Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Using quotes in speeches? Figure out why and take it to the next level

Stop and think about it: How may times have you used a quotation in a speech? For some speakers (and speechwriters), a speech isn't a speech without a quotation...or three. I'm just wondering whether you know why you're using a quotation...and whether it's working for you as well as it might.

Here's a recent example: The CEO of the Chrysler Group's talk to a convention of dealers was covered by a newspaper that noted the following about his message:
He may look like the rumpled guy next door, but when it comes to culture, Chrysler Group CEO Sergio Marchionne is ivy league. In a lengthy speech to 2,400 Chrysler dealers meeting in Orlando, Fla., last week, the sweater-clad Marchionne sprinkled his remarks with references to literary, political and military icons, such as English writer Charles Dickens, American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, Italian philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli and U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower.
That's a lot of people to share your stage -- and that's exactly what you're doing when you choose to quote someone, or many people.

Like any tactic, quotations in speeches or presentations need to be purposeful. Here are some reasons speakers use quotations--and how you can take them to the next level:
  • To open your speech:  Far too many speakers open with "As the famous [fill in the blank] once said...." -- perhaps because openings are high-pressure and using someone else's words momentarily takes the pressure off. But people have come to hear you speak, and to hold an audience's attention, you need a strong, fast start.  Come up with an original beginning and hold the quotes for later.
  • Because the quote's so well known: This might be the worst reason to use a quotation. Rather than serve up the expected and known, keep attention and intrigue high with an unexpected but apt quotation they're less likely to have heard.  Audiences love to learn and hear something they didn't know that will make them see something new. Even better:  Find what was said right after a famous quotation that might refute it, add new perspective or expand the point in a direction you want to take. (Yes, this requires more research.)  Can't find one? Pass on the quotation.
  • To rev up your presentation:  Quotations often seem livelier to the person speaking them or the speechwriter looking for inspiration than to those hearing them. After all, you've had more time to get enthused about that quote. But before you use it to prop up your presentation, consider whether you can use other tactics, from props to physical movement, to enliven your show.  Or go live, and get fresh quotes from a source your audience is bound to like:  Ask people in the audience to share observations.
  • Because the famous person said it so much better than you could:  Again, the audience is here to hear you.  You won't find your own voice or grow as a speaker if you're going to rely on others' words all the time.  Figure out whether the quotation is masking your own apprehension, fear or nervousness, then figure out your own words--that authenticity will bring your speech to heights you can claim all for yourself.  U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson was reported by his own speechwriters to routinely cross out the names of the famous men whose quotes were inserted in his speeches, preferring to preface the quotes with, "As my dear old daddy used to say...." -- suggesting that he understood it was the words, not the famous label, that mattered.  As speechwriter Liz Carpenter learned: "Leave Aristotle out of it."
  • To remind us of something we've forgotten:  A corollary to the magic of the underused or little-known quotation is the one that brings us back to a home truth, especially one that's been ignored, put aside or lost in the shuffle of a big debate. If a quotation--particularly from a speaker from the past who shares something with your audience today--does that, make a special place for it.
  • To bring two sides together:  Some of the best political quotations show us a glimpse of what we have in common with our enemies and opponents. If you're facing an audience with warring factions and can find a quotation that mends the fence, even momentarily, give it a go.  In this case, using the quotation lets the original speaker of those words serve, in effect, as an oratorical diplomat for you--it's not you saying this, it's Abraham Lincoln or Hillary Clinton.  Of course, a lot rides on the voice you choose to carry those words, so use caution here.
  • To create a debate without another partner:  If you want to add drama and debate without sharing the podium, quote someone famous--and then refute them.  Argue your side against the words of your virtual opponent, adding contrast, drama, and energy to your side of the debate. One of the oldest rhetorical tricks in the book, and one of the most effective, when it's done right.
  • To turn one point in a direction you choose, with a twist:  Aphorisms (like Eleanor Roosevelt's line, "A woman is like a tea bag--only in hot water do you realize how strong she is") make for great quotes, because they're short and end in a twist. You can use that twist to move from one point to its opposite, to turn a debate on its head, or to add humor while making a point.  Check out these five rules for aphorisms and a good reference for finding them on our sister blog at don't get caught.  Then take it to the next level and write your own aphorism, rather than quoting a famous one.
Use these two resources to find quotations from women, and to find women's speeches from which you can quote.  Share your rationale for quotation use in the comments.  Do you use, overuse, avoid them or something else?


I'm delighted that this post made it into the roundup of the best speaking posts in the blogosphere for the week of October 8 on the great Six Minutes blog by Andrew Dlugan. Thanks, Andrew!
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