Read The Room (MLK Edition)

Martin Luther King wasn’t supposed to say, “I have a dream” in his speech that day. The draft of his talk had been typed up and distributed to the press in advance. Nowhere in it were the iconic words. 

But that day, in front of those attendees, he was speaking as he’d done a million times before, and feeling the energy of the audience.

He paused when he came upon a line that didn’t feel right. Peppering him in the second-long gap in a way only an experienced performer can, Mahalia Jackson called out from over his shoulder, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” 

And he was off. The rest, as they say, is history. 

I love this story because it’s all about reading the room. In any presentation, you need a way to feel the audience’s energy. 

I also love this story because it’s about supporting the performer to improve everyone’s experience. It’s the opposite of heckling, it’s cheering your people on. 

When the presenter and the audience move as a whole, magic happens. Let’s create more magic.

Ps. Yes, I’ve told this story before here. And, Drew Hansen is still the one with the best, most thorough telling of exactly how the speech came together, see “Mahalia Jackson and King’s Improvisation,” and his book, “The Dream.”

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