One of the best ways to add power and sparkle to your speech is to use an apt quotation.
As Brendan Behan said, “A quotation in a speech, article or book is like a rifle in the hands of an infantryman. It speaks with authority.” That “borrowed” authority from more accomplished and better-known experts is an excellent way to add power to your argument.
Quotations can also add sparkle and even a certain literary flair through the clever way they’re phrased. As Montaigne said, “I quote others only the better to express myself.”
But like any strong medicine, quotations need to come with a warning label. The first is that if you overuse them you may be perceived as not having your own point of view. As Dorothy L. Sayers said, “A facility for quotation covers the absence of original thought.” Second, just like any medicine used past its expiration date may be ineffective or even harmful, many quotations have become clichés and have outlived their usefulness. Almost anything attributed (correctly or incorrectly) to Twain or Einstein falls into this category. Finally, just as some medicines need to be taken with food, any quotation you use should be a supplement to your own original point of view, not a substitute.
Here are a few additional tips to use quotations effectively:
- Make sure you quote them correctly and assign proper credit. If Einstein had said half the things people attribute to him, he never would have had time to think about relativity. It’s so easy to check quotations that you look lazy if you don’t.
- In you’re unfamiliar with the person who said it, look them up. This may prevent embarrassment, as I suffered once when I quoted Konrad Lorenz and then found out that he was tainted by association with the Nazi party.
- Quote someone especially meaningful to your particular audience, such as their own company’s CEO or someone respected in their industry. I’ve had good success with highly technical audiences, for example, by quoting Richard Feynman.
- Dig a little deeper to go beyond the ones everyone already knows. Everyone has heard some variation of: “Sorry for sending such a long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one,” but he also said: “NO CAN DO 2 PAGES TWO DAYS. CAN DO 30 PAGES 2 DAYS. NEED 30 DAYS TO DO 2 PAGES”.
- When using them in a speech, keep them short, both so you don’t bore your audience and so you can memorize them and not have to read them off your screen. It’s OK to edit a long quotation as long as you don’t distort the original meaning.
 Normally I would not use so many quotations in one post, but it is about quotations…
 As I had to do for two of the quotes above. Brendan Behan was an Irish poet, and Dorothy Sayers an English crime writer and poet.
 In fairness, this one may be apocryphal.
It’s rare to score an interview with Mark Twain these days, mainly because he has been dead for over 100 years. But with the help of goodreads.com, I was able to get him to open up about his views on public speaking and persuasive communication in general.
Mr. Twain, thank you for agreeing to talk to me.
I love to hear myself talk, because I get so much instruction and moral upheaval out of it.
Why have you agreed to talk now?
From the first, second, third and fourth editions (of my autobiography) all sound and sane expressions of opinion must be left out. There may be a market for that kind of wares a century from now. There is no hurry. Wait and see.
What’s your view on persuasive communication?
There is nothing in the world like a persuasive speech to fuddle the mental apparatus and upset the convictions and debauch the emotions of an audience not practiced in the tricks and delusions of oratory.
What’s the best way to convince an audience?
I know all about audiences, they believe everything you say, except when you are telling the truth.
There are people who think that honesty is always the best policy. This is a superstition; there are times when the appearance of it is worth six of it.
Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable.
Most people use statistics like a drunk man uses a lamppost; more for support than for illumination.
It is my belief that nearly any invented quotation, played with confidence, stands a good chance to deceive.
Facts contain a great deal of poetry, but you can’t use too many of them without damaging your literature.
Eloquence is the essential thing in a speech, not information.
So, does that mean you think emotion is more important than logic?
It is easier to manufacture seven facts than one emotion.
You’re not really that cynical, are you?
When in doubt, tell the truth.
Use what you stand for and what you oppose as a foundation to write great content that resonates with readers and creates a ripple effect.
How important is it to be concise?
If you have nothing to say, say nothing. Never miss a good chance to shut up.
Anybody can have ideas—the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.
Let’s talk for a bit about how to be clear.
Plain question and plain answer make the shortest road out of most perplexities.
And to those who insist on using big pretentious words?
I never write metropolis for seven cents because I can get the same price for city. I never write policeman because I can get the same money for cop.
She never used large words, but she had a natural gift for making small ones do effective work.
The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between the lightening and the lightening bug.
What’s the best way to tell a story?
I do not claim that I can tell a story as it ought to be told. I only claim to know how a story ought to be told.
Begin at the beginning, go on until the end, then stop.
Do you think people should write out their speeches?
Written things are not for speech; their form is literary; they are stiff, inflexible, and will not lend themselves to happy and effective delivery with the tongue–where their purpose is to merely entertain, not instruct; they have to be limbered up, broken up, colloquialized and turned into common forms of premeditated talk–otherwise they will bore the house and not entertain it.
Let us make a special effort to stop communicating with each other, so we can have some conversation.
So you think impromptu speaking is better?
The best and most telling speech is not the actual impromptu one, but the counterfeit of it … that speech is most worth listening to which has been carefully prepared in private and tried on a plaster cast, or an empty chair, or any other appreciative object that will keep quiet, until the speaker has got his matter and his delivery limbered up so that they will seem impromptu to an audience.
As a humorist, what advice would you give speakers about using humor in a presentation?
Humor must not professedly teach and it must not professedly preach, but it must do both if it would live forever.
One can be both entertained and educated and not know the difference.
Do you ever get nervous before a speech?
There are two kinds of speakers. Those who are nervous and those who are liars.
To succeed in life, you need two things; ignorance and confidence.
Finally, what is your take on motivational speakers?
To be good is noble. To tell other people how to be good is even nobler and much less trouble.
I’m not sure I agree with all your views.
Never argue with stupid people. They will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.
If you follow college football, you were treated to a thrilling championship game this week in which the University of Alabama came back in the second half to win coach Nick Saban’s fifth national title in nine years. The subtext to that incredible run is that Saban does not focus on winning per se; instead he pays close attention to what’s known as “The Process”, and the wins take care of themselves.
What does this have to do with selling? In B2B selling, your fundamental task is to improve your customers’ business performance. Just as a football team’s chances of winning rest on the collection of individual processes they follow before and during the game, your customer’s business success depends on how well—how effectively and efficiently—they execute their collected processes. Improve the process, and you improve the business.
Every business is an agglomeration of processes (production processes, selling and marketing processes, accounting processes, IT processes, and the list goes on), and all these processes are structured in the same way: they apply work to inputs to produce outputs that someone values. Like cogs in the cash flow engine, a firm’s overall profitability and cash flow depend on the cumulative and interacting effectiveness and efficiency of all the individual processes that it undertakes to produce value for its customers.
All the various sales philosophies or methodologies, including consultative selling, solution selling, challenger selling, or insert-catchy-name-here selling, fundamentally rest on the seller’s ability to improve at least one of their customers’ processes for producing value. You can’t solve problems, produce profits, or even generate useful insights unless you have a deep and complete understanding of the processes you affect.
When you do have that deep and complete understanding of how your customers do things, you command immediate respect from all the relevant levels in the buying process, from technical buyers all the way up to the C-Level. You can also find many more points of impact where you can connect your solution, and as a result you can generate and quantify higher value for your customers. You may even be able to add value by being an ambassador between your buyers’ problem-owners and process-owners.
Analyzing the process
So, what’s the process of business process improvement selling? It begins with peeling back the layers to expose the anatomy of any process. Every process consists of five things: inputs, work, outputs, constraints, and value.
- Can you reduce inputs, such as labor, money, and time?
- Can you eliminate or reduce steps and activities of the work necessary in the process? Can you identity and address problems, opportunities, changes and risks that the process-owner faces?
- Can you improve the quality or quantity of the outputs? What process/operational measurements does the customer pay attention to?
- Can you remove, get around or mitigate constraints, such as physical, technological or regulatory limits?
- What is the financial and/or personal value of your answers to the above questions? What financial measures does the customer pay attention to?
You can’t outsource process knowledge
If you work for a large company, it’s tempting to think that a lot of this work will—or should—be done for you by your marketing or sales enablement functions, but there is no substitute for your personal mastery of the appropriate process knowledge. It’s the only way you will be able to be in control of credible and meaningful sales conversations, and especially to spot opportunities for improvement that they buyer may not be aware of.
You need to read all the relevant material you can find about the specific process, spend a lot of time questioning and listening to process owners, and most importantly, “going to the gemba”, which is lean-speak for actually visiting where the work is done to get a first-hand understanding of the work itself.
Everybody wants to create value for customers, but not everybody digs into the details of how their customers create value for their customers. Selling process improvements is not a substitute for whichever insert-catchy-name-here sales methodology you’re using, it’s an added process that will help you do it right. It may mean more work on your part, but just as in football, if you pay attention to the process, the wins will take care of themselves.
I love sales questions. In my training classes, I urge B2B salespeople to ask more questions, and I teach them ways to get the buyer to open up about their problems, opportunities, challenges and risks, and to get mutually involved in devising a solution. Questions are one of the most powerful sales tools you have.
But sometimes you can fall in love with a tool and overuse it, losing effectiveness and efficiency as a result. What’s the problem with too many questions? You run the risk that the buyer may feel too “led” or even manipulated, or at least not feel like they have been listened to. And, because you are so good at using questions to uncover what you’re looking for, you may close out opportunities to discover what you’re not looking for.
The most efficient and effective sales call I ever conducted took place in a boardroom in Atlanta where I met with a company’s SVP of Worldwide Sales and several of his direct reports. I had barely set the stage with my value proposition when he cut me off: “Let me tell you what I want”, he said, and launched into a 60-minute soliloquy about his sales force and its struggle to adapt to a changing market. My participation consisted mainly of nodding, interjecting an occasional probe, and trying to take good notes. By the time he was done, George had answered every question in my sales call plan, I had checked off every one of my call actions, and we struck a deal on my largest sale to date.
If there is such a ratio as revenue per word spoken, it was easily the best sales call I’ve ever made. It flowed from start to finish, and the best part was, the sale was completely the customer’s idea! It reminded me of Napoleon’s advice to “Never interrupt the enemy when he is making a mistake”, except in this case it’s “Never interrupt the buyer when they are selling themselves.” By staying out of his way, I let George have my way.
That call was extreme, of course, but it is definitely worthwhile to strive to talk less and sell more. Good salespeople accomplish this by asking more questions; great salespeople do it by asking fewer but better questions, and by going beyond questions to achieve a similar flow.
How does achieving that flow help you sell? First, people like to talk about themselves, so once you get them started, you may create a momentum of self-disclosure which can produce broader and deeper insight into their needs. Second, people like to feel important, so by being in charge of the conversation (or at least feeling like they’re in charge) can make them feel good. Finally, when they tell you the story you want them to hear, they own it, and they’re much more likely to stick to their commitments.
How to encourage conversational flow
Conversational flow doesn’t just happen; you can stimulate your customer’s willingness to talk by what you do before and during the call.
Before the call
Avoiding too many questions during the call does not mean skipping questions altogether during your preparation. The research and planning you do will help earn the customer’s trust without which they won’t open up. Besides, it’s the only way to know if the customer’s conversation is producing the answers you need. By knowing what you need from the conversation, you will have all these mental hooks on which to organize the incoming information.
It also does not mean that you should strive for a stream-of-consciousness type of flow, in which you get the customer to talk about anything that enters their mind. The most effective sales conversations have a particular structure—even if it’s not obvious. That flow is the SCR story structure: They begin by describing their situation, bringing out their conflicts, and arriving at a resolution.
During the call
There are two general ways to encourage the customer to take control of the conversation and run with it. First, you motivate them to talk and set the frame by carefully planning your call opening, and then you use following skills to encourage and channel the flow.
The first few minutes of the sales call are crucial to achieving conversational flow. Your goal is to get the customer eager to talk about what you want them to talk about. For this, you have three tools: value proposition, action statement, and agenda.
Your value proposition and action together deliver the lean communication imperative of ATQ: Answer the Question. In every meeting, the customer/prospect wants to know: “What do you want me to do, and why should I do it?” By being very upfront about it early, you dispel suspicion and jointly agree on the reason for the meeting. In the unlikely case you’re wrong, the customer will let you know immediately and you will have an opportunity to reset or pivot as necessary.
If the value proposition and action together set the destination, your written agenda is the road map that structures the conversation. In most cases, you’re going to be very explicit, even to the point of enumerating and explaining the agenda items and offering to add any issues they might have. I would estimate that a third of the calls I go on, I rarely need to use direct questions, because the customer sees the logic of the structure and willingly participates.
Even if the customer takes control and follows their own agenda, your effort hasn’t been wasted. When George began talking, I did not interrupt him; I simply slid my agenda across the table. He absent-mindedly straightened it out in front of him and kept talking—but within a couple of minutes, it became obvious that he was glancing at it and following the points I had prepared.
As the customer talks, your principal task is to listen intently and stay out of the buyer’s way if they’re following the right path, or nudge and gently re-direct them when they’re veering off. You can use encourages, probes and reflections, all fundamental following skills which you can brush up on here, or if you’re not already familiar with, you can pick up with a book or a class on active listening.
The hardest thing to do, especially when the customer is talking non-stop, is to keep the incoming information organized enough to know whether you’re getting what you need to accomplish your call purpose. That’s where your sales call plan with its prepared question list comes in handy, to help you unobtrusively check off which have been answered. I’ve also found the Cornell note-taking system to be enormously useful for maintaining situational awareness, and for recording keywords that will allow you to go back and revisit areas that need more attention.
Candidly, most salespeople aren’t ready for the ideas in this article, because they still haven’t learned how to ask enough good questions. But if you’ve already reached this stage, you can kick up your skills one more notch by learning how to go beyond questions.