The night before delivering his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. assembled his team at the Willard Hotel to finalize his script for the next day. As usual, his speechwriters and advisors debated, one last time, exactly what should be said and how it should be communicated. Based on the conversation, and Dr. King’s guidance, they pieced together a final draft of the speech entitled “Normalcy Never Again.” Nowhere in the text was there any mention of a dream.
The next day, August 28, 1963, King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in front of a crowd in excess of 200,000 rallying for economic and civil rights. When it came time for him to speak, King launched into his prepared remarks, his sonorous voice cutting through the thick summer air of America’s capital city. Midway through the address, King sensed his message was not quite hitting home with the audience. Perhaps sharing his intuition, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, shouted encouragement from nearby: “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin!” Pausing momentarily, King set aside his notes and decided to wing it. He set out his vision for the future of the United States, “a dream rooted in the American Dream” in which equality replaced hatreds based on skin color. He unburdened his heart, sharing hopes that his children could grow up in a world of racial harmony. Rising to a crescendo, he concluded by painting a beautiful picture of national unity that brought tears to the eyes of a now-enraptured audience.
When this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when 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!”
King’s improvised address has been acclaimed as the greatest American speech of the 20th Century. Almost fifty years later, it still stirs one’s emotions. In deviating from the script, King delved into his soul. He didn’t lecture or teach; he simply illuminated the dream painted on the canvas of his imagination.
Leaders communicate through memos, white papers and strategic plans, but they connect by sharing dreams. They influence and inspire by casting vision, and what is a vision other than a picture of what we see when we dream? As the old adage says, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” A polished, scripted presentation pales in comparison to the clearly articulated expression of a dream.
What do you dream about as a leader? What does it sound like when you go off-script and begin talking straight from the heart? Here are some ideas to help you translate the vision in your mind into a picture you can share with others.
• Find tangible objects (mementos, keepsakes, etc.) that relate to your vision. Put them in your workspace and share your vision with another person by referring to the visual aids.
• Draw or paint a picture of your vision (or hire someone to draw one for you). Display the picture in your workspace as a constant reminder of your dream.
• Write a short story or poem telling your vision. Narrate it to a colleague.