Yesterday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the United States.
One of just eleven federal holidays in the US, it is named in honour of the great civil rights leader, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and orator who inspired a generation of Americans to come together in peace, its celebrated on the third Monday of January each year.
While King electrified a country in the early 1960s, he is perhaps best known for the speech he delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. Thanks to a stirring refrain in its second half, it became known as King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and inspired thousands listening that summer’s day on the Washington Mall, and millions more around the world since.
There’s plenty in King’s speech that can serve as inspiration for almost anyone. But if you are a professional content creator, there are some technical aspects of the speech and King’s rhetoric that are worth learning from. Here are three things that creatives can take from King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and apply in their work today more than 50 years after it was first delivered by the man himself.
Find Your Authentic Voice
When King spoke that day in Washington he was speaking from the heart. King’s speech referenced the personal and the public, his children and his fellow African-Americans. It referenced slavery and spirituality, and every word was delivered with the authenticity that comes from King’s practiced delivery as a pastor.
When writing and creating content it is essential to find your own authentic voice. Ask yourself what is it that you are actually trying to say, how would you say it to a friend, and how would you speak about it from your heart, rather than your head. Don’t search for the thesaurus but instead draw on the language that you would use to communicate your ideas to someone right in front of you. No one speaks in four and five syllable words or in complex sentences.
Make it simple. Make it clear. Make it personal. And make it authentic.
The speech is famous for its ‘I have a dream’ refrain. In fact, King repeats the phrase eight times in just a little more than 200 words. But he also repeats other phrases, including ‘let freedom ring’ (ten times) and ‘we cannot’ (four times) in building to his triumphant and itself repetitive conclusion, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
King understands the power of repetition in communicating with his audience. By returning to a phrase time after time he provides a structure to his speech and also reinforces his central themes.
When creating content it can be tempting to avoid repetition in an effort not to bore readers or maybe just to avoid the feeling that you are not adding value. Ignore this temptation and banish this feeling. Repetition works because it makes it very clear to your audience what you are about. When used effectively, as in King’s speech, it reinforces the message, gives the words in the message a structure, and adds a certain lyricism to the content. Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself – your audience will likely reward you, not ignore you.
Popular References, But Not Pop Culture
Referencing pop culture is great for pulling in web traffic today…but what about tomorrow? As the pop culture reference fades in the collective memory your fantastic content starts to looks dated and the chance of someone stumbling across your work drops significantly.
Instead of pop culture, draw on references in the popular domain that won’t be forgotten the week after your hit ‘publish’.
King avoided pop culture references in his speech but made reference to things in the popular American experience. His opening lines – “Five score years ago…” – referenced Abraham Lincoln’s own famous Gettysburg Address which opened with the words “Four score and seven years ago…”. He referred to the Declaration of Independence, to ‘Whites Only’ signs in the American south, and to old spirituals sung by slaves over centuries. All were references in the popular imagination of the American people, but none were so recent as to render his speech dated almost immediately.
If you want your content to bring traffic to your site or to your clients site in the long term, your references should be widely known and understood, but not quickly forgotten.
The Power of Chiasmus
OK – I’ll admit it: chiasmus is not a common or simple word.
It is a simple idea, however.
Erik Decker explains that a chiasmus is “a rhetorical device where two or more clauses are reversed in a single sentence or paragraph”. He offers some classic examples including President Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”, and the motivational “quitters never win, and winners never quit”. According to Decker, when used by a master orator it can be incredibly compelling “because it’s ear-catching, it’s memorable, and it can zap some life into a dull phrase”.
King’s speech serves a single extended chiasmus (see here for details) and perhaps one of the more effective public speeches of this style in the 20th century. Effectiveness, though, can be undone through over use. Making every phrase chiasmatic is only going to confuse your audience and have your content looking more like a wall of Facebook-style epithets than a cogent piece of writing.
Instead, like King, you can use the chiasmatic structure to bring form to your content, or like Kennedy use it create a memorable phrase to ensure that your content is both discovered and shared.
There’s no doubting that the man who stood on the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial that August day in 1963 was a master communicator. Though he was tragically assassinated less than 5 years later, his impact on the world, the United States, and, yes, even on content creators endures today.
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