If you use famous quotes you should know who actually said them – or didn’t.
A wise man once said: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
Who said it? Ghandi, of course!
It’s a very powerful sentence that is therefore often quoted or posted online.
Let me give you another famous quote: “Those who are late will be punished by life”. Another wise sentence!
Who said it? Gorbatschow. Everybody knows that.
I guess these quotes are so well known because they are very short and contain a lot wisdom. However, I would never use one of them in a speech or elsewhere. Why?
Because Ghandi never said: “Be the change you want to see in the world” nor did Gorbatschow ever say: “Those who are late will be punished by life”.
What Ghandi actually said was: “All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.”
This version of the quote is of course too long for a neck tattoo, I get that. But the original quote is deeper and more profound. And there is another important advantage over the short version: It is what Ghandi actually said and not what a bumper sticker left of it.
The same applies to Michail Gorbatschow. The famous version of his quote is based on an inaccurate English translation given by a Russian spokesman in a press conference. What the then President of the Soviet Union actually said was: “Dangers await those who don’t react on what happens in their lives.” A bit more complicated, yes, but then again, his original words.
So you are asking yourself: why am I telling you all this? I’m telling you this because dangers await those who don’t react to what happens on the internet.
Facebook, twitter, and many other web sites are full of wrong quotes. Lines that were never said by the people they are attributed to. Or they were said in a different way. Whenever you find a quote by a famous person on the internet, I recommend you treat it with this approach:
Trust is good, but control is better.
Check and double-check. Make sure the quote is accurate. Also keep in mind that Vladimir Lenin never said “Trust is good, but control is better”, even though one million websites tell you otherwise.
You might object to this and ask: Why all that extra research? All those great lines I find on the internet – accurate or not – are deep thoughts, they are boiled down to very few very powerful words. Their meaning is recognized instantly by almost everybody. If everyone believes that Ghandi said this and Gorbachow said that, why should I not quote it?
You could argue that if a particular quote guaranteed you a specific reaction from your audience, you should be allowed to use it. You could hit me with a very famous quote by Nicolo Machiavelli which reads:
“The end justifies the means.”
Well, I would respond to you that Machiavelli never said these words. What he actually wrote in his famous book The Princewas this:
“One must consider the final result.”
And that is exactly what I recommend you to consider when using famous quotes: the final result. Because inaccurate quotes will always result in a loss of trust in your message.
Even though many people might not recognize the incorrect use of a quote. There is always going to be at least one person in your audience who does. And they will think that if your citation method is flawed, the rest of your speech might not be written with great care either.
At this point you might think: Why the heck did I read this article? All those great quotes used to get you applause after your speeches and hundreds of likes on the internet. And now you shouldn’t use them any more? Why is the author telling me all this?
Let me answer with one last quote by a very smart man who said the famous words:
“Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise”.
Who was this man? I have no idea. But as you might have guessed: It was not Martin Luther.
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