Issue 5 – January 25, 2006


1. Opening words
2. Feature article: Can I quote you on that?
3. Catch Rob at the Ragan Speechwriting Conference, February 8-10
4. Your reading list
5. Ever thought of blogging?
6. Subscribing, unsubscribing and passing along the news

1. Opening words

Welcome to the fifth issue of SpeechList – and a special welcome to our passel of new readers!

Not long after Issue 4, I sent everyone a request for topics you’d like to see covered in upcoming issues. You came through in spades, with at least two years’ worth of solid ideas. And we start off this issue with a feature issue inspired by an ace communicator in her own right, Roseann Moran, who writes “I would like to see something about the use of quotes and maybe some resources for good quotes.” I hope this issue fits the bill.

You’ll also find a few reading suggestions, and my pitch to try to convince you to give blogging a spin. Plus, from our shameless self-promotion department, details on my upcoming presentation at the 2006 Ragan Speechwriter’s Conference, running February 8-10 in Washington, DC. And — despite my unabashed partisan convictions — you’ll see me say nice things about a prominent member of another party. We’re nothing if not broadminded here at SpeechList.

So make the most of that openminded spirit: send your suggestions, comments, questions and tips to I’d be delighted to hear from you. Thanks!

2. Feature article: Can I quote you on that?

“All he did was string together a lot of old, well-known quotations.”
– H.L. Mencken, on William Shakespeare

What is this fascination we have with quotations? Mining everything from the latest sitcom catch phrase to centuries-old literature, we love to repeat the words of other people.

Speechwriters are no different – in fact, we may be the biggest quoters out there. Maybe it’s the fact that someone else has already done the heavy lifting, or the hope that our work might someday in turn be quoted. Whatever the reason, look at a speechwriter’s bookshelf and chances are you’ll find at least one book of quotations.

“Let no-one else’s work evade your eyes:
Plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize!”
– Tom Lehrer

Why quote? There are plenty of good reasons to open up the quotation marks. For example, when…

  • someone has expressed an idea more clearly, evocatively and memorably than anything you’ve been able to write for the past hour
  • you’re quoting someone whose opinion your audience respects, and who agrees with your argument
  • you’re giving a concrete example of someone who holds a particular point of view
  • you’re quoting someone who strikes a strong emotional chord — good or bad — with your audience
  • you’re setting out common ground with your audience, via a quotation or a source they know well.

“Quotation, n. The act of repeating erroneously the words of another.”
– Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Why not quote? As handy as quotations are, they exact a toll on your speech.

For one thing, you aren’t giving your audience what they want. They came to hear what you have to say, in your own words. A quotation here and there is fine, but the time you spend quoting other people is time your audience won’t have to communicate with you.

You also sacrifice some of your speech’s power. Whether you’re speaking from bullet points or a prepared text (or, heaven help us all, off the top of your head), your delivery is bound to be fresher, more spontaneous and more engaging when the text is yours. It’s the difference between speaking and reciting.

Still, keeping those caveats in mind, a judicious quotation can make a real difference in a speech. But instead of just reaching for a copy of Bartlett’s and using the first passage that seems appropriate, take a few extra moments to make your next quotation truly effective.

“I love quotations because it is a joy to find thoughts one might have,
beautifully expressed with much authority
by someone recognized wiser than oneself. “
– Marlene Dietrich

Seven steps to powerful quotations:

1. Take the quote less travelled. Some quotations have worn painfully thin with overuse, and have earned full membership in the Quotable Cliché Hall of Shame. Pass up the tired standbys and look for something your audience may not have heard a thousand times before. (And unless the definition of a particular word is a key part of your speech, please don’t quote the dictionary.)

2. Find a parallel. You don’t have to limit yourself to quotations dealing with the exact topic of your speech — and often you shouldn’t. There’s usually a more fundamental idea underlying your specific subject; a good, pithy quotation addressing that idea from another subject area can be a springboard to a striking metaphor or analogy.

3. Take issue. Don’t just quote people you agree with completely. Instead, use a quotation as a fulcrum. “So and so said such and such. I think he was only half right.”

4. Excerpt the unexpected. When we think of the sources for quotations, we think of political leaders, great works of literature… and not much else. But your audience is constantly bombarded with messages, and there are sources that may well resonate with them more strongly than some long-dead statesman. Look to books, films, pop songs, TV shows, even commercials. (One high point of a speech I wrote a few years ago was a quotation from the movie “Mars Attacks!”) And try sources from cultures other than your own or your audience’s.

5. Don’t let your quotation off the hook. More often than not, a speaker will cite a quotation and then leave it hanging there. Instead, keep those words working for you. Echo their structure, tease out deeper meanings, explore the quotation’s personal meaning to you. You’ll not only amplify the power of the quotation you’ve chosen, but take a certain kind of ownership over it.

6. Small is beautiful. The longer the quotation, the more time you’ll spend reading someone else’s words instead of engaging with your audience. A short, pithy quotation packs a lot more power.

7. Trust but verify. Google searches and online sources can turn up a torrent of quotations, many of them wonderful. But a lot of the quotations you’ll find online are misremembered, misheard, mistyped or just plain mistaken. (An entire book has been written on the topic: They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading Attributions by Paul F. Boller Jr. and John George.) Unless the online source is the originator of the passage you’re quoting, check it against a more authoritative reference.

“I always have a quotation for everything – it saves original thinking.”
– Dorothy Sayers

Your turn: What are your favourite places to go hunting for the perfect quotation? Who’s the most quotable person you know? And do you have a nominee for the Quotable Cliché Hall of Shame? Let the rest of us know at

3. Catch Rob at Ragan

There’s still time to sign up for the Ragan Communications 2006 Speechwriter’s Conference in Washington, DC, running from February 8-10. Conference organizer David Murray has assembled a terrific program with some truly impressive speakers, as well as a pre- and post-conference program of workshops and (naturally) speeches.

I’ll be presenting the main conference’s final seminar on Friday morning, February 10th. The topic: seven reasons to give a speech (and seven reasons not to). I’ll show you how to:

  • Identify which communication situations lend themselves to speeches, and which ones don’t
  • Talk your leader into accepting important speaking engagements that he or she would prefer not to do
  • Talk your leader into taking a pass on speaking engagements that don’t contribute to the organization’s strategy

The conference offers a wide range of sessions for everyone from beginners to grizzled veterans. If you want to kick-start your speechwriting career, this could be a great way to start. Get more information at

4. Worth checking out

The Boxing Day sales were the perfect excuse for me to finally pick up a long-awaited copy of Dennis Gruending’s book, Great Canadian Speeches (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2004).

I’m making my way through it now, and just read the moving speech in the House of Commons by J.S. Woodsworth on the eve of Canada’s entry into the Second World War. Not only had Woodsworth lost his struggle to convince his fellow caucus members to oppose the war – a defeat that meant the end of his leadership of the CCF – but he had also suffered a debilitating stroke only days previously.

As Gruending reports, “Tommy Douglas, who sat beside him in the House on that evening, recounted how Woodsworth’s wife had written brief notes in inch-high letters in crayon, and Douglas passed them to him. ‘I knew that in a few minutes I would be voting against him,’ Douglas told a biographer, ‘but I never admired him more than I did that day.'”

The book is full of great oratory, and Gruending sets the stage well for every speech with a brief introductory passage. I can tell already I’ll be diving in frequently: sometimes for quotations, and sometimes for inspiration. I’d encourage any Canadian speechwriter to pick up a copy… and those outside of Canada would find it an excellent addition to their libraries.

The holiday season also brought a copy of Nick Morgan’s Give Your Speech, Change the World. Morgan proceeds from the excellent premise that the speech that doesn’t change the world isn’t worth giving; that is, the only goal that really matters is to move your audience to action. Morgan’s challenge is to speakers themselves even more than speechwriters – for example, by calling on speakers to engage directly with audience at the outset of a speech. And he strongly encourages you to think in terms of the story your speech is telling, advice that I can second strongly.

As with Great Canadian Speeches, I’m only halfway through Morgan’s book, but I’m enjoying it immensely.

5. Ever thought of blogging? Going to be in Vancouver on Feb. 10-11?

It’s an exciting time at SpeechList headquarters. I’ve just launched a web site called, which brings together blog posts by candidates from across Canada running in the 2006 federal election.

I mention this not to blow my own horn (well, not just to blow my own horn), but because I’m finding some interesting parallels between public speaking, the most ancient of communications vehicles, and blogging, the most modern. Each medium relies heavily on an authentic, distinctive personal voice; each carries with it the possibility of direct engagement with your audience; and each offers a level of immediacy and intimacy that few other communications vehicles can hope to match.

That suggests that at least some of the skills that make you a good speechwriter could also make you a good blogger. (Maybe it’s no coincidence that, during the just-completed Canadian election campaign, the only official political party blog that drew much praise at all was an irreverent offering from the party’s speechwriter, Scott Feschuk. Have a look at – it’s really worth reading.)

All of which is to say: if you’re looking for a new way to get a message across, a new tool for personal expression or new opportunities in freelance writing, take a look at blogging.

One great way to start, if you’re in the Vancouver area next February 10-11, is the Northern Voice blogging conference. While some of the programming is pitched to the geekiest of the geeky, there’s more than enough on the agenda to keep blogging newcomers amply busy. (I’ll be part of a panel on blogging and social change with my partner, Alexandra Samuel.) Find out more at

6. Subscribing, unsubscribing and passing along the news

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