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A Time to Shine: Celebrating the Life and Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

When you’re looking for powerful material for your next speech—from examples and metaphors to stories and themes—look no further than your own life. In fact, the best content often comes from your personal challenges and tribulations, from your joys and successes, and from people you know who have survived adversity and risen above it. So when you’re struggling to develop your presentation message, my advice is this: Don’t stray too far from your own experience. Write what you know. After all, if one of the greatest speechmakers of the century used this approach, it is surely a valuable lesson for the rest of us.

Celebrating Dr. King

This week we will witness many celebrations in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta Georgia. People worldwide remember the power of his most well known speech, entitled I Have a Dream, in which he shares his personal vision of an America free of racism and racial tension. This speech is considered the finest in American history. Like others in the speaking industry, I often use this speech as an example of powerful oratory. Dr. King’s speech has been studied, examined, dissected, interpreted, and analyzed. Its place in history is well established.

But equally as powerful is the speech he gave the night before his death in Memphis Tennessee on April 4, 1968. This speech is formally called I See the Promised Land, and is less formally known as If I Had Sneezed. The great theme of the speech focused on an incident that happened to him a few years before.

“If I Had Sneezed”

In this speech, he tells the shocking story of when he was stabbed in the chest at a book signing by a “demented woman.” The blade had gone through his chest, and the tip of the blade was on the edge of his aorta. The following morning the New York Times reported that if he had sneezed, he would have died.

During his recovery, he received many cards and letters from people all over the country—from the president and vice president and from various governors. But he remembered little of those letters. Only one letter stood out. It was from a young, ninth grade white girl. She wrote a simple note: “I read in the paper of your misfortune and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.”

A Powerful Personal Story

Dr. King used that story, his own personal story, to develop his last speech. He told the story of his stabbing incident and mentioned the letters from well wishers. He took the phrase from the young ninth grade girl and turned it from “I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze” into, “If I had sneezed.” He then used that phrase to review the major milestones of his civil rights journey by beginning each line with, “If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around …”

In 1960, when students all over the South started sitting in at lunch counters…

In 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia decided to straighten their backs up…

In 1963, when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama aroused the conscience of this nation and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill…

In August that year to tell America about a dream I had…

In Selma, Alabama to see the great movement there…

In Memphis to see a community rally around those brothers and sister who are suffering…

He used his “If I had sneezed” phrase to build the powerful rhythm and content of his speech, to tell the dramatic story of his journey of the decade before, and to lead to the prophetic vision of his destiny.

So as we all take time this week to honor Dr. King, also take some time to reflect on your own life. Chances are you too have a few memorable experiences that can inspire others and help you create a meaningful speech that moves people to action.

Click here to read the entire text of Dr. King’s I See the Promised Land speech.

January 18th, 2011 | Permalink | Trackback | Bookmark and Share

2 Responses to A Time to Shine: Celebrating the Life and Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

  1. Antonia Hyde

    You are so right! We look to others for inspiration and to illustrate points we’d like to make. However, the longer we live, especially in this day and age in which life seems to progress at an accellerated pace, the more we have to recognize that our own lives have much that is remarkable. We are touched constantly by details that make us pause and reflect. But because they happen to us or to those close to us, we erase their importance. So thank you for this fine reminder - taken from someone else’s experience, of course, but very well taken none the less.

  2. Angela DeFinis

    Thank you for your insightful comments, Antonia. Yes, our own lives are remarkable but we often overlook our greatest talents and treasures because life’s daily distractions and urgent pace pull us away from ourselves. I think it’s important to celebrate the greatness of the MLK’s of the world because in doing so we celebrate in some small way our own greatness.

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