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The Do’s and Don’ts of Using Quotes

By John Zimmer, ACB, ALB


Regular readers of my blog know that I am a big fan of quotes. I have a running series of them, and, as of this writing, I have used more than 230 in total. From the words of Mark Twain (the first quote in the series) to those of Marcus Aurelius, from Bruce Lee to Eleanor Roosevelt, from Nelson Mandela to Anaïs Nin, I have collected quotes for public speakers that span centuries and nations.

A quote can be a powerful addition to a speech or presentation. A relevant, well-timed quote can be memorable and meaningful. I will gladly use one that supports my message. If you are going to use quotes, do so in the right way. Here are some things to keep in mind.

1. Don’t overdo it. The more quotes you add to a speech, the more diluted each quote is. For most speeches, one or two quotes is plenty.
2. Always attribute your quotes to the source (the person who originally said it).
3. Make sure the quote is correct.
4. Make sure the source is correct.

Now, you might think that those last two points would be obvious, but as John Oliver, host of the cable TV program Last Week Tonight points out, speakers misattribute quotes more often than you might think.

If you quote someone, get the quote and the source right. Before I post a quote, I search different sites on the internet to make sure they all say the same thing, both in terms of how the quote is worded and who said it. And often they don’t. The internet is chockablock with errors, so, depending on the quote, you might need to check several resources to be sure.

Two that I find helpful are The Quotations Page and Quote Investigator. The former is an excellent starting point for finding accurate quotes. The latter investigates specific quotations to find their source and is particularly useful when a quote is attributed to two or more people.

Quotes are great. They pack a lot of wisdom into a few words and they can make a big impact in a speech. Just be sure to use them properly. And you can quote me on that.