The Speaking Style of Leaders – MLK Jr.

This year, we’re going to look at the speaking style of some great leaders and figure out what lessons we can take from their examples. This is a good week to talk about Martin Luther King Jr., a very talented speaker, most notably for his “I have a dream” speech. There are many things to be learned from his speeches. Many skills and tricks he employed to make his words more powerful. Here are just a few to begin with:


This is a trick that is pretty obvious. You repeat a word or phrase several times to create the feeling you want in your speech, the point you want people to remember, and make your entire speech last long in their memory. This can be used for an emotional speech, a big introduction or farewell, or for a funny speech. For his “I have a dream” speech, it was literally “I have a dream” that was repeated:

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”


Listening to him speak, you can hear that MLK Jr. pauses often. Pausing can allow the listener to reflect for a moment on what you just said before you make your next point. It also creates a feeling of anticipation, giving your words more importance, and makes you seem confident while you speak. This is a tool many great speakers used, including some presidents who have been considered great charismatic speakers: John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama. Watch this video and notice MLK Jr.’s pauses. Can you imagine what it would sound like if he rushed through it? (Notice at the end, he uses repetition again… “Let freedom ring”.)

You should always have natural short pauses where periods, commas, or colons are in your writing. But those aren’t the ones with big impact. You can create pauses in your speeches for questions or at the end of any point that should illicit emotion. Some opportunities for pauses might be after:

  • Can you imagine that?
  • What do you think happened?
  • The time has come to take action.
  • And then I witnessed something incredible.
  • Suzie Rainbow has done more for her assembly this year than we ever could have asked.
  • 2.5 million children were homeless at some point last year in America.

Pauses would drive the point home or create a moment of reflection.


This is using the same letter or sound at the beginning of closely connected words to form a phrase or sentence. It’s basically inserting bits of poetry into your speech. Alliteration makes your speech flow because it sounds pleasing to the ear. You can more easily hold people’s attention and create more memorable moments. Some examples in MLK Jr.’s speech:

  • … some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations.
  • Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley…
  • Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains
  • We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood
  • Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…

Are you using any of these tricks? How can you use some in the next speech you give? Remember to be inspired by great speakers and use their tricks in your own way… still be yourself but with a little inspiration from others.


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