Monday, August 22, 2011

Storytelling Fit For a King: Celebrating I Have a Dream

The Martin Luther King Memorial officially opened to the public today! The monument will be officially dedicated on August 28th- marking the 48th anniversary since Dr. King delivered his I Have a Dream speech.

Simple lessons can be taken from King’s speech to help you the next time trying to motivate anyone- from a prospective donor to a new employee.


In writing, this is known as bottom line up front. Give the main point away immediately. It need not be the first sentence, but it sure should be in the first two minutes of your talk. King gets to his BLUF in the first two minutes. “But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free” King says. He goes on to provide powerful visuals (we’ll get to that) and then tells those gathered: “So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”

Listen to Aristotle

In Poetics Aristotle tells us “A whole is what has a beginning and middle and end”. Easy enough. And yet, how often do we fail to frame a story along at least a loose timeline? King’s speech starts in the past- “five score years ago” but quickly moves the audience along to the present reason they are gathered: “but 100 years later, the Negro is still not free.” And for most of us in the nonprofit world, the end is our ask- what we want the other person to do or believe, etc… For King that end begins (and lives on) with a few simple words: “I have a dream…” 


Storytelling in causes and nonprofits is just another word for the combination of imagination and kinship. A good story has visuals that allow the person on the other end to imagine the picture painted, and feel a connection with the people in the story. A great visual example building along “the table of brotherhood” King alludes to can be seen in this ad created by Spike Lee.


Clarence Jones, who helped write the famous speech wrote in his book Behind the Dream that the most famous part of the speech was not ever written out.

“Martin's favorite gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, who had performed earlier in the day, called to him from nearby: "Tell 'em about the dream, Martin, tell 'em about the dream!"

Martin clutched the speaker's lectern and seemed to reset. I watched him push the text of his prepared remarks to one side…I have a dream . . . In front of all those people, cameras, and microphones, Martin winged it. But then, no one I've ever met could improvise better.”

Final Thoughts

Muriel Barbery writes that "In order for consciousness to be aroused, it must have a name." Storytelling for good is simply putting a name (and hopefully a face) to what you do and why it matters. Too many nonprofits fail not for lack of good work, but an inability to tell the story of why what they do matters. Give people a reason for why their consciousness ought to care about what it is you do.