Can I quote you on that?Using others' words in support of your message

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“All he did was string together a lot of old, well-known quotations.”
– H.L. Mencken, on William Shakespeare

What is this fascination we have with quotations? Mining everything from the latest sitcom catch phrase to centuries-old literature, we love to repeat the words of other people.

Speechwriters are no different – in fact, we may be the biggest quoters out there. Maybe it’s the fact that someone else has already done the heavy lifting, or the hope that our work might someday in turn be quoted. Whatever the reason, look at a speechwriter’s bookshelf and chances are you’ll find at least one book of quotations.

“Let no-one else’s work evade your eyes:
Plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize!”
– Tom Lehrer

Why quote? There are plenty of good reasons to open up the quotation marks. For example, when…

  • someone has expressed an idea more clearly, evocatively and memorably than anything you’ve been able to write for the past hour
  • you’re quoting someone whose opinion your audience respects, and who agrees with your argument
  • you’re giving a concrete example of someone who holds a particular point of view
  • you’re quoting someone who strikes a strong emotional chord — good or bad — with your audience
  • you’re setting out common ground with your audience, via a quotation or a source they know well.

“Quotation, n. The act of repeating erroneously the words of another.”
– Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Why not quote? As handy as quotations are, they exact a toll on your speech.

For one thing, you aren’t giving your audience what they want. They came to hear what you have to say, in your own words. A quotation here and there is fine, but the time you spend quoting other people is time your audience won’t have to communicate with you.

You also sacrifice some of your speech’s power. Whether you’re speaking from bullet points or a prepared text (or, heaven help us all, off the top of your head), your delivery is bound to be fresher, more spontaneous and more engaging when the text is yours. It’s the difference between speaking and reciting.

Still, keeping those caveats in mind, a judicious quotation can make a real difference in a speech. But instead of just reaching for a copy of Bartlett’s and using the first passage that seems appropriate, take a few extra moments to make your next quotation truly effective.

“I love quotations because it is a joy to find thoughts one might have,
beautifully expressed with much authority
by someone recognized wiser than oneself. “
– Marlene Dietrich

Seven steps to powerful quotations:

1. Take the quote less travelled. Some quotations have worn painfully thin with overuse, and have earned full membership in the Quotable Cliché Hall of Shame. Pass up the tired standbys and look for something your audience may not have heard a thousand times before. (And unless the definition of a particular word is a key part of your speech, please don’t quote the dictionary.)

2. Find a parallel. You don’t have to limit yourself to quotations dealing with the exact topic of your speech — and often you shouldn’t. There’s usually a more fundamental idea underlying your specific subject; a good, pithy quotation addressing that idea from another subject area can be a springboard to a striking metaphor or analogy.

3. Take issue. Don’t just quote people you agree with completely. Instead, use a quotation as a fulcrum. “So and so said such and such. I think he was only half right.”

4. Excerpt the unexpected. When we think of the sources for quotations, we think of political leaders, great works of literature… and not much else. But your audience is constantly bombarded with messages, and there are sources that may well resonate with them more strongly than some long-dead statesman. Look to books, films, pop songs, TV shows, even commercials. (One high point of a speech I wrote a few years ago was a quotation from the movie “Mars Attacks!”) And try sources from cultures other than your own or your audience’s.

5. Don’t let your quotation off the hook. More often than not, a speaker will cite a quotation and then leave it hanging there. Instead, keep those words working for you. Echo their structure, tease out deeper meanings, explore the quotation’s personal meaning to you. You’ll not only amplify the power of the quotation you’ve chosen, but take a certain kind of ownership over it.

6. Small is beautiful. The longer the quotation, the more time you’ll spend reading someone else’s words instead of engaging with your audience. A short, pithy quotation packs a lot more power.

7. Trust but verify. Google searches and online sources can turn up a torrent of quotations, many of them wonderful. But a lot of the quotations you’ll find online are misremembered, misheard, mistyped or just plain mistaken. (An entire book has been written on the topic: They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading Attributions by Paul F. Boller Jr. and John George.) Unless the online source is the originator of the passage you’re quoting, check it against a more authoritative reference.

“I always have a quotation for everything – it saves original thinking.”
– Dorothy Sayers

Your turn: What are your favourite places to go hunting for the perfect quotation? Who’s the most quotable person you know? And do you have a nominee for the Quotable Cliché Hall of Shame? Let the rest of us know at

This story originally appeared in SpeechList, a monthly e-mail newsletter. To subscribe, visit

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