Lessons in oral communication from Martin Luther King

DeekshaSinghTomorrow (January 15) marks the eighty-fifth birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., a civil rights activist of tremendous influence and instantly recognisable as one of the great orators in history. His speech, “I Have a Dream”, served to underline both these attributes.

Modern lawyers find it necessary to make effective oral communication — not only during litigation or arbitration proceedings, or during negotiations, but also while interacting with clients and colleagues, in interviews and meetings, and while making presentations. Studying the techniques of great orators like Martin Luther King can give us an insight into this essential skill.

Before you speak

All texts on public speaking will recommend preparation as ‘essential to success’. That does not always mean that you should write a speech or a presentation. You should however, reflect on some of the following before speaking.

– What is your purpose or your task?

– Who is your audience? What do they want? What style of communication could work for them?

– Do you have sufficient knowledge?

– What is your theme or your themes?

– How much time will you have to speak?

Thinking about these points will focus your thoughts on what you are about to say in the context of your purpose and your audience.

As you can see from the video above, Martin Luther King had prepared notes for “I have a dream”. That allowed him to follow the structure he had prepared.

The structure

An important step in developing into a good speaker is about knowing what to say, and in what order. Even the most informal speech or remark can benefit from a structure of some kind.

First, consider how to open. The aim of your opening, wherever you are speaking, is to get the attention of your audience and to introduce the matter you are speaking about or the issue that is up for discussion.

Second, move through the points you wish to make in a logical manner. For example, you can move through your points from the most persuasive to the least persuasive.

Legal-Writing-and-Professional-CommunicationsA reading of “I have a dream” can help us appreciate how that speech was structured. King first appeals to the founding principles of America—freedom and justice to all people, then brings to the fore the failure of those principles where race was concerned, and finally — leaving disappointment behind—talks about his hope, and prays for the future.

Conclusion and repetition

That brings us to the conclusion. You should always conclude. Don’t just finish making your various points and then stop speaking. It is often the first and the last things that you say that people will remember most, so don’t waste the opportunity to make your point one last time. Your conclusion should also link to the theme or the argument that you introduced when you started speaking.

One obvious difference between written and spoken communication is that a reader can go back and look again at something they missed or did not understand. A listener cannot do that. Repetition, therefore, can give you an edge in oral communication.

The power of a planned speech and repetition as a rhetoric device is evident in any of Martin Luther King’s speeches. Even now, fifty years after he made the speech, the words ‘I have a dream’ invoke his vision for racial equality.

(Deeksha Singh is part of the faculty on


But I don’t want to dumb down my writing!

PlainEnglishwithTDOne of the most enduring objections to the use of plain English is that it would ‘dumb down’ writing, or at the very least, make it incredibly boring. This objection is understandable when you consider the ways in which we usually use the word ‘plain’. If food tastes ‘plain’, or your outfit is described as ‘plain’, well, that’s usually not a compliment. When it comes to writing, however, the use of plain language can be a very good thing indeed.

To illustrate, let me take you on a scattered journey, through some of my favourite examples of excellent plain English writing, both in the legal world and outside.

For me, one of the joys of living in India has been discovering the vast range of Indian authors writing in English. They have given me insights into the country, its people, and its history, that I would never have otherwise had. In that vein, how can one go past A Suitable Boy? That sweeping epic somehow managed to examine the minutiae of a ghazal performance and the tragedy of communal riots with the same deft hand, and with language as simple and powerful as this: VikramSeth_ASuitableBoy_extract

Another obvious example of great Indian writing comes from the nation’s most famous lawyer, Gandhi ji himself. His speeches and writings show, again and again, how deceptively simple statements can wield great power. Eye_for_an_eye_MKGandhiIf we keep travelling down the path of great leaders, we can turn to examples such as Martin Luther King Jr., whose famous “I Have a Dream” speech is rightly renowned as a masterpiece of rhetoric.Martin_Luther_King_I_have_a_dream

Activism and calls for change are, of course, fertile ground for stirring rhetoric. But what of the slightly more ordinary, more everyday? Again, examples are all around, and often only as far away as a newspaper column or magazine article. Renowned academic Upendra Baxi, for example, has not only published countless books and articles, but has written columns in the Indian Express.

And if we delve into different jurisdictions around the world, we can see that the plain language movement is being embraced in many places. In California, the Judicial Council has adopted award-winning, plain language jury instructions. When a judge is talking to a jury about the reliability of witnesses, instead of saying “Failure of recollection is common. Innocent misrecollection is not uncommon.” – a statement that actually involves a triple negative – he or she should say, “People often forget things or make mistakes in what they remember.” So simple, it’s almost a Homer Simpson “d’oh” moment, right?

Believe it or not, there are also many judges who prepare judgments of elegance and simplicity. Famous examples include Lord Denning, of the House of Lords, and Justice Scalia, of the Supreme Court of the United States. Whilst poles apart in philosophy and approach to the law, many of their judgments display a unique gift for prose—whether you agree with their decisions or not.

Justice Scalia’s style is eminently readable, and demonstrates his decision-making process lucidly. We can see this in his reply to Justice Stevens in the case of Baze v. Rees, a 2008 case about the constitutionality of the death penalty in the U.S.A.


Lord Denning often starts his judgments by setting the scene, and continues in that vein throughout—an example of how storytelling can be such a powerful tool for a writer. LordDenning_Miller_v_Jackson_villagecricket

And with that rather lovely vision of a village cricket ground in the evening light, I’ll stop these wanderings. Safe to say that these examples are merely drops in the ocean of all the great writing and oratory that has been done in plain language. I hope you are now even more inspired to keep reading and writing!

(Tennille Duffy is part of the faculty at