5 Rules for Using Quotations in a Speech

Christopher Witt —  December 12, 2013


quotation mark

There are many reasons to use quotations in a speech.

Quotations can add credibility to what you’re saying. They’re memorable. They give variety and, sometimes, a touch of rhetorical panache to your speech.

But as with any rhetorical device, you have to use quotations carefully or, at least, thoughtfully.


Here are my rules (principles, really) for using quotations in a speech.

1. Suit the quotation to the topic and the audience.

Be sure that the point of the quotation clearly sums up, illustrates, or confirms the point you’re making. And be sure that the person you’re quoting has credibility with your audience. You wouldn’t want, for example, to quote Karl Marx with approval if you’re speaking to a group of libertarians. Quoting someone the audience typically disagrees with does work, however, if that person said something that confirms what the audience believes.

2. Keep it short.

Anything longer than 15 to 20 words is too long. (This is especially true if you’re quoting poetry.)

3. Stage it.

In a speech a quotation is or should be a stand-out. Don’t bury it. Don’t simply pop it on your audience and pass on by. Build up to it, at the very least, with a brief introduction of the person who said it or what gave rise to it. And pause afterwards to let it have its effect. Churchill was famous for pausing, putting his glasses on, and referring to his notes when he cited a quotation not because he didn’t have it memorized (he did) but because he wanted to draw attention to it.

4. Use quotations sparingly.

As a rule, limit yourself to one quotation per speech. A speech articulates your thoughts and ideas. It isn’t or it shouldn’t be a summary of what other people have said. An exception: you can use one quotation at the beginning of your speech and another at the end, if they offer a pleasing juxtaposition.

5. Remember that quotations don’t prove anything.

Just because someone famous said something doesn’t mean it’s true.Quotations may add weight to your argument or make your point in a pleasing and memorable way, but they don’t prove your point. Think of quotations as confirmation, illustrations, and rhetorical flourishes, not as proof.

Do you have any rules you’d like to add? What are your favorite quotations to use in a speech?

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.