February 24, 2021 Christian Farrar

We take a look back at Martin Luther King Jr. and one of his greatest ever speeches

What are some practical linguistic tips that still resonate today?

In Washington DC on the 28thAugust 1963, Martin Luther King Jr took to the podium of the Lincoln memorial in front of 250,000 fellow civil right marchers with a formidably worded speech that matched the strength of his mission.

It is fair to say that King was a master of compelling language and rhetorical devices, and almost 60 years later, we are still analysing each and every aspect of “I have a dream” and how it moved the hearts of millions of people around the world.


The first and most obvious feature of King’s speech is the consistent use of repetition. Anaphora (repeating a sequence of words at beginning of multiple clauses) is a powerful technique to reinforce any sayings or facts that you want your audience to remember.

The term “I have a dream” is the most cited clause throughout the seventeen minutes, with it being utilised at the start of eight sentences in a row at its climax. It inspires his audience by creating emphasis and articulating passion around his point.

King also uses simple and active language here rather than jargon as it is more inclusive, has more rhythm and greater emotional pull.

Other primary key themes that King reiterates are “freedom” (20 times), “100 years later” and “now is the time”. These are interesting and organised patterns of articulation that reinvigorate his key messaging.

Furthermore, King uses inclusive pronouns throughout in the form of “we”, “us” and “our” to build a sense of togetherness amongst his viewers, which in turn helps to make his speech undeniably more meaningful.

Another approach we can highlight is King’s adoption of relatable and engaging touchstones:

“Red hills of Georgia.”

“Every village and every hamlet.”

The use of geographical references and hyperboles here (exaggerated statements e.g. ‘every hamlet’) evokes strong and meaningful emotions as the problem in hand is presented close to the home of the audience.

Another lesson we can take from King’s compelling speech is his application of contrasting metaphors:

Joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity

“Rise from the dark and desolatevalley of segregation to the sunlitpath of racial justice

“Sweltering with the heat of oppressionwill be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.”

When delivering an important speech, it’s critical to try and galvanise the affection of your audience with these techniques to show your authenticity and sincerity.

Additionally, these quotes illustrate a vigorous narrative through juxtaposing language (two close concepts with contrasting connotations) that captivates the audience to have a sense of togetherness or contentiousness.

King also uses influential and persuasive language with superlatives (e.g. greatest) and personification (attributing personal characteristics to something non-human) to allow his comrades to understand his notion in a more memorable and distinctive way:

“Shared in the flames of withering injustice.”

“Crippled by the chains of discrimination.”

“Languished in the corners of American society.”

Finally, King ends his speech with an interactive call to action:

“Let freedom ring.”

This explicit appeal for a specific action from your emotionally invested audience is a powerful way to showcase your confidence in your messaging.

To summarise, stylistically there are numerous techniques and significant learning points you can take from King’s world changing speech for your own personal public speaking development:

  • Anaphora of most important phrases and themes.
  • Simple and relatable language in the forms of touchstones and inclusive pronouns.
  • Show your passion by pulling on the emotions of your audience using devices like juxtaposition and hyperbole.
  • End on a strong call to action to portray authenticity and sincerity.

If you’re looking to bolster your public speaking skill set, or simply become more confident in important one to one conversations, Erbut Media Training provide a bespoke and award winning programme that will be tailored to your unique goals and requirements. For more information, simply fill out the form on this page and accelerate your career today.