5 Lessons about Storytelling from MLK’s “I Have a Dream…” Speech

January 29, 2018

3 Minute Read
5 Lessons About Storytelling

A few weeks ago, we commemorated one of America’s great civil rights leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Reverend King was many things: an able orator, a courageous organizer, an inspiring leader. He was also a person who understood the power of storytelling and branding.

During the day dedicated to remembering him, I re-watched the grainy black-and-white film of his “I Have a Dream…” speech. King’s speech always stirs my heart and fills me with admiration for him and his cause.

This year, when I reflected on King’s speech and life, I began to think about what King’s most famous speech could teach brands about storytelling.

These are my takeaways:

1. Begin with why

King wastes no time in getting to why he has come to address the gathered crowd. He promises his listeners that they will be part of “the greatest demonstration for freedom in our nation’s history.” He also reminds them that they have gathered to “dramatize a shameful condition.” When he wanted to move his fellow citizens, King began with why. Some brands, like Warby Parker, get this exactly right. Here’s their why: “Every idea starts with a problem. Ours was simple: glasses are too expensive. We were students when one of us lost his glasses on a backpacking trip. The cost of replacing them was so high that he spent the first semester of grad school without them, squinting and complaining.” Just as King did, Warby Parker gets to why in a few sentences.

2. Speak the language of your audience

King’s speech is filled with inspiring imagery and allusions to biblical stories that were familiar to his audience because much of his initial organizing happened in churches. When King concludes his remarks with “Free at last, free at last, Great God Almighty, free at last.” He was saying words that members of his audience had heard and sung many times. In 2012, Dollar Shave Club showed it understood this lesson. Its “Our blades are F@#$% great!” YouTube campaign spoke to its young male customers in a language that was their own.

3. Use apt metaphors

King describes the century-old broken promise of the Emancipation Proclamation as an uncashed check. In an age before debit cards and ATMs and bitcoin, everyone understood exactly what he meant. Metaphors, especially unexpected ones, open minds to see the world in new ways. One of my favorite visual metaphors used by a brand to tell a shorthand story is Travelers Insurance Companies famous red umbrella.

4. Don’t be afraid to say what you’re against

Great brands are crystal clear about what they are not. So was King. In part of the speech, MLK said this: “In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” King was very clear that his movement was not about violence or vengeance. As an example of a brand doing this well, I would point to Airbnb’s spot about acceptance and inclusion that ran during last year’s biggest NFL game.

5. Paint vivid pictures of what the brand stands for

In the title of the speech, King promised he would share a vision of what America could be. He said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” As buyers, we choose brands because we want to tell the world who we are and what we believe. One brand doing this very well is Subaru. They are running a series of ads that show lives of their owners as a series of moments before their cars are passed down to the next generation. The visuals remind Subaru owners that they have made the smart decision to pay a little more for a car that will last.

Martin Luther King led a movement that transformed America for the better. His powerful “I Have a Dream. . .” speech captured hearts and minds using principles that every storyteller would be well served to study and learn.

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