Should You Cite Your Sources During A Speech?

I recently spoke to a group of non-fiction writers and reporters at the annual American Society of Journalists and Authors Conference in New York City. During my talk, I reminded the audience that most people don’t remember raw numbers.

As an example, I offered this “bad” statistic:

“Four and a half million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease.”

Then, I offered my preferred “good” version:

“Boston’s Fenway Park seats 37,000 people. Try to picture a sold-out game, packed with excited fans. Now imagine 122 Fenway Parks, side-by-side, packed with people. That’s the number of Americans who have Alzheimer’s disease. That’s four and a half million people in total.”


Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons by werkunz1

During the questions and answers section, one non-fiction writer said that although she liked my “good” statistic, it omitted any mention of a source – something she said she needs to do in order to maintain credibility. She asked me how she could fit sources into her telling of statistics. My answer to her was incomplete, so I’m going to elaborate here.

First, there’s no reason to cite every statistic.

If your PowerPoint is cluttered with endnotes and footnotes, for example, you’re doing it all wrong. Presentations aren’t white papers, academic reports, or scientific textbooks. If you need detailed sourcing, speeches are probably an inefficient way to deliver your information.

For example, imagine if I had preceded the Fenway Park example with this disclaimer:

“There is no hard number regarding the precise number of people with Alzheimer’s Disease in the United States, but the National Institutes of Health estimates that as many as 5.1 million people have it. But since they concede that the actual number may be somewhat lower, I’ll use 4.5 million as the number for illustrative purposes.


Would that disclaimer have done much to enhance the audience’s understanding of the severity of the problem? For most general audiences, I’d argue that it doesn’t – but that it does succeed in adding complication while reducing comprehension.

Still, there are times it’s important to name sources during your presentations. Here are two examples:

1. If you’re presenting to a skeptical audience. If you’re a climate change advocate presenting to a group of skeptics, you might bolster your arguments by naming sources for your data – particularly if those sources are people or institutions that the skeptical audience is inclined to find credible.

You might also encounter skeptical audiences – say, your board of directors – if you’re trying to persuade them to take a specific action that would mark a policy change. Those types of situations might also benefit from naming your sources.

2. If you’re presenting to a scientific crowd. Scientists love data. If you’re presenting to a scientific audience, you might consider naming your sources to bolster your data’s credibility.

But in general, I wouldn’t place too much priority on naming sources during speeches to general audiences. Citing a source or two is fine. But resist the urge to prove your credibility by listing an endless stream of sources. If you do, you’re probably going to weigh down your speech.

I’ll end with one final point I made to the author: Her primary job in a speech is to interest people in her topic. If she does, the audience will buy her book. And there, she can put as many endnotes as she’d like.

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