Mark Twain on Speech Preparation

Adding humor to your speech - pondering on it

Written by Conor Cunneen

Published June 15, 2015

Did you know that Mark Twain, long recognized as a wonderful author and humorist was possibly THE most successful humorous and motivational professional speaker ever?

The great man enthralled packed houses from Berlin to Boston, from Montana to Melbourne with storytelling full of humor, pathos and humanity. Many regarded him as a superb impromptu speaker, except he wasn’t!

Twain worked diligently at his craft, researching, writing, rewriting and memorizing his material.

In What Mark Twain Learned Me’ bout Public Speakin, I reference Twain’s good friend William Dean Howells’ commentary on the great man from Hannibal, Missouri, who “studied every word and syllable, and memorized them by a system of mnemonics peculiar to himself, consisting of an arbitrary arrangement of things on a table—knives, forks, salt-cellars; ink-stands, pens, boxes, or whatever was at hand—which stood for points and clauses and climaxes, and were at once indelible diction and constant suggestion. He studied every tone and every gesture, and he forecast the result with the real audience from its result with that imagined audience.”


Mark Twain with good friend William Dean Howells 1909

Mark Twain with good friend William Dean Howells 1909


Why, What Mark Twain LEARNED me?

In his wonderful and evocative book,  Life on the Mississippi, Twain writes of his struggles to become a riverboat pilot. He was advised by his mentor pilot Horace Bixby:

“When I say I’ll learn (‘Teach’ is not in the river vocabulary) a man the river, I mean it. And you can depend on it, I’ll learn him or kill him.”

Lesson I: Message and Speech Preparation. There is no substitute for preparation, rehearsal and practice.

If one of the finest communicators to walk this earth believed in the importance of preparation and as Howells wrote studied “every tone and every gesture,” each of us, who probably are not as accomplished as Twain should do something similar.

My basic routine as a professional speaker is to prepare an individual file for each client on my iPhone and jot down ideas, thoughts, learnings as I think of them. One specific practice of mine to help Message preparation is to follow clients on Twitter (My handle is @IrishmanSpeaks ). Competitors are also followed and appropriate hashtags are monitored. This allows me to keep up to date on their activity. I will also follow related industry publications and media to properly prepare and then rehearse my message.


Enjoy this insightful and humorous clip on how your Behavior Creates your Brand from Conor Cunneen which, if you believe an Irishman, did take quite some preparation and rehearsal.



Hope you enjoyed the learnin’. Much more available in  What Mark Twain Learned Me’ bout Public Speakin.

600 twain

Utilizing a unique and memorable MARK TWAIN acronym, I demonstrate through the writings of the Dean of American Humorists what Mark Twain learned me ‘bout public speakin !

Message preparation

Audience research and knowledge

Relate to audience

Know your objective


Titter and humor wins the audience

Wait (the power of the Pause)

Anecdotes connect

Involve, Inform, Inspire your audience

Narration and stagecraft.

As a humorous motivational business speaker and Master of Ceremonies / Emcee, Conor Cunneen’s Brand Promise is E4: Energize, Educate, Entertain and Easy to work with. To see how he can keep that Brand Promise for you,

PHONE Conor at 630 661 1220 or

Email:  cc AT

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