When it comes to presentations that wow audiences, you can't do better than learning at the feet of an American master: Mark Twain. (To speak engagingly to your own audiences, download my free cheat sheet, "5 Ways to Captivate an Audience.")
No one lived a more interesting life—and nobody wrote about what he lived so entertainingly. Also known as a great after dinner speaker, Twain (1835-1910) entertained audiences around the world with his unique mix of sophistication and homespun humor.
If it's storytelling techniques you're after, you won't find anyone who could spin a web more succintinctly or engagingly. Speaking of conciseness (and speaking concisely), the quote at the top of this article is a clue to Twain's work ethic. Like all good humorists, he labored long and hard so that his stories could emerge short, sweet, and precisely on point.
This is the writer, after all, who said: "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug."
Getting the Great Man on Your Side
As someone once said regarding using quotations in speeches: Why not bring brilliant and famous people up on stage with you? One of the most companionable and effective speaking partners available is the man who grew up in Hannibal, Missouri.
Here's a sample of some of the best Mark Twain quotes that will help enliven your talks, lectures, keynotes, or remarks at the next mining camp (an early source of employment for Twain) you speak at.
- When you're about to cite evidence: "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." (Twain attributed this, perhaps erroneously, to Disraeli.) Or if you prefer: "Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please."
- As self-deprecating humor: "Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I've done it thousands of times."
- Praising someone's courage in standing up for the truth: "A lie can make it half way around the world before the truth has time to put its boots on."
- Giving advice to young people: "Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest."
- At your next author's appearance: "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot."
- When you're being honored after a lifetime of service: "The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated."
- Speaking in New England: "There is a sumptuous variety about the New England weather that compels the stranger's admiration — and regret. The weather is always doing something there; always attending strictly to business; always getting up new designs and trying them on people to see how they will go. But it gets through more business in spring than in any other season. In the spring I have counted one hundred and thirty-six different kinds of weather inside of twenty-four hours."
- At a fashion event: "Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society."
- Discussing humor: "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."
- In a lecture on creativity: "You can't depend on your judgment when your imagination is out of focus."
- Speaking on education: "Education consists mainly in what we have unlearned."
- Discussing music: "Wagner's music is better than it sounds."
- Lecturing on government: "Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself."
- And my favorite, for a speech on wisdom: "When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years." (Scholars question whether this quote can be attributed to Twain, but if he didn't say it, he should have!)
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