Gutsy decision that led to ‘I have a dream’ speech

This month saw the 50th anniversary of the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King. Over the years, speakers and presentation coaches have spent hours poring over King’s speeches, analyzing the blend of sermon and poetry, noting the rhetorical devices of rhyme and repetition, and the use of metaphor. But we should remember that the iconic ‘I have a dream’ speech wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for one other quality – trust. In this case it was King trusting himself to abandon his script, because his instinct told him he wasn’t making the connection he needed with his audience.

That’s right. Some of the most famous words in the history of speech-making were ad-libbed. The phrase ‘I have a dream’ almost didn’t get uttered that August day in 1963. In fact a early draft of the speech was titled ‘Normalcy, Never Again’. Do you think we’d have remembered that, half a century later?

King had used the ‘Dream’ phrase before. But he didn’t think he’d have time to develop it in the five minutes he was initially allotted in Washington. He wanted to work with a ‘bad check’ metaphor from an early draft, and develop the argument that America had not fulfilled promises to black citizens. He had asked his advisers to help with drafts – but they couldn’t agree on the content.

King went to his hotel room on the eve of the event, and started writing his speech. He finished at four in the morning. The speech did not include the words ‘I have a dream’.

And so the time came for King to address the crowd of 250,000 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. For most of his speech he stuck to the prepared text. As he approached his conclusion, something didn’t seem right. 

He’d written a call for his audience to “go back to our communities as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction.” 

He dumped that phrase, and improvised: “Go back to Mississippi; go back to Alabama; go back to South Carolina; go back to Georgia; go back to Louisiana; go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.”

And at that point gospel singer Mahalia Jackson shouted out to him: “Tell them about the dream.”

King himself explained what happened next: “All of a sudden this thing came to me that I have used — I’d used many times before, that thing about ‘I have a dream’ — and I just felt that I wanted to use it here.” 

He ad-libbed: “Even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.” 

And that was the springboard that launched the next eight ad-libbed sentences, all prefaced by ‘I have a dream’, that made this the top-ranked American speech of the 20th century.

King was a great speaker. He had worked through the night to write his speech. He had an audience that would have cheered him, regardless. But he knew that the words he worked so hard on prepare in the middle of the night were not the right words.

He trusted himself to abandon the script. He trusted his belief and his passion to help him find the words that would cement his message in the minds of his audience – and the world.

It’s a wonderful reminder to all of us to speak or make presentations that our carefully-crafted script is only a starting point. So much more depends on our ability to monitor the reaction of the audience, and trust in our ability to change the script if that’s what it takes to make our message resonate.

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Neil Everton

Neil Everton has distilled a lifetime’s experience with some of the world’s top news organizations into his Media Mastery training aids for anyone worried about talking to reporters. The video, books, e-books and workbooks are available in the Podium Coaching online store.