How to use quotes in your presentation – 25+ tips from Six Minutes & me

“First, why should I use quotes in my presentations?”

Decisions are made on feelings about facts, not on facts themselves.(In a rush? Jump to the tips.)

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 business presenters use them.

These days, I recommend this 3-part formula for using quotes:

  1. Be shrewd, by which I mean use quotes sparingly, and quote a source your audience admires, like Melinda Gates or Richard Branson.
  2. Keep it short. Typically, the shorter a quote is, the more power it has.
  3. Make it shine. For a “professionally designed” look, put it on a full-screen photo and wrap it in oversized quotation marks, like in the example below:

3-part formula for using a quote in your presentation:
“Be shrewd. Keep it short. Make it shine.” Tweet this

For in-depth tips about using quotes, check out the sections below


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!

Andrew’s post inspired me to think hard about how best to use quotes. So, here are 6 more tips you might find helpful when used with Andrew’s 21 others:

  1. Choose short quotes when you can
  2. Shorten long quotes to fit
  3. Clarify the quote if needed
  4. Consider subtly animating the key phrase
  5. Show the quote on a “designer slide”
  6. Keep a “quote file”


1. Choose short quotes when you can

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 and on her blog:

“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.

But what if you can only find a long quote (say, 20+ words) that suits your purpose? That’s when you apply the 2nd tip


2. Shorten long quotes to fitBack to Contents ↑

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.


3. Clarify the quote if neededBack to Contents ↑

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 also see it on Google Books.)

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 (counting “470,000” as a word), 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 [car makers] had produced the same kind of innovation,
cars today would go 470,000 miles per hour.”

That example has 18 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, you’d need to explain the context

  • 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 18-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 “car makers” to replace the words “their products” 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.


4. Consider subtly animating the key phraseBack to Contents ↑

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.


5. Show the quote on a “designer slide”Back to Contents ↑

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. For example, most of the text on the blue sample slide, above, is over 50 points. The quote on the 2nd sample is 40 points.
  • So people realise 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

  • Format your quote slides to stand out from your other slides. For instance, if most of your slides have a white background and dark blue 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 2-5× bigger than the quote’s font. (Yes, I do mean about 80 to 300 points: Go big! If you’re not sure, check out the 1st sample slide, above – it uses quotation marks that are almost 300 points.)
  • You want to make it eye-catching, but not gut- wrenching!

  • 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!)

You can see some examples of well-designed quote slides on Marc Jadoul’s blog. And for inspiration, there are some even better-looking quote slides by Nata Kostenko on the Slide Cow blog.


6. Keep a “quote file”Back to Contents ↑

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.


Over to you

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!

I’d love to hear your views in the comment box below..

  • 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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8 thoughts on “How to use quotes in your presentation – 25+ tips from Six Minutes & me

  1. Pingback: 7 Stellar Presentation Enhancers that Add Impact to Any Speech | Fearless Presentations ®

  2. A very comprehensive post, Craig. Thanks for all the detail.

    One suggestion on your shortened quote from Garr Reynolds. It is OK to capitalize the N in “Never” in your shortened version. However, because it was originally in the middle of a sentence, it would be appropriate to put brackets around the N. That way the audience knows that you picked up the quote in the middle of a sentence. Thus: “[N]ever resort to using slideware…simply out of habit.” Slightly more cumbersome, but accurate and full disclosure. (And don’t forget the period in the quote!)




    • Thanks for your comment John. I appreciate hearing your viewpoint.

      When shortening a quote, there are 2 competing priorities:

      • Being precise.
      • Being readable.

      For me, putting brackets around the N because it wasn’t originally capitalised is unnecessarily precise, and harms readability. So I find it distracting from the message.

      I feel it’s better to sacrifice that extra precision for the sake of readability. Still, I recognise that some people might prefer to be precise.

      I find that an ellipsis () doesn’t trip me up when I’m reading a quote, but brackets tend to. So I reserve the brackets for when I’ve inserted or changed a word, rather than just for capitalisation.

      Each to their own, as they say!


  3. Pingback: VISHNUZ PowerPoint Tips | Pearltrees

  4. Craig,

    A thorough post on an important topic that provokes some thoughts I’d like to share:

    Social proof is strongest coming from the person speaking. So when you quote a non-present person the social proof effect is reduced. However, you can increase the value by telling the audience what the quote means to you–why this quote, and why now? You are modeling the real value of getting wisdom from others which is that each idea prompts us to think about it in our own minds and make it work for us.

    I’m hoping that anyone who animates the quote or puts it on a designer slide recognizes what that does: it takes the attention off them as the speaker and directs it to the slide. But people get far more value from the speaker than from any slide. You are the living, breathing source right in front of them.

    So if you adopt these slide techniques remember to also do this:
    Memorize and deliver the quote while completely focusing on the audience (not so much as a glance backwards toward the slide). If you can’t memorize it, then write it on a note card and read it. Keep the audience paying attention to you while you talk about the meaning of the quote.

    Thanks for prompting this discussion!


    • Thanks for your perceptive comment, Susan. It was great to see you’d read and commented on my post.

      With social proof, I’d say it’s good that the speaker’s backed up by others, especially when the audience respects those people. Hence the value of quoting industry experts, authors, journalists and the like.

      The post now says what I meant by “animation” (a subtle effect). I believe that can reinforce what the speaker says (like pausing does), and even slightly boost their credibility because low-key animation looks professional and well-prepared.

      I agree that designer slides draw attention (as does any slide), but a slide like the one now at the top of the post would probably do that for only a few seconds. (And you could always press B to turn the screen black after that time.) Because quotes involve specific words, I believe it is best to show them.

      To me, professional-looking slides help the presenter to influence the audience positively. In contrast, a plain-looking slide could hurt the presenter’s credibility because it doesn’t look professional.

      And using a badly formatted slide (e.g. purple text on bright green slide) would certainly hurt the presenter’s standing, and distract the audience – who might well focus on the slide design! Those impacts make people less likely to be persuaded.

      I so agree about not even glancing at the slide, and ensuring the presenter takes precedence over the visuals. One way to ensure that – which I might add to the post in a future edit – is to say the quote before showing the slide content, so the slide backs up the speaker and not vice versa.

      Thanks again for contributing. I always value your viewpoint (whether or not we agree on all points!), so I hope you’ll comment on other posts over time.

      (P.S. I presented that Toastmasters speech I’d mentioned to you, and I gave a shout-out to you.)


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