What We Can Learn ...


Today’s celebration of Martin Luther King has me thinking about persuasive language, specifically his “I Have a Dream” speech (video below) and President’s farewell address last week.



Let’s step back for a moment and consider the meaning of “persuasive language.” This doesn’t mean winning over 100 percent of the target audience. There will be people who have dug in their heels and decided it doesn’t matter what the person says. Even a tractor couldn’t pull them in the vicinity of the point of view. Instead, it’s about opening the minds of the people who hadn’t considered that point of view as well as inspiring those who are already on board to proactively advance the cause.

Both the MLK speech and the Obama speech meet this definition in melding with the listener’s emotions. In the case of the “I Have a Dream” speech — here we are over 50 years later, and we’re not only still talking about the speech, but also remembering certain words and passages. I believe history will treat Obama’s farewell speech in a similar fashion.

The speeches share a couple core characteristics.

Both men speak from the heart. They care. You can’t fake care.

But you don’t have to be a gifted orator on the order of Martin Luther King or President Obama to benefit from allowing your care, your passion, to come out in business communications.

As exhibit A, I point to myself. I struggled with public speaking early in my career culminating with a new-biz prospect suggesting I lose the notes when I present. Ouch. No surprise, we didn’t win the account.

Soon after I attended a boot camp for public speaking that branded into my brain a simple concept. While the smooth delivery of a talk is a nice-to-have, it’s your passion — yes, how much you care about the subject at hand — that tells the audience whether to pay attention or not. Allow that feeling to come up. It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking on the latest techniques for root canals at a dental convention or on equal rights to a nation, passion is a difference maker.

It’s also revealing to examine the word choice and storytelling in both speeches.

In the MLK speech, he tells a story with the Declaration of Independence playing the role of the bank as a metaphor. This is my favorite passage in the speech:

In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.

Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

Now check out some of the word choices:

  • America has defaulted on this promissory note
  • Marked insufficient funds
  • Bank of justice is bankrupt
  • Vaults of opportunity
  • Quick sands of racial injustice

We also see the use of the classic storytelling technique contrast — “from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.”

Turning to the President Obama speech, you find his narrative is filled with mini stories, with the first one reminding the audience of his roots and value system:

So I first came to Chicago when I was in my early 20s. And I was still trying to figure out who I was, still searching for a purpose in my life. And it was a neighborhood not far from here where I began working with church groups in the shadows of closed steel mills. It was on these streets where I witnessed the power of faith, and the quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle and loss.

Rather than ignore the elephant in the room, President Obama directly addressed the fact that a vote for Trump wasn’t reason to marginalize this part of America:

For blacks and other minority groups, it means tying our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face — not only the refugee, or the immigrant, or the rural poor, or the transgender American, but also the middle-aged white guy who, from the outside, may seem like he’s got advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change. We have to pay attention, and listen.

Love the conversational language that makes the point for activism:

If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. (Applause.) Show up. Dive in. Stay at it. Sometimes you’ll win. Sometimes you’ll lose. Presuming a reservoir of goodness in other people, that can be a risk, and there will be times when the process will disappoint you. But for those of us fortunate enough to have been a part of this work, and to see it up close, let me tell you, it can energize and inspire.

Again, the words matter.

  • Beating heart of America
  • The game is fixed against them
  • Left fighting for scraps
  • Retreat into our own bubbles
  • Naked partisanship
  • Corrosive
  • With grace and with grit and with style and good humor

President Obama’s language doesn’t conjure the imagery of the “I Have a Dream” speech. Yet, it’s just as persuasive showing the power of conversational language.

Passion + stories show the way.

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