What Makes a Good Quote?

 

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Let’s say you’re writing something that calls for input from outside sources—testimonials, expert opinions, statements from important people. So you conduct some interviews and end up with a ton of material. How do you choose what to use?

For journalists, a good quote might be one that conveys hard information—the who, what, where, when and why of the story—with at least some human feeling attached.

But for commercial copywriters who use quotes for press releases, ads, case studies, articles, sales letters, appeal letters, etc.— the task is a little trickier. We’re looking for color, vivid snippets that will bolster whatever case we’re making—while keeping the reader riveted. So we’re wise to be fussy. I’ve spent countless hours interviewing people –and then more hours transcribing the interviews—only to end up using a tiny fragment in my writing.

Why?

Well, first, because most spoken narratives aren’t very good.  Even geniuses aren’t always eloquent—especially when they’re speaking off-the-cuff.  Once I edit out the jargon, filler words, repetition, and incoherent nonsense, there may be only a little usable substance left.

Besides, a good writer can almost always provide the necessary facts more clearly and succinctly than the interview subject. So, you might ask, why use quotes at all?

Mainly, for credibility. It helps to have more than just the writer expressing an opinion. A second and third witness immediately give an argument more weight. If the topic is technical or hard to understand, a few words from an expert can do the same thing. And if you’re selling the benefits of a product or service, there’s nothing like the actual words of an ecstatic customer.

With all that in mind, here are a few things I look for in the quotes I select:

Authenticity

A good quote sounds like a real person speaking the truth. We all look for honesty when we’re weighing any proposition. If it sounds like a prepared sales pitch or a missive drafted by committee, we’ll tend to dismiss it–consciously or subconsciously.

Here are a few quotes I pulled from my archives. See if they ring true to you:

“What a fun experience! I’m just a regular guy. But I discovered some secrets about investing … and when I put them into practice, I made a lot of money.”

“I was stressed out because of the loan payments on my house. I couldn’t sleep well, and had frequent headaches.”

“I had lost all hope in the world around me, and fell into deep despair. I began to realize all my friends had started to change, so I thought to myself, if they could change maybe I could too—and there might be a hope for me.“

These are real human beings, recounting experiences that all of us can relate to. That makes them interesting and powerful.

Personality

This is where we get the color we’re looking for. Don’t dismiss a speaker’s colloquialisms and verbal idiosyncrasies. They can help paint a vivid verbal portrait, adding dimension and detail.

Emotion

A passionate, enthusiastic response always beats a cold recitation of the facts. We’re emotional beings and we look for that in other people. Real excitement is contagious. Here are some examples from my files:

“I love it! You can tell it really works.”

“I am definitely going to share this with my best friends!”

And (ahem) a few more from my own client testimonials:

“I’m so thankful!”

“Just yesterday I was singing your praises!”

“Wow! I am impressed!”

Don’t those beat any dry list of facts?

Insight

A good quote tells us things we didn’t know. And for this, the words of an expert can be invaluable. If you have the reader thinking, Wow, I didn’t know that, you’re on the right track.  I’ve written mailers, white papers, books and articles on a huge variety of topics—finance, medicine, economics, technology, politics, real estate, and many more topics. Am I an expert in all these areas? Of course not. But I can find people who are—and get them talking. In many cases that’s all I need. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “The next best thing to being wise is to live in a circle of those who are.”

Surprise

Don’t you hate it when you can predict the plot in a movie? A written piece is no different. You’ll keep the readers’ interest if a speaker catches them off guard with something new or shocking.  And a quote from an expert refuting the conventional wisdom adds intrigue to a narrative.

Let me end with a nice visual image of what we’re talking about, courtesy of King Solomon: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver” (Proverbs 25:11 AKJV).

Look for those apples of gold and you won’t go too far wrong.

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