Use Fortune Cookie Proverbs in Your Speech

“If the wind comes from an empty cave, it’s not without a reason.”

“The old horse in the stable still yearns to run 500 miles.”

Such Chinese proverbs are becoming the rage of the corporate boardroom according to an article in the on-line magazine Slate.   


The article describes a business conference in Aspen, Co. that featured speeches on a variety of issues. According to the author, at times the conference became a contest in who could cite the best Chinese proverb.

China’s influence was especially apparent in the language used throughout the conference. At a panel on alternative energy, Lawrence Bender, a producer of “An Inconvenient Truth”, opened his spiel with a Chinese proverb: “When the wind rises, some people build walls. Others build windmills.” Panelist David Hawkins,  a lawyer at the Natural Resources Defense Council, countered with another Chinese proverb: “When is the best time to plant a tree? A hundred years ago. When is the second-best time to plant a tree? Yesterday.” (The exchange occasioned much sage nodding of heads.) At another panel, an executive explained the reluctance of Western firms to engage in aggressive public relations in the new market by noting, “In China, they say tall flowers are cut down.”

What we love about the use of Chinese proverbs is that they are often slightly mysterious and therefore require that the speaker tell the story behind the proverb.  And as anyone who has worked with Speechworks knows, we love stories. 

For example, the quote “If the wind comes from an empty cave, it’s not without a reason” is about trying to understand mysterious incidents. If your business sees something odd happening, chances are that there is a reason. The key, of course, is to try to figure out the reason.

So in your next speech, consider tossing in some sage wisdom from the Chinese.  It might work. Or as the sage said: “Be not afraid of growing slowly. Be afraid only of standing still.”

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