I recently gave a presentation on techniques for starting a speech. Mark Twain was my teacher and I learned from the best.
Mr.Twain was not shy about admitting that he borrowed from the other prominent speakers of the time. Artemus Ward was the best known speaker on the circuit when Twain came on the scene and started to learn the craft. Twain attended a performance by Artemus Ward in Virginia City, Nevada and was amazed by the reaction from the audience. Ward told the type of short humorous stories that would become the preferred style of Mr.Twain. When Artemus Ward died at the age of 32, it opened up the field to Mark Twain and others. Twain would surpass Ward in ability and fame, but not until he worked very hard to perfect his craft. He mastered the ability to open his performance in such a way as to command the stage and hold the attention of his listeners for an hour or more.
Recent research shows that a speaker has no more than 20 seconds to get the attention of his audience. After that, they are thinking about something other than the words coming from the speaker.
I’m not sure if Twain ever needed 20 seconds to get the undivided attention he wanted. Just his appearance compelled the attention of the crowd. His long hair, mustache and outlandish attire were hard not to stare at. As an experiment, Twain once walked out on stage and just stared at the audience, saying nothing. For perhaps 3 minutes, he looked around the room. The tension built as the audience wondered what was happening. Finally, the silence was too much for a woman who burst into laughter, soon followed by the others. Hundreds of people were laughing and Twain stood silent staring at them.
Twain would often start a speech by responding to the Toastmaster who introduced him. After hearing introductory compliments thrown his way, Twain began “I thank you for the compliment which you have just tendered me and to show my appreciation of it, I will not afflict you with many words”. He used opening to make friends with his audience, while delivering humor at the same time.
He was once asked to give a speech about billiards. His opening line was, “The game of billiards has destroyed my naturally sweet disposition”. Again, the audience laughed and Twain has their full attention. Late in life, Twain was more emotional in his responses to praise from the person introducing him. On one such occasion, he endeared himself to his listeners by saying “I am but human, and when you give me a reception like that I am obliged to wait a little while to get my voice”.
Thomas Edison once said that “Americans love their families, and if they have any love left over, it usually goes to Mark Twain”.