What we can learn from MLK’s presentation and storytelling skills?

You may not be a world-renowned civil rights advocate but learning from MLK’s storytelling is sure to make yours that much more impactful.

Molly Geoghegan, Narrative Strategist

Molly Geoghegan

Jan 15, 2024

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MLK is an important figure to remember for so many reasons. But something that sticks out in our “Presentation Thinking” wired brains are his truly incredible presentation and storytelling abilities. 

We’re not the first to say this, of course. 

For decades, analysts and historians have acknowledged the legacy he left behind in the world of oration. A simple “What to learn from MLK public speaking” Google search yields hundreds of results but this one from the Institute of Public Speaking especially proves our point. 

A favorite breakdown of the iconic “I Have A Dream” speech comes from visual storytelling expert Nancy Duarte. Snippets of this breakdown are included in her 2010 TED Talk, “Nancy Duarte uncovers common structure of greatest communicators”

Mikey and I have talked about that particular TED Talk on our Presentation Thinking podcast and we love that Nancy uncovers a common shape associated with the greatest stories and speeches of all time.

In honor of MLK Day, a day which should have been Martin Luther King Jr.’s 95th birthday, we’d love to revisit this with Nancy’s even further in-depth analysis of “I Have A Dream” below. 

Presenters and public speakers, listen up. 

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  1. Repetition
  2. Metaphors, Visual words 
  3. Familiar songs, Scripture, Literature (in today’s world, we might call this “media”) 
  4. Political reference 

All these devices are sprinkled brilliantly throughout the speech. 

Per Nancy’s transcription, King also does what the greatest stories do—ebb and flow between the world that is, while continually painting the world that could be.

We talk a lot about creating a “Promised Land” (thanks Andy Raskin!) for your audience and this is no different. 

Nancy’s visual transcription of the speech is so useful—line breaks correlating with his pauses, ebbs and flows associated with the world that is & the world that could be, and color-coding based on what kind of speech mechanism King employs.

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Next time you’re building a new presentation, consider this shape, these mechanisms and this kind of analysis. 

You may not be a world-renowned civil rights advocate but learning from MLK’s storytelling is sure to make yours that much more impactful. 

BONUS - GhostRanch Designer and Narrative Strategist (and TikTok story influencer) Asha Alaji-Sharif discusses this on her TikTok @AshaTalks today as well. (Follow her!)

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About The Author

Molly Geoghegan, Narrative Strategist

Molly Geoghegan is a writer, organizer, and film school dropout. She hikes frequently with her dog, Guinness, and signs up for too many email newsletters. Having lived in Chicago, Paris, Dublin and Galway, Molly has made her way back to the Rockies and calls Denver, CO home.

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