How Martin Luther King’s words inspire us

The words of a skilled speaker or writer create light in the minds of others. We instantly ‘see’ what they mean, we are enlightened. Their words grab our attention by stimulating our imaginations and touching our hearts. How is it that some people can do this while others leave us stumbling about in the dark wondering what they’re talking about?

The other day I listened to Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I have a dream’ speech and immediately fell under its spell. His language is full of imagery. His words spring into life as a series of tableaux that tell a compelling story about the African-Americans’ struggle for social equality. It’s clear that King recognises the persuasive power of imagery.

He magically transforms an abstract phrase like, ‘racial injustice’ into something palpable when he says, ‘now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.’ Instead of confining his appeal to our intellect, King broadens the persuasive power of his argument by hitting us in the solar plexus. He succeeds in making us feel the rightness of what he’s saying because standing on solid rock is always going to feel safer than sinking into quicksand.

The speech remains positive to the end, despite the catalogue of suffering it describes. King shares his dream with us, not his nightmare. The high point of the speech is an image of prodigious positive power – one that seems capable of single-handedly healing the wounds of history. ‘I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.’

Again, abstract words like ‘slaves’ and ‘slave owners’ are humanised by making them characters that play out a dramatic episode. A simple dash of colour – ‘red’ – brings the ‘hills of Georgia’ to life; you can almost feel the roughness of the sandstone between your fingers. A vague aspiration like ‘brotherhood’, is miraculously transformed (echoes of the Eucharist) into a solid and achievable thing – a table – something we can see and touch, something comfortable and familiar. A solid reality where enemies can meet, break bread together and make peace.

In a study of historic presidential speeches, titled ‘Images in Words’, Professor Cynthia Emrich and colleagues discovered that U.S. presidents now thought of as charismatic by historians used lots of image-based words in their language – and were also considered more effective leaders. These findings are in line with other research that suggests that effective leaders and communicators use more picture words and imagery in their language than other people.

Martin Luther King’s speech shows us that even abstract words and concepts can be made more pictorial and memorable by presenting them as part of an image or metaphor. We are rarely persuaded by reason alone. When advertisers want to make us buy, or politicians want to attract our vote, they tap into the vast power of our visual brain by using images to make their pitch. Part of the power of images is that they can make us feel and think in the same instant; they cast their net wide by appealing to the head and the heart.

George Orwell, an acknowledged master of clear thinking and communication, believed that it was probably ‘better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations.’

So how about trying this when you’re about to write or explain something. Instead of starting with words, begin with images. Explore what you’re trying to say by picturing it in your mind’s eye. Try drawing it, and let your doodles lead the way. Relax, take your time and eventually – sooner than you think – you’ll happen upon an image that just feels right. As you begin to explore and unpack it, you’ll discover that it works precisely because it’s also a rich metaphor for what you want to express. Once the right image is in place, the hard work is done. Words will come to it like moths to a light.


  1. Like you and for similar reasons, I too am a big fan of MLK.

    Apart from his frequent use of all the most important rhetorical techniques, one example of of his imagery that’s always impressed me, but isn’t often quoted, was early on in ‘I have a dream’ when he develops an apparently unpromising metaphor (about banks and banking) at some considerable length – which I posted with some comments on budget day last year at

    I’ve also suggested that part of Obama’s genius was to ‘secularise’ MLK’s heavy use of biblical and religious imagery, while retaining clear connections with him -thereby widening his (Obama’s) appeal to a much wider constituency than Christians, Southern Baptists, etc. – on which there are a couple of illustrative video clips at

  2. Margaret says

    Just a quick geographic note on the “Red hills of Georgia” image. The red on Georgia’s hills and fields (as well as Alabama’s and some of Tennesee’s) is red clay, not sandstone. Much of central and north Georgia is red clay over granite. The best known outcropings of granite are Stone Mountain, and Kennesaw Mountain, which are positioned on the East and West sides of Atlanta. As you go north from Atlanta, the granite continues into the Smokies and Appalachions.

  3. Margaret says

    I mis-spelled Appalachian!

  4. Great post – I remember breaking apart this speech in an English seminar at university, and finding that an hour was nowhere near enough time to discuss it!

    Perhaps one of the points that stuck with me the most was the sense of urgency – everything has to be done ‘now’. I’m willing to bet that few people left that gathering thinking “Yes, that’s a great idea, but we’ll get to it eventually.”

    Positive, urgent language is underrated – more presenters could use this to great effect!

  5. Great insights.

    I don’t think it’s coincidental that two of the greatest speakers in American history, Lincoln and King, were both ardent students of the Bible. Both acknowledged how much it shaped not just their world views, but their rhetoric. The psalms and the parables of Jesus — like the speeches of Lincoln and King — are so memorable, in part, because of the vividness of their imagery.

  6. Martin Shovel says

    A very good point, thanks Chris!

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