Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Guest post: In praise of quotations

(Editor's note: Brian Jenner, founder of the UK Speechwriter's Guild, published this appreciation of using quotations in speeches in the Guild's most recent newsletter, and graciously extended permission for me to republish it here. Thanks, Brian!)

When I was 13, I heard a speech at my school which was made by the Principal of St Hilda’s College, our next door neighbour. She used the postcode, ‘O*X*4 1*D*Z’, and repeated it over and over again. I think the general idea was co-operation between institutions. She pronounced the letters as a mantra, and they stuck.

One of the few things I can remember David Cameron saying is ’N*H*S’ - which worked probably for the same reasons.

In the lower sixth, the Chaplain gave a speech titled ‘sicut lilium, inter spinas’ which was the school motto - like the lily among thorns, taken from the Sermon the Mount. He went on to talk about legitimate pride in institutions. The fact that the phrase was in Latin helped make it sticky.

A year later I remember my headmaster using the quotation that is attributed to many different sources, ‘Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.’ The rhythm of that quotation helped to embed it in my memory.

Considering I left school 25 years ago, these speakers were either very impressive or I was very impressionable.

Nowadays when I listen, with a critical ear to speeches, I’ve become convinced a good quotation is one of the simplest and most powerful was to lift a speech. Quotations are coriander in the salad. They add vitality and depth.

In rhetoric, there is a term diatyposis, which means recommending useful precepts. A classic example is the speech of Polonius to Laertes in Hamlet. Proverbs are easy to remember - they’re concentrated thought.
Quoting is a straightforward way to amplify a message. You’re using an external authority to make your point and the fact that you need a build up and context, means the line will stand out.

Before Neville Chamberlain left for Munich for talks with Hitler in September 1938 he spoke at Heston aerodrome using just over 50 words, quoting proverbial wisdom and Shakespeare. It’s a superb example of economy of expression to express the seriousness of his task: “When I was a little boy, I was told if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again. This is what I am doing. When I come back, I hope I may be able to say as Hotspur says in Henry IV: ‘Out of the nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.”

One of my favourite writers is the psychotherapist Irvin Yalom. He writes books popularising the ideas of psychotherapy. Almost every book uses the same half-dozen quotations to illustrate his principles. One from Nietzsche, for example: ‘To become wise you must learn to listen to the wild dogs barking in your cellar.’

This makes it very easy to communicate Yalom’s ideas in conversation to other people because you remember the key phrases and you can use them as a starting point to expand on what he believes.

Organisations like Alcoholics Anonymous use mantras, which they repeat at meetings, to help their members change their behaviour and give them strength.

It’s perhaps appropriate to end this article with a shower of wise sayings to summarise the ideas in this article.

‘The aphorism is the perfect fishhook, for it catches the most fish’ according to Nietzsche. Samuel Johnson said: ‘He is a benefactor of mankind who contracts the great rules of life into short sentences, that may be easily impressed on the memory, and so recur habitually to the mind.’ Dorothy Sayers put it more crudely: ‘I always have a quotation for everything—it saves original thinking.’

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