Martin Luther King Jr.

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How did Martin Luther King Jr. capture the audience's attention?

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Another way that Martin Luther King aroused the audience’s attention was through his use of rhetorical devices. To see this in action, let’s look specifically at his “I Have A Dream” speech from 1963.

The second paragraph of the speech opens with the phrase “five score years ago.” This is an example of an allusion because the phrase mirrors the words of Abraham Lincoln in his Emancipation Proclamation. By using this allusion, King not only taps into feelings of familiarity in his audience, but also reignites the emotions connected to the issue of slavery. This ensures that his audience is engaged and taking notice of what he is about to say next.

Secondly, King uses repetition in his speech. He talks about African Americans receiving a “bad check,” for example, and he repeats the word "check" in the same sentence. He also uses it again, on two occasions, in the next paragraph. By repeating this over and over, he not only creates impact, but also a mental association between the African American people and this idea of a “bad check.” He is literally imprinting this idea in the minds of those who are listening, thereby guaranteeing that the force of his message is remembered long after his speech is over.

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is universally acknowledged to have been a masterful speaker. In particular, the "I have a dream" speech he gave at the culmination of the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, is regarded as one of the greatest masterpieces of rhetoric of all time. King's speaking style had several distinct qualities that aroused and held the attention of audiences.

First of all, King's strong, solid posture displayed confidence. His body language spoke of firmness and power, and his voice, which he had long honed as a preacher, was booming and commanding. At times, he would put aside his written notes and appear to improvise, although he only did this because he was already so familiar with the material.

King's audiences were aware that King not only spoke honestly, but he lived the truth that he spoke. He continually put his life on the line to back up his words.

King spoke in a sort of rhythmic cadence that increased in intensity as he progressed through his thoughts. He also used the power of repetition to stress certain points. For instance, in the "I have a dream" speech, he repeats phrases such as "I have a dream," "we can never be satisfied," "with this faith," and "let freedom ring" over and over.

Finally, King had the ability to connect with his audience in a symbiotic way, so that he was united with the people with whom he spoke, and they all fed off of the same energy. This deep connection helped to move people to take action.

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Dr. Martin Luther King was a very gifted public speaker and his speeches are used in oratory classes around the English speaking world.  A major attribute that Dr. King displayed was an ability to connect to his audience.  His speeches had a reciprocal quality in that the audiences drew  energy and passion from him as he drew energy from his audience.  The authenticity of his speeches and his ability to provide context for his work made this relationship with his audience possible.

In a number of King’s speeches, he discusses his own struggles and how these struggles have impacted him on a personal level.  He was also a master of context, providing stories from history and the Bible that parallel the struggle that faced African-Americans in America.  The context and autobiographical nature of his speeches allowed for a certain connection with the crowd that was authentic and real.

Although King was very practiced and prepared for his speeches, the pace and cadence of Dr. King’s speeches were what allowed him to arouse the audience’s attention.  He always started his speeches with a slow, calculated pace.  As the speeches progressed and the audiences were hooked, he would deliberately add more animation and energy to further draw in the assemblage.  By the end of the dialogue, as he was ready to deliver his most important points, the audience was at an almost fever pitch.  The witnesses of his speeches were left feeling motivated and that they had been a part of something larger than themselves.  

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