If you’ve been tasked with improving the impact of your organization’s messages, one of the best teachers you can follow is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His intentional use of rhetorical devices adds power to his ideas and strength to his words.
There’s no question that King was one of the most influential leaders of the 20th century and a brilliant orator. What I hadn’t previously given thought to, though, was his attention to craft. Yes, he led a nation to change for the better, but it isn’t his courage and vision alone that we should seek to emulate, but also his writing craft.
On a recent trip to Washington, D.C. I found myself wandering alone on a cold and rainy night through the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. I had just finished reading Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence. And it hit me: almost every technique I had learned from Forsyth had been perfectly demonstrated in King’s speeches and writing.
Forsyth’s book is a quick and quirky romp through the classical rhetorical devices that have been used for centuries to help cement great ideas into our brains. (In fact, in that sentence alone, I used three of them: alliteration with “quick and quirky,” assonance with “classical rhetorical,” and metaphor with “cement great ideas.”) The book is a great primer on the tools of the communication trade that have been used by famous writers from Shakespeare to Beyoncé.
Take a close look at the tools King used.
Alliteration and Assonance
Definition: Alliteration is the repetition of a consonant sound. Assonance is the repetition of a vowel sound. Both are powerful tools you can use to engage the ear of your listener.
King uses alliteration in one of his most famous lines, “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.”
He uses assonance in his address to the National Press Club in 1962: “The law may not change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless.”
Alliteration and assonance are part of the reason that nonprofit taglines like “Give a hoot. Don’t pollute.” and American Heart Association’s “Learn and Live.” stay in our brains.
Definition: Antithesis swaps opposing ideas. Not X, but Y. Use this technique to highlight your vision over the status quo.
In his 1963 Strength to Love, King states:
The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.
It’s the same strategy we employed in developing this message for one of our clients, a foundation that takes a pragmatic, long-term approach to investing in addressing regional economic disparities: We can’t make everything right overnight, but we can make things better over time.
Antithesis contrasts two ideas and shows your vision to be the more powerful of the two.
Definition: Allusion is a passing reference to a person, place, thing, or idea of common significance. Through allusion, you can tie your message to other well-established and accepted concepts.
In his I Have a Dream speech, King alludes to the Declaration of Independence without explicitly citing it.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.
By doing so, he reminds his listeners of the promise they already believe in, and ties the famous document to a powerful vision for the future.
Definition: Anaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses. You can use the technique in your messaging to build energy, excitement, and interest.
Note how King uses anaphora in his I Have a Dream speech. (Bonus points if you also note the places where he uses alliteration, assonance, and metaphor.)
Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.
Definition: Diacope repeats a word or phrase after an intervening word or phrase. This is another technique you can use to build energy and reinforce meaning.
At the conclusion of his I Have a Dream speech, King alludes to a well-known spiritual that is built on the technique of diacope.
…all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
It is a technique to use sparingly, but when used well, the sandwiching of language inside a common refrain is very powerful.
Definition: Closely related to antithesis, juxtaposition is a flip-flopping of words and ideas. King uses this technique twice in Letter from Birmingham Jail (while also employing metaphor in between.)
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
You can see how he juxtaposes injustice and justice, anywhere and everywhere, one and all, and directly with indirectly.
It’s a technique that is easy to incorporate into your own writing. We used a similar approach to developing these messages for an independent school:
Today’s students need to be taught how to think, not what to think.
If we expect students to advance as learners, we must advance as educators.
Definition: The intentional use of a double negative is a litote. It’s a technique that you can use to affirm something as true in an understated, quiet way. You express the affirmative by negating its contrary.
King uses this tool in his I Have a Dream speech.
I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations.
Definition: The basic premise of a metaphor is that a complex concept can be more readily understood when compared to a simple, visual idea.
We will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.
In the nonprofit space, you are constantly waging an uphill battle to have your mission and programs be understood and appreciated. Where many nonprofits fall back on complex jargon and technical language, you may find instead that you can gain much greater comprehension and appreciation for your cause through the use of metaphor.
Compare, for example, the language the Center for Economic and Social Justice uses to define the concept of social justice.
Social justice encompasses economic justice. Social justice is the virtue which guides us in creating those organized human interactions we call institutions. In turn, social institutions, when justly organized, provide us with access to what is good for the person, both individually and in our associations with others. Social justice also imposes on each of us a personal responsibility to work with others to design and continually perfect our institutions as tools for personal and social development.
Compare this with Dr. King’s use of metaphor to explain social justice in his I Have a Dream Speech. Which is more accessible? Which inspires action?
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”
Note: I’m not trying to fault CESJ. There is a value to having shared definitions of complex concepts. My point is that in broad communications, metaphor can help you reach those who may not otherwise understand or connect with your work.
Definition: Sentences that are grammatically similar or identical in structure employ parallelism. Doing so creates a rhythm that adds power and can bring ideas together.
We will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together…
We employed this technique to develop this message for one of our clients:
Long-term problems require a long-term commitment.
Making It Work For You
Put it all together, and you may have one of Dr. King’s most brilliantly crafted phrases. In his 1963 Strength to Love, he writes,
Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.
In 20 words, King has employed diacope, antithesis, metaphor, and juxtaposition.
- King sandwiches “cannot drive out” between the words “darkness” and again between “hate.” That sandwiching of words is an example of diacope.
- “Drive out” is metaphorical language.
- Darkness is the antithesis of light; hate with love.
- And together darkness and light are juxtaposed with hatred and love.
The point being: study your rhetoric and examples of their use, and your messages will improve as a result. Great messages aren’t happenstance; they are the product of careful craft.
(Bonus points to anyone who comments on the three different rhetorical devices I used in that last sentence.)
P.S. I looked at dozens of sites as I crafted this blog post. Here are a few that were particularly helpful to me.
*All photos were taken on my personal camera during my trip