7 Steps to Masterful Public Speaking From Martin Luther King

by | Aug 28, 2013

Fifty years ago this week, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The speech is consistently ranked as the most important American speech of the twentieth century. But not only is it the most important, it is also one of the most eloquent and inspiring. Dr. King’s speech demonstrates the profound impact public speaking can have on an audience and a nation.

If you have a powerful message, having the chance to deliver a speech before a captive audience is an invaluable opportunity. If you’ve never delivered a speech before, you might be afraid to give it a try. However, in today’s post we’ll look at seven effective steps for building your confidence and speaking masterfully.

7 Keys to Effective Public Speaking

1. Be Passionate

It’s important to choose a message that you are passionate about. This will give you more motivation to polish and edit your speech and more confidence when you speak. This translates into a more rewarding experience for both you and your audience.  If you are passionate about a topic, that energy will transfer to your audience, and they will be more prone to listen to (and be persuaded by) what you have to say.

If you are speaking on a topic that has been assigned to you, then you’ll have to create passion for that topic. The best way to do this is by researching your topic well. With all of this new knowledge about your topic filling your brain, you’ll be eager to share it with your audience.

You can watch Dr. King delivering his speech below. He clearly speaks with confidence and fervor and means every word he says.

2. Prepare a Typed-Up Copy of Your Speech  

If you can, bring with you a typed-up copy of your speech or notecards with your most important points, so you won’t get lost and forget your speech. Or if you want to give your whole speech from memory, use the typed-up speech to practice with. King clearly has notes with him and keeps to his outline.

3. Create a Strong Outline

Indeed, once you’ve researched your topic, you need to create an outline for yourself. This will help you stay within the time limit (if you’ve been given one), avoid talking aimlessly, and cover all of your most important points. An outline gives your speech a logical flow, making it easier for your audience to follow along. Depending on the type of speech you are delivering, you might want to tell your audience the outline in your introduction. This gives them a roadmap of sorts and can be extremely helpful if they are taking notes.

Dr. King uses a powerful five point persuasive outline in his “I Have a Dream” speech. The first paragraph of his speech is the attention step (he grabs the attention of his audience by referencing an important event in American history: the Emancipation Proclamation). King keeps his attention step clear and to the point.

Those first five minutes are critical for grabbing and keeping the attention of your audience. So try to begin with a bang. Don’t just say, “Today, I’ll be talking about…” Start out with a joke or an interesting fact or a story that will resonate with your audience.

King makes sure his attention step is short so he can get right to the need step: this the part of your speech that addresses the problem that must be solved, in King’s case that problem was racism in the United States. He impresses upon the audience the urgency of resolving this problem.

After the need step, King moves to the third phase of his speech, the satisfaction step: how to solve the problem.This is the part of your speech where you can present your solution, perhaps show examples of how the solution has worked in the past, and reply to any opposing arguments.

Next, Dr. King moves to the visualization step. This is the famous part of his speech where he begins repeating the phrase “I have a dream.” He paints a picture of a world in which his solution has been carried out.

When presenting your visualization step, you can contrast the positive image with a negative one, illustrating what will happen to the world if your solution is ignored.

Finally, Dr. King concludes with the action step: what his audience could do to help carry out his plan. “…To work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”

Your action step should give your audience something they can take away from your speech, the reason why your topic is important, the reason why they should adopt your point of view.

4. Talk Slowly & Conversationally

Think about your audience. Depending on what group you are speaking to, your speech will have a different style. You would use different words and terms when delivering a speech on biochemistry to a roomful of scientists than you would when delivering a speech commemorating D-day to a roomful of WWII veterans.

However, no matter your particular audience, the best rule of thumb is to speak conversationally. This makes your speech more engaging, and also will help you be less nervous. Breathe deeply. Speak slowly. If you find yourself using filler words (e.g. ‘um’ or ‘like’), take more pauses to allow yourself to collect your thoughts. Notice the pauses in Dr. King’s speech. Well-timed pauses often help emphasize your most important points.

5. Memorize Your Speech

If you are involved in competitive speech and debate events, you will often be required to memorize your speeches. Even if you don’t have to, it’s often a good idea to do so as it will allow you to look up from your paper and make strong eye contact with your audience.

Notice how during the “I have a dream” part of Dr. King’s speech he doesn’t look down at the podium. Historians say this is because Dr. King decided to disregard the conclusion of his typed-up speech, and instead repeat part of a speech that he had memorized and delivered earlier that year. This allowed him to look intently at his audience and speak with conviction. No wonder it became the most famous and best-remembered part of this speech!

Dr. King doesn’t move away from his podium while delivering his speech because he was being recorded and needed to stay near to the microphone, but if it is possible for you to leave the podium and walk around the stage a bit, take advantage of that. This is a great way to emphasize an important point or simply wake up your audience. If you have your speech memorized, you don’t have to worry about strictly reading off your paper.

6. Study Great Speeches

As I’ve just shown by breaking down Dr. King’s speech, you can learn a lot by analyzing the speeches of the masters. See how they outline their speeches. Watch TED talks to see effective techniques for public speaking. Study rhetorical devices. Dr. King uses repetition, parallelism, and many more.

7. Practice, practice, practice

Ultimately, if you want to become an effective public speaker, you will have to practice. If you are in high school, look into speech and debate clubs or events like the American Legion Oratorical Contest. Colleges also often have debate clubs or speaking opportunities or you could join an organization like Toastmasters.

Personally, I wasn’t very confident with public speaking until I had the opportunity to perform in several plays in middle school. In high school, I joined a speech and debate club and also competed in the VFW and American Legion oratorical contests. If you have the opportunity to get involved in public speaking, I can’t recommend it enough.

Indeed, public speaking is an invaluable skill to learn. You never know when you might be called upon to give a speech.

The most powerful leaders are those who knew how to use words effectively. If you want to become an effective leader or teacher (or both!) in your field and have the opportunity to inspire an audience, you will have to train yourself to become an eloquent and persuasive public speaker.

How will you start honing your public speaking skills today?

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