Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain called. They want their quotes back.

Speechwriters and social media mavens alike love the famous quote, and so do their audiences. But quotations are one form of literature that has suffered sorely in a social-media age, where nearly everything seems to have been said solely by Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, Mae West, Maya Angelou, or Winston Churchill. If food lovers say "Everything tastes better with bacon," social media users must be thinking "Everything sounds better with Lincoln." Actually, I think Mae West said that first. Don't get caught in this slippery slope, communicators.

Instead, shine a light on quote attribution and follow the lead of some social media (and traditional media) mavens who are fighting back and establishing who said what, when. They're taking the only sensible route and serving as verifiers and fact-checkers, something you can consider for famous quotes that emanate from your company, organization, or university. Check out these examples:
The reverse of this problem will delight speechwriters: President Lyndon Baines Johnson's speechwriter, Liz Carpenter, shared LBJ's method for handling quote attribution:
You’ve got to make sure that everything you write will be understood by the audience. There’s a famous story about LBJ going over a draft of a speech by a new speechwriter. He was reading it aloud to [Congressman] Jake Pickle, and he got down to a quotation from Aristotle. LBJ exploded: “Aristotle? Aristotle? Those people don’t know who the hell Aristotle is!” So he took out his fountain pen, crossed out “Aristotle,” and wrote, “As my dear old daddy used to say . . .” Any speechwriter would say that’s fair.
I'm not as worried about the paraphrased quote, or even the one attributed to your daddy. But the misattribution issue is not as small a problem as it may seem. Even the U.S. Postal Service misattributed a quote on its Maya Angelou tribute stamp, a mistake so expensive they aren't going to correct it. If you're sharing quotes in speeches or social media, more and more, it pays to spend time fact-checking or getting a librarian or researcher to do that for you. A good start: Buy an office copy of They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading Attributions. And if you're in a position to establish what your key figure in history did and did not say, please do--and share it widely.

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