The Night Mark Twain Bombed!

Adding humor to your speech - pondering on it

Written by Conor Cunneen

Published June 18, 2015

At a speech given in December 1877, Mark Twain BOMBED. How badly did he bomb?


Twain later wrote, “The … faces turned to a sort of black frost. I wondered what the trouble was. I didn’t know. I went on, but with difficulty….. but with a gradually perishing hope—that somebody would laugh, or that somebody would at least smile, but nobody did. I didn’t know enough to give it up and sit down, I was too new to public speaking, and so I went on with this awful performance, and carried it clear through to the end, in front of a body of people who seemed turned to stone with horror. It was the sort of expression their faces would have worn if I had been making these remarks about the Deity and the rest of the Trinity; there is no milder way in which to describe the petrified condition and the ghastly expression of those people.

A pensive humorous motivational speaker!

Mark Twain image created by my good buddy Mark Anderson for What Mark Twain Learned Me ’bout Public Speakin’

“When I sat down it was with a heart which had long ceased to beat.I shall never be as dead again as I was then. I shall never be as miserable again as I was then. I speak now as one who doesn’t know what the condition of things may be in the next world, but in this one I shall never be as wretched again as I was then.” 

What Happened?

In my book What Mark Twain Learned Me ‘bout Public Speakin’, I write that Twain was the guest speaker for the 70th birthday of poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier. The audience included three respected doyens of American society and literature, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whom Twain proceeded to roast in a wonderfully crafted and researched speech. READ the speech that caused all the controversy here.

But Twain failed to appreciate the revered demi-god status that this famous trio were held in by the audience, an audience that got more and more uncomfortable with his comments that resulted “this calamity, this shipwreck, this cataclysm.” Twain’s reflections were written in January 1906, TWENTY-EIGHT years after that night. It obviously was not the most motivational speech from the great humorous speaker!


 What Mark Twain Learned Me!

Lesson: Research and KNOW your audience and its potential reaction

If the great Mark Twain bombed, even after studious preparation of a speech, you can be reasonably sure that at some stage you are likely to suffer that uncomfortable cold sweat at the back of your neck as you wonder why the audience is not paying attention or appreciating your wit and wisdom.

Jay Leno says “Everyone bombs” and indeed if you believe the Huffington Post headline “Jay Leno BOMBS at White Dinner,” he quite likely felt some of that cold sweat when presenting at the 2010 White House Correspondents Dinner.

For you as a speaker, it is critical to have a good appreciation of who is in the audience, what their expectations are and why they are there.

Twain’s disastrous Whittier speech was in many ways genuinely funny and demonstrated substantial research. However, the audience would not have expected to see three great men of American literature “roasted” in a manner that at times was perceived as insulting. Even though he was obviously telling a fictitious yarn about characters mistaken for the trio – “Mr. Emerson was a seedy little bit of a chap, red-headed. Mr. Holmes was as fat as a balloon; he weighed as much as three hundred, and had double chins all the way down to his stomach,” that type of comment is likely to make many wince if the target is in the room. Almost certainly had the trio not been there, Twain’s comments would have evoked substantial laughter. But they were! The essential lesson here (and the second of four lessons in the acronym MARK in my book) is about your Audience. Know who is in it. Know their mood, philosophy, expectations etc.

Comic Steven Colbert suffered a similar fate at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner where he savaged George W. Bush and his Iraq policy. As a very successful, politically aware comic, Colbert probably lost little sleep that a sometime partisan audience didn’t appreciate his humor, but at that event, the new late night show host did misread the Audience in the room

The Lesson for You – Do your Homework!

Now that we have established that even the great speakers and performers sometimes get it wrong, how can you ensure you do not suffer a similar fate?

In most cases, it should be easy to determine who will be in the audience and what they are expecting from the speaker.

Consult with the event planner for advice. Determine what are the challenges and worries that are keeping audience members awake at night. Ask for a final brief a few days before the event and it is particularly important to be aware of any negative situations or events that may have happened since you were first briefed.

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Check the THREE Mental Triggers to Great Customer Service from Chicago-based Speaker Irishman Conor Cunneen

Conor is author What Mark Twain Learned Me ’bout Public Speakin’



PRE-ORDER Today for June 23 launch: What Mark Twain Learned Me ’bout Public Speakin

600 twain

 “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.”  

Life on the Mississippi – Mark Twain


Mark Twain, long recognized as a wonderful author and humorist was possibly THE most successful professional speaker ever. He enthralled audiences from Berlin to Boston, from Montana to Melbourne with storytelling full of humor, pathos and humanity. He was regarded by many as an exceptional impromptu speaker, except he wasn’t! Twain worked diligently at his craft, researching, writing, rewriting and memorizing his material.

In this book, I showcase the words of Twain and his contemporaries via a unique MARK TWAIN acronym to highlight what Mark Twain Learned Me ’bout Public Speaking. The nine lessons provide a memorable and implementable framework for great speech making and presentation.

The MARK TWAIN acronym spells:


Message preparation


Relate to audience

Know your objective


Titter and humor

Wait (the Pause)



Narration and Stagecraft


PRE-ORDER Today for June 23 launch: What Mark Twain Learned Me ’bout Public Speakin


Humorous Motivational Speaker Mark Twain by Chicago Irishman Conor Cunneen

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