“First, why should I use quotes in my presentations?”
Quotations offer a kind of social proof to support the claims you make in your talk. The well-known people who said each quote make your message more credible. And in boardroom-style presentations in business, well-chosen quotes make your talk stand out and look more professional because so few presenters use them.
How to use quotes
21 tips for working with quotes, plus 8 benefits
Recently on the Six Minutes blog, Andrew Dlugan published a great post about using quotes in your presentations. In it, you’ll find 21 tips for working with quotes, plus 8 benefits of doing so. And as usual with Andrew’s work, his post covers the topic both thoroughly and succinctly, so you can get a lot out of it – and very quickly. All up, it’s a great read!
- Choose short quotes when you can
- Shorten long quotes to fit
- Clarify the quote if needed
- Consider subtly animating the key phrase
- Show the quote on a “designer slide”
- Keep a “quote file”
- Choose short quotes when you can
- Shorten long quotes to fitBack to Contents ↑
It’s simple: Short quotes pack more punch.
Like with most text, the shorter a quote is the more power it has. As Nancy Duarte wrote in Resonate:
“Language and power are inextricably linked.”
And as Dianna Booher put it – when considering entire presentations:
“If you can’t write your message in a sentence,
you can’t say it in an hour.”
You should be able to summarise any message in just 1 sentence
In other words, you should be able to summarise any message – even a whole presentation – in just 1 sentence. And the same applies to each quote: It should fit in 1 sentence so your audience can easily grasp it before you move on.
Now just how short a sentence do I mean? Well leading presentation experts like Jerry Weissman, Garr Reynolds, Nancy Duarte and Phil Waknell recommend you show no more than 3-5 seconds’ worth of new content at once, which means a limit of about 15 words (assuming a typical reading speed of 180 words per minute). So when you can, pick short quotes – up to 15 words or so.
Note that I said “about 15 words…”
Note that I said “about 15 words…”, so don’t let that exact number stop you using a quote that’s a bit longer. For instance, Dianna Booher’s quote above has 16 words, and I’d be very happy to use it in a presentation.
Don’t be afraid to shorten the quote to about 15 words or less
In the preparation time you’ve allotted to finding a suitable quote, suppose you can only find a long one. In that case, don’t be afraid to shorten it to about 15 words or less – provided you meet 2 conditions:
- Use an ellipsis (3 dots: …) to show where you’ve cut words out.
- Use at most 2 ellipses in a quote of around 15 words, and preferably at most 1 in a shorter quote. (I once saw an example where a customer quote had 3 or 4 ellipses in it, which made me wonder what had been cut out and how much the presenter had manipulated the meaning!)
Talking of cutting out words reminds me of one of my favourite quotes, by Alfred Hitchcock, which you might have heard before:
“Drama is life with the dull parts cut out.”
In communication, you can apply Hitchcock’s idea to lots of areas – not just drama. For instance, you could paraphrase and say:
A quality quote is a
smart sentence with the
boring bits cut out.
Let’s take an example. Here’s a complete sentence that caught my eye on Garr Reynolds’ blog (it’s the last sentence in the post):
“Each case is different, of course, but in general consider saving the multimedia for the larger presentations, and never resort to using slideware and other forms of computer-generated visuals simply out of habit.”
Because I write and speak about presenting, the statement about slideware hit home with me. And as the sentence was written by Garr Reynolds – one of the biggest names in the field – it carries lots of weight. But coming from a blog post, its wording suits private reading – not public speaking – so it’s not exactly punchy!
Before you read on, think how you might shorten Garr’s sentence…
Before you read on, think how you might shorten Garr’s sentence for use as a quote in a presentation. Try writing down your shortened version. How much shorter than 15 words would you make it, and how much punchier than the original does it become as a result?
With 33 words, Garr’s original sentence is way over our 15-word suggested limit. And it has 3 commas, which makes it too complex to be easily said aloud by you and easily understood on-the-fly by your audience.
Still, the crux of the statement is useful to reinforce a point you might want to make about presenting without slides. So, here’s how I’d shorten it to make a useful quote:
“Never resort to using slideware
…simply out of habit”
At just 9 words, that’s far more suitable as a quote. It also brings up another point I want to make, which is that you can use just a phrase from the original text. If you do that, still start it with a capital letter as though it’s a standalone statement.
A quote might need your help to make sense
Sometimes, a quote might need your help to make sense out-of-context. To show you what I mean, let’s look at another example, which this time compares the pace of change in electronics manufacturing with other industries:
In her upcoming book HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations, Nancy Duarte features a quote by Paul Otellini, Intel’s CEO. And, because the quote occurs in print (a bit like the Garr Reynolds example above), it doesn’t need to conform to the shortness you’d use in a presentation. In fact in the book, the quote contains 4 sentences and almost 70 words. (If you’d like to read the whole quote, you can register to download this 5-page book extract.)
You could shorten Paul’s quote in various ways, but for our example let’s focus on this sentence:
“With all respect to our friends in the auto industry, if their products had produced the same kind of innovation, cars today would go 470,000 miles per hour.”
At 28 words, I maintain that’s too long to use in a presentation because it takes about 10 seconds to read aloud, so instead I’d likely use this or similar:
“If [auto industry] products had produced the same kind of
innovation, cars today would go 470,000 miles per hour.”
That example has 19 words instead of 28, so although I like to use shorter quotes in presentations, it would work OK. (Via the comment box below this post, I’d welcome any other suggestions you have for wording you’d use.)
This example brings up 3 points about making a quote understandable:
- With some quotes, before you show or read the quote to your audience, you’d need to explain the context. (You’d need to do that with the 19-word quote by Paul Otellini because it doesn’t mention electronics and so it only represents 1 side of the comparison between industries.)
- Sometimes you might want to insert or change words in the quote to clarify it. For instance, in the Paul Otellini quote, I inserted “auto industry” to replace the word “their” as it didn’t hold enough meaning. You might often need to do similar when a quote contains a pronoun (like “them”, “she”, “him”, “it” etc.) that refers to a word outside the quote.
- Use square brackets to enclose edits you make (if any), so people know you’ve changed the wording at that point.
With some quotes, you’d need to explain the context
I’m not talking about text that bounces, flashes, or appears letter-by-letter
Especially if the quote has a comma, dash or ellipsis (“…”) in it, you might want to subtly animate the start or end of the sentence. That way, your quote’s “punch line” appears after a slight pause – for more impact.
I should emphasise here that I’m not talking about text that bounces, flashes, or appears letter-by-letter as though being typed. (Spare us from all of those, for heaven’s sake!) No, I’m talking about subtle, professional-looking effects, like just fading in quickly.
Andrew Dlugan touched on this tip when he wrote (in his tip #13):
“You can stylize the slide to add impact.”
Here are 6 ideas for making what I call a “designer slide” for a quote:
- As a starting point, use a big font – say 40 to 60 points.
- So people realize this is a quote, be sure to put the words in quotation marks! (It might sound obvious, but I just want to be clear!)
- Format your quote slides to stand out from your other slides. For instance, if most of your slides have a dark blue background and white text, you could swap those colours on your quote slides.
- For a polished look (as seen in magazines and other professionally designed media), you might want to make the quotation marks around 2-3x bigger than the quote’s font. (Yes, I do mean about 80 to 180 points: Go big!)
- So you can place the quotation marks well, consider putting them in separate text boxes from the quote.
- You can also add finishing touches like making the quotation marks a different colour from the text. (That is, as long as there aren’t many other colours on the slide – you want to make it eye-catching, not gut-wrenching!)
Format your quote slides to stand out
You want to make it eye-catching, but not gut- wrenching!
You can see some examples of well-designed quote slides on Marc Jadoul’s blog.
Lastly, here’s one of the most useful tips I have about quotes – or any other content for that matter:
When you find a useful quote, make a note of it on your mobile phone…
Whenever you see or hear a useful quote, make a note of it on your mobile phone or laptop. (You can find good quotes in many places, like newspapers, magazines, TED talks, and YouTube.) And if you store your resulting quote file “in the cloud” (like on Skydrive or Google Docs), you can access it anywhere.
So there you have it – 6 extra tips for working with quotes. Thanks to Andrew Dlugan for publishing his great list of 21 tips, and I hope you find all 27 tips handy!
Over to you
- How do you use quotes in your presentations, if at all?
- What tips or examples can you share about using quotes?
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