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5 Speaking Lessons from Martin Luther King, Jr

Posted in: Communication, Persuassion Started by

5 Speaking Lessons from Martin Luther King, Jr

Since 1993, I have read every single book or document that I have found about Martin Luther King, Jr.  After reading Donald T. Phillips’ Martin Luther King, Jr, I decided to share five lessons on speaking from legendary leader.

#  1. Win by Persuasion not Coercion or Alienation

During his career, Martin Luther King, Jr used the power of persuasion to win over enemies, cynics and bigots on the civil rights cause. Besides speaking to large crowds, he also took a lot of time to write individual letters to the people who did not agree with him. After receiving a letter from a lady who stated that Negroes could never be equal to whites, MLK wrote back saying: “ I must confess, I am in total disagreement with with your position…. This, however, does not at all cause me to hate those that that believe in segregation.”  It appears that each and every single person who is persuaded mattered a lot to MLK.

# 2. Seek to Understand before you Speak

As a leader, Martin Luther King, Jr sought the truth about issues before he spoke about them in public. He held the view that, not all that is written is true. As a result, he often went down to the field to seek the facts, sent aides to obtain facts about burning issues or made telephone calls to get first hand information to inform his speaking. Can you find some inspiration in this approach to speaking that is inspired by a desire to first seek the facts before communicating.

#3. Walk your Talk

Like several great leaders before him, Martin Luther King, Jr did not just talk. He took time to walk his talk. During the American War of Independence, George Washington spent long hours in the field with his troops. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln walked daily to the War Department and toured the capital on horseback. Martin Luther walked and marched with civil rights activist all across the country.

If you are a leader who has not walked your talk, it is about time, you step it up.

#4. Speak in Subtle but Substantive Terms

In his speeches, he was sometimes very subtle, but equally very substantive. He did not allow any distractions to take his focus off the issues at hand. After he was attacked by a nazi hater, Martin Luther King, Jr kept his cool. Instead of pressing charges or fighting back, he used the opportunity to display his focus on what was substantive. He said: “I am not interested in pressing charges. I am interested in changing the kind of system that produced that kind of man.” That was subtle, but substantive.

#5. Make Extensive Use of Metaphors

Martin Luther King was the master of metaphors. He used metaphors to enhance the clarity of his message. His major speeches were loaded with metaphors to convey clarity. In the mountaintop speech, he said “I ‘ve been to the mountain top”. In another speech, he urged his comrades to press on: “Press on and keep pressing. If you can’t fly, run; if you can’t run, walk; if you can walk- CRAWL. This is sentence is loaded with a powerful metaphor and imagery. The fly, run, walk and crawl makes the message compelling.