Martin Luther King

Did Obama’s Speech Keep Dr. King’s Dream Alive?

I was an elementary student at Calvert School in Washington DC in 1963. Our school was connected to St. Matthews Cathedral, a prominent Catholic Church in the city noted for the fact it held the Catholic Funeral Mass for John F. Kennedy after he was killed. If you go to St. Matthew’s today you will see a large circular marble mosaic in the floor near the sanctuary with the words, “Here rested the remains of President Kennedy at the requiem mass, November 25, 1963 before their removal to Arlington where they lie in expectation of a heavenly resurrection.” Of the thousands of people in attendance at his funeral, Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of them.

During those years of the civil rights struggle, St. Matthew’s was a voice for social justice. One of the younger priests in residence at the church took it upon himself to expose the Calvert School elementary students to the social issues of the day, particularly the Civil Rights movement. It was with him and a few of my classmates that I attended the March on Washington and heard Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. We heard numerous speakers throughout the day and to my young ears they were all loud and exciting. But Dr. King’s speech was thunderous and drove the already elated crowd to a state of rapture. Even though I could not comprehend the scope of the issues that drew people to the mall that day, I too was caught up in the magic of the moment.

As I watched the “Let Freedom Ring” speeches today I was stuck by how little and how much has changed since August 28, 1963. As Jimmy Carter, Forrest Whittaker, Oprah Winfrey, Congressman John Lewis, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama summarized, today, as in 1963, we as a nation are still struggling with issues of discrimination and injustice such as entrenched poverty, homelessness, voting rights violations, racial profiling and the high rates of incarceration of young black men, just to name a few. Of course, there has been progress over the decades as well. According to Census reports, the percentage of blacks who graduated from high school jumped to 85 percent in 2012, from 25.7 percent in 1964, while the number of black Americans with at least a bachelor’s degree rose to 5.1 million from 365,000. Additionally, the percentage of blacks working in executive, administrative or managerial positions rose to more than 8 percent in 2011, from a little over 1 percent in 1960.

In the last fifty years leading up to today, there have been gains and there have been losses, all of which have been met with considerable debate if not troublesome disagreement. But throughout our 50 year legacy of the civil rights movement, there is one thing we all agree on: Dr. King’s “Dream” speech, which I heard again in its 17 minute entirety today, remains the greatest speech of the 21st century. As most scholars, historians and politicians agree, it holds this honor because of Dr. King’s immeasurable capacity to inspire hope.

So how did Obama, the new chronicler of hope, measure up to Dr. King? It seems unfair to compare the two men yet we can’t resist. King was a preacher who turned the steps of the Lincoln memorial into a pulpit and delivered a sermon to many. He used parables from the Bible, metaphors that everyone could understand. He began slowly, carefully, keeping the pace controlled, showing little physical or vocal emotion. It was like watching a jockey hold back a race horse until the turn into the home stretch. Because I’ve seen this speech many times I knew what was coming and when it did, when he released the phrase “Let Freedom Ring” with the thunder of his voice, the power of his cadence and the surety of his eloquence, I was just as moved as I was when listening as a young child 50 years ago.

Obama gave a great speech today, there is no question. He too began slowly, carefully, building his case step by step with an even tempo, controlled body language and earnest facial expression. He began to build energy with his phrase, “Because they marched,” which subtlety referenced—at least in technique—to the “I have a dream” phrase.

But then he receded and pulled back again. When I wanted him to drop into “storyteller tone,” he became cerebral. When I wanted metaphor, he delivered fact. He seemed to be speaking one level above his audience, more conceptually, using longer sentences and denser themes. I found myself working too hard to follow along.

I wanted him to make it easy for me so I could be swept up emotionally in the historical greatness of the day. After all, this wasn’t a speech to the government or congress. This was to us, the American people. I wanted him to bring it home. Yes, he crossed the finish line with force and power, ending on a high note, but still I wanted more. I wanted him to step into the skin of Dr. King and breathe in the vigor of his vision, expelling it back to us on fire.

Too much to ask? Impossible expectations? Yes, certainly. But I’m a speech coach. And when the greatest speech of your lifetime happens to you when you’re a child, your fantasies forever exceed reality.

Need a last minute gift for your favorite Public Speaker?

Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences, by Nancy Duarte Nancy Duarte gives us a reason to Resonate. Her new book, Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform aAudiences, is part how-to guide and part narrative that gives justification for an approach Duarte calls “story based messaging.” Using techniques from storytelling and the cinema, she explains her methodology, explores case study applications, and guides readers through a unique process for building presentation content.

Duarte bases her premise on a simple phenomenon in physics: If you know an object’s natural rate of vibration, you can make it vibrate without touching it. Resonance occurs when an object’s natural vibration frequency responds to an external stimulus of the same frequency. She then builds the case that this same ide is what moves audiences and that all presenters should strive to create resonance with their listeners.

According to Duarte, resonance in speaking is created when the presenter delivers a memorable story in a powerful way. To help readers accomplish this, Duarte builds a new language for story creation. Her content development process gives readers a model to create presentations, and it advocates using a well-developed, example rich storyline coupled with powerful, visual design. By incorporating Edward Tufte’s sparkline concept, Duarte provides a way for readers to build and analyze presentations visually.

What’s wonderful about this book is that at the same time Duarte is telling us what to do, she is also showing us the steps visually. In this way, she practices what she preaches: the beautifully designed pages come to life and resonate with the reader.

Resonate has many gems, but one that stood out was Duarte’s explanation of the STAR moment. As she explains, STAR is a presentation device that drives home the big idea of a presentation for the audience. STAR stands for Something They’ll Always Remember, which Duarte states “should be so profound or so dramatic that it becomes what the audience chats about at the watercolor or appears as the headline of a news article. Planting a star moment in a presentation keeps the conversation going even after it’s over and helps the message go viral.”

In this book, the visuals are Duarte’s STAR moment. She is a master of visual design. Where at times the text was tedious, the visual images were always exciting and memorable.

Particularly interesting are the case studies ranging from Ronald Reagan’s eulogy after the Challenger disaster to speeches from people like Richard Feynman, Michael Pollen, Pastor John Ortberf, Steve Jobs, Markus Covert, Leonard Bernstein, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others.

While the case studies are powerful examples of her methodology, I was disappointed that there were so female speakers mentioned. With so many women in the arts, science, education, fashion, business, politics, and the law, readers can learn much from great female speakers like Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey,  Gloria Steinem, Wangari Maathai, Isabel Allende, Renee Fleming, Elizabeth Gilbert,  Carol Bartz, and Elana Kagan, just to name a few.

As unique and useful as Resonate is, be forewarned that this book is not for casual readers who are looking for a few tips to help them succeed in front of a group. Rather, it is a complex book that requires concentration and commitment to interpret and adopt the process, models, and graphs. As Dan Post, President of Duarte Design, says in the book’s Foreword, “Resonate is intended for people with ambition, purpose, and an uncommon work ethic.” In other words, this is a book for professionals who want to delve deeply into the study of what makes powerful presentations.

If you take your presentations seriously and want to build “presentation literacy” this book is an important resource and well worth the effort. Duarte’s work is thoughtful and inspiring. By synthesizing disparate points of view and using examples of speakers from many disciplines, she has created something unique in the industry. While it’s hard to improve on the speaking lessons from the ancient Greek Orators, Duarte has done it. Resonate will give you a fresh, new look at an age-old subject.