Insights
Green check mark burst shape
Premium
Member Log In

To Use or Not To Use: Quotes in Speeches and Books

Three questions to help you decide when, why, and how to use quotes.

5
minute read
Published on
June 3, 2024

We all have it—a pile of notable quotes we like that we want to use in a book or a speech someday. We collect quotes like beach glass, our little gems. Mine seem to be on neon-colored Post-its strewn about my desk. Yours may be in a notebook, or stored tidily in an app. 

If you’re like many of the authors and speakers we work with at HEROIC, the confusion sets in when you try to find a place for your favorite quotes in your book or speech. You wonder:

Should I open with a quote? Could I close with it?  

Can I use quotes many people have heard before? 

How do I properly attribute my quotes?  

And so on.

These are all important questions, and you’ll find good, practical answers for all of them with a simple Google search. 

So why, after you follow that good, practical advice, are you still unsure if you are using quotes in your books or speeches effectively? Should you cut some of them? Should you move them? Do you need them at all?

This confusion is rooted in the type of questions you are asking. Rather than solely focus on “how,” ask yourself “why.”

Why does this quote matter to me?

You may like the sound of a quote. But why does it matter to you? 

If you pluck a quote you love from your collection and then aren’t sure where to place it in your book or speech, it may be because you haven’t connected that quote to your own journey. 

For example, here’s a quote from a speech the late Senator Paul Wellstone, one of my heroes, gave in 1999 to the Sheet Metal Workers Union: “We all do better when we all do better.”

The conventional way to introduce that quote would be as simple as, “Paul Wellstone once said…” or “I love this quote from Paul Wellstone…”

Except, without context, the quote just sits there. If I don’t have that context, it’s harder for me to find a place for it in my speech. It’s true that I love that quote, but why is it meaningful to me? What’s the story behind it? 

Here’s how I would add meaning to that quote, if I were sharing it in my own book or speech:

“One of my heroes was the late Paul Wellstone, a senator from my home state of Minnesota. I admired him for his tireless work for workers, for economic justice, for human rights, and for peace. 

“Wellstone died in a plane crash just a few weeks before the election. At the time, I worked across the street from his campaign office in St. Paul. I remember looking out the window as his staff wandered out onto the sidewalk. They seemed to be looking up at the sky, as if they might see him there, even though the plane crashed hundreds of miles away.

“Later that day, I crossed the street to look at the flowers and messages that had accumulated alongside the sidewalk outside the campaign office. On the ground, I found one of his green campaign buttons. It read: ‘We all do better when we all do better.’ It’s a famous Wellstone quote. I’d heard it many times before. But somehow, finding it on the ground that day felt like a sign. As though I had found a life’s motto, a worldview I could adopt as my own.”

In the larger context of why that Wellstone quote is important to me, it’s easier for me to find a place for it. It’s also easier for me to determine if it belongs in my book or speech at all. Maybe that quote is lovely, and important, and inspirational, but it just doesn’t fit. 

Exploring the meaning behind why this or that quote matters to you will help you determine if it stays or goes. And if you simply like the sound of a quote, but you don’t have a deeper connection to it, it likely doesn’t belong in that piece at all. 

Explaining why a quote matters to you also helps your audience connect to the quote—and to you.

Full Transcript

Read Full Transcript
X Mark icon
Don't
use conventional methods to introduce your quotes.
Check mark icon
Do
add context and meaning to your quotes to help your audience create a connection.
Black right arrow icon

Why is this quote necessary to help my audience or reader understand?

Figuring out which quotes to use and where to put them is easier when you ask yourself if the quote you want to use will help your audience or reader better understand a key teaching point. If you can’t connect the quote to the point you are trying to make, it may not belong in your book or speech.

For example, let’s look at this quote by novelist Neil Gaiman on editing:

“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

In this quote, Gaiman is referring to people in general, not editors. I’ve used this quote when teaching about getting feedback about manuscripts from advanced readers and tied it to this teaching point: 

“Pay attention to how your readers feel and what they wonder about, but not their ideas about how to change your manuscript.”

Do you see how the quote fits with the teaching point? This is how I know the quote belongs. This is also how I know where to insert the quote.

Now, I really love this quote about editing from Stephen King’s book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft:

“To write is human, to edit is divine.”

I agree, Mr. King. But does it fit with my point about processing feedback? Is it helpful to my audience or my readers? Not really. 

To use that quote, I’d have to connect the dots. How would that quote help me make a point? If I can’t find a way, then the quote doesn’t fit in my book or speech.

(Note: There is one exception for books. You can use quotes without context in epigraphs—at the start of your book or in chapter headers.)

Why do I believe I need this quote to bolster my credibility?

Finally, some authors and speakers pepper quotes throughout their books and speeches to add credibility to their ideas. While this can be helpful in some cases, and necessary in others, very often they are not needed.

Be honest with yourself. Are you using quotes because you don’t think your words can stand alone? That they aren’t enough? That you haven’t earned the right to say them? If the answer is yes, or a solid maybe, pull the quotes.

X Mark icon
Don't
use quotes from other people only to bolster your credibility.
Check mark icon
Do
trust that your words, and your voice, matter.

Your words matter. Don’t overshadow your own messages with a grab bag of quotes from other people.

Your audience wants to hear from you.

Your audience wants to learn from you.

And in the end, your audience doesn’t want to hear quotes from other people. They want to quote you

X Mark icon
Don't
Check mark icon
Do
X Mark icon
Don't
Check mark icon
Do
X Mark icon
Don't
Check mark icon
Do
Interested in Public Speaking?

HEROIC

|

Speakers

Learn how to enhance your performance, achieve your speaking goals, and deliver a transformational experience—all in our exclusive Speakers Training.
See Programs

|

X Mark icon
Don't
Check mark icon
Do

Why is this quote necessary to help my audience or reader understand?

Figuring out which quotes to use and where to put them is easier when you ask yourself if the quote you want to use will help your audience or reader better understand a key teaching point. If you can’t connect the quote to the point you are trying to make, it may not belong in your book or speech.

For example, let’s look at this quote by novelist Neil Gaiman on editing:

“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

In this quote, Gaiman is referring to people in general, not editors. I’ve used this quote when teaching about getting feedback about manuscripts from advanced readers and tied it to this teaching point: 

“Pay attention to how your readers feel and what they wonder about, but not their ideas about how to change your manuscript.”

Do you see how the quote fits with the teaching point? This is how I know the quote belongs. This is also how I know where to insert the quote.

Now, I really love this quote about editing from Stephen King’s book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft:

“To write is human, to edit is divine.”

I agree, Mr. King. But does it fit with my point about processing feedback? Is it helpful to my audience or my readers? Not really. 

To use that quote, I’d have to connect the dots. How would that quote help me make a point? If I can’t find a way, then the quote doesn’t fit in my book or speech.

(Note: There is one exception for books. You can use quotes without context in epigraphs—at the start of your book or in chapter headers.)

Why do I believe I need this quote to bolster my credibility?

Finally, some authors and speakers pepper quotes throughout their books and speeches to add credibility to their ideas. While this can be helpful in some cases, and necessary in others, very often they are not needed.

Be honest with yourself. Are you using quotes because you don’t think your words can stand alone? That they aren’t enough? That you haven’t earned the right to say them? If the answer is yes, or a solid maybe, pull the quotes.

X Mark icon
Dont
use quotes from other people only to bolster your credibility.
Check mark icon
Do
trust that your words, and your voice, matter.

Your words matter. Don’t overshadow your own messages with a grab bag of quotes from other people.

Your audience wants to hear from you.

Your audience wants to learn from you.

And in the end, your audience doesn’t want to hear quotes from other people. They want to quote you

X Mark icon
Don't
Check mark icon
Do
,
X Mark icon
Don't
Check mark icon
Do
X Mark icon
Don't
Check mark icon
Do
Education graduation cap black icon
Learn from
AJ

HEROIC

Speakers

Learn how to give speeches that transform how people think and perceive the world. We’ll teach you how to write, perform, and get booked.
Learn more
X Mark icon
Dont
Check mark icon
Do
Loading
Someone is typing...
Person icon
No Name
Set
Moderator
(Edited)
4 years ago
This is the actual comment. It's can be long or short. And must contain only text information.
Person profile icon with blue background
No Name
Set
2 years ago
Moderator
(Edited)
This is the actual comment. It's can be long or short. And must contain only text information.
Load More
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Load More