It was 50 years ago that Martin Luther King Jr gave what is probably one of the world’s most famous speeches. “I have a dream” has entered the language but what does the great equal rights activist’s greatest speech offer to anyone wondering how to make a really good speech today? I don’t think that many business people have this speech in mind when they commission a corporate speechwriter like me but I often mention it to clients because it contains much that business leaders can use to communicate with their audiences.

Here are few points from the speech which I often include my work and which anyone who wants to give an attention grabbing, persuasive presentation should bear in mind.

The people in Washington on that boiling hot day already knew of Dr King. He had a very important personal story. His audience were ware of this story and why he was saying what he was saying. It’s always important before you start on the speech to think about what your audience knows and thinks about you. What are their perceptions of you and your organisation? This will, of course, affect the way they react to your speech and so you need to address it early on.

To make his point and to inspire his audience Dr King uses a variety of rhetorical devices, the most obvious of which is rhythm and repetition. For example, as well as his repeated uses of the phrase “I have a dream” throughout the speech, he says: “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

He also uses the power of three: “Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina…” he tells his audience. Making a list of three phrases, three words, three ideas or three examples is strangely powerful. He uses analogies too. “America has given the Negro people a bad cheque, a cheque which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”

As any corporate speechwriter will tell you, analogies, comparisons and metaphors are a great way to explain a concept and also, if they are imaginative but are also based on something that the audience can relate to, they help to engage that audience and make an idea truly memorable. Making these analogies visual is particularly important: “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.”

There are some striking contrasts too: “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” The rule of three, some striking metaphors and clear contrasts – this is a great piece of speechmaking.

Dr King is a black man talking to a predominately black audience about something that only black people experience directly. However, he seeks to broaden his message and speak to white people too. After all, it will be white people as well as black who can make the change that he is asking for. He appeals to values that almost all Americans hold. He quotes the Declaration of Independence on “unalienable Rights of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Later he says: “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.” Thinking about the audience, appealing to their values, building alliances and common ground with them is essential if he wants to achieve his ultimate aim of persuading his audience to do something.

We also get some personal references. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.” Many leaders of large organisations shy away from speaking about their personal experience but it is very powerful, it helps to underline their messages and it can convince the audience.

There are two other interesting points about the speech that I’ll add. First, it’s only about 16 minutes long – this underlines my passionate belief that less is more when it comes to making a speech. It’s also been suggested recently that much of the speech was made off-the-cuff. Although I wouldn’t advise this to anyone making a major presentation, it shows the importance of spontaneity and using the adrenaline that you will naturally feel in a constructive way. In my work as a corporate speechwriter I’m always inspired by this great speech.