Use Quotes and Anecdotes in Your Keynote

A quote by Nelson Mandella can set the tone for a great keynote

At Interact, we coach a lot of clients through the process of developing and delivering keynote addresses.

We use the term “storybite” to refer to language that pings the imagination and engages your audience beyond mere facts. Relevant quotes and anecdotes offer storybites that can warm up your communication when they are well placed and convey relevant meaning.

Don’t use tired quotes that most people have already heard—use short, expressive quotes (sparingly) that carry a touch of heat. Here are some of my favorites.

Nelson Mandela

When launching a daunting campaign for your community you might consider a short and powerful quote from Nelson Mandela as a keynote opener, another in the main portion or your keynote and another to close it.

The first black South African to become President of South Africa, his belief in forgiveness, reconciliation, positivity, and the power of the human spirit allowed those who believed to dream bigger and do greater things than they ever imagined. Mandela is a symbol for accomplishing the impossible—and if you quote him you will borrow some of that energy.

OPEN WITH:  Nelson Mandela said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

MAIN BODY you will address:  Why we must do it. How we will do it. What will happen when we do it.

CLOSE WITH:  “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”  Let’s get it done together.

Mo’ne Davis

Consider your audience.  f you are speaking to a group of young girls who are dreaming of a great life without barriers, search out someone like them whose words can help deliver your message. A brief set-up and quote might be the best way to begin your comments:

Mo’ne Davis is the first girl to throw a shutout in the Little League World Series. Baseball fans and non-fans alike love her, not only for how this 5-foot-4 inch eighth-grader throws 70-mph fastballs and strikes out batter after batter, but for her grace and humility.

When she appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated,  Mo’ne was asked how she felt about being a role model for young girls and boys across the country. She responded,  “I never thought that I would be a role model at this age, so I just have to be myself. ”

Quote Your Own Friends and Family

Characters from your own life are a wonderful source of quotes. My friend Tom Williams told me this story that held a meaningful quote from his grandfather:

“Dr. Hunt Williams was my grandfather, my father’s father. He lived until he was 99. An amazing man. A delightful and funny man. I didn’t know him in his profession because he retired at the age of 72 and I had just been born; but he was a physician and a health commissioner in public health. He thought being a public servant was a good and noble profession.

He had a few key sayings in life, one them was, “I would pay a man a dollar a year to do all of my worrying. It’s unproductive.” What he was saying is, ‘Don’t worry—let it go. Set yourself free.’ I worry too much. I need to find that man.”

Use quotes  like precious capital, at peak moments in your keynote. You might use a story like this one to close a talk on lessons learned and the keys to success.

The final line has the rhythm of completion in, “I need to find that man.” It would fit nicely at the end of a keynote

Elvis Presley

Extraordinary people will tell you that the way to success is through your own ideas—your own “sound.”  For example, Elvis Presley came from nowhere to change everything. The way he sang and the way he moved–it was all new.

When coaching employees who are afraid to go too far out of the box in their approach, channel this anecdote from Elvis:  .

In 1953, the 18-year-old Elvis showed up at Sun Records in Memphis. When he was asked what kind of music he sang, Elvis shrugged. When he was asked who he sounded like, he replied “I don’t sound like nobody.”

Story forms overlap. Notice this quote comes with a mini-anecdote.

The right quote can say more than mere words. Delivered in an unhurried way, it can deepen the moment for everyone in the room.

Resist the urge to grab quotes off the internet willy-nilly.  Instead, notice the people, events and quotes that resonate with you deeply—so that when you include them in your keynote, we will feel the heat.


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Avatar for Lou Solomon

Lou Solomon

Lou Solomon is the founder of Interact. She is a TEDx speaker and a member of the adjunct faculty at the McColl School of Business at Queens University of Charlotte. Her articles have appeared in Harvard Business Review, Entrepreneur.com, CEO.com, and Fast Company.