Build, baby build: Lessons from MLK Jr.

Build baby, build.

Learn baby, learn.

So that we can
Earn baby, earn.

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

The man we honor today delivered that rally cry near the end of a speech to the student body of Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia, PA. on October 26, 1967.

The speech was entitled, What Is Your Life's Blueprint?

In business and life, you will be called to use your voice. You can do no better than to borrow from the template of this great man.

How to deliver like MLK

Here are four enduring lessons in speech-making from this 20-minute video:

1. Lead with a question

After a preamble, this speech starts at minute 3:20, when MLK pauses, tilts his head back, looks up the heavens and says...

I'm going to ask you a question, and that is...
What is in your life’s blueprint?

It all unfurls from there.

2. Shape your thesis with a three-prong approach

The three prongs of this speech:

  • You must have a deep belief in your own dignity, your own worth, and your own somebody-ness.

  • You must have the determination to achieve excellence in your various fields of endeavor…your life’s work.

  • You must make a commitment to the eternal principles of beauty, love and justice.

Each prong has an anchor word or concept that becomes the structure for a story or example that reinforces the point.

3. Use rhetorical devices for memorability—threes within threes and repetition

Within each prong, MLK uses threesomes and rhetorical repetition for memorability.

When expounding on "somebody-ness," he uses this structure to convey emotion:

Always feel that you count.
Always feel that you have worth.
Always feel that your life has ultimate significance.

He uses this set-up pattern throughout the speech.

Later, on the topic of excellence, he uses the phrase "sweep streets" to imprint the idea that all work has dignity if you do it to the best of your ability.

If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper...

Sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures

Sweep streets like Beethoven composed music

Sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera

Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry

Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.”

Notice his sharp enunciation of "sweep streets." It's a hard phrase to say. Yet he delivers it precisely and with swelling intensity as the section crescendos. He knows the power that this humble phrase will have on his young audience.


Own your power with a calm, deliberate cadence

Slow down. Make the audience lean forward in their seats, waiting for what’s next.

As you watch MLK's delivery, notice where he slows, and how he employs the empty spaces to make eye contact or raise a hand to reinforce key phrases.

He also channels his energy, never rising to anger.

More than anything, even if you don't watch the speech, please use this day to remind yourself that in the ongoing struggle for freedom, equality and justice, a single voice does make a difference.