We’ve all been moved by the enduring eloquence that thundered out from the Lincoln Memorial on an August afternoon in 1963. Nearly 46 years after his assassination, Martin Luther King’s eloquence still reverberates with undiminished force in the US and around the world.
For leaders who want to become better communicators, King’s speeches are lessons in eloquence. They are woven from patterns of compelling imagery (“We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation”); structured oppositions (not “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”); repeated consonant sounds (“color…content…character”); and the repetition of key phrases (“I have a dream”). Students of rhetoric call these devices, respectively, metaphor, antithesis, alliteration, and anaphora, and they are tools leaders can use to improve their speaking and writing.
However, there is far more to King’s leadership communications mastery than his rhetorical skill. His persuasiveness originated in a deep moral conviction and credibility that all leaders can strive to emulate.
King had a cause and a mission, and his actions demonstrated that he held them sincerely. When King moved his ministry from the pulpit to the street, people knew his beliefs by his actions. His leadership brought great personal hardship, and the bombs, bruises, and jail time King endured testified more eloquently even than his words to the sincerity of his belief.
Leaders today don’t need to be enlisted in a historic cause to take lessons from King’s example. In any situation, leaders can draw on conviction and credibility of the sort King showed. We know from our study of exceptional leaders that they harbor a self-confident authenticity that withstands changing circumstances. Conviction comes from that authenticity, and acting on conviction, time and again, brings credibility.
Tomorrow, I’ll examine a third element of King’s persuasiveness: his timing.