5 Inspiring Storytelling Lessons from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


January 17, 2017

by Carla Johnson

Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the most influential storytellers of the 20th century. A pastor, activist and humanitarian, King’s I Have a Dream” speech, Nobel Peace Prize lecture and Letter from a Birmingham City Jail are among the most revered orations and writings in the English language.

King wasn’t able to make America an equal place. But he did make the world a more equal one. His U.S. civil rights victories and speeches were inspirations for those who were involved in international race injustice. By 1964 the United Nations membership had doubled from its 1945 levels. Almost 75% of these new members were from developing countries who were committed to combating radical injustice based on the struggles of King in the U.S and the racial persecution in South Africa.

Martin Luther King didn’t change the world because of his ideals alone. He changed it because he was able to enrapture people with the stories he told and inspire them to take action. Dr. King was painted a picture of a future that mattered to people and then wrap it in emotion.

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Storytelling requires empathy

B2B marketers shun emotion. But until we become passionate about our story and how it will change the world, we’ll never be able to capture the attention of people, countries and societies.

That’s too ambitious, you say?

Stories become real when they have empathy for their audience. When they connect to what matters in our lives. (I’m going to share an incredible secret here…what people do at work is part of their lives.) Stories tell us how to behave. And they remind us what to believe.

Here’s five things that Dr. King did very well that every B2B marketer can begin to do right now:

  1. Inspiration – Corporate Visions points out that 60 percent of B2B decisions end in no decision. You have to inspire action in your audience. To do that, you have to inspire them by painting a picture of a more beautiful tomorrow that is worth all the blood, sweat and tears it will take to get there.
  2. Inflection Points – What’s prompting your story? How can you make it stronger? For King, the march on Washington, DC was delivered at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was an opportunity to synthesize messages in his earlier speeches to capture both the necessity for change and the potential for hope in American society. In B2B, watch for significant points of change that bring the importance of your story forward. For example, industrial giant Emerson tapped into its 125th anniversary to tell a story of science being sexy. This not only changed the perception of the company, but also the engineering industry.
  3. Imagery – King’s writing and speeches are ripe with imagery. “As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.” “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” This may be one of the most critical aspects of storytelling for B2B. It’s not just about adding pictures, it’s about a visual narrative that’s equally strong to the written one. We’re captivated by things like Volvo’s ad that features Claude Van Damme doing the splits between two semi-trucks. The visual imagery is stunning, but so is the imagery of the words. Don’t sacrifice one hoping the other will carry the slack.
  4. Analogies and Metaphors – King was a master of analogies, like calling broken promises a bad check. He persistently used metaphors, such as the lonely island of poverty midst a vast ocean of prosperity or the quicksand of racial injustice. Both of these show us one thing as another, and in so doing expands the way we see the world and offers a refreshing perspective. B2B marketers have tired metaphors – the sales funnel, the buyer’s journey and (social media) followers. But there’s others that bring imagery to life (see point 3). For example, digital marketing is like farming. You reap what you sow, but only if the ground is fertile. Without a good user experience, your content won’t bear fruit. While the user experience is important, it’s just one aspect of performance. Thinking strategically about connecting with your audience will help you avoid a drought of visitors and harvest the results you want.
  5. Context – This creates a common ground so everyone starts off on the same page. In King’s I Have a Dream speech, he started this way… Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who have been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. In three sentences, Martin Luther King was able to set the context for his speech, the march on Washington, and much of what the country was struggling with at the time. We marketers live and breathe our work and often jump into things without consistently and persistently giving context. When we do this, our audience isn’t able to wrap their heads around why this is important in their world and we lose their attention. And attention is a currency we can’t afford to squander.

If you’ve never watched or heard Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech, here it is. Listen to the beauty of the picture he paints of the future with these five storytelling techniques.

Visit The King Center to learn more about the life and influence of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Are you interested in creating stories that have deeper empathy for, and connection with, your audience? Contact me and let’s talk about how we can help. Or, connect with me on LinkedIn, follow me on Twitter, and if you like what you see, Subscribe here for regular updates.

Photo credit: Flickr user George Conklin

About Carla

Carla Johnson Innovation Creativity Speaker Author

Carla Johnson helps leaders who are often paralyzed by traditional thinking. They suffer from slow growth, an eroding competitive advantage, low employee engagement, and depleted investor confidence. Their teams lack purpose and progress and constantly battle a resistance to change and new ideas.

As the world’s leading innovation architect, Carla’s spent 20 years helping leaders shatter limits and discover undiscovered possibilities. Through years of research, she’s developed a simple, scalable 5-step process that teaches people how to consistently produce inspired ideas that lead to uncommon outcomes.