Communicating Like a King

Martin Luther King’s speech still inspires

26/08/2013 Madrid


Living is about having a dream, and leading is about making it possible, writes IESE Prof. Santiago Álvarez de Mon in the latest issue of IESE Insight magazine. On the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s legendary "I Have a Dream" speech, the author suggests five tips for using clear, simple communication to reach an audience.

"Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. But 100 years later, the Negro still is not free. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. I say to you today, my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day."

This year marks the 50th anniversary of that memorable speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered on August 28, 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. What made that speech by a Baptist minister from Atlanta, who drew inspiration from the civil disobedience of Henry David Thoreau and Mahatma Gandhi, hit home for millions of people around the world? Where does its magic lie?

Boiling it down, five elements arise for anyone wanting to use clear, simple communication to reach an audience.

1. Stick to one main idea or central argument to drive home the message you want to communicate. For King, his was the dream of freedom, which eluded so many due to the prevailing climate of racism and injustice. By keeping his finger firmly on the pulse, he was able to capture in a few words the zeitgeist of his time.

2. Your big idea should inspire you, energize you and mobilize you, the way it did King. The altruistic and noble way in which you live your own life is what will lend your message meaning and authenticity, serving as a living illustration of your ultimate purpose and mission.

3. Interweave your idea with timeless, universal values that define us as a species: values such as freedom, justice, solidarity, friendship and love; values that inspire people to live lives of dignity and goodness, as befits all human beings. In this way, your idea will take flight, rising up and gaining legitimacy over time.

4. Speak to the heart of every man and woman. When King proclaims, "I have a dream," it’s as if he is speaking for each person present, articulating the deepest desires of their hearts. "I have a dream" is, in essence, "We have a dream." In this moment, the individual and the masses mysteriously merge into one. It has been said that the successful poet replicates the feelings of the reader or listener.

This is what happened that day in Washington, D.C.: Using the cadence of his powerful voice, King had the gift to express the heart cry of each person gathered there. This is how one person can connect with masses of people.

5. Enable the listener to confront the self. This is the true art of communicating: to help people move beyond the clichés and prejudices they may hold about others to stare into the mirror and behold deep inner truths about themselves. King was not speaking only to his fellow African-Americans; he was addressing the nation’s soul, as embodied in the aspirational words of its Constitution.

Fifty years later, we must keep dreaming. We’re on a different stage, in a new era, with different media and other communicators, but the cause remains the same: coexistence that guarantees respect for the freedom and inherent mystery found in every human being.

Santiago Álvarez de Mon is a professor in the Department of Managing People in Organizations at IESE, and the author of numerous books on leadership talent and character.