“I have a dream…” oral communication as a vital campaign tool

What could be more powerful than a message delivered orally that continues to resonate 50 years later?

Particularly if, as with King, the outcome is successful beyond your wildest dreams…

At some point each of us will be required to tell an audience about something we feel strongly about – an issue, ourselves, our work. You don’t have to be The Rev Martin Luther King Jr to persuasively deliver key messages to stakeholders – anyone can if they understand the form.

King was successful on 28 August 1963 because he knew that the oral form is the most powerful communication tool you can use. Nothing in your communication tool kit will ever come close to galvanising the support you dream of in the same compelling way–and, we ignore this at our peril.

Why, what happens in the telling?

The oral, as a relational form, determines both the approach and outcome. The key to King’s success that day in 1963 lay in his understanding of this form – what he said and how he said it.

What you ‘SAY’

Communicating messages orally requires a completely different approach; a completely different way of thinking about what you know and what your audience want to hear; a completely different form.

Messages or ideas as they are when they set out on the ‘message’ journey almost invariably begin life in the written form; a form that is both predictable and manageable; a form we feel safe using.

For example, in one hand, you have a body of material that forms the basis of what you want to say. This could be something prepared for publication, a submission or as is so often the case today a PowerPoint slide pack. And, whilst this maybe where we start the communication journey, in the other hand, someone has to get up and say something about the ideas expressed in the material.

What do they say, how do they bring the two hands together?

  • Which of the ideas expressed in the ‘document’ do they articulate orally, why and in what way?
  • How do you orally capture the imagination of your audience in order to achieve your outcome?

In one hand you have messages and in the other hand you have an audience sitting there looking up at you, their faces fresh with anticipation. How do you bring them together with the outcome you dream?

And this is where the problem begins…the written and the oral are two completely different forms.

And our relationship with the messages that are delivered in both is completely different.

Your audience won’t hear messages designed to be read. They have to be translated or choreographed into an oral form before they can be delivered effectively. I call this process storying; a term used to describe the way in which ideas are arranged and delivered (orchestrated) when being communicated face to face or orally.

How you ‘SAY‘ it

Oral communication is not about what you want to say to your audience. It’s about what the audience want to hear about what you know or want to say; it’s about the image of the ideas or message that forms in their minds both literally and figuratively listening to you.

  • Do they see themselves in this image or picture you are painting?
  • Is what you are saying meaningful to them?

Integral to this image is you the performer mediating the relationship between the message and the image or audience.

Knowing your topic helps. It allows you to play with the messages as a juggler or magician would play with his props; constantly changing the order of and relationship between the props both in his hands and in the air depending on the audience’s response to each movement.  He (the magician) has a bag of tricks which he dips into throughout his act in the same way King did on 28 August1, communicating hypnotically with his audience in his choice of words and order of ideas. An order that was particular to the oral form.

King’s co-author Clarence B Jones was quoted to say, ‘[he] went on to depart drastically from the draft I’d delivered…in front of all those people, cameras, and microphones, Martin winged it’; King knew his topic so well that he responded to his audience as they responded to him. He knew his topic so well that he was able to choreograph the message spontaneously, delivering the ideas in whatever language was meaningful to them at that moment – he could play with the ideas using the oral form.

Martin Luther King knew on that memorable day in August 1963 that where the oral predetermines the particularity of the form storying is the form. If you choose to communicate key messages orally (regardless of their complexity) you have no choice but to shape these messages for the form you have chosen. To ignore this is to risk communication failure.

I have worked exclusively in oral communication for many years, focusing on that niche area of communications where messages are delivered orally and how these messages are shaped for this form.

I am fascinated by how we create meaning when we communicate ideas orally; what does the audience understands of what we say (when we say it), and importantly, what do we want them to understand?

‘I have a dream that one day…’


  1. ‘I Have a Dream’: 10 Martin Luther King speech facts. Nick Britten, Telegraph, 4 April, 2011 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/8426862/I-Have-a-Dream-10-Martin-Luther-King-speech-facts.html

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