How Inspirational Leaders Communicate

Great speeches and presentations have these principles in common.

How Inspirational Leaders Communicate
[Photo: Flickr user Geoff Livingston]

There were 14 speakers on that hot summer’s day in 1963 when some 250,000 people marched on Washington, but the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech will forever be the most quoted and taught one from that day.


The reason: King did not seek to persuade or motivate his listeners; he wanted to inspire them.

Through the use of psychology we can now understand not only why this speech was so inspirational but also how we can all replicate the effect.

The Science Of Communication

Swiss developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, proposed that the ability to understand others represents a major milestone in a child’s intellectual development. Young children are unable to detach themselves from their own point of view and therefore assume that the world appears to others as it does to them. Their world is all they can see, hear, feel, smell, and experience.

Over time, though, we all come to realize that there are many different realities in the world that provides us with the ability to empathize with others. But rarely are people able to consistently decouple their own psychology and experiences from the situation and internalize the perspective of the other person.

It is this skill that a surprising number of people lack, and behavioral scientists have found that without it, the effectiveness of any communication with others is reduced.

With this in mind, how did King use this to awaken inspiration within the amassed crowds? In truth he does something very simple, but incredibly effective.


Midway through his speech he asks a question.

“There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?”

In those five words he summed up the exact question the crowd believed was being asked of them daily. The question provided him the opportunity to answer on behalf of those without a platform; a dream of a shared utopian view of the future.

The Origin Of The “Why”

Some will describe this as his “why.”

In the late 1970s, while working as a Kindergarten teacher, Dr. Bernice McCarthy was inspired by the different ways that children learned and how best to engage with them.

She developed the basic communication tool called 4mat: “Why?”, “What?”, “How?”, and “What if?” This was designed to lead children on a journey that would cover all of their learning styles thus ensuring no child was overlooked in the classroom.


In isolation this communication tool is useful but does not offer the complete structure for an inspirational experience.

Inspiration Matters

One of the difficulties in understanding how inspirational leaders communicate has been our casual definition of inspiration. Many confuse this word with motivation or operate under the assumption that anyone can “just be inspiring.”

Dr. Todd Thrash and Andrew Elliot of Rochester University are two of the leading researchers studying the psychology of inspiration. that there are three distinct stages that an individual will go through in the experience of inspiration: evocation, transcendence, and approach motivation.

Clarence B. Jones was with King on that historic day and described the moment after the speech concluded: “. . . a whole lot of people watching on their tiny television sets were aware that they had just experienced something transcendent. The ‘I Have a Dream’ speech was less than a minute old, yet it already felt timeless.”

The Heart Of Communication

Fundamentally, what lies at the heart of our need to communicate?

All verbal communication makes us feel better about ourselves. Whether we are getting something off our chest or telling someone that we love them, the effect on our emotions is repeatedly the same.


So when King embraced and aligned the crowds with his speech, he gave them the opportunity to speak that they had been denied.

The inspirational leader embodies and personifies this when giving public speeches and takes the audience on the journey with them.

In Nancy Duarte’s TED talk, “The Secret Structure of Great Talks,” she presents an analysis tool which tracks the emotional peaks and troughs of some of the greatest talks ever given.

Duarte puts forward that inspirational speakers use a method of “pressure and release” repeatedly to take people on a journey through their address.

This can certainly be seen with King’s speech, and Duarte noted that, although maybe not consciously, this strategy is repeated by the most successful business leaders, including Steve Jobs.

Jobs’ ability to move back and forth between an unsatisfactory status quo and an exciting future was a journey that we all wanted to take. After all, in an age of bulky Walkman’s and tape decks who didn’t want “a thousand songs in your pocket?”


More and more leaders recognize that the skill to draw in customers, attract talent, or effect change is determined by their ability to inspire others. Whether you are leading a movement of social change or launching a new product, science now shows us how this secret works.

Now the only real question remaining is: Who do you want to inspire?

Ross Kingsland is a speaker, author and entrepreneur who writes about real psychology in real business so that everyone can understand and achieve the results they want more effectively. Ross and his licensed trainers support organizations and individuals to achieve the outcome they want using the science and art of inspiration. Follow him on Twitter.