Speech Writing — How to Empower Your Speeches and Presentations with Quotations

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.” Emerson’s quotation sounds humorous but his advice should not be applied to speech writing. When used effectively, quotations can add variety and credibility to your speeches and presentations.

In this article, we will look at the reasons for using quotations in your speeches and presentations, and provide a few examples of how to use them most effectively.

When you are speaking to persuade an audience — whether to buy a product or service, win them over to your way of thinking, or influence their beliefs about your organisation — there are many speech writing tools you can use to bolster your case. These include facts, statistics, stories and quotations. They all bring an external element that supports your proposition — it’s not only you who is saying this, but another person. Generally, the person you quote should be a respected authority in their field.

In How Aristotle Can Help You with Your Business Writing and Speaking we looked at logic, emotion and authority as essential elements of persuasion. While facts and statistics support the logical element of an argument, and stories bring in an emotional element, quotations add credibility. When you quote an authority — not connected to you or your business — you add the person’s credibility and standing to your case.

In the workshops and presentations we give about business writing and speech writing, for example, we use quotations from experts (past and present) to support our case for simple and uncluttered writing.

“Every word that is unnecessary only pours over the side of a brimming mind.” — Cicero

“Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific term or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.” — George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

“Executives and managers at every level are prisoners of the notion that a simple style reflects a simple mind. Actually a simple style is the result of hard work and hard thinking; a muddled style reflects a muddled thinker or a person too dumb or too lazy to organize his thoughts.” — William Zinsser, On Writing Well

By using these quotations, we bring outside confirmation to the idea that simple writing is best.

In a business context, the need for change is a common speech topic. If you were writing a speech about the need and importance of change, you could use quotations such as:

“Everybody has accepted by now that change is unavoidable. But that still implies that change is like death and taxes it should be postponed as long as possible and no change would be vastly preferable. But in a period of upheaval, such as the one we are living in, change is the norm.” — Peter F. Drucker

“Change before you have to.” — Jack Welch

“Change is the law of life and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” — John F. Kennedy

In this situation, the right quotation (or quotations) for your speech or presentation would depend on the specific message you want to convey about change. Many quotations websites can be searched by subject, keyword or author. Finding the appropriate quotation can take some time, but it’s well worth the effort.

As with business speeches, quotations can add depth and credibility to motivational speeches. Earl Nightingale was a master at using quotations in his motivational audio programs. He would often present many quotations on a single subject to enhance his message and make it more convincing. The following is an extract from The Strangest Secret, one of his best-selling programs.

This is The Strangest Secret! Now, why do I say it’s strange, and why do I call it a secret? Actually, it isn’t a secret at all. It was first promulgated by some of the earliest wise men, and it appears again and again throughout the Bible. But very few people have learned it or understand it. That’s why it’s strange, and why for some equally strange reason it virtually remains a secret.

Marcus Aurelius, the great Roman Emperor, said: “A man’s life is what his thoughts make of it.” Disraeli said this: “Everything comes if a man will only wait … a human being with a settled purpose must accomplish it, and nothing can resist a will that will stake even existence for its fulfilment.”

William James said: “We need only in cold blood act as if the thing in question were real, and it will become infallibly real by growing into such a connection with our life that it will become real. It will become so knit with habit and emotion that our interests in it will be those which characterize belief.” He continues, “…only you must, then, really wish these things, and wish them exclusively, and not wish at the same time a hundred other incompatible things just as strongly.”

My old friend Dr. Norman Vincent Peale put it this way: “If you think in negative terms, you will get negative results. If you think in positive terms, you will achieve positive results.”

George Bernard Shaw said: “People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can’t find them, make them.”

Well, it’s pretty apparent, isn’t it? We become what we think about.

The number of quotations used in the example might seem a bit excessive. But when you listen the recording of this motivational talk, it seems natural. By quoting so many notable figures throughout history, Earl Nightingale increases the strength and credibility of his message.

So the next time you need to write a speech or create a presentation, remember the power of quotations.