And I was suddenly reminded of something. With my writers’ group we sometimes organise informal ‘seminars’ on aspects of the writer craft. One of the most interesting sessions had been led by our screenwriter friend David Roach. David took us through his adapted version of the famous ‘hero’s journey,’ the renowned template for screenwriting in which the hero goes through a range of trials before achieving his quest.
One point really struck me. David spoke about the technique of inserting a small scene at the darkest stage of the journey. The aim is to give the audience glimpse the better world that our hero dreams of. The ideal. The utopia. And this is valuable because it reminds the audience of the importance of the prize, and the worthiness of the quest.
There’s a classic example of this in the chase movie, The Fugitive. Harrison Ford plays Dr Richard Kimble as a man on the run. He’s been sentenced to death for the crime of murdering his wife, but he is innocent and his only way to avoid execution is to find the real perpetrator of the crime. The movie has various flashbacks showing his life in the past with his beautiful wife, home, and prestigious medical career. But with his wife dead we know that that glittering life is in the past. So what’s he trying to live for?
Well, justice. Also, revenge. But that’s not enough reason to live for a true hero. So there’s another tiny, telling scene. Dr Kimble is in a hospital foyer at the same time as a little boy lies on a trolley, gravely ill, waiting for the right diagnosis and treatment. Kimble takes an enormous risk to his own safety to stop and comfort the boy. He speaks to the child with the gentle, unmistakeable authority of a great doctor. Kimble gets the child to the right specialist, and delivers the correct life-saving diagnosis. That’s when we realise what Dr Kimble must live for, and what he will do with his life if and when he regains his freedom.
So I wrote a new section into that strategy speech. It went beyond the solutions to the problems. I painted a short word portrait of the company in five years time. It turned the speech from what could have been a dour list of jobs and performance measures into a strategy capable of inspiring people to sign on.
In 1963 Dr Martin Luther King gave his famous speech calling for the end of racism at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. This speech too is a list of problems and arguments for solutions. Or could have been.
“We can never be satisfied”, thunders Dr King, “As long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: "For Whites Only." We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream’."
Dr King could with great justice have concluded the speech in that sad despairing state. But just at that point in his address the great Mahalia Jackson, the gospel singer, called out to her friend. “Tell them about the dream Martin!”
And it was at that point that Dr King began to ad-lib the most famous, potent and inspirational riff of the speech…I have a dream! No less than seven times Dr King calls out, I have a dream! as he paints his inspiring and compelling portrait of a future, equal America. Then he landed on his final vignette, “ 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. I have a dream!”
We remember that speech now as the I have a dream speech. That’s the key change which took the speech to another level. And why we remember it as one of the greatest of all time. Tell ‘em about the dream.