How to Move People to Action? Give Them Something Attainable (and Make It Big)

 In Expert Tips & Info

Need a surefire way to get people to coalesce around your next big idea? Take a cue from Martin Luther King Jr.

Say you want to make a powerful presentation to your employees, your board, or your key customers. And say your goal is to share an inspiring vision–and stimulate meaningful change. What speeches should you study to prepare?

For sheer impact, it would be hard to top the “I Have a Dream” speech by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was delivered in the summer of 1963 during the March on Washington, a rally for civil rights and against discrimination. Roughly 250,000 people gathered on the National Mall, in front of the Lincoln Memorial. More than 50 years later, the speech remains potent and moving. What’s more, the speech–along with the entire March on Washington–led to important policy changes, most notably the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The stakes of your presentation are surely small beer compared with those of the “I Have a Dream” speech. But you can still extract several lessons from King’s oration about what it takes to rise to a high-pressure moment–and deliver an on-point message that resonates with your audience. Here are three of those lessons.

1. Tie your words to meaningful actions.

As Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter has pointed out, prior to the speech, King had established his bona fides as a leader of the civil rights movement. Specifically, he was a superb molder of consensus. Kanter writes:

King and his colleagues in his organization were not in charge, but they managed to get many separate groups moving together. A coalition of 6 organizations led the March on Washington, a notable achievement given disagreements over tactics; another, more radical group made fun of the March. King preached moderation and found principles that transcended differences.

In a business context, the takeaway is to make sure your presentation–the vision you’re outlining, the hope you’re inspiring–is tangibly tied to actions that you and your organization have already taken and can continue to stand behind. The text of King’s speech is special, but it meant all the more because of the leadership actions already embodied by the man, the moment, and the March on Washington.

Kanter also notes that the speech was filled with the language of business and money. Here’s a sampling:

  • “In a sense, we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check.”
  • “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.”
  • Later in the speech, King said that America had defaulted on this note, giving people of color a “bad check” that came back marked “insufficient funds.”

The money metaphors further illustrate the action-orientation of King’s speech. It was a way of declaring that the March on Washington wasn’t just a show of hands or a flurry of words. It was an impassioned demand for recompense you could really feel, both in your soul and in your wallet.

2. Don’t be afraid to veer from your script.

In his book, The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Speech That Inspired a Nation, Drew Hansen presents a side-by-side comparison of the speech as it was written by King and his team and as it was delivered by King. One of King’s most important spontaneous additions came at the very beginning when he improvised the following:

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Another important improvisation came when Mahalia Jackson–who earlier had sung spirituals to the crowd–shouted out loud: “Tell ’em about the ‘Dream,’ Martin, tell ’em about the ‘Dream’!” That was when King “began an extraordinary improvisation on the dream theme that would become one of the most recognizable refrains in the world,” writes Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times. “With his improvised riff, Dr. King took a leap into history, jumping from prose to poetry, from the podium to the pulpit.”

The point here is simple: Some of your strongest speechmaking can come from the emotion and passion of spontaneity. One way anyone giving a presentation can learn from King is by avoiding a memorized adherence to a script. Instead, try to gauge your audience’s emotions–and improvise accordingly.

3. Frame your speech in a proper big-picture context.

Kakutani points out that many of the previous speakers at the March on Washington talked about specific causes: bills in Congress or the marchers’ list of demands. By contrast, she writes, King “situated the civil rights movement within the broader landscape of history–time past, present, and future–and within the timeless vistas of Scripture.”

For example, the second sentence of the speech was: “Five score years ago a great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand today signed the Emancipation Proclamation.” His use of the Lincolnian word “score” and evocation of the Emancipation Proclamation allowed him to frame the speech and the movement as the next step in a process Lincoln had begun–but which was far from finished. All without citing Lincoln by name.

For business presentations, the takeaway here is to make sure you provide a historical overview for the vision you’re putting forth. Of course, in business, your big picture is not going to be something as life-changing as the civil rights movement. Your overview can simply be a contextual snapshot of how you–and your industry–have changed over the past few decades. Steve Jobs, in his masterful presentations, excelled at delivering this sort of overview. Perhaps his most famous one is:

For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been no for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

The point is, you can’t share an inspiring vision–or stimulate meaningful change–without providing some context about why your vision and the change are long overdue.

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