“Tell them about the dream, Martin!” That’s what the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, sitting up front after having just sung a couple of songs, said to Martin Luther King, Jr. as he paused briefly in the midst of the most famous speech of the past century.
Dr. King had come to the Lincoln Memorial on this day fifty years ago with a carefully prepared speech. “I have a dream” was not in the speech that he had on the paper in front of him. He had used the dream metaphor in previous speeches and sermons that year. But he was allotted only five minutes on the program this day, so he was trying to keep it short.
But Ms. Jackson’s exhortation and the dynamic of the moment, the 100,000 people gathered at Mr. Lincoln’s feet in urgent, desperate anticipation, emboldened Dr. King to go off script in the best possible way.
He connected with that audience and that moment, and his words still connect today. But if he had stuck to the prepared remarks, we would not have this gift that came from that moment.
He wasn’t “winging it”. He was improvising, using ideas and words he had used before, but mixing them on the spot and drawing them from the creative well he had cultivated throughout his work.
King was not talking at the audience. He was with them. And he could create in the moment and work with what the audience was giving and what they needed.
Remarkable leaders, speakers, and performers respond to the moment and in the moment. We should be so well prepared, so immersed in our material, that we can improvise and surprise ourselves and make something amazing that will go far beyond what we have even dreamed.