The audience gazed in anticipation as I stood before them holding a large black cloth draped over my arm. Then I threw the black cloth over my head. After a brief pause, I quoted the opening lines of an Emily Dickinson poem:
“I’m nobody. Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?”
I then paused, and removed the cloth and continued with the rest of my speech. The speech was about noticing the people around us. It was for a Toastmaster contest several years ago. I didn’t win (I think shrouding my head and face not only might have broken my eye contact with the audience, but also might have been too contrived). However, quoting the poem, one of Emily Dickinson most famous poems, was a hit!
If you use a poem or quote to open or close your speech, you can inspire, motivate or challenge people with someone else’s words. If the quote or poem is famous (and not too long!), you can tap into the audiences memories and associations with the words and transport them to the message of your speech in a powerfully moving way. The words may carry an emotional charge beyond their meaning. For me the Emily Dickinson poem, “I’m Nobody” transports me to when I was a nobody in junior high school, and frankly, rather liked being a nobody.
The internet makes it easy to find quotes and poems! Here are just a couple of sources:
Search for quotes by topic at Brainy Quotes.
Search for poems by topic at Poem Hunter.
Here are a few guideline for using a poem or quote:
- Short. Generally use short excerpts from longer works.
- Relevant. It must be relevant to your message.
- Attributed. Give credit. If the author is unknown, you can say, “Someone once said . . .” Don’t say the author is “Anon” (Anon= anonymous. This is probably obvious to almost everyone, but I was at a high school speech contest and two of the contestants said their quote was by “Anon”)
- Pause. Pause before and pause after the quote, to give people time to absorb it.
- Practice! You are using someone else’s words which may trip up your tongue if you don’t practice.
A fine quotation is a diamond on the finger of a witty person, but a pebble in the hands of a fool. ~Author Unknown