Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Should your speech quote Aristotle or Dr. Seuss? What it says about you

After U.S. Senator Ted Cruz quoted Dr. Seuss during his recent filibuster, NPR's Scott Simon observed that when politicians use quotes, they look for solid ground, saying, "The purpose of a quote in politics isn't to be interesting — and certainly not provocative. It's to tie yourself to something or someone indisputable." 

In his view, that means going for Groucho Marx rather than Karl Marx, the person to whom more of us can relate. That's a tactic that goes back to U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson, whose speechwriter Liz Carpenter revealed it in a 2003 article on How to write a speech:
You've got to make sure that everything you write will be understood by the audience. There's a famous story about LBJ going over a draft of a speech by a new speechwriter. He was reading it aloud to [Congressman] Jake Pickle, and he got down to a quotation from Aristotle. LBJ exploded: "Aristotle? Aristotle? Those people don't know who the hell Aristotle is!" So he took out his fountain pen, crossed out "Aristotle," and wrote, "As my dear old daddy used to say . . ." Any speechwriter would say that's fair. 
Simon notes, however, that Ronald Reagan sometimes quoted Aristotle and British poets of yore in presidential speeches, noting "I'm old enough to remember them."

In our fondness to reach for these familiar voices, however, many speakers wind up attributing comments to the wrong person. I'm continually seeing people on Twitter share a supposed Nancy Reagan quote -- "A woman is like a tea bag. You don't know how strong she is until she's in hot water" -- which I thought came from Eleanor Roosevelt, but has been ascribed to many, many other speakers. This week, NPR looks at the phenomenon of Churchillian drift, the name given to misattributions of quotes the great man never said. Apparently, we like our best speakers to get the credit for all the good stuff.

What about your speeches? Are you reaching for ancient authorities, big names, or that common denominator? And are you sure you're quoting the right person?

(Photo from L.C. N√łttaasen on Flickr)

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