Martin Luther King: master of metaphor

Give your metaphors legs: from metaphor to allegory

I was invited this week by Patricia Mansencal to give an online-workshop on the Power of Metaphor at the newly chartered but already wonderfully dynamic Toastmasters Academy Rome.

Metaphors are powerful because they are visual and because they help us explain concepts in a non-abstract way. I mentioned recent creative uses of metaphor by my fellow Toastmasters Allisha Ali, Krisztina Stump and by Florian Mueck, with whom I recently had the honour to share the online stage at Lukas Liebich’s Storyteller Sundays.

At Toastmasters you always always always get feedback. Lilian Shaftacola, a fellow Toastmaster from Cyprus, recommended one thing I didn’t do: give examples from a famous speech.

Well, if one speaker was rich in metaphor, it is Martin Luther King. He hardly spoke a sentence without and it speaks of the memorability of metaphor that I can remember this one from his most famous speech without having to look it up:

“Let us not still our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness.”

His dream sequence also has metaphors aplenty (and this one I did look up):

“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.”

One of my favourites is from his Letter from Birmingham Jail where this metaphor dramatises the contrast:

“The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet-like speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.”

Give it legs

But metaphor is most powerful when it becomes an allegory, when you give it legs. Turn it into a theme! Develop the theme over a few sentences or come back to it at different stages of your speech.

In his I have dream-speech, Martin Luther King does this with the metaphor of a check. He compares the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence to a check made out to all citizens. Now he develops the allegory:

“America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.'”

Then he develops it further:
“But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.“

Aristotle said: “The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor.“ He didn’t say it was easy but the first step to mastery is to see how the masters do it. Martin Luther King was a master of metaphor.

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3 thoughts on “Martin Luther King: master of metaphor

  1. This is fantastic, these metaphors are the things I want to feed on more during this lock down, these can be my protein :-).

    I love the metaphor of the check as a contract and then the idea of a bad check.

  2. Fantastic article. Here is another metaphor from Mother Theresa, “I’m a little pencil in the hand of a writing God, who is sending a love letter to the world.” Metaphors and Words are the power tools of Communication. In our culture of technological mayhem and visual congestion, we need to make metaphors matter as we weave the cultural tapestry of the 21st century.

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