Powerful storytelling

Sandra Davis, Director at Bladonmore, analyses why Martin Luther King’s words still resonate.

You just have to say Martin Luther King and the words, ‘I have a dream’ leap into your consciousness – no matter who you are, how old you are or where you are. Today, when we celebrate him and all he stood for – his words still hold huge power.


There are many reasons, but let’s consider these three:

Power of I…

So often the only pronoun you hear in speeches and presentations is ‘we’ because it feels inclusive. But it is also easy to distance yourself from ‘we’, both as a speaker and as a listener. The collective ‘we’ almost by definition negates the need for personal responsibility; ‘we all need to do more’, can easily be taken as ‘it’s everyone else’s job to change’. Also, leaders in businesses who use the collective ‘we’ when something has gone wrong appear to be ducking responsibility. Conversely, when they use ‘I’, it comes across that it matters to them and they care. In this speech, the message is for all, but the passion is personal.

Power of repetition…

One of the great differences between written and spoken communication is the use of repetition. It is a powerful rhetorical device that in spoken language is not only acceptable but a good idea. It tells the listener what you, as the speaker, think is important. Martin Luther King Jr builds momentum, repeating ‘I have a dream’ and following it up with a range of different examples from the general ‘sons of former slaves and sons of former slave owners’ to the very evocative image of the Governor of Alabama ‘having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification’; it creates emphasis and passion, each time adding to the message, building its power.

Power of imagery…

There can be no greater message than the one at the heart of this speech: the right for all people to be treated as equals. And, sadly, it is not true even today. There is still much to be done. So, the challenge is how to connect the listener to something that does not exist yet. And to care so passionately about what does exist, however close or distant from it, that you want to work to change it. Perhaps the most powerful rhetorical device in this speech is the repeated use of metaphors and imagery. They have the power to let us ‘see’ ideas. Aristotle called metaphor the greatest form of human creativity and Martin Luther King used it repeatedly and with tremendous effect.

Whether it is the ‘flames of withering injustice’, or ‘the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination’ or ‘the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity’ – each phrase evolves concept into powerful visual imagery. And they are all in the first few sentences.

In short, we get the picture easily and quickly. Of course, that’s not the whole story. But it gives power to the story.

It is, indeed, a story well told.

If you would like to know more about how we help senior executives tell their own stories then, please, get in touch.


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Sandra Davis

Director, Coaching

Sandra leads on Bladonmore’s presentation coaching. As a close advisor to senior management at organisations including Land Securities, Rio Tinto and GE, she helps leaders to articulate their message and ensure it cuts through.

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