The Power of Quotes to Teach and Inspire

Quotes are tiny sound bites that touch both our thoughts and feelings as we hear them—or read them.

What is your favorite quote? Do you have one? I do. For most of my life, I have been fascinated by quotes. I memorized some by choice, others by assignment, and a few by challenge.

One of the earliest I memorized was this:

“We observe today, not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom symbolizing an end, as well as a beginning—signifying renewal, as well as change. For I have sworn before you and almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago. Let the word go forth from this time and place that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, to which we are committed today at home and around the world.”

These are the opening lines of John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address. Though I know it was probably written by a speechwriter, I never fail to be inspired by those words. I feel as though my calling as a trainer and performance consultant is contained in those words. Whenever I finish a class or a presentation or an intervention, I believe these words will fit—if I’ve done my job.

Quotes that Resonate for Me

There are other quotes that have had meaning for me, as well:

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” —Albert Einstein

Einstein reminds me of the importance of creativity and making new connections. Whenever I present in Orlando, I ask my audience to guess who said that quote. Most often, the guess is Walt Disney (notice how context—in this case, where we were—shaped the guesses!). It is a great springboard into the content.

“When principle is involved, be deaf to expediency.” —Commodore Maury

In today’s world, things can seem upside down. Evil is celebrated. Good is vilified. It is important to clarify what we believe in and stand for. Does each of us have a true north?

“Writing crystallizes thought. Thought produces action. Don’t just think it—ink it!” —Bob Pike

Yes, sometimes I even use my own quotes. It is important to write things down. It both clarifies and crystalizes our thinking.

“What I hear, I forget. What I see, I remember. What I do, I understand.” —A protégé of Confucius

For decades, I thought Confucius said this. Then, when I was teaching in China, a student said he had searched all of Confucius’ writings and could not find this quote. The next day, another student said he had found the quote in the writings a protégéso I made the attribution change. This quote summarizes everything I believe about adult learning. The more people experience, the greater the learning and application. Don’t just cover contentallow learners to experience the content.

Operation Appreciation

“The greatest need of every human being is the need for appreciation.” —William James

William James often is called the Father of American Psychology. We are often quick to criticize, but slow to show appreciation. And often it seems, the more important people are to us, the more we take them for granted.

When I got married in 1967, I asked one of my best friends, Bob Miller, to be in my wedding. He was just going to Marine Corp Boot Camp, but said he would come back. And several months later, he did, Afterwards, I thanked him and that was the end of it.

Then several weeks later, I found out Bob had borrowed the $400 for airfare to be in my wedding in Fox Lake, IL. A Marine Corp private made between $65 and $85 a month. He borrowed five months’ income to be in my wedding. That thought crossed my mind a dozen times in the next couple of months. Each time, I marveled at Bob’s willingness to sacrifice to be in my wedding. But it remained thata thought.

Then six months later, I got a phone call telling me Bob had been killed in Vietnam. Between high school and the U.S. Naval Academy, I lost 24 classmates in Vietnam, but no other death affected me like Bob’s. I couldn’t figure out why until almost 15 years later when I heard a speech by Charles Jarvis.

He told of having a friend he loved more than anyone in his lifewith the exception of his wife. But in the busyness of his dental practice, he never got around to telling him. One night, his friend was watching a late evening program when suddenly he turned to his wife and said, “Honey, I can’t see!” A minute later, he was dead of a brain aneurysm. Jarvis said when he heard that, he became bitter. Why was he taken? He contributed so much to his friends, family, and community. Others are making no contribution at all, but they get to live. Jarvis said when he finished thinking through it, he realized he was bitter not because his friend was gone, but because he had not had the opportunity to express appreciation. He then wrote this poem:

“Life’s a bother, life’s a hurry, life’s a busy crowed way—
Good intentions go astray.

I had a friend the other day.
I haven’t anymore—he passed away.

I meant to write, to phone, to call—
I didn’t do any of those at all.

I only hope that he can now see
How much his friendship meant to me.

 Life’s a busy crowded way—good intentions go astray.”

When I heard that poem, I suddenly realized why I felt the way I did about Bob’s death. I started something called “Operation Appreciation.” I made a list of people who have made a positive contribution to my life. From that day to this, I write, phone, or e-mail someone each day to thank them.

Give praise, recognition, and approval. Start with your familyespecially your spouse and children.

“He is no fool who gives up that which he can never keep to gain that which he can never lose.” —Jim Elliot

“A Man with an experience is never at the mercy of a man with an argument.” —C. S. Lewis

Can you see the power of quotes? Tiny sound bites that touch both our thoughts and feelings as we hear them—or read them.

I like to use quotes in my presentations—and sometimes pass them out on small cards for people to carry with them. They are great on charts placed on the wall, as well.

As I’ve mentioned, sometimes I’ll give the quote and then ask participants to share their guesses as to who said it. The discussion alone reinforces the thought embedded in the quote.

What meaning have you found in quotes? Are there some that are guiding principles in your life? How have you used them in your work? Send your thoughts and quotes to me at and I’ll summarize your thoughts in a future article.

Until next month—add value and make a difference.