Martin Luther King Jr. and the Art of Improvisation

There are quite a few good pieces floating around the Internets today about the power of speechifying: more specifically, Martin Luther King Jr.‘s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered 50 years ago and generally recognized as the greatest oratorical feat of the 20th century. But from a PR perspective, we’re most interested in this New York Times op-ed, which reveals that some of the best-known portions of the speech itself were improvised.

King apparently wrote multiple drafts, argued with advisers over which portions to include, and felt that he didn’t have time to use the words “I have a dream”. In the heat of the moment he was, according to the article, inspired by singer Mahalia Jackson‘s suggestion that he return to the phrase he’d used in previous speeches. And history was made.

Of course PR pros regularly write or at least edit speeches for clients, and in most cases “off the cuff” comments or ad libs are strongly discouraged lest the message get muddled. But at certain times, don’t we all want our clients to give performances that truly inspire people? We always work to balance transparency and authenticity with consistency, but how often can we encourage clients to go with their guts and speak from the heart?