Check your quotes

Quotes are tricky things in the press. Not when someone is quoting you, of course; that’s what we journalists do for a living and you need to make sure you say the right things. We may not allow you to check your words afterwards.

No, on this occasion I’m talking about using other people’s quotes to add some weight. The Sunday Times had a piece yesterday on students using them to start off their applications. I’ve seen loads of them on Facebook (try joining a speaking society and watch your timeline fill with inane quotes that someone thinks are impressive because they’re against a coloured background or in italics or something) and increasingly, they’re in press announcements.

This means you end up presenting them to journalists. I can think of three reasons not to put them in.

  • The first is actually pleasant and non-cynical – so enjoy this while it lasts. Put simply, if you have something to say about something, I want to hear it. I don’t want to hear what Shakespeare said about competition in the smartphone market, I don’t need to be dazzled with your knowledge of Disraeli and how you can prove what he’d have thought of the competition. I want your view. I will listen and I may well quote it. That would be in your words, not someone else’s.
  • Back in the world of journalists, we’re a cynical bunch and sometimes, when we’re in the mood, we’ll have those platitudes for breakfast. We’ve heard them before and we’re quite likely to assume you’re using them because you have nothing else to say, no matter how wrong this impression may be. You use them to add weight, to us it does exactly the reverse. Oh, and equally importantly…
  • We can check up on them. With our smartphones, on the spot. “Be the change you want to see in the world,” you say on a slide, attributing it to Gandhi. Except we can check and find that this wasn’t attributed to him until long after his death. Someone committed to democracy might well quote “I disagree with what you say but I would die for your right to say it” – and attribute it to Voltaire, except a quick check on Google will tell you that he didn’t say that either.

So, go on, be brave. Think of the mot juste, the pithy quote you’re sure you’ve heard from somewhere and you reckon you know who said it…and then leave it out. Honestly, we’d much rather hear from you. It might not sound as distinctive but it will certainly be original.

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