Speech writing is one of the roles I undertook for my principal. One of the first books that I was given by my principal was The Art of Speeches by Philip Collins. I wrote 2-3 speeches on a daily basis. Fittingly, my principal identified the ‘I Have A Dream’ speech for the first time as a relevant persuasive template in preparation of a commencement speech, and thus I have had the honour to analyse its semantic and stylistic structure. Indeed, this speech has been analysed many times in literature and the conceptual use of rhetorics, alliteration, repetitions have been made known.
Whenever we wrote predetermined speeches, we worked together figuring out how each sentence is to be delivered. Having a stint in linguistics, I was always aware of speech techniques like tricolon (or the other -colons), symploce, anapodotons, and tend to not overuse them. I experimented with unorthodox techniques like Checkov’s gun and gauged their effectiveness through audience reception and media feedback. What we found to be equally important as the content however is not just the technique but the prosody of speech and the audience. The I Have A Dream speech is an exceptional example of intonation that is reflective of sermons, particularly for every alliteration. Martin Luther King Jr. is afterall a pastor who came from a lineage of pastors. The cadence by which he delivered his speech is reminiscent of the style he has been immersed in throughout his life.
The explanation above hitherto is in response to the exploration of what made the speech great. In essence, the speech techniques, the prosody, the orator, his upbringing, the audience, their reaction. Nonetheless, if the discussion goes beyond why the speech was great and into what the speech delivered which made it great, then we take a different tangent, notably in how the speech was prepared, how the content was researched, the reflexivity that Martin Luther King Jr. exercised with relevance to Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of studying the ‘sociology of sociology’. We can indulge ourselves in the latter, for the speech is about racial divide and inequality, and Martin Luther King Jr is not indifferent of this inequality. Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of social inequality certainly frames this imbalance of social power; what Bourdieu refers to as hysteresis. This ability of Marting Luther King Jr. to reflexively draw upon his own experiences and observations added further conviction into his speech writing. His choice of words, his emphasis and alliterations in relation to the content. I Have A Dream rhetorically portrayed him as a representative voice of the social group(s). Every human has a dream, and therefore, reminiscent of Meehl’s Barnum Effect, was very much relatable to the audience. He further reinforced this approach by contextualising his content to the plights of people in specific states of the US, naming them exclusively for added impact. In return, people in California for example would recognise this as evidence of Martin Luther King being aware of their plight. Thus, the writing of the speech and its choice of words were equally as strong as the delivery. However, unless we indulge into scrutinising the draft copies of his speech including his Normalcy, Never Again version, attempts in unravelling the process of his writing will be a challenge in itself.
In the current world however, rhetorical speeches has run its course at least in the political circle. I only write rhetorical speeches for commencement and graduation ceremonies for it impacts on a very diverse audience. The Barnum Effect. Steve Job’s commencement speech is one such example. Rhetorical but applicable to all graduates. I Have A Dream is a very motivational speech and during times when motivation needs to be ignited, it is a fantastic declaration of intent. For those who actually enact the change however, the thinking goes beyond declaring what must be done. What is more important is how it should be done. A clear guideline, foundation, framework, roadmap to how it should be done. Nevertheless, Martin Luther King Jr’s speech indeed set the wheel in motion for the relevant agencies to think of how it should be done through rallying support, because every policy change after all starts with a dream.