Fifty years ago today, an exceptional speaker delivered an exceptional speech. As the protest which became known as the “march for jobs and freedom” reached Washington, Dr Martin Luther King delivered a part-improvised speech that still resonates.
It became known as the “I have a dream” speech because of the repetition of that aspirational phrase – but more of that in a moment. The speech has been cited by many as one of the greatest in US history, and on a par with Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in terms of its longevity and resonance.
It’s undoubtedly a beautifully constructed and delivered speech, and is rightly held up as an example of great oratory. Dr King was an accomplished preacher with a great knowledge and grasp of classical rhetoric. That’s something I want to focus on here.
The three-part construction into Ethos, Pathos and Logos is overlaid with at least half a dozen rhetorical devices, including:
Anaphora (the repeated “I have a dream”)
Antithesis (“..they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”)
Metaphor (“Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.”)
Simile (“No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream”)
Synedoche (“We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities.”) and several more.
Why is this important to exceptional speakers? Because rhetorical devices are the tools of our trade. We need to know how to use them, and keep them sharp.
Alan Stevens, co-author of The Exceptional Speaker (Revised Edition)