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.
I just read an article on LinkedIn in which the author blamed the audience for their poor etiquette in talking or checking their devices during a speech, and I could not disagree more. Poor etiquette it may be, but it is also honest feedback and therefore an indispensable gift to the speaker.
That’s why I don’t like it when the person introducing me at a training event or speech asks the audience members to close their laptops and give me their undivided attention. Of course they mean well, because it can be disconcerting to a speaker when people aren’t paying attention or –even worse—are typing emails while you’re talking.
But look at what happens when they’re not explicitly asked to put away their distractors. As the class begins, maybe a bare majority of the participants close their laptops and sit up and face you. You begin with a strong opening, a few laptop lids come down; you give them the big SO WHAT for what they’re about to hear, a few more lids (laptops, not eyes) come down; maybe you challenge them or ask a tough question, move around the room a bit, use their names to engage them personally, and within minutes all eyes are industriously on you. A little later, you might notice fingers starting to twitch and eyes starting to glance at their phones, you know it’s time for a change of pace or maybe even a break.
But you only know all this because you are paying attention to their unintentional honest feedback. Their feedback allows you to modify and fine-tune and control the message to make sure you’re delivering the value they expect.
Don’t blame your audience for not paying attention. It’s like blaming your body for running a fever when it’s just a symptom of a real malady: you and/or your message is not compelling enough to make them want to close the laptop and sit up and listen for all they’re worth. If they’re not listening, they’re not buying, and they’re not buying because they don’t get the value. It’s your job to get them to see it.
However, it’s also possible to try too hard to own the entire audience. Audiences can be very diverse, and some people who are required to be there may not actually get value from what you’re saying. Or maybe someone really has a fire to put out somewhere and has to attend to it. If you work too hard to draw them in, you run the risk of losing the rest of the audience. Unless they’re distracting others, ignore them and focus on those who really care.
Blaming your audience for not listening is like blaming a customer for not buying. It may make you feel good, but it doesn’t help you improve your pitch or your product.
One of the most important sources of waste in communication is the gap between the words and actions, between agreeing and doing. How many times have you left a meeting room after a successful presentation, one in which you knew you presented a strong case and everyone seemed to be in agreement to proceed—and then nothing happened? Somehow when people went back to their desks and got to work, the warm glow wore off and best intentions evaporated like the morning mist.
The hard fact is that the effectiveness of a presentation isn’t measured in terms of applause or good feelings. In lean communication, the only true measure of value is substantive action that improves outcomes, and this article will examine ways to maximize the odds that your audience will follow through on agreements and intentions. As Alfred Adler said, “Life happens at the level of events, not words.”
Although this article focuses on presentations to maximize action, the ideas apply to any persuasive communication opportunity: you get a “hunting license” as an approved vendor, but no orders ensue; you get a subordinate to commit to an improvement plan, but nothing happens; you convince yourself to change, but tomorrow comes and you slip right back into old habits.
Depending on your intent for the presentation, you may not need any of the ideas in this article. What kind of action do you want? There are three ascending levels of agreement: compliance, commitment, or leadership. If it’s simply compliance you’re aiming for, such as permission to proceed and approval of resources, you don’t need to read this; but if you need their active commitment or their enthusiastic willingness to take the baton from you and lead the charge forward, read on.
What does it take?
A presentation is a vehicle for getting things done, and every vehicle needs two things to do its job: motive power and direction. In those two factors lie the keys to ensuring that you get action. Your task is to provide a reason to act, and then a clear path to follow. That’s why the first principle of lean communication is to answer “The Question”: WHAT do you want me to do, and WHY should I do it? It’s that simple, but of course it’s not always easy, so let’s break those two factors down to see what we can do to make them as strong and compelling as possible.
Causes must precede actions, so we start with why. Most sales or internal presentations already have a solid core of sound business logic built into them, so I’m going to assume you already have that covered as your table stakes. But a business case isn’t enough, because those are real people you’re talking to. Here are three ways to make the why even more compelling.
Engage their emotions. No one ever charged up a hill waving a spreadsheet. Logic is a powerful vehicle for gaining compliance, but commitment requires a different currency. For that, you need to engage the heart as well as the mind. A wonderful story I’ve told before from John Kotter’s book The Heart of Change is about a group that had failed to get traction in its efforts to change the company’s purchasing practices despite a $1 billion business case. They finally got attention—and action—by creating a “mountain” containing 424 pairs of gloves available in their purchasing system! Aristotle called it pathos, and it is just as much at home in business presentations as its counterpart logos. You can beef up your pathos by adding stories, analogies, visuals and examples to your “hard facts”.
Tap into intrinsic motivation. Emotion gets attention, but it also wears off, so you also need to inspire your listeners’ intrinsic motivation, so that they will contain within themselves the motivation to act when the time comes. RAMP up your appeal by couching the action in terms of Relationships, Autonomy, Mastery or Purpose.
Make it personal. As Stalin said, “When one man dies it is a tragedy; when a million die it is a statistic,”, which is why fundraisers know that it’s far more powerful to put a face on a victim than to cite impressive statistics. In your pitch, show how the problem is affecting someone they care about—even better, tie it to the specific personal motivations of the individual decision makers in the room.
The next step to clinch their motivation is to answer why now—to show them why it doesn’t make sense to wait. Prospect theory tells us that people are more willing to act or take risks to avoid losses than to strive for gains, so make sure you bring out the consequences of not solving the problem. In fact, in my own training I observe that people tend to spend too much time on touting the benefits of the solution and not enough on the nature and impact of the problem. Especially when your audience is risk-averse, such as in a “we’ve never done it this way” mindset, you can reverse the risk by showing them how inaction is riskier than action.
Scarcity is another powerful persuader which you can invoke by putting time limits on action (as long as they are true and believable). Better yet, is to add a little competitive juice by making it clear that someone else may beat them to it.
Even when the why is obvious and undisputed, the how can trip people up, as the millions of people who want to lose weight can attest. There’s a great story in the book Switch by Chip and Dan Heath about how researchers in West Virginia solved the problem. They suggested one single change, asking people to buy low fat milk instead of whole milk. They made the point that a single cup of whole milk contains as much fat as five pieces of bacon, and suggested that people reach for the low fat milk when they went to the supermarket. This simple and clear change raised the market share of low-fat milk from 18% to 41% in the communities where it ran. The campaign worked because it made the intended action clear and easy.
There are potentially dozens if not hundreds of ways to “reduce calories from fat”, but the sheer range of choice can paralyze action. It’s not only psychologists who know the value of clarity. A study of the GE Work-Out program found that, “…when ideas were presented that were focused and tangible, they were much more often accepted than vague and general recommendations.” So, for example, instead of recommending that you to be clearer in their recommendations, I might suggest that you word your ask in specific and measurable outcomes that a high school sophomore could understand and repeat back to you.
Your listeners must be absolutely clear about what you’re asking them to do. This starts with being clear in your own mind about your presentation purpose before you go in, especially the specific actions you want them to take. While it should go without saying, let me be clear about one more thing: make sure there is no doubt about your ask. Make your ask up front and be sure to repeat it in a confident and assertive manner in your call to action at the end of your presentation.
Make it easy
One of the major contributors to the success of Amazon was its development and patenting of one-click ordering in 1997. You may not be able to make it that easy for others to act, but you should strive as much as possible to reduce barriers to action. Chip and Dan Heath call this tactic “shrinking the change”.
The flip side of this is to make it harder for them to resist. That’s why you should welcome tough questions and objections from the audience; in fact, if you don’t invite them you leave smoldering pockets of resistance and possibly resentment that will flare up after you’re gone.
Another tactic is to get individuals to commit publicly to act, which increases compliance in two ways. First, it puts their credibility at risk if they change their minds and don’t come through and second, it taps into the Cialdini’s consistency principle. But make sure that they commit to something specific, not a vague generality.
Give them control
Most of us hate to be sold, even if we don’t mind buying, so do everything you can to make it the other person’s idea to do what you want them to do. Here I’ll contradict slightly what I said about being very clear about your ask. Even if you’ve made an excellent case for one choice, it helps to have another possible but less attractive choice, or go one step further and use Goldilocks framing to make taking action feel just right.
So here’s my call to action for you: you can be seen as a master of getting things done, unless someone else does it before you do, so next time you present, strengthen your why, your how, or both—it’s your choice!
 I wonder how many of the approved vendors of those gloves would have benefited from reading this?
 I didn’t say SMART goals, because five adjectives is too difficult to remember—and therefore less likely to happen.