At 3am the night before, the speech wasn’t done and the pressure was mounting for the 34 year old pastor, community organizer and national rabble rouser. As had happened so many times in their ever-developing strategy, they’d pushed most of their chips into the middle of the table.
The stakes? There would be 250,000 people gathered around the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC and and millions more watching on their now antiquated television screens. Celebrities like Rosa Parks, Bob Dylan, Jackie Robinson, Marlon Brando and Harry Belafonte would pepper the audience. Like all of the other speakers, he only had five minutes of allotted time. “If I can talk as long as I want,” President Woodrow Wilson once said, “it requires no preparation…If it is a ten-minute speech, it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it.”
In 272 words, Abraham Lincoln used the Gettysburg Address to reframe the struggle of the Civil War as a fight for justice, equality and ensuring the bedrock claims of the Declaration of Independence were enacted into reality. He received that invitation two weeks in advance. The young pastor had even more time than this to think and to craft.
Two hours before standing at the steps of Lincoln to deliver one of the most important speeches ever given, in the literal shadow of monument to rhetorical greatness from one hundred years before, Martin Luther King, Jr. couldn’t land the speech. Minutes before it was time, he was still furiously working on it, knowing it wasn’t there yet. “Just before King spoke, politician Drew Hensen writes, he was “crossing out lines and scribbling new ones as he awaited his turn. And it looked like he was still editing the speech until he walked to the podium to deliver it.”
He stood at the podium and delivered the opening pages of the speech, staying mostly on course, but ad libbing a few extras here and there. But about mid way through, the voice of King’s favorite gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, came ringing through the audience behind him:
“Tell ’em about the dream, Martin!”
As Clarence Jones put it, “In front of all those people, cameras and microphones, Martin winged it.”
The voice boomed through the microphone and into living rooms across the world and across the annals of history: “I have a dream….”
At that point Martin Luther King, Jr. diverged from his speech entirely to deliver what is considered one of the most important speeches in human history. The kicker? Starting with the phrase, “I have a dream,” none of it was in his actual prepared speech.
The question we’re left to ask ourselves is this: What does this story tell us about the process of innovation?
Lesson #1: You have to put in the work to get the innovation.
MLK knew this was an incredibly important speech and he put it the work. Months before that day in Washington, he gathered three close advisers to talk through content and tone. He then brought in Clarence Jones, his lawyer and collaborative speechwriter. But he resisted landing the overall direction.
The previous year, he’d traveled more than 275,000 miles and given more than 350 speeches. What this produced was a whole host of “oratorical fragments.” Hansen again gives some insight: “He collected a repertoire of…successful passages from his own sermons, sections from other preachers’ work, anecdotes, Bible verses, lines from poets. King did not so much write speeches as assemble them.”
And in the last year, he’d assembled a lot of them.
Lesson #2: You have to trust yourself and your intuition.
When Mahalia Jackson called out to him in the middle of the speech, encouraging him to tell the crowd about the dream, something inside of him responded. With more on the line than almost any other time, he knew it was time to jump off script, but he had the confidence to deviate. There was as belief in himself, in the work he’d put in and in the moment. The timing felt right. So he went for it.
But this wasn’t simply a blind leap of faith, and as we think about innovation around the things that we lead, we shouldn’t be so blind either. King had a track record of success when he used his intuition in spur of the moment situations. This wasn’t happening in a vacuum or even that rarely. It just happened to be a much bigger moment.
So yes, trust your intuition, but use the smaller decision to hone that intuitive sense so when the big moments arrive, you’re ready.
Lesson #3: You have to cultivate your half ideas and slow hunches.
What’s interesting is that the “I have a dream” fragment had made its way into lots of his speeches in the previous year. But it had never really worked. He knew there was something there, but he hadn’t stuck the landing yet. So he kept working on it, kept iterating it, kept experimenting with that phrase and, most importantly, the description of the dream itself. The previous versions were clunky and felt uninspired. But there was a sense that it was worth cultivating.
Stephen Johnson is an innovation and ideas writer and he calls this the practice of “cultivation.” It’s the process of knowing you have a half idea or a slow hunch that is worth digging into and not letting go of. It’s about collecting them and constantly honing them.
It’s what you actively see at work in the year leading up to this speech.
Lesson #4: You have to know when it’s not actually there yet.
Ultimately, I think it’s fair to say that King didn’t think his original speech was good enough. It wasn’t just his intuition, it wasn’t just the moment at hand, and it wasn’t just Mahalia Jackson. The speech in front of him, that he’d feverishly worked on, completely thrown out and rewritten with a room full of people the night before, was editing and scratching things out literally seconds before he hit the podium…it just wasn’t working the way he needed it to.
We are conditioned to think he was taking a risk. He couldn’t deliver a subpar speech, and with the notes in front of him, he was about to give a good speech, but certainly not an all-timer. King was not actually taking a risk; he was mitigating one. He needed greatness and what was in front of him wasn’t great. He knew it wasn’t good enough, but he knew he’d put in the work, he knew he grew up in a rhetorical tradition that apprentices preachers in improvisation just like a jazz musician, and he knew he’d spent a year cultivating the ideas behind the description of the dream.
It was a greater risk not to deviate. He was safer improvising than he was sticking on script. He needed this win, his speech wasn’t going to make the mark he needed, so he innovated in the moment.
And we, ladies and gentlemen, are all beneficiaries of that.
As U.S. Congressman and Civil Rights activist John Lewis said: “Dr. King had the power, the ability, and the capacity to transform those steps on the Lincoln Memorial into a monumental area that will forever be recognized. By speaking the way he did, he educated, he inspired, he informed not just the people there, but people throughout America and unborn generations.”