Tag Archives: Brain Pickings

Martin Luther King: Rhetoric & Oratory in “I Have a Dream”

Dr. Martin Luther King, August, 1963
Dr. Martin Luther King, August, 1963

It’s time to get some posts back up here. In a better-late-than-never celebration of Martin Luther King  Day and in acknowledgment of having recently seen the fine and moving film “Selma”,* I want to point you to a post about Dr. King.

Brain Pickings picked up this piece by presentation expert Nancy Duarte that closely examines King’s greatest oration, the “I Have a Dream Speech” (which still moves me after so many viewings). Writing about Duarte’s analysis of the speech, Ms. Papova observes:


Duarte notes the Dr. King spoke in short bursts more reminiscent of poetry than of long-winded lecture-speak and highlights his most powerful rhetorical devices — repetition, metaphors, visual words, references to political documents, citations from sacred texts and spiritual songs — in a fascinating visualization of the speech . . . .

While it’s quite unlikely that we’ll ever speak to a crowd of 250,000 in front of the statue of Lincoln on a day that changed America,  we may need to speak and write in a situation that requires eloquence. We can benefit from the rhetorical devices that Dr. King deployed and from Ms. Duarte’s  exemplary use of a visual tool to enhance her appreciation of the speech. For trial lawyers, especially, we do have occasions–such as a closing argument in a jury trial–where we have to attempt to move (or, one hopes, consolidate the opinions of) an audience of jurors.

King achieved much of his success by tapping into the fundamental principles and beliefs of most Americans, at least those not so blinded by racism and fear as to cherish and live the values of about liberty, equality, and justice. From those premises, Dr. King built his speech to move his audiences to action. (I use the plural “audiences” because even we today became a new audience with each listening. ) And as the film “Selma” demonstrates, people did march and risk (and sacrifice) their lives to the visions he so brilliantly expounded. If, as the ancients suggested, the true test of oratory is to move people to march , then Dr. King belongs in the pantheon of the greatest orators.

* Although I was dismayed at the misrepresentation of Lyndon Johnson’s role in this story.

Brain Pickings, Arthur Quiller-Couch, & Writing

First, if you don’t subscribe to Brain Pickings, you really should. Along with Farnum Street, it’s one of the best sources of informed thinking, art, and inspiration on the web. (In fact, its much better about the arts than Farnum Street.) Among other regular topics, writing is a frequent concern. In particular, this post recounts and quotes the work of early 20th century writing guru Arthur Quiller-Couch, author of the book On the Art of Writing. Read Brain Pickings blogger Maria Popova’s full account of this book, but allow me to quote just a bit from it now. This goes to the issue of persuasion and its role in life. Read these words carefully. Quiller-Couch writes:

Persuasiveness … embraces the whole — not only the qualities of propriety, perspicuity, accuracy … but many another, such as harmony, order, sublimity, beauty of diction; all in short that — writing being an art, not a science, and therefore so personal a thing — may be summed up under the word Charm. Who, at any rate, does not seek after Persuasion? It is the aim of all the arts and, I suppose, of all exposition of the sciences; nay, of all useful exchange of converse in our daily life. It is what Velasquez attempts in a picture, Euclid in a proposition, the Prime Minister at the Treasury box, the journalist in a leading article, our Vicar in his sermon. Persuasion, as Matthew Arnold once said, is the only true intellectual process. The mere cult of it occupied many of the best intellects of the ancients, such as Longinus and Quintilian, whose writings have been preserved to us just because they were prized. Nor can I imagine an earthly gift more covetable by you … than that of persuading your fellows to listen to your views and attend to what you have at heart.

If you’re a lawyer, or just an everyday advocate, you should head these words–no, you should drink  them into your very being. Whether in written or spoken form, what we do is a matter of persuasion, of seeking to guide change, and the more we come to master and expand the art of language, the better off we shall become in shaping the world around us. Take heed and govern yourselves accordingly.