Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Mark Twain on Speech Preparation

Mark Twain’s advice on speech preparation seems contradictory at first glance, but a closer look brings a different conclusion. The following quotes come from Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1, ed. Harriet Elinor Smith (Berkley: University of California Press, 2010).

This first reminiscence comes from Twain’s early years on the lecture circuit. It emphasizes the importance of trying out your material on more forgiving audiences and making any necessary revisions before taking it to the big stage.

I began as a lecturer in 1866, in California and Nevada; in 1867 lectured in New York once and the Mississippi valley a few times; in 1868 made the whole western circuit; and in the two or three following seasons added the eastern circuit to my route. We had to bring out a new lecture every season . . . and expose it in the ”Star Course,” Boston, for a first verdict, before an audience of twenty-five hundred in the old Music Hall; for it was by that verdict that all the lyceums in the country determined the lecture’s commercialvalue. The campaign did not really begin in Boston, but in the towns around; we did not appear in Boston until we had rehearsed about a month in those towns and made all the necessary corrections and revisings.

* * *

But sometimes lecturers who were new to the business did not know the value of “trying it on a dog,” and these were apt to come to Music Hall with an untried product. There was one case of this kind which made some of us very anxious when we saw the advertisement. De Cordova—humorist—he was the man we were troubled about. . . . The audience were so sure that he was going to be funny that they took a dozen of his first utterances on trust and laughed cordially; so cordially, indeed, that it was very hard for us to bear, and we felt very much disheartened. Still I tried to believe he would fail, for I saw that he didn’t know how to read. Presently the laughter began to relax; then it began to shrink in area; and next to lose spontaneity; and next to show gaps between; the gaps widened; they widened more; more yet; still more. It was getting to be almost all gaps and silences, with that untrained and unlively voice droning through them. Then the house sat dead and emotionless for a whole ten minutes. We drew a deep sigh; it ought to have been a sigh of pity for a defeated fellow craftsman, but it was not—for we were mean and selfish, like all the human race, and it was a sigh of satisfaction to see our unoffending brother fail. [Pgs. 147-148.]

There is more to the story, but it is too long to print here. If you want to read it, you will have to track it down for yourself in the source material listed above.

These next musings come from closer to the end of Mark Twain’s speaking career and show how experience affects preparation.

I have to make several speeches within the next two or three months, and I have been obliged to make a few speeches during the last two months—and all of a sudden it is borne in upon me that people who go out that way to make speeches at gatherings of one kind or another, and at social banquets particularly, put themselves to an unnecessary amount of trouble, often, in the way of preparation.

* * *

The person who makes frequent speeches can’t afford much time for preparation, and he probably goes to that place empty, (just as I am in the habit of doing), purposing to gather texts from other unprepared people who are going to speak before he speaks. Now it is perfectly true that if you  can get yourself located along about number 3, and from that lower down on the program, it can be depended on with certainty that one or another of those previous speakers will furnish all the texts needed. If fact you are likely to have more texts than you do need, and so they can become an embarrassment. You would like to talk to all of those texts, and of course that is a dangerous thing. You should choose one of them and talk to that one—and it is a hundred to one that before you have been on your feet two minutes you will wish you had taken the other one. You will get away from the one you have chosen, because you will perceive that there was another one that was better. [Pgs. 254-255.]

Actually, there is another major difference between the two pieces of advice besides experience, and it’s an important one. The first refers to speeches that are given many times and to different audiences: there practice is imperative. The second involves after-dinner speakers at banquets given to honor particular persons or events: those speeches are unlikely to be repeated, so the busy speaker cannot afford the same amount of time to prepare.

Even so, Mark Twain’s advice can be summed up this way: if you are an inexpert speaker, try your speech out on a minor-league audience first; if you have years of practice, use what you already know to create a more spontaneous experience.


This picture of Mark Twain on the lecture circuit was drawn by Joseph Keppler and appeared on the back cover of PUCK on December 23, 1885. It is in the public domain because of its age.

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