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Art of Persuasion

One of the greatest speech writers and public speakers was Martin Luther King Jr because he understood what and who he was fighting for and against. I remember reading Letter From Birmingham Jail and thinking about how meticulous he was with his word choice. He was in the jail, but he chose to write a letter to the clergy in Birmingham instead of his supporters. So, he perfected that letter by speaking their language: theology. Each reference pointed to a moment in the Bible, but it hit home the message he wanted to convey about the current political and social climate in America. While he spoke to the clergy, he believed that religious beliefs would speak the loudest because he knew that Christianity was at the heart of their society. He knew that he needed to use specific language to speak to the clergy directly. I do not think many people would have understood him if he had written this same letter to anyone other than clergymen because it was deeply rooted in biblical history. Every time I read his speeches, I am left speechless at his ability to reach far and wide with his carefully worded sentences. While that letter was religiously based, his speech I Have a Dream spoke to the moral conscience of the country in that his tone changed from a theologian into a father, husband, and community leader who was appealing to those same groups in both the White and Black communities. He understood what they have come to hear, and you can hear the appeal in his opening line. He said, “I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation” (King Jr.). The word ‘freedom’ was a call to action for community members, but it was also a announcement to the world that it would be achieved as they still felt the weight of slavery on them. He also used language like “five score years ago” to reference Lincoln which reminded those present of the language used in the Emancipation Proclamation. He used language like injustice, slavery, poverty, manacles of segregation which connected the past to their present (King Jr.). Another line that had a powerful message was, “In a sense, we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check” (King Jr.). This line reminded his followers that a debt had still not been paid.  He then connected the freedom of the founding fathers to the plight of the Black communities by reminded those present, “This note was a promise that all men-yes, black men as well as White men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of justice” (King Jr.). On that day, he reminded the world that injustice had been perpetrated on the Black population for far too long, and he was not accepting what he called a returned check marked insufficient funds. That was powerful in that he was calling out White America as well as Black America that things had to change at that moment or nothing ever would. He then repeats the phrase racial injustice to remind everyone exactly what he was there fighting for.  He wrote, “The sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality–1963 is not an end but a beginning” (King Jr.). That was a call to action, and his words were effective in starting a civil rights movement that made history. I believe that he made the word choice he did because he understood what the problems were, what needed to change, and the best way to relay that message based on the political and social climate around him at that time. Had he chosen to just speak to his followers, I do not believe it would have been so powerful because he had to remind White supporters of promises broken and racial beliefs kept. In this speech, his use of the phrase, “I have a dream” reminded people that racial harmony still was a dream. Seeing as how we are once again in a civil war in America, these words still speak to us today reminding us that the injustices of social, racial, and class differences still affect citizens in 2017. I believe that is why Obama was so effective. He spoke much like MLK Jr. His word choice was much the same way in that he used cause and effect of social issues to speak for him. He, however, had to use language that spoke to classes as opposed to racism. If he had delivered a speech like MLK Jr, I do not think he would have won as he understood that he needed support from all races and classes. MLK Jr. was not running for any office, so he was much less affected by his word choice. He was speaking of a war of change while Obama was speaking of political and social change. He understood that by focusing on race, he would lose part of his audience that he needed to win. Both men understood what they wanted to say and to whom they wanted to say it too. So, their language was specifically chosen with those audiences in mind. That is what made them both so unique in that they knew how to speak from a point of view that showed their characters and passions while also not offending the groups they needed to reach. Obama said, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek” (The New York Times). You can clearly see he is giving a political speech because he thanks them for clapping, name drops the Illinois Dem senator (to connect with the voters to relay the message that they are the same politically), and sends best wishes to the storm victims. That is what politicians do. MLK Jr. was not a politician, nor did he strive to be. Before 1963, there were only two African American senators, but both looked to be creole descent (1870 and 1875). After that, no other senator would win until 1967 (three years after MLK Jr. speech).  It seems that MLK Jr. understood that the path to change was by marching instead of voting. Both MLK Jr. and Obama spoke about change, and they understood that there were two sides who would be listening. So, I find it ironic that five decades apart, they both spoke about change, yet they also spoke to a racially divided nation. But make no mistake in the two. Obama was achieving his dream because MLK Jr. dared to put pen to paper to voice his own dreams for the future. Both men were able to mirror their own dreams to the nation in ways that spoke to both audiences, and that is why words are everything. MLK Jr could not have spoken about change by just using the word change just like Obama could not have used the terms slavery, manacles, or segregation without losing parts of their audiences. Stronger words were needed to bring about the civil rights movement, but Obama used language to bring together a nation of voters.  Both used charged language to get people involved, and I think that is why their speeches were so effective. I personally think MLK Jr. is one of the most gifted speakers and writers to date as he had passion and vision which might be contributed to both his community work and his theologian studies. MLK Jr was fighting for people’s lives, and Obama was fighting for votes. So, the language both of them used showed that they knew their audiences well. One used charged language to say he had a dream. The other used inclusive language to remind his audience that he could not do it alone. If MLK Jr had given Obama’s speech, I do not think it would have gotten people of different races out in the streets to march on Washington to fight for civil rights. If Obama had given the I Have a Dream speech, I personally think people would have seen him as racially divisive. They understood the power of words, and they made sure to choose the right words for the right audiences. Knowing your audiences can mean the difference between success and failure because it is your audience who decides the final outcome of the message you are delivering.

I write as the writer, but I edit like the reader. When I write, I think about characters, plot, scenes, and story line so that I have an idea of where I want to start as well as how I intend to get to the end. It is so important to stratagize about language as they define your characters, connect them to the story, and deliver the plot. If one thing is missing, it messes up the quality of the book. I think about that as a writer. If I get stuck, I think about what things made me buy a book, or I open up my favorite book to see what writing strategy the author used to get past something. I also pay attention to my classwork. It all starts with knowing who I am and  the people I am writing for. That way, the level of understanding between product development and sales will keep a writer focused on the language needed to be successful in both areas.

 

King, M.L. Jr. I have a Dream. March on Washington. archives.gov/files/press/exhibits/dream-speech.pdf. 1963. Accessed 20 July 2017.

Obama, Barack. Barack Obama’s Feb 5 Speech. The New York Times. 2008 Feb 5. nytimes.com/2008/02/05/us/politics/05text-obama.html. Accessed 20

July, 2017.

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