go back to…” [paragraph 14]
  • “I Have a Dream…” [paragraphs 16 through 24]
  • “With this faith, …” [paragraph 26]
  • “Let freedom ring (from) …” [paragraphs 27 through 41]

Read those repeated phrases in sequence. Even in the absence of the remainder of the speech, these key phrases tell much of King’s story. Emphasis through repetition makes these phrases more memorable, and, by extension, makeKing’s story more memorable.

Lesson #2: Repeat Key “Theme” Words Throughout Your Speech

Repetition in forms like anaphora is quite obvious, but there are more subtle ways to use repetition as well. One way is to repeat key “theme” words throughout the body of your speech.

If you count the frequency of words used in King’s “I Have a Dream”, very interesting patterns emerge. The most commonly used noun is freedom, which is used twenty times in the speech. This makes sense, since freedom is one of theprimary themes of the speech.

Other key themes? Consider these commonly repeated words:

  • freedom (20 times)
  • we (30 times), our (17 times), you (8 times)
  • nation (10 times), america (5 times), american (4 times)
  • justice (8 times) and injustice (3 times)
  • dream (11 times)

“I Have a Dream” can be summarized in the view below, which associates the size of the word with its frequency.

I Have a Dream - Speech Text - Martin Luther King Jr

Lesson #3: Utilize Appropriate Quotations or Allusions

Evoking historic and literary references is a powerful speechwriting technique which can be executed explicitly (a direct quotation) or implicitly (allusion).

You can improve the credibility of your arguments by referring to the (appropriate) words of credible speakers/writers in your speech. Consider the allusions used by Martin Luther King Jr.:

  • “Five score years ago…” [paragraph 2] refers to Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address speech which began “Four score and seven years ago…” This allusion is particularly poignant given that King was speaking in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
  • Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” [and the rest of paragraph 4] is a reference to the United States Declaration of Independence.
  • Numerous Biblical allusions provide the moral basis for King’s arguments:
    • It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.” [paragraph 2] alludes to Psalms 30:5 “For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.
    • Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” [paragraph 8] evokes Jeremiah 2:13 “for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.
    • More biblical allusions from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech can be found here.

Lesson #4: Use specific examples to “ground” your arguments

Your speech is greatly improved when you provide specific examples which illustrate your logical (and perhaps theoretical) arguments.

One way that Martin Luther King Jr. accomplishes this is to make numerous geographic references throughout the speech:

  • Mississippi, New York [paragraph 13]
  • Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana [14]
  • Georgia [18]
  • Mississippi [19]
  • Alabama [22]
  • New Hampshire [32], New York [33], Pennsylvania [34], Colorado [35], California [36], Georgia [37], Tennessee [38], Mississippi [39]

Note that Mississippi is mentioned on four separate occasions. This is not accidental; mentioning Mississippi would evoke some of the strongest emotions and images for his audience.

Additionally, King uses relatively generic geographic references to make his message more inclusive:

  • “slums and ghettos of our northern cities” [paragraph 14]
  • “the South” [25]
  • “From every mountainside” [40]
  • “from every village and every hamlet” [41]

Lesson #5: Use Metaphors to Highlight Contrasting Concepts

Metaphors allow you to associate your speech concepts with concrete images and emotions.

To highlight the contrast between two abstract concepts, consider associating them with contrasting concrete metaphors. For example, to contrast segregation with racial justice, King evokes the contrasting metaphors of dark and desolate valley (of segregation) and sunlit path (of racial justice.)

  • “joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity” [paragraph 2]
  • “the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast oceanof material prosperity” [3]
  • “rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit pathof racial justice” [6]
  • “This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.” [7]
  • “sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.” [19]

King was not only a great leader, but a great speaker.  He knew what to say and how to grab the audience’s attention.  People loved him and how he took the initiative.  His speaking and writing skills allowed him to get his point across while keeping the  audience involved and listening.  He, as a writer, was very successful because he knew the ways to keep the audience on the edge of their seats and wanting to hear or read more.  He knew that what he was going to be talking about or writing about would excite his readers and they would be wanting more.   He was an extremely talented writer and speaker and for someone to have half of the amount of skills that he had would be very lucky.


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