Standing before a crowd of 250,000, televised live on all three major television networks, Martin Luther King, Jr. did what, for most, would be unthinkable. But, until years later, nobody even knew what he’d done.
There’s an amazing story behind Martin Luther King’s epic I Have a Dream speech that’s rarely told.
It’s the story of faith, craft, attention and improvisation.
One that applies to the lives and dreams of every person who aspires to breath life into great adventures, movements, careers, art, businesses and relationships.
Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before a live and televised crowd of millions, Dr. King began to observe something unsettling. He had been delivering the speech as written, pausing regularly for dramatic effect, but more importantly, to see how his intended message was landing.
Some eleven minutes in, he realized he had a problem. The speech he’d prepared wasn’t landing the way it needed to. If he kept on message, some of the power of the moment, and the attention of the world, would have been lost. Right around then, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson shouted “Tell them about the dream, Martin.”
With that, Dr. King did what for so many would be the unthinkable…
He abandoned his plan. Mid-speech. He went off -message, without notice or intention.
Instead of the staid words and the original conclusion, he began to dance, teeing up what came to be known as one of the most powerful speeches ever given. The entire dream sequence wasn’t planned. It was added-in on the fly.
Question is, what allowed him to do this? And what can we learn from it?
1. Faith in mission –
Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn’t just giving a stump speech. He wasn’t the mouthpiece for someone else’s vision or division. He wasn’t an advocate for another’s cause. He was the living, breathing embodiment of a quest. A mission and vision born of such deep and enduring conviction that it was a manifestation of his soul. What he was working to accomplish was so much a part of his DNA that anything but 100% faith would’ve been a subjugation of primal truth. This unwavering faith in mission cultivates the level of unrelenting conviction, resilience and drive that fuels…
2. Craft –
Dr. King was possessed with the study of the craft of oration. He’d immersed himself in it for years, observing the skills, language patterns, content, theatricality, styles and modes of delivery of a rich lineage of faith-based leaders who had come before him. Then, he practiced. And practiced. And practiced.
He developed ideas for sermons and talks, snippets that he would “workshop” in bits and pieces, the way a comedian workshops individual jokes in small venues, refining them into discrete lines of power that could be molded into larger bodies of transformative oratory.
He also had developed relationships with a small group of others, many legendary preachers in their own rights, who’d cultivated a similar passion for the art of oration. They would share ideas and lines, they’d help each other develop their sermons and they would exchange “data” about what type of content and delivery techniques were really hitting and what was bombing.
He had essentially created what I call in my last book, Uncertainty, a “Creation Hive.” A small group of people each creating independently, but sharing information, ideas, support and operating under a group ethic fueled by the desire to see every member rise.
So, while the dream sequence was not part of the original speech, he’d been workshopping the ideas and lines, pieces of the whole, for some time before.
Developing this library of workshopped, semi-tested “stanzas” and topics gave him the ability to go off-script without having to wade entirely into the abyss. Instead, he could draw from a library of alternative paths that, while not as rehearsed, let him adapt his presentations on the fly to the needs of his audience. But, of course, he couldn’t have known how or when to do that unless he had developed the habit of paying serious…
3. Attention –
As is the case with many of the world greatest orators and interviewers, Dr. King didn’t just stand at a podium and talk. He also observed. Deeply. And regularly. He’d pause all the time, allowing his latest idea, his ascent into alliteration to linger. But those moments served a dual purpose. They allowed him to process. To scan the eyes, the bodies, the non-verbal language, the tells that let him know if he was on the mark.
Great interviewers, many of whom I’ve begun to study as part of my own commitment to the craft, do this extraordinarily well. They prepare intensely. They develop a ruthless knowledge of their subjects. They begin with certain standard paths of conversation and have a set of topics and questions prepared. But they also listen, to the words, the movements, the subtle energetic cues that let them know “here lies gold.” And then they follow those leads, script be damned.
To do this, you need to cultivate the habit of observation, deep attention. This, coupled with the above lays the foundation for you to be able to capture the moment and create something nobody saw coming, including you, by moving into a place of…
4. Improvisation –
Letting go of the script. Being so present, so practiced, so open to the “yes, and” rather than the “no, but” that magic finds its home. When you blend faith in mission with craft, workshopped alternatives, intense attention and the willingness to wade ever-deeper into that place where you don’t know how it’s going to end, genius takes flight. People take action. Moments that matter, large and small, find the light of day.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s willingness to do all of this changed not only his speech on August 28, 1963, it quite literally altered the fate of the nation. To this day, I cannot listen to that speech without shaking, without being moved to tears.
A willingness to embrace the above four elements—faith, craft, attention and improvisation—is one of the marks of not just extraordinary orators, but world-changing creators, artists, movements and visionaries.
Have a plan, but move away from it when you sense the world needs something else. Click to tweet
Blaze a path that is so fiercely yours it fuels the work needed to cultivate true craft. Click to tweet
Pay attention, be so deeply vested in service and observation that impact leads ego. Click to tweet
Cultivate the ability to lean into the unknown in the name of the possible. Click to tweet
Is this an easy way to operate? No.
Does it take an unusual depth of commitment to develop the four elements on the level that allows you to impact people as deeply possible?
But, c’mon, are you really here for less?
P.S. – Quick update – In case you missed it, late last week, we opened enrollment for the intensive 10-month GLP Immersion business and lifestyle training program. It’s the ultimate instant “Creation Hive.” We’ve already gotten a lot of applications for a max of only 20 spots, and we’re beginning to interview people and extend offers this week. So, if you’re interested, please, please please don’t wait to get your app in.
Photo: By Unknown? [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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