Tag Archives: speeches

Muting the Dream

Source: commons wikimedia
Source: commons wikimedia

It’s difficult to judge if King knew what taking his discourse out of the public domain would mean. 

The release of the film Selma this month adds meaning to the holiday honoring Martin Luther King’s birthday.  But some details about what the producers had to do to put King’s courage on view add a slightly sour note to this year’s tribute.

Most Americans probably do not know that the great civil rights leader’s words may not be rewritten or replayed without payment to King’s heirs.  Soon after the famous “I have a Dream” speech on the National Mall, King moved to legally retain legal ownership of it, and eventually other statements made by him throughout the years of his struggle. He copyrighted his public rhetoric in a way few would ever think possible or desirable.  It’s difficult to judge if King knew what taking his discourse out of the public domain would mean.

The family’s explanation for monetizing and controlling the leader’s rhetoric is that he and they did not want his words used for commercial or unintended purposes. If you want a video copy of the speech, you will need to buy it from Amazon or some other seller of audio content. If you are a documentary filmmaker seeking footage of the era, payment would be required for any portions that include statements from King. And if you are retelling key moments from his life, his words are off-limits, even though the family has apparently licensed segments for use in commercials.

The challenge was especially great for the producers of Selma, who were forced to write their own King-like oratory to recreate the fateful 1965 march. The exclusive film rights to those words have apparently been sold to DreamWorks’ Steven Spielberg.

It even gets even more peculiar. Stanford University runs the Martin Luther King Institute that oversees a “King Papers Project.” But getting access to the papers is not easy. Here’s their online warning:

The Institute cannot give permission to use or reproduce any of the writings, statements, or images of Martin Luther King, Jr. Please do not contact us for this purpose.
Inquiries regarding the use or reproduction King's writings or statements should be directed to the manager of the Estate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:  Intellectual Properties Management (IPM).

How very strange, for several reasons.  First, in my years in academic publishing, I’ve rarely encountered an editor who had to pay a license fee in order to reprint speeches and statements from major political or social figures. I’m sure it has happened somewhere. But most principals or their estates understand that the nation’s civil culture is predicated on widespread dissemination of foundational documents. The general guideline is usually that it’s more about the ideas than monetizing them.

Second, when you put a price on jeremiads that called on others to join a collective struggle, claiming legal ownership of those words undermines the very ethic of personal sacrifice they are ostensibly about. King asked much of his followers, especially when they were recruited to march—as in Selma—without any police protection.  Given the willingness of so many to selflessly further the cause of civil rights, It’s difficult to understand why he set up an intellectual property mechanism that would put his rhetorical legacy on the auction block.  Freely sharing his words would have been better served the idea that this was a collective struggle.  Surely documents that are part of a nation’s social and cultural advances deserve a better fate than being sold to the highest bidder.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu

The PowerPoint Crutch

-powerpoint-presentationPowerPoint, video and computer illustrations can help reinforce a presenter’s ideas.  But they can also create their own distractions and disrupt the flow of ideas.

None of us can attend a presentation these days without immediately noticing a nervous speaker double checking the computer, projector and screen that will be a part of what ever is about to unfold.  The equipment needed for a presentation to a group used to be simpler: little more than a podium and a glass of water.  Today even a routine request to a college student to lead a brief class discussion on a reading is apt to trigger on onslaught of unnecessary slides.

It’s usually a good idea to ward off this impulse. PowerPoints are not the salvation of every talk.  Indeed, its easier to argue that they are often the problem.  Given the natural nervousness that comes with making any presentation, its no surprise that we look to a computer application to bale us out.  But preparing an outline of a presentation for an audience to read is a weak strategy.  Your presence can be more interesting than any set of slides, and in at least one rare instance, less lethal.

After the disintegration of the Space Shuttle Columbia during re-entry over Texas in 2003 a NASA investigation team looking at the accident cited, among other things, a PowerPoint slide prepared by Boeing that was supposed to summarize the risks posed by ice and foam hitting its wings during liftoff.  This was usually a routine occurrence.  Ice that had built up on the fuel tanks always fell off and hit the shuttle during a launch. The problem was the PowerPoint slide itself.  It was so unclear as to be meaningless, leaving decision-makers in a fog of confusion.  Had the risks been stated more clearly, a plan B might have been formulated to save the crew of that mission.

Facsimile slide from NASA Columbia Investigation Board Report, Vol. 1, August 2003.
An ambiguous slide cited by the NASA Columbia Investigation Board Report, Vol. 1, August 2003.

Fortunately, most presentations do not produce casualties. PowerPoint, video and computer illustrations can help reinforce main points. But they can also create their own distractions and disrupt the flow of ideas.  As anyone who has sat through someone else’s vacation pictures knows, we are usually less interesting to others when we try to convert our stories into slides.

There are a host of problems with most PowerPoints:

  • We use too many.
  • Slides often compete with speakers rather than complement their ideas.  Indeed, we are culturally addicted to screens.  Our attention moves to them even when they have nothing useful to show.
  • Slides can state something, but they don’t explain well.  And oral messages should be all about rich and detailed explanations.
  • Completing a set of slides gives us a false assurance that our presentational burdens have been met.  But that’s a false impression.  It’s the speaker’s obligation to be the center of attention, using all the resources of the voice and body.
  • Making other people read your ideas is settling for second best; it’s passive when what an audience truly needs is passion.
  • A presenter should not be the note-taker for an audience.  People usually get more out of a presentation if they are the ones converting the presenter’s ideas into notes.

I once advised a person who was about to address a business group to forgo PowerPoints in favor of a knockout face-to-face presentation.  When she told the executive that hired her she wouldn’t need to use computer and projection equipment, he hardly paused before insisting that she bring along something to show.  It’s funny that we don’t require stand-up comedians to travel with visual props . Comedy presenters understand that its their presence that needs to be the center of attention.  Even so, if a presenter feels like they will appear to be a Luddite without something to show, they should opt for the Ted Talk approach:  only one idea on the screen at time, thoroughly proved, explained and fully amplified.  Above all, slides must never compete with speakers.  They should simply state in a few words what a speaker is about to turn into a verbal rhapsody.