Infographic: What Makes MLK’s “I Have a Dream” Speech Brilliant

One designer gives visual form to Martin Luther King Jr.’s rhetorical genius.

Infographic: What Makes MLK’s “I Have a Dream” Speech Brilliant

Obama did a decent job on the State of the Union address yesterday, though it didn’t exactly knock our socks off (not that SOTUs ever do). Which got us wondering: What makes a speech truly great? And, since we’re unrepentant infographic nerds, can you visualize it?

For an answer, we turn to Nancy Duarte, of California-based Duarte Design, who mapped out a masterpiece of American oration — Martin Luther King Jr.,’s “I Have a Dream” speech — to illustrate the shape of rhetorical genius. Watch the video above.

She started by organizing the graph around verb tense, which shifts back and forth throughout the speech, riling up the audience. What you end up with is a series of flattened crests and peaks that represent MLK’s deft slalom between what is and what could be. That long concluding plateau there highlights his powerful vision of the future — in Duarte’s words, the “new bliss of equality.”

Over that, she layered a bar graph, with each bar representing a block of text. (Breaks in the bars represent pauses that give the speech its irresistible cadence.) Then, she color-coded the bars to highlight assorted rhetorical devices: blue stands for repetition; pink for metaphors; orange for political references; and green for familiar literature and songs, from Scripture to “America.”

There’s lots of blue and green here, especially at the end where he’s riffing on “America,” but what’s really fascinating is how much pink you’ve got everywhere — enough to put a coat of paint on Barbie’s Dream House. We all know MLK, Jr., was an expert at using words as a paintbrush. Seeing it in graphic form, though, shows just how frequently he resorted to visual language to hammer home his point. So next time you have to give a PowerPoint presentation or an address on the state of the country, remember: Think pink. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

[Hat tip to FlowingData]

About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D.



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