Often times when I am working with an Executive before an important presentation, we spend a great deal of time working on how they will open their talk. I like to think of the open like a first date in that you only get to move on if you’ve earned more of the audience’s attention.
Because I think that the open is incredibly important, I usually steer it one of two ways; with a question that makes the audience think, or with a story that draws the audience in. Just about every time, I get the question, “can I just use a quote?” The answer, like all things is, yes and no.
Opening with a quote is tricky but it has its merit. For one thing, if there were a singular part of a presentation that is worth memorizing, it’s the opening and quotes are easy to memorize. It saves some mental bandwidth and allows the speaker to relax knowing that they have their opening down cold. It’s also a good way to make a connection if you use the right quote the right way.
Because quotes can be somewhat dangerous territory, I’m giving you my three R’s for opening with a quotation.
- Get it RIGHT! The quickest way to lose credibility to fumble a quote. Do not paraphrase, do not interpret; use the quote as it is written. I once heard a speaker give a pretty solid presentation but when she used the quote “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate” she attributed it to Winston Churchill rather than John F. Kennedy. She was wrong and everyone knew it which only makes one start to question what else she had been mistaken about. The first R is get it Right!
- Make it RELEVANT! Many times speakers fall in love with a quote and want to use it whether it fits the rest of their talk or not. This is a big mistake. Quotes are tools, and like all tools, they should be used appropriately to get the job done. It’s a tedious job driving a nail with a wrench but it’s pretty easy with a hammer. Find a quote that advances your message, one that ties in and proves your point. The second R is Relevant.
- Make sure the quoted person is RENOWNED! There are few things worse than quoting someone your audience has never heard of. When using a quote, quote someone that everyone knows. I like to use subtle misdirection with this and quote famous people but not in the ways the audience expects. One of the best uses of this that I’ve ever seen came from 2003 World Champion of Public Speaking Jim Key when talking about the power of dreams. He set up his quote by saying that “Martin Luther King Jr. said” and everyone expected him to use the Reverend’s famous “I have a dream” quote but instead, he used “The time is always right to do what it right.” His subtle misdirection was powerful and cemented his message with his audience. This only worked however because the audience knew the person he was quoting! Your third R, use someone Renowned.
The next time you are asked to make a presentation and you are tempted to open with a quote, follow my 3 R’s and see if it doesn’t make your entire talk flow more smoothly. By getting it Right, making it Relevant and quoting the Renowned, you will set yourself up to earn your audience’s attention and make your way to your second date.