S4E22. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” was Improvised

I love a good challenge. Convincing business leaders that improv is a leadership method has been one of the most difficult. I have to dispel the myth that those who improvise are just “winging it” and “making stuff up.” Let’s address this myth in the improv process of preparation, practice, and letting go.

Preparation is one of the keys to success. However, most people don’t realize that preparation is a huge part of improv. When I prepare for any speaking engagement, I will have thoroughly researched the topic, what questions may be asked, the demographics of the audience, and the venue. If this is a virtual program, I will determine my backup plan should I lose power in my home or off-site office. The preparation gets very granular and no stone is left unturned. And it’s important to note that part of this preparation sits in my subconscious mind—remembering prior experiences that went awry and the solution I used to correct the issue.

In addition to preparation, an equally critical part of success is practice. For example, I was recently asked to do a five-minute presentation and, on the surface, this didn’t seem to be too

difficult. However, after I researched how many words on average people speak in 5 minutes—about 750—I rewrote my presentation to only contain 400 words. I wanted enough time to allow for pauses and to keep my pace at a regular rate. I spent about 5 hours practicing for a 5-minute presentation. I wasn’t trying to memorize it; I was working on the cadence, tone, pauses, and body language—and, all the while, I was placing tiny memory seeds in my brain. 

When it came time for me to speak, I took a deep breath, trusted my instincts, put all of my notes and written text into a drawer, and closed it. Then I leaned into the unknown and started speaking. The result was terrific and the five-minute presentation was a huge success. Because I let go of perfection and had fun, and because I had prepared and practiced, I had a most exhilarating experience. You see, I was able to bring passion to the conversation I was having with the audience.

Did you know that Martin Luther King improvised the “I Have a Dream” speech? It’s true. The address Dr. Kind had prepared that day didn’t even have the words “I have a dream” in it. As Dr. King and his inner circle were working and crafting the speech the day before the march on Washington, he decided that he wanted the speech to have a similar impact on the nation as The Gettysburg Address. He had used the phrase too many times, and his aides advised him to cut it, so he did. As Dr. King was delivering his prepared remarks, its impact on the crowd was less than expected. According to “How Martin Luther King Improvised ‘I Have A Dream'” by Carmine Gallo, “Jones saw King push the text of his prepared remarks to one side of the podium. He shifted gears in a heartbeat, abandoning whatever final version he’d prepared… he’d given himself over to the spirit of the moment.” The speech was 17 minutes long and Dr. King improvised the last six of them.

Business leaders, those of you in the C-Suite, and aspiring leaders: there is a lot to learn from Dr. King’s speech and the power of improv. Keep your mind open to the world of improvisation by considering the benefits when dealing in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) business climate.