Are Your Motivational Quotes Backfiring?

Are you using motivational quotes to build your brand. You see “everyone else doing it.” So you decide to jump on board. Why not? After all it’s easy, right?  Yes, it is. But it may not be helping you.

Dr Mark Tager explains …

It’s early in the week and I’ve already been subjected to more than two dozen motivational quotes, many of them superimposed upon an evocative image. They used to just be appended to emails, but now they are ubiquitous on social media.

A motivational quote and picture can sometimes hit the spot, cheering us up. All of us want to inspire and excite potential customers. But that is no substitute for real content or for serious engagement with others. Professionals are being convinced to enhance their personal presence online by using stock photos and combining them with motivational quotes from someone else! This is a counter-productive approach to enhancing one’s presence.

Before you post another quote from Lincoln,  Einstein, Steve Jobs, Bob Marley, Confucius, or Mother Theresa, remember this: As a business, your most important task is to get known, noticed, and remembered in an increasingly complex world. Directing the energy and attention of your readers to the thoughts of a dead author does very little to build your brand.

Here’s an example:


The quote is clearly connected to its author, English writer Samuel Johnson who died in 1784.

Here’s how the same quote was handled differently and with more brand building “juice” by Nike:


Same quote, but greater brand impact achieved by editing out the unnecessary phrase “my dear friend,” selecting a brand appropriate image, and adding the iconic Nike Swoosh. The result is that the reader is now likely to associate the quote with the Nike brand instead of the deceased author.

So this is not an attempt to jump in on the ‘war on positivity’. Instead, if you are a purveyor of inspirational quotes, here are five recommendations for how to do this in a way that actually enhances your personal presence.

1. Add Context. Let’s face it: a lot of today’s motivational quotes are pretty vague. If I resolve to “shoot for the moon,” for example, does that mean I should work for that big promotion, or quit that job, and do something different? By adding context, you can transform your inspirational quote from filler to actual content. Below your quote, describe how you or others have put the quote to work. Apply the quote to a topic in the news, or to a specific issue with behavior change. Don’t shy away from discussing the nuance and the gray areas of your inspiring quote. This won’t detract from your message; instead, your own personal spin on a viral quote is your message. People (and search engines) are hungry for original and authentic content. A reproduced quote doesn’t fit the bill. But a reproduced quote with your own interpretation and commentary does.

2. Make your own quote. Using your own quotes cements your brand, but not only that, it offers clients insights into your philosophy and your practice. A self-quote is only self-indulgent when it is focused on oneself. Focus it on your clients or patients and their needs, and you can quote yourself without it coming off as too self-aggrandizing. In our Enhance Your Presence training, Robert John Hughes came up with a spontaneous quote to illustrate the importance of passion and how it overcomes resistance. Robert said: “If you believe in a possibility for others and you present it with passion –no one can resist you.” Robert combined his words with a striking photo of a wise and confident cat, added his name as author and our web site link, creating a memorable and brand appropriate post.

3. Enrich Your Media. An over-reproduced quote is like a document that has been faxed from office to office: the final result is a little bit flat, a little bit gray, a little less clear. The limitation of the fax machine, of course, was one of the reasons we now e-mail documents to each other instead. And yet we reproduce inspiring quotes through the same old medium: overlaying the words against a friendly stock photo. If you want to stand out, have fun with the format. Instead of another glowing sunset, misty mountaintop, or soaring eagle, look for an unusual photo like the one above. Get an artist to create a unique background or short animation for your quote; with sites like, you can do it without investing much time or money. Or read your quote aloud and record it to accompany the image. It’s hard to put any more of a personal spin on a common quote than by adding your own unique voice.

4. Ground Your Quote In Specifics and Actions. One academic study that made the rounds last year was “on the reception and detection of pseudo-profound B.S.” (I’m paraphrasing the last word), from researchers at the University of Waterloo. Researchers made up ‘pseudo-profound’ statements like “Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty.” People who were unable to realize the ‘b.s.’ nature of this made-up statement were actually found to be lower in intelligence and less likely to engage in reflective thinking. After the results were published in November 2015, the blogosphere went into a round of self-congratulatory finger-pointing at those who post abstract inspirational quotes, accusing them of collective stupidity. But while everyone else was patting themselves on the back and making fun of their Facebook friends, we can take away a different conclusion: Lots of quotes can sound smart in isolation. But they only take on meaning when they are linked to the specific, the here-and-now, and the concrete. If you post a motivational quote, don’t append it with something trite like “This quote inspires me to live life to the fullest!” Give a specific example of an action you took that was inspired by that message, or a choice you made. “I woke up at 5 AM bone-tired. But this quote reminded me that I had resolved to see more sunrises. So I strapped on my shoes and went running.”

5. Check Your Work. As a San Diegan and a former yoga teacher, I know that yoga is the unofficial state sport of California. So I’ve lost count of how many inspiring Buddha quotes I’ve seen gracing the walls of yoga studios across the state. Only, Buddha never said most of the quotes that are attributed to his name (and he most likely never did yoga). There are websites like that put in full-time work debunking quotes like “The way is not in the sky. The way is in the heart.” A lot of people will re-post quotes without checking where they come from, and, when it turns out they were wrong about their attribution, will shrug and say “no big deal.” But let’s think about the message this sends to your clients: you don’t check the facts, you’re not detail-oriented, you don’t hold the materials you send out to a high standard, and the truth is not that important to you. After all, if you can spare the ten seconds to repost an inspirational quote, you can spare the extra ten seconds to Google it and make sure it’s real.

Now, let’s address the elephant in the room. Many of you reading this—business people, small-business owners, and modern-day professionals—don’t manage your professional social media presence yourself. You have someone else do it: maybe someone at your office, maybe a marketing firm. You don’t concern yourself with whether they send out a fuzzy inspirational quote on your behalf; you know it doesn’t represent you, but you let it happen because you want your social media presence to have content. But don’t forget that your name is attached to everything connected to your social media presence. Your patients or clients don’t see the fake-inspirational quote on your profile and think “well, that’s just filler; it doesn’t count.” With your presence, your name, and your reputation—either online or offline—everything counts.

Learn more about mastering presentation, promotion and persuasion skills!


Mark J. Tager, MD
Mark J. Tager, MD is co-founder of ChangeWell Training Academy. A veteran of more than 800 presentations Mark shares his skills and passion to empower those who attend his trainings. A highly sought after speaker, Mark lectures for a number of medical device, nutraceutical, cosmeceutical and biotech companies. He has authored nine books related to health and performance. He attended Duke University Medical School and trained in family practice at The Oregon Health & Science University. Learn more about, Mark.