Public speaking is the act of delivering a structured talk to a live audience with the aim of informing, persuasion or entertainment. This is tough and many people often freeze on stage or refuse to get on stage altogether. Overcoming this fear and mastering the skills of public speaking can however elevate a person to high heights. Throughout history, good orators have always been a source of inspiration and have always been held in high esteem. One of the most respected public speakers of all time was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr (MLK), an unrelenting force behind the struggle for civil rights for African Americans. By being one of history’s best orators he had a national holiday named after his momentous efforts. His most famous speech ‘I Have Dream’ still carries on his legacy 50 years on. In this speech, MLK embodies all the characteristics of a good public speaker. The determining traits of a good public speaker are evident in MLK’s speeches.
Confidence is the most important trait for a good public speaker because it makes one sound more intelligent and seem more credible (Khoury, 2018). This sense of credibility will ensure that people can believe you and follow you. Talking to a large group of people is not easy and nervousness is natural. Mark Twain said “There are only two types of speakers in the world, the nervous and the liars.”, but great orators have mastered the art of hiding this fact. The audience should never see the speaker sweat because confidence translates from the speaker to the audience. When MLK spoke to the 250,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial he must have been nervous, but looking at him you couldn’t tell. He didn’t shift about, stammer or lick his lips in nervousness, he exuded absolute confidence and it translated to his audience who believed in the cause. No one would have wanted to be led by someone who sounded unconfident.
To be able to move a crowd to your viewpoint, the particular subject you’re discussing should exhilarate you enough to create sincere emotion. This emotion captures the audience and help drives home the message. Passionate speakers are able to harness their passion and share their enthusiasm with their audience. These speakers are charismatic and dynamic, changing their speech delivery in reaction to the audience. MLK was passionate about the rights of equality regardless of people’s skin color and this burning passion is what drove him. This passion meant he delivered powerful speeches that his audiences could relate to. MLK was so passionate about his cause that he didn’t care about all the turmoil and whether he made it to the ‘Promised Land’ so long as his people did. Even imprisonment did not change his drive.
An audience is always on the lookout for credibility and sincerity of a speaker, therefore being yourself on stage is imperative. Learning about how other speakers present themselves is important but one should always stay true to themselves, acknowledged their strengths and work on their weaknesses. Trying to sound like other speakers will discourage audiences from believing you. Speaking in a natural voice is important to show authenticity (Khoury, 2018). In all of MLK's speeches, he talked in his conversational voice and even though there were modulations where he increased his speed or volume in reaction to the crowd he maintained his natural voice. The changes were mainly in the speeches climax to leave a lasting impression on his audience.
Mastering any craft requires practice. In order to educate others one must know their content well enough and this can only be achieved through practice. Practicing the speeches and refining the content will also help boost confidence of a speaker. Practice does not mean memorizing speeches, it is about being comfortable with the content enough to be able to improvise or manipulate it for different audiences (Khoury, 2018). ‘I Have a Dream’ may be MLK’s most famous speech but some of the content he talked about can be found in his earlier speeches. He made around 300 speeches in a year and this shows that he had practiced his art.
Some speakers are afraid of repeating their content in fear of sounding boring but this is a very effective way of ensuring that an audience grasps the main idea behind a speech. Repeating the important message that resonate with the audience drives the point home (Khoury, 2018). MLK repeated the phrase ‘I Have a Dream’ multiple times to capture his audience and relay his message. He also repeated the fact that they would not be satisfied until justice was served.
The aim of public speaking is connecting with the audience to achieve a certain goal. Therefore if a speaker fails to achieve a connection they have failed. People have a short concentration span and therefore speeches should be short and to the point to avoid boredom (Khoury, 2018). A personal touch and humor is a good way to engage with the audience. MLK used some subtle humor such as his quip about ‘Insufficient justice funds cheque’ that resonated well with the crowd. He also used a personal touch when he talked about his four children being judged by their character and not their skin color. Pauses in the right places for dramatic purposes allows the audience to react and the message to sink in is another important trait of a good speaker. MLK had mastered this art that made him in tune with the crowd and it moved them to act.
Not all people can speak as well as MLK but anyone can cultivate the above skills to become accomplished orators in their own respect. Learning from the best is encouraged to improve but one should not copy or imitate them. They should take these good qualities and use them to harness their own strengths and create their own signature using messages they believe in.
Khoury, P. (2018). The Top 9 Characteristics of Effective Public Speakers - Magnetic Speaking. Retrieved from https://magneticspeaking.com/the-top-9-characteristics-of-effective- public-speakers/
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