By Cali Pitchel, Belief Agency
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a master orator. It is not uncommon to hear his name among other great communicators, including Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, and Barack Obama. His speeches were poignant, powerful, and beautifully delivered. He knew when to pause, when to repeat himself, and when to raise his voice in emphasis. But beyond his skill was a dream for the future—a day when our nation would “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.”
We have much to learn from Martin Luther King, Jr. Although many will argue his legacy has greatly impacted race relations since the tumult of the 1960s, his vision for the future is far from complete. Fifty-one years later, American is “still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.” Racism is still deeply embedded in our institutions, and inequality remains the defining feature of American culture. For fear of sounding crass, I wanted to take these first few sentences to be clear and acknowledge my awareness of the limited expression of his “dream” before I talk about what advertisers, specifically, can learn from his legacy.
Why did Martin Luther King, Jr. (literally) give his life for civil rights? Because he operated from the fundamental belief, the conviction, that all people are created equal and deserve the same opportunity—unbound by stereotypes, biases, injustices, and prejudices—to lead successful, productive lives. How did he try to realize this vision? Not through violence or hate, but through communicating, eloquently and with great influence, his dream for a more equal future; by peacefully protesting for radical change; by sacrificing his time, energy, and emotion (and that of his family and closest friends and confidants) for redemption and reconciliation. Why was he so effective? Millions lifted the banner for civil rights. Hundreds of thousands gathered at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, to listen to his clarion call for love and forgiveness. TIME Magazine ranks his “I Have a Dream” speech among the greatest speeches of all time. His impact was wide and deep, transcending his lifetime and galvanizing a mass of people around a common goal.
Inspiration, not manipulation
It is in part because Martin Luther King, Jr. leaned not on manipulation, but on inspiration. There is a marked difference between the two: to manipulate is “to manage or influence skillfully, especially in an unfair manner: to manipulate people’s feelings,” and to inspire is “to fill with an animating, quickening, or exalting influence: His courage inspired his followers.” Manipulate says listen here and do this. Inspire says watch me and then follow.
“PEOPLE DON’T BUY WHAT YOU DO, THEY BUY WHY YOU DO IT.” — SIMON SINEK
Simon Sinek said there are only two ways to get people to act: “manipulate them or inspire them.” As advertisers, we vacillate between the two. We manipulate the audience through price drops and scare tactics. We inspire the audience by telling a compelling story. The most effective, but often times the more difficult path, is to inspire by communicating why—the purpose, cause, or belief driving all decisions—over the what. Why builds relationships over the long term; what sacrifices a loyal cohort for the short term or the quick buck. For example: Apple tells us we can see the world differently. Dell, on the other hand, builds us machines. Which company has the more loyal following?
Why do you do what you do?
Martin Luther King, Jr. was able to articulate, to a wide audience, his why. His speeches were not only a case for the equality of all people, they were about a world in which all violence, poverty, and injustice were wiped away. His central messages of love and equality drove all action. He organized sit-ins; he didn’t call people to arms. He returned vitriol with calm, reasoned responses; he didn’t reply in anger. He said turn the other cheek; he didn’t condone striking back. His message inspired. Love, not hatred, heals hearts and changes minds. He never sacrificed the message for the medium.
The same should go for advertisers—and really, all of us. The temptation is to manipulate the audience because it is quick and easy. But, those companies demonstrating real, sustained, long-term success have built loyal relationships with their customers by communicating their purpose first. Their how and what exist to manifest and reinforce the why.
Today we are remembering Martin Luther King, Jr. for what he did to change the tide of race relations in our country—by mightily inspiring us through love, struggle, and sacrifice to work tirelessly for a better future.
“IF YOU CAN’T FLY THEN RUN, IF YOU CAN’T RUN THEN WALK, IF YOU CAN’T WALK THEN CRAWL, BUT WHATEVER YOU DO YOU HAVE TO KEEP MOVING FORWARD.” —MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.