Collage of Martin Luther King, Jr. giving speeches.

In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in front of nearly 250,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial. Just after the midway point of King’s prepared speech, his speechwriter, Clarence Jones, noticed King push his notes aside. “I leaned over and said to the person next to me, ‘These people out there today don’t know it yet, but they’re about ready to go to church,’” Jones said.

“These people out there today don’t know it yet, but they’re about ready to go to church.”

Ignoring a jumbled sentence from his notes, King transformed into a preacher and told the audience: “Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama … South Carolina … Georgia … Louisiana … to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.” Then, after reportedly hearing onstage gospel singer Mahalia Jackson repeatedly say, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin,” King told the crowd about “a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”

King ended on a dramatic and powerful note: “When we allow freedom to ring — when we let it ring from every village and 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 to sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.’”

When King shifted from a speech to a sermon, it was no longer a demonstration. It became a church service. And that’s exactly how speeches can become more compelling and memorable, regardless of the topic.

The Power of a Story

A story is memorable. Sermons typically integrate stories to introduce or illustrate an idea, whether it’s biblical or some type of personal anecdote.

A well-executed story in another context can be compelling. Forbes points to Steve Jobs’ commencement address at Stanford University as a model for all public speakers. “The best speeches include a clear, relevant message and a few great stories to illustrate it,” Forbes said of Jobs’ speech.

“The best speeches include a clear, relevant message and a few great stories to illustrate it.”

Preachers and business speakers alike can draw from personal experiences, statistics and other narratives.

A preacher may tell the congregation about how a struggling marriage endured tough times, while a business speaker may share how a company’s expansion boosted employment in the community.

A preacher may share statistics pointing to the decline of Christians in the United States, while a business speaker may share troubling industry figures.

A preacher may share how Jesus responded to a question about the commandments, while a business speaker may share how an entrepreneur succeeded against all odds.

The story can be a future vision or hope. As King 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.” By looking to the future, preachers and business speakers can use a story to inspire their audiences.

The Multimedia Crutch

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“Over the course of my career, I have sat through hundreds of presentations,” author Michael Hyatt says. “Most of them were done with PowerPoint. Most of them were done poorly.”

Hyatt calls PowerPoint “a staple of corporate life [and] the ubiquitous prop that attends every presentation.” It’s not that presentation software is bad, but speakers “forget that PowerPoint or Keynote are tools designed to augment their presentation not be their presentation.” By simply reading through an onscreen presentation, speakers lose their audience’s interest. The audience reads along with the speaker, undermining retention of the information.

“PowerPoint or Keynote are tools designed to augment their presentation not be their presentation.”

Occasional multimedia use tends to be a strength of churches. During the sermon, the congregation is typically able to read onscreen biblical references, eliminating the need to fumble through a Bible or Bible app. From verses to quotes and statistics, the screen conveniently reinforces the content of the message. Some churches also use video from time to time. Footage from a recent mission trip or a past sermon can be an effective change of pace for the congregation.

Both of these examples apply to speeches. Communication coach and author Carmine Gallo says that a powerful data point deserves its own slide and is good for recall. Also, Gallo explains how Apple uses video or another presenter every 10 minutes to institute a “soft break,” which helps maintain viewer attention.

Inspiring an Audience

One role of the preacher is to motivate the congregation to be more like Christ. King’s goal at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 was to motivate the crowd to share his dream of equality for all people.

There may not be a clear parallel for business speakers, but what is clear is that speeches, such as Jobs’ commencement address, are more effective when they motivate people. A company expansion may not compare to a sermon on prayer, but the expansion still has the ability to touch people’s lives and make a difference. It still has the power to inspire, and an inspiring speech is a memorable speech.

Speakers must keep the point of the speech in mind when crafting and delivering their message. How is this relevant to the audience? What will the audience gain from the speech? What will be the primary effect of the speech? These questions will help frame the various components of the speech.

A personal and passionate business speech is more likely to resonate with the audience. If business speakers can learn a little from preachers, perhaps business speeches would be more effective, with the goal being to interest, impact and inspire the audience.

Southeastern University offers a faith-based education to students across disciplines. Graduates of the online MBA programs are prepared for positions of leadership in business. Graduates of the MA in Ministerial Leadership program are prepared to advance their local ministry. The online business and ministry programs are focused on providing students with the opportunity to discover a Spirit-led life, powered by learning and leadership.