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The 4 Most Important Things to Remember When Using Quotations in Speech

Mark Twain
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I am a big fan of quotes

From Mark Twain to Marcus Aurelius, from Bruce Lee to Eleanor Roosevelt, from Nelson Mandela to Anaïs Nin, there are thousands of great quotes spanning centuries and nations that distill important truths into a few words.


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 a quote if it supports my message. Doing so allows me to draw on the credibility of famous people to buttress the point that I am trying to make.


Use quotes 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.

3) Make sure that the quote is correct.

4) Make sure that the source is correct.

Now, one might think that the last two points above would be obvious, but as John Oliver, the brilliant host of Last Week Tonight points out, speakers misattribute quotes more often than you would imagine.


Quotation video clip from last week tonight


If you are going to quote someone, be sure to get the quote and the speaker right. Search different sites to make sure that the specific words in the quote are correct. The Internet is chockablock with errors so, depending on the quote, you might need to check several sources to be sure.

Two helpful resources are The Quotations Page and Quote Investigator. The former is an excellent starting point for finding reliable 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.

John Zimmer
John Zimmer is an international speaker, trainer and lawyer. He has worked at a major Canadian law firm, the United Nations, the World Health Organization and is now a full-time speaker. A seven-time European Champion of speech contests, John writes an internationally recognized blog about public speaking, Manner of Speaking. He is also the co-creator of Rhetoric – The Public Speaking Game™.
John Zimmer


  1. Nacho Téllez

    1st July 2016 at 8:31 am

    Good tips John! Quotes are very powerful.

    I’d add one more: try to choose quotes from well known authors or at least quote those you know.
    I’ve found you connect more with the audience if you quote Churchill, Gandhi or Aristotle that if you quote Douglas Horton.

  2. Charles Crawford

    22nd December 2016 at 4:12 pm

    I disagree. Using supposedly profound quotes from ‘famous people’ is usually contrived, if not a cliché. Why should their ideas ‘buttress’ your speech? Maybe they’d disagree with you!

    It just adds padding, suggesting that the speaker does not have enough original ideas of her/his own.

    Go for something unexpected. Like Mars Attacks. Or Dark Side of the Moon.

    • Jim Harvey

      9th January 2017 at 11:50 am

      Hi Charles, Thanks, as always, for the pith! I think that audiences love to remember and share things they find interesting and new.You want them to remember stuff and the careful use of quotations is one small way of helping people connect, remember and share your thinking. Let’s focus on your use of the word ‘contrived’. I agree that if it is ‘contrived’ i.e. forced, or unnatural, then it won’t work. If it is also overused then it shouldn’t be used. But if it’s a sincere attempt to share uncommon insight that the speaker has found useful, then why not? It’s insincerity that kills, innit?

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