My book Speeches for Leaders quoted from The Dullard’s Guide to International and Diplomatic Speechwriting on starting a speech with platitudes about the history of bilateral relations:

It doesn’t matter much which examples the speechwriter pulls out from the bran tub of history for this purpose. A couple of solid, obvious, and almost clichéd examples give the audience a glow of comfy familiarity. The ambitious speechwriter might also use one or two lesserknown examples to add variety and cast light on contemporary themes. This safe and sure opening tactic accomplished, the speech then plods through the current agenda.

The Dullard’s Guide never explains why this formula should be used, or what it is designed to achieve other than padding out the speech harmlessly. Yet it is impressively popular. Do diplomatic speechwriters get a twitch of excitement when they look beyond today’s drab wordprocessed policy formulae and explore the nooks and crannies of history? Perhaps an underlying idea is to assure the audience that this foreign leader knows at least something about the country concerned, thereby conveying respect

More often than not, these openings are not done well. They are eccentric, irrelevant, meaningless. They are there only because the speechwriter thinks they ought to be there, a dollop of dull porridge served at the beginning of a meal to make it look bigger and last longer. Worst of all, they are phoney. Everyone present knows that the leader did not know this stuff, but has tasked someone to do the boring research work.

As with historical examples, so with quotations. Type quotes in speeches into Google and you get 23 million results. Pshaw. Starting a speech with a quote gets 35 million hits.

Massed ‘experts’ urge nabbing the notable words of other people to … do something or other to your own speech.

Six Minutes is a lively website on public speaking technique, of the multitudinous Tips and Tricks variety. It gives EIGHT reasons to use quotations in a speech/presentation, then 21(!) tips for “superpowering (sic) your speech with effective quotes”:

Quote a well-known expert in the field
Don’t quote individuals based purely on their fame or success; base your decision on their expertise in the subject area you are talking about. Quote Aristotle on philosophy or Serena Williams on tennis — doing the opposite gets you in trouble.

Disagree! No, seriously. Any speech that quotes Serena Williams on philosophy will be a lot more interesting than quoting Aristotle.

Public Speaking Tips does what it says on the tin:

Always relate the statement to the point you are making. The point should not be the quotation, but rather the quotation should support the point. When I stress the importance of reading books, I quote Descartes, who wrote, “The reading of all good books is like conversations with the finest men and women of past centuries.”

Your credibility is critical in speaking. Thomas Jefferson said, “Nothing is more confusing than people who give good advice but set bad examples.” In seeking to help people understand the importance of humor and the lighter side of life, Alan Alda in his autobiographical Never Have Your Dog Stuffed wrote, “The difference between comedy and tragedy is that in a comedy, people usually get what they want; in a tragedy, they get what they deserve.”

When in doubt, never include a quote from Descartes in a speech. Why bother? It just sounds pompous. Plus he’s dead. As is Aristotle.

The Edge advises us on how to start a speech with a quotation:

A quotation from a well-known person can be a very effective opening.  A quote from an obscure source isn’t as successful; part of the impact comes from the name recognition itself.  For a speech that discusses effective time management: “Mark Twain once said, ‘Never put off till tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow.’  Well, that may be what Twain believed, but I’m here to show you how you can get the most out of today!”

Or for a presentation on workplace civility: “’You can get much farther with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone.’  That’s what Al Capone said, but it’s funny that nowadays we can’t even get a kind word.”

All just too … heavy? Plus aren’t they both dead?

Saro’s Corner makes my head spin:

Quotes help you to get the attention of the audience quickly. Instead of beginning your speech with an introduction like… “Fellow toastmasters leadership is an important skill that we need to learn. Leadership will make you successful. So, I’m sure you are curious to know more about leadership“, you can use quotes to begin your speech.

Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail” a beautiful quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Friends, toastmasters provide an excellent opportunity to become leaders – to create a path for fellow members to follow. Today, I’m going to talk about the benefits of taking leadership roles in toastmasters”.

Yup. R W Emerson is dead.

Ethos3 (“literally presentation champions”) give you 21 earth-shaking quotes you can use to start a speech:

2.  There’s lots of bad reasons to start a company. But there’s only one good, legitimate reason, and I think you know what it is: it’s to change the world. – Phil Libin

3.  A business that makes nothing but money is a poor business.  – Henry Ford

4.  If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late. – Reid Hoffman

5.  If everything seems under control, you’re not going fast enough. – Mario Andretti

6.  A man who wants to lead the orchestra must turn his back on the crowd. – Max Lucado

Hmm. I’ve heard of Henry Ford even though he’s dead. Who are these other people? Are they dead or alive? Why should anyone care if they once said something droll? Isn’t it rude to my audience to quote someone they’ve never heard of without explaining a lot more about the quotation and its author?

The Eloquent Woman is more circumspect but also a lot smarter in her list of tips:

Because the famous person said it so much better than you could:  Again, the audience is here to hear you.  You won’t find your own voice or grow as a speaker if you’re going to rely on others’ words all the time.  Figure out whether the quotation is masking your own apprehension, fear or nervousness, then figure out your own words–that authenticity will bring your speech to heights you can claim all for yourself.

U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson was reported by his own speechwriters to routinely cross out the names of the famous men whose quotes were inserted in his speeches, preferring to preface the quotes with, “As my dear old daddy used to say.…” — suggesting that he understood it was the words, not the famous label, that mattered.  As speechwriter Liz Carpenter learned: “Leave Aristotle out of it.”

And so on.


My advice?

Quotations in the way they are typically done are lame padding. They suggest that the speaker is a loser who can not find sharp words to make a core point and so steals someone else’s credibility to try to boost his/her own.

Quotations from anyone dead can almost always be excluded. If they’re so smart, why are they dead?

That said, it can be very powerful to take a notable quote even from a dead famous person, then turn it on its head and bluntly disagree with it. Our best public speaking friend, surprise:

One of the great inaugural speeches was given by Franklin D Roosevelt in 1933: Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself …

I disagree! We have good reason to fear a whole long list of things.

Ecological disaster. Terrorism. Cyber attacks. The end of antibiotics. Asteroids blowing up the Earth. Robot cars that crash in all directions. Fridges that nag you to go shopping, in many different accents. Arsene Wenger ending his time at Arsenal with a final Premier League championship. All differences between men and women being abolished.

Back in 1933 things looked bad. Now they’re far worse.

Wherever you look, things are terrifying. On every human scale. We’re doomed!

Or maybe not…

Or this:

Ladies and gentlemen.

Who gave the best ever speech? Martin Luther King: “I have a dream“.

Today I tell you bluntly. I do NOT have a dream.

Dreams are for dreamy dreamers. People who are fast asleep.

I am wide awake. I have hard facts. To be precise: three hard mean-spirited grumpy facts with a bad attitude.

Here they are…

The rhetorical trick is simple. You use surprise to draw on the quoter’s authority and insight to enhance your own, by flatly disagreeing with him/her. Or you take a quotation and draw on it as a quixotic motif through the speech, thereby giving it dynamic fluid structure.

All this projects confidence and control. Everyone is having a good time: “Hey, I’m not sure where this speaker is going with all this, but it’s damn good stuff!”

More please.