“I have a dream”- Power of Rhetoric

“I have a dream”

Whether you are old or young, everyone knows where this quotation is from and who it was said by. It is one of those snippets of general knowledge that is shared across generations.

No, I’m not talking about ABBA’s 1979 hit, I am talking about Martin Luther King and his “I have a dream” speech from 1963, when he spoke up to end racism in the USA.

It has become one of the most famous public speeches ever made- if not the most famous. Thus, I hasten to add, with a degree of confidence, that when you think about the most famous line “I have a dream” you are able to repeat the line in your head in the voice of Martin Luther King.
You are able to remember those confident, dulcet tones and associate them with that line. It is not just the moral content that is remembered, it is also his delivery of the content.

  • So, is it fair to say that the delivery of the line is as important as the words?
  • Would the speech have proved just as tenacious if Martin Luther King had had a high squeaky voice?
  • Would people have taken him as seriously if he had?

In my opinion, and I think it is hard to argue otherwise, I think the delivery of a speech is just as important as the content.
The content plays a role quite clearly, particularly with a speech like this one. The words that King uses have real meaning because they relate to so many people on a personal level. The imagery they invoke is powerful too, a rhetorical device well-known to be effective:

“The momentous decree is a great beacon, light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice”.

And the use of repetition reinforces the point being conveyed and in this case, has become the most famous line of his speech.

But I think King’s performance of the words is also what has made it so memorable. The tone of his voice, to me, varies throughout the speech, sometimes it is soft and other times it is much harsher. But at all times, he sounds confident with what he is saying and he is resolute to get his meaning across.
His voice is also relatively deep which I think also helps to convey the idea of authority and reassurance.
Facial expressions also have a part to play, as he again looks determined and serious, in relation to what he is saying. If he had been smiling the entire way through the speech, it would have had a very different effect upon the audience, and rightly so.

There have been a number of studies in recent years that suggests that non-verbal cues such as facial expressions and gestures, make up 60% of the total communication to others and so they actually play a (surprisingly) large part of speeches.

With King’s speech, it is a mixture of this moral content, powerful imagery and repetition in terms of the words used but it is also his tone of voice and resolute facial expressions that have led to this speech still being widely known today.

As for ABBA, their success can’t be attributed to top quality rhetoric. Sorry ABBA fans.

Picture taken from http://www.clker.com/clipart-2361.html


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2 responses to ““I have a dream”- Power of Rhetoric”

  1. Snodgrass O'Toole says :

    Programme Wed 6th 9.00 BBC4 on great speeches – that may interest you

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