Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Speaking Advice from Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson began his career on the lecture circuit in the mid 1830s and continued giving lectures until his death fifty years later. This included several European lecture tours. As with Mark Twain, Emerson’s speaking activities had a two-fold purpose: to supplement his income and to promote his writings.

Some of Emerson’s best advice on speaking actually precedes his experience on the lecture tour. It comes from a July 15, 1828 letter from Emerson to his younger brother, Charles, in which Emerson commented on Charles’ valedictorian speech. We don’t know if the letter was ever sent, and given its tone it may simply have been Emerson’s private outlet for his feelings. Either way, the letter has a lesson for all speakers and is as relevant today as it was almost 200 years ago. Here are selected passages.

There is very good management of the voice, fine tones, varied and delicate sounds—some that are music to hear; there is very elegant and very nervous [i.e., sensitive] gesture; and these are used to convey beautiful and forcible periods indeed a very finished oration—to all who have a mind to hear it. There’s the rub—you may hear it or not as you choose. The orator leaves you to your option. He does not address you. He has chalked round him a circle on the floor and within that he exhibits these various excellences to all the curious. . . . So Mr. E. with noble elements for eloquence, was all but eloquent. I felt that that voice should have thrilled me as a trumpet. I only heard it with pleasure. I felt that he should have made me laugh and cry at his will. He never touched me.

* * *

Instead, therefore, of feeling that the audience was an object of attention from him, he felt that he was an object of attention to the audience. This of course is the reverse of what it should be. Instead of finding his audience—like other orators—an angry master who is to be pacified, or a sturdy master who is to be cajoled,—and in any case, one whose difficult regard is to be won,—he takes it for granted that he has the command.

* * *

Let him remember that the true orator must not wrap himself in himself, but must wholly abandon himself to the sentiment he utters and to the multitude he addresses;—must become their property, to the end that they may become his.*

Your main purpose in speaking may be to sell your books, but that shouldn’t be the focus of your speech. Don’t just know your audience; get into its mind and give it what it wants. To paraphrase Emerson: if you give yourself to the audience, it will belong to you.   

This mini-series concludes next week with some more remarks from Mark Twain.


*    From First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process by Robert D. Richardson, pgs. 66-68. The bracketed notation and italics are from the book.


The picture at the head of this post is based on an albumen print from Southworth & Hawes, which was created around 1857. It is in the public domain because of its age.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Storytelling Advice from Mark Twain

As mentioned last week, Mark Twain used lecture tours to promote his books and supplement his income. These tours took him around the country and even around the world. But nobody would have paid him to speak if he hadn’t known how to tell a story.

The advice in this week’s blog post is taken from a short piece appropriately named “How to Tell a Story.” In it, Twain distinguishes between what he calls comic and witty stories (and which we would call jokes) and the humorous story, which he labels as uniquely American.  As you read, don’t forget his penchant for irony. For example, he says that the humorous story strings “incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way,” but in fact nothing is purposeless—it all works together to create the effect he wants.

Mark Twain’s deadpan approach may not work for many writers, but the pause has a more universal application. Enjoy these selections and take from them what you can.

The humorous story may be spun out to great length, and may wander around as much as it pleases, and arrive nowhere in particular; but the comic and witty stories must be brief and end with a point. The humorous story bubbles gently along, the others burst.

The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it . . . .

Very often, of course, the rambling and disjointed humorous story finishes with a nub, point, snapper, or whatever you like to call it. Then the listener must be alert, for in many cases the teller will divert attention from that nub by dropping it in a carefully casual and indifferent way, with the pretense that he does not know it is a nub.

Artemus Ward used that trick a good deal; then when the belated audience presently caught the joke he would look up with innocent surprise, as if wondering what they had found to laugh at.

* * *

To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way, and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities, is the basis of the American art, if my position is correct. Another feature is the slurring of the point. A third is the dropping of a studied remark apparently without knowing it, as if one were thinking aloud. The fourth and last is the pause.

* * *

The pause is an exceedingly important feature in any kind of story, and a frequently recurring feature, too. It is a dainty thing, and delicate, and also uncertain and treacherous; for it must be exactly the right length—no more and no less—or it fails of its purpose and makes trouble. If the pause is too short the impressive point is passed, and the audience have had time to divine that a surprise is intended—and then you can’t surprise them, of course.

Next week we will hear from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who also used lecture tours to promote his books.


The picture at the head of this post was taken by A.F. Bradley in 1907. It is in the public domain  because of its age.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Speak to Promote

Many writers promote their books by giving speeches. But speaking also requires different skills than writing does, and it isn’t as simple as getting up and talking. The next few posts will contain advice from Mark Twain and Ralph Waldo Emerson, both of whom promoted their books (and supplemented their income) by going on speaking tours. But first, here is a reprint of an earlier post on the IWC blog. It was originally published on April 17, 2013 and has been modified to remove outdated information.

Speak to Promote

You've published a book and want to promote it. Or you haven't published anything yet but plan to develop a platform. Have you thought about becoming a speaker?

If you are used to talking to groups, start by deciding what topics you will offer. Then consider joining one or more speakers' bureaus.

But what if you lack experience and are too nervous to follow through? Maybe that writers’ conference you plan on attending has a session or two on public speaking. For more extensive training, check out speech classes at local colleges/universities and park districts. Or join a speaking club from an organization such as Toastmasters International.

Belonging to a Toastmasters' club gives you the opportunity to speak in a non-threatening environment while learning how to prepare and present speeches. Members range in experience from other beginners to people who command significant fees for speaking engagements. They'll all help you gain confidence and become a polished speaker.

New Toastmasters members receive a beginning manual that covers everything from organizing a speech to vocal variety, gestures, and using visual aids. After completing the first manual, members proceed to advanced manuals focused on various types of speaking, such as Persuasive Speaking, Humorously Speaking, and Interpretive Reading.

To find a nearly Toastmasters' club, go to and use the meeting finder at the top of the home page. Guests are welcome, so you can attend a meeting or two before deciding to join.

If you want to speak to promote, you have options.

Use them.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Believing in Yourself

Louis Martinez

This past year, I’ve managed to find made my way past many self-defeating hurdles: restrictions imposed upon myself through my own refusal to believe. Before, I was unproven, and I don’t mean to the world. I was unproven to myself. I hadn’t found a reason to believe in myself and the things I can do.
Thankfully, the people I’ve surrounded myself with have helped lift me up and over many of those hurdles in recent months, one of which was the self-doubt I carried along that weighed down on my writing skills. I’ve still got a long way to go, but now I realize there’s nothing other than myself holding me back from getting to where I want to be.
I realized I had a gift for writing during my teenage years. Once I did, I was eager and enthused. I had finally found my thing, that special talent everyone has that allows them to do something effortlessly when everyone else seems to struggle with it. Everyone has a gift. I had found mine.
Young and reckless, with too much energy for my own good, I thought I could do it all. I tried writing a novel at the age of eighteen. I failed, miserably. I could pump out short stories like it was nobody’s business, and I foolishly believed crafting a long story would be no different.
Everyone has a gift, but everyone also has a breaking point. Attempting to write a novel at such a young age bumped me down to mine, draining me of my will to continue as I tried to craft something my underdeveloped mind could not possibly understand.
I exhausted myself over the same story for years (no exaggeration), refusing to give up on something I started – another hurdle I’ve passed is knowing when to move on, and how that’s different from giving up. I just couldn’t get it to work. I couldn’t understand how to make a plotline span such a length.
For me, writing a novel was an insurmountable feat. Eventually, I gave up. I didn’t move on after realizing it was simply not something I was prepared to do at the time. I gave up. I quit. I fell into the misguided belief that my inability to do something right then and there meant I was attempting something I could never possibly achieve.
I didn’t move on. I gave up. I quit.
I held that belief for several years and am just now starting to see past it. Thanks to my amazing mentors, I now realize writing a novel is something I’m simply not ready for. It’s not something I could never accomplish. I’ve learned I have a lot to learn, but it’s no more complicated than that. I just have things I still need to learn, and I am learning them.
Why do I say all these things? Why do I tell this story? What’s the point?
The point is if I could feel the way I did, there’s a chance many other people are feeling the same way. I tell this story so anyone out there who’s not writing because they don’t believe in themselves might happen upon this post. I tell it because it just might be the very thing they need to hear. Self-doubt can stifle creativity and potentially prevent someone from telling an amazing story, and I don’t want that to happen.
That’s why I tell this story.