Quotations are an old, tried-and-true speech technique. Used correctly, they can spice up a speech by adding variety and dynamism, reinforce your message, boost your credibility and show your preparation.
A quotation is a concise and memorable phrasing of an idea, usually done by a well known and reputed person. Even extremely accomplished speakers use quotes constantly. One of the most liked and retweeted twits ever was US President Barack Obama quoting Nelson Mandela on Racism:
Where to use them
Quotations can be used in any part of the speech. However, their usage must be consistent with the part of the speech where they are located.
- At the very beginning. As you probably know, speech openings should be always attention-grabbing, high-energy and high-impact, which means that opening with a quote is a risky proposition. If you still want to use a quote at the beginning, you need to create some suspense and tension. There's nothing more boring than opening with "Albert Einstein once said .. blah blah blah". A better approach would be something like:
- In the middle of the speech. This is the safest place to place a quote.
- At the end of the speech. Again, this is a risky proposition as speeches usually need to end with a high energy level (and many times - with a call to action), and leave a lasting impression. For example, imagine that you want to inspire people to follow their dreams. You might be tempted to end with something like:
This is a great quote by Eleanor Roosevelt, but it doesn't carry a big "punch". It's abstract, and it's too impersonal for a speech ending. A bit better (but still not perfect) would be Malala Yousafzai's:
This quote is direct, is inclusive ("let us") and carries a more "action"-oriented message.
Where to find them
There are literally tons of resources on the Internet that allow you to search famous quotations based on a topic you're interested in. Some of these are:
There are also many books that offer curated and verified quotes. Some of the most venerable are:
Even if you don't want to remember the most popular sites, you can always search "quotes on" + your topic of interest. For example "quotes on freedom of speech" (or "freedom of speech quotes"), "quotes on science and progress", etc.
Selecting a quotation
When selecting a quotation, it's important to remember the context in which it will be used:
- Avoid Clichés. There are some quotes that have been so overused - in all sorts of irrelevant contexts - that all their meaning has been long lost and have turned into a Cliché. Some examples are: "to be or not to be - that is the question", or "I have a dream", or "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.". If you ask around your friends and colleagues about a quote that you want to use and everyone seems to know it, then it's probably not a good choice.
- Length suitable to the medium. For speeches, quotes should be short, no more than a single sentence. For written speech (articles, blogs, books, etc. ) you can use longer quotes. Usually, the more formal is the writing (eg: newspaper vs research paper), the longer quotes are allowed.
- Familiarity. Select a quote from a person your audience is most likely to know and appreciate. The whole point of a quotation is to provide some credibility to your message by showing how a well-known person supports it. Watch how US President Ronald Reagan uses a quote from the Back to The Future movie when addressing the young in his 1986 State of the Union Address:
Quoting a witty and humorous sentence from an obscure author destroys the purpose of having it in the first place. If you still want to have your quotation because it's humorous or particularly appropriate, then you can provide a very small explanation of who the author is, or simply use a generic attribution:In the words.of a famous activist, what this country needs is more unemployed politicians.
- Authority. If you're aiming for persuasion, always quote people that are authorities in their fields. If you're talking about climate change, don't quote a biologist, or if you're talking about genetics, don't quote a climatologist. Even If you're talking about general issues that seem universal - such as love, religion, our place in the world, growing up, overcoming challenges, there are still "implicit" authorities, such as the people that had to live through or endure an exceptionally strong experience in these areas. If instead, you're aiming for entertainment, then it's fine and even desirable to hear what Gordon Ramsay (a famous chef) has to say about philosophy, or what Cristiano Ronaldo (soccer player) has to say about the future of mankind. Make sure that you don't mock the person you're quoting, and explot the contrast that is created between the expectation that you will quote an authority and the actual person you have chosen. For example, see how Michael Eric Dyson quotes Beyonce as a philospher, in The Munk Debates about Political Correctness:
- Recency. If you're talking about universal timeless issues such as love, family, good vs evil, moral, etc., then it doesn't really matter whether you choose a Greek philosopher from 2300 years ago or a modern-day politician. However, if you're talking about things that have undergone significant progress or changes in perception - such as science, technology, civil rights, environment protection, privacy, animal rights, then it´s better if you can find a supporter that is more modern.
- Historical and Personal Context. If you're aiming for persuasion, it's extremely important to consider the influence of the context in which the phrase was said, and to make sure it's at least somewhat similar to your own context. Otherwise, you risk sounding desperate or manipulative:
- This reference to Churchill sounds hollow and exaggerated since the circumstances in which it was pronounced (at the beginning of World War II) are completely different from fighting crime in a society at peace.
How to use them
Practice. Make sure you practice and know the quote and its author by heart. However, do not memorize more than the bare minimum necessary, or you risk going blank during a speech. Especially do not try to memorize years or specific locations, as these rarely add value to the quote. For example:
You say - they say - you say. When you use a quotation, it always has to be supported by your own commentary. Usually, the "sandwich" approach is also recommended here:
- You make a statement or advance a position or present a message. ("You say")
- You introduce the quotation. ("They say")
- You comment on it or develop further. ("You say")
Never alter a quotation without clearly pointing it out. If you need to alter a quotation to make it suitable for your speech, make sure to say that clearly. A formula that usually works well is starting your version of the quote with "Paraphrasing (and you say the original author)....." or "As (original author) would have probably said if he lived today..". You can come up with your own formula as well.. For example:
Even when paraphrasing, try to avoid quotes that are cliches.
Quotations are supporting devices, not protagonists. Unless you are centering your whole speech around a certain person or event directly related to the quote, there's no need to provide more context information than strictly needed.
Quotations are not fillers. Do not use a quotation just because you don't have anything better to say or just because you have to have a quotation.
Quotations as learning material
Quotations can also be used as learning material. Think what made the quote so memorable. Its rarely only due to the fame of the person that said it. After all, even famous people and very accomplished speakers say dull things that no one remembers. Try to come up with your own similar, witty and bite-sized idea summaries for your speech messages. Imagine others quoting your material. What would they quote and why?
As a speaker, misquoting a person, or misattributing a quotation - especially during a debate or a high-stakes speech - is one of the easiest ways to destroy your credibility. The more visible you are as a leader or as a speaker, the more scrutiny every single word of your speech will undergo.
Even if you're not a speaker, you should make it a habit of researching quotations that are used as supporting arguments in speeches, as some people will misuse them in order to convince you to trust their agendas. In fact, this is part of our Critical Thinking program.
Nowadays researching a quote is a much easier task than before.
- If you have a reference for the source of the quote, try to verify it directly. This holds especially true for interviews or publications by the author of the quote himself.
- You can post a question to "quotation investigation" sites such as https://quoteinvestigator.com/
- You can Google the quote and see if it appears in any reputable sources, such as printed books, mainstream newspapers, etc.
- Try to Google the quote plus search terms such as "original author", "attribution", or "origin". For example, "Original author The price of freedom is eternal vigilance"
Research the following quotes, verifying whether they are authentic and whether they have been correctly attributed.
- "I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it". - Voltaire.
- "The only two certainties in life are death and taxes" - Mark Twain.
- "Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former." - Albert Einstein.
- "I invented the internet". - Al. Gore.
- "An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people " - Thomas Jefferson.
- "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned" - William Congreve.
- "Give me liberty, or give me death!" - Patrick Henry.