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Gone but Not Forgotten: What Today’s Presenters Can Learn from Mark Twain

This year, 2010, marks the centennial year of the death of Samuel Langhorne Clemens (a.k.a., Mark Twain). It is also his 175th birthday and the 125th anniversary of the American publication of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

The speaking industry is particularly indebted to the wit and wisdom of Mark Twain. How many of us have ridden on the shoulders of this literary giant and used his epigrams and maxims to support a point, add humor to our presentations or shine light on an unspoken truth? How many of us have tweeted his short quips—all surprisingly under 140 characters! Mark Twain’s speeches, writing and quotes are essential ingredients for every speaker’s toolkit.

Take, for example, the following Mark Twain epigrams:

“The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.”

"There are only two types of speakers in the world. The nervous and the liars."

“There is nothing so annoying as to have two people talking when you're busy interrupting.”

"It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt."

"It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.”

"A man's character may be learned from the adjectives which he habitually uses in conversation."

“If you have nothing to say, say nothing.”

“The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.”

Scholars from the Mark Twain Project at the Bancroft Library, University of California Berkeley are the people behind the recently completed Autobiography of Mark Twain, which contains previously unpublished material, musings and stories written by the great author. This first volume, the first of three to be published, is 743 pages and is already on the New York Times bestseller list.

Twain’s newly published autobiography is filled with anecdotes, ramblings, free associations and a steady stream of minute details about his life. During all this, he often touches on elements of speechmaking. But if you are just looking for these references, you will have to be patient. Other than the two entire speeches in the appendix (Speech at the Seventieth Birthday Dinner, December 5, 1905, and the Speech at the Players, January 3, 1906), Twains’ speech wisdom is hidden within the body of the text. Even so, it is worth reading because coming across these gems is so delightful.

For example, in a January 10, 1906 entry, Twain says this about speech preparation: “I have to make several speeches within the next two or three months…and all of a sudden it is borne in upon me that people who go out of their 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 really important matter is that the speaker make himself reasonably interesting while he is on his feet, and avoid wearying and exasperating the people who are not privileged to make speeches, and also not privileged to get out of the way when other people begin. So common charity for those people should require that the speaker make some kind of preparation, instead of going to the place absolutely empty.”

No matter what type of presentation or speech the occasion calls for, we can all learn a thing or two from Mark Twain. Yes, his short quips and epigrams make great fodder for almost any presentation, but also learn from his structure…how he organized his speeches into small chunks…how he used short sentences…how he used commas to force a pause. He dispensed both wisdom and wit with ease and confidence, making his words come alive still today, 100 years after his death.
Obviously, Twain was more than just a great American writer; he was also a great speaker and shrewd businessman. If he was able to orchestrate this much publicity for himself 100 years after his death, I can’t wait to learn what he has in store for us for his bicentennial!

About the Author

Angela DeFinis is an expert in professional public speaking. As an author, speaker, and CEO/Founder of DeFinis Communications Inc., she has spent over twenty years helping business professionals find solutions to their communication challenges and develop a broader repertoire of potent speaking skills. Her message and approach create positive, personal, and lasting change. Contact her at [email protected].

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