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From Twain to Churchill and Oratory

Vincent G Valentine, MD
Links Editor

vincent valentineAccording to John Hales, Director of Liberal Studies at the University of Louisville, "rhetoric is as noble an art as exists on this planet; rhetoric is the art of clothing in words and in gestures and in presentation to a group the ideas that you have in the most effective way possible." His experience as a lecturer may be unparalleled having given thousands of lectures across the globe from the United States and Canada to Finland, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. If we measure the success of a lecturer based on the number of different locales a lecturer has delivered and include their income excluding politics, then Mark Twain may be among the most successful lecturers of all times. He was not only a best-selling author but also a very popular live entertainer amassing visits to over 200 American cities and across Great Britain and her colonies of Australia, New Zealand, India, and South Africa at the turn of the end of the 19th century. Also, Mark Twain performed hundreds of after dinner speeches to specific audiences on special occasions.

Examining some of the important points gleaned from Mark Twain on how to prepare a presentation may actually improve our skills at mastering the art of lecturing and delivering an outstanding speech. First, as a review, allow me to refer you to the March 2012 Links, Volume 3, Issue 10 article on Procrastination, Preparation, Presentation, Prague. There's no point to review the points from that article, but it will be worth our while to peruse it as we prepare for abstract season, presentations, and manuscripts while we avoid procrastination and reminisce over Prague.

Now if anyone has read Roughing It, you will find Twain's first experience as a lecturer. First he set the stage with an advertisement that he used frequently such as: "Doors open at 7 ½. The trouble will begin at 8." Supposedly, his first lecture was given in San Francisco, October 2, 1866 and by his own account, he was terrified. A few excerpts on his feelings just prior to his first talk... "I thought of suicide, pretended illness, flight... The tumult in my heart and brain and legs continued a full minute before I could gain any command over myself." So it seems, anxiety is part of any lecture especially anyone's first. But the following few points gave Twain command and control of his audiences in the palm of his hand that allowed him to tickle them whenever he chose. His success as a humorist comes from his mastery of "the pause" up to a minute or longer before he spoke, which may have actually started from his own fear in his first lecture, had audiences in riotous laughter before he uttered a word. Every lecture, after dinner speech, and introductory remark were carefully written out, rehearsed, memorized such that his presentations seemed spontaneous and conversational. And to intensify his humor, he mastered the "deadpan" technique telling the story gravely without a hint of emotion and again with that all important "pause." Take note that Mark Twain was not only a best-selling author but also a very popular live entertainer.

It should also be noted that one of his most significant introductions still has tremendous influence on us today. It was December 12, 1900 when he introduced the 26-year-old Lieutenant Winston S. Churchill to speak about his adventures as a war correspondent in South Africa in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria in New York (those of us fortunate enough to have attended the 16th ISHLT Annual Meeting in 1996 stood in this very ballroom). It should be further noted that Mark Twain and Winston Churchill both celebrated the same birthday, November 30th, both regaled against totalitarian aggressors and both promoted democracy. They differed on the righteousness of the South African War in the late 19th century. Take note of the subtle battle of words from Twain's introduction of Churchill...

"yet I think England sinned in getting into a war in South Africa which she could have avoided without loss of credit or dignity—just as I think we have sinned in crowding ourselves into a war in the Philippines on the same terms." Mr. Churchill will tell you about the war in South Africa, and he is competent—he fought and wrote through it himself. And he made a record there which would be a proud one for a man twice his age. By his father he is English, by his mother he is American—to my mind the blend which makes the perfect man. We are now on the friendliest terms with England. Mainly through my missionary efforts I suppose; and I am glad. We have always been kin: kin in blood, kin in religion, kin in representative government, kin in ideals, kin in just and lofty purposes; and now we are kin in sin, the harmony is complete, the blend is perfect, like Mr. Churchill himself, whom I now have the honor to present to you."

Churchill's response on Twain some time later in the 20th century...

"Throughout my journeys I received the help of eminent Americans and my opening lecture in New York was under the auspices of no less a personage than 'Mark Twain' himself. I was thrilled by this famous companion of my youth. He was now very old and snow-white, and combined with a noble air a most delightful style of conversation. Of course we argued about the [Boer] war. After some interchanges I found myself beaten back to the citadel 'My country right or wrong.' 'Ah,' said the old gentleman, 'When the poor country is fighting for its life, I agree. But this was not your case.' I think however I did not displease him; for he was good enough at my request to sign every one of thirty volumes of his works for my benefit; and in the first volume he inscribed the following maxim intended, I daresay, to convey a gentle admonition: 'To do good is noble; to teach others to do good is nobler, and no trouble.'"

Churchill also said..."There is nothing like oratory, it is a skill that can turn a commoner into a king." Recall Colin Firth in sept links King's Speech (interviewed in this fascinating segment on 60 Minutes). And as in King's Speech, I give you Beethoven.

sept links Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A Major Op 92 Allegretto

sept links Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major

sept links Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata (played so beautifully by Wilhelm Kempff)

A summary on the art of speaking from these polished orators:

1. Overcome obstacles
2. Practice your delivery
3. Be yourself
4. Find your humorous voice

5. Use the power of three
6. Focus on your audience
7. Share a vision
8. Call for positive action

To drill the art of delivering a great lecture down to the core:

1. Grab the audience
2. Repeat regularly
3. Bring language to life - action verbs

4. End powerfully
5. Use simple gestures
6. Use pauses to heighten the sense of drama

One of the longest pauses ever recorded in a political speech came in an address Churchill made to the Canadian Parliament in 1941. He told the members of parliament that when he had vowed the previous year that Britain would fight on even if France surrendered to the Germans, the French generals told their country's cabinet that "in three weeks England will have her neck wrung like a chicken. [Pause.] Some chicken. [Very long pause.] Some neck." Churchill confidently waited for the laughter and applause to end during the pause before uttering the concluding phrase. It's a classic moment of oratory:


Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.