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What can conference speakers learn from the great orator, Martin Luther King

22nd October 2009

Over the coming weeks, The Times will feature 10 extracts from Simon Maier and Jeremy Kourdi's book The 100: Insights and Lessons from 100 of the Greatest Speeches Ever Delivered.  Lessons will be learnt from the speeches of the world's greatest speakers including Napoleon Bonaparte, Barack Obama, Socrates and Martin Luther King.

The authors say: “It has become normal for words and expressions to become ubiquitous and devalued, with a belief that communication is easy, when the opposite is true. If anything, communication is at a premium: words are amplified through modern technology. They are more immediate. Yet the skills of the great orators risk being lost or forgotten. Our aim is to encourage greater consideration of the art of communication. While people won’t always agree with our choices, we hope they will agree that great speeches show us words are powerful and vital for success.”

The first of the series of articles in The Times yesterday - it looked at what speakers today could learn from one of the great orators of our time - Martin Luther King.

......At the start of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, King, like many fighting for the cause of fairness in society, stated his case boldly and for all levels of society to hear and understand.There several key lessons that we can learn from Martin Luther King Jr, and they include:

Whatever your stage skills (and we all have some), hone them.

King had a physically commanding presence. Strong, energetic, tall and broad, he possessed a deep, sonorous voice that had the power to project his message with clarity and authority across America. He was well-placed to do this as he regularly (if inadvertently) honed his rhetorical skills as part of his work as a Southern Baptist preacher. He looked and sounded inspiring and very much in charge on stage and also on television. He sounded (and still sounds) excellent on radio and in recordings.

Build a powerful rhythm and cadence, using tone and language. King’s speeches had a strong, driving rhythm that was almost musical. It drew the listener in. It comforted and then excited. This came from his speeches’ structure, the tone and use of language. For example, “I have a dream today” is one of several sentences that are repeated at regular intervals in the speech. Like a chorus in a song, it becomes a familiar refrain that people can, and want to, repeat and remember.

Repetition is useful as a device.

King, like other great speakers, knew the reinforcing power of repetition. “I have a dream”, “Now is the time”, “We cannot be satisfied”, “Go back”, “Free at last” — these are all phrases that are repeated in bursts throughout the speech. Perhaps because they become familiar and understood, they seem to result in energy and expectation — even participation — from the audience, much as would happen in a Baptist church. King turned a speech into a participative event — no mean feat.......

Click here to read the entire Times article.

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