The Impromptu Talk by Steve Rapson

There are three types of talks: Mortimer Adler identifies them as The Impromptu Talk, The Sales Talk, and The Lecture.  I analyzed Shakespeare’s We Happy Few as a great sales (motivational) talk.  Now, for your amusement and edification, I’ll dissect the Impromptu Talk

An impromptu talk is informal, often unrehearsed, and brief. It could be a toast, a few words from the boss, a bowling trophy acceptance speech. It’s the kind of talk we all make once in a while. And it’s the kind of talk most of us try to avoid, and often wish others would avoid. It does not inform or instruct. It does not intend to persuade or motivate. Its purpose is mainly social. If it is entertaining, all the better.

If the speech you are about to give is truly impromptu, then you may not know the subject you are going to speak on until a few minutes beforehand. If you are forewarned, it’s called an extemporaneous talk. It may look impromptu, but you are forearmed and prepared sufficiently speak off the cuff.  Like Mark Twain.

Mark Twain, America’s great storyteller, was afflicted with stage fright early in his career. He survived his first appearance and went on to successfully command the stage for fifty years.

Twain’s writing is classic literature. His speaking skills we cannot know directly. However, he was a legend at a time when public speakers were the poor man’s theatre. Twain sold out where ever he went. He made them laugh. He made them cry. His talks often appeared impromptu and casual, as does this one given on the occasion of his daughter’s singing debut. He attended her recital and afterwards addressed the audience about his own stage debut.

This speech, Mark Twain’s First Appearance, was given on October 5, 1906. The speech is barely five minutes long, but a lifetime of preparation and experience created a piece that is timely and entertaining a hundred years later.

Mark Twain’s First Appearance

My heart goes out in sympathy to anyone who is making his first appearance before an audience of human beings. By a direct process of memory I go back forty years, less one month—for I’m older than I look.

I recall the occasion of my first appearance. San Francisco knew me then only as a reporter. And I was to make my bow to San Francisco as a lecturer. I knew that nothing short of compulsion would get me to the theater. So I bound myself by a hard-and-fast contract so that I could not escape. I got to the theater forty-five minutes before the hour set for the lecture. My knees were shaking so that I didn’t know whether I could stand up. If there is an awful, horrible malady in the world, it is stage fright—and seasickness. They are a pair. I had stage fright then for the first and last time. I was only seasick once, too. It was on a little ship on which there were two hundred other passengers. I—was—sick. I was so sick that there wasn’t any left for those other two hundred passengers.

It was dark and lonely behind the scenes in that theater, and I peeked through the little peek holes they have in theater curtains and looked into the big auditorium. That was dark and empty, too. By and by it lighted up, and the audience began to arrive.

I had got a number of friends of mine, stalwart men, to sprinkle themselves through the audience armed with big clubs. Every time I said anything they could possibly guess I intended to be funny, they were to pound those clubs on the floor. Then there was a kind lady in a box up there, also a good friend of mine, the wife of the governor. She was to watch me intently, and whenever I glanced toward her she was going to deliver a gubernatorial laugh that would lead the whole audience into applause.

At last I began. I had the manuscript tucked under a United States flag in front of me where I could get at it in case of need. But I managed to get started without it. I walked up and down—I was young in those days and needed the exercise—and talked and talked.

Right in the middle of the speech I had placed a gem. I had put in a moving, pathetic part, which was to get at the hearts and souls of my hearers. When I delivered it, they did just what I hoped and expected. They sat silent and awed. I had touched them. Then I happened to glance up at the box where the governor’s wife was—you know what happened.

Well, after the first agonizing five minutes, my stage fright left me, never to return. I knew if I was going to be hanged I could get up and make a good showing, and I intend to. But I shall never forget my feelings before the agony left me, and I got up here to thank you for helping my daughter, by your kindness, to live through her first appearance. And I want to thank you for your appreciation of her singing, which is, by the way, hereditary.

Mark Twain’s little talk is so flawlessly constructed one can hardly notice he has used several devices, “tricks” if you will, to engage the audience, keep their attention, and win them over. He avoids common speech-making errors we all are prone to.

You might think it was easy for Mark Twain, an American literary and platform legend in the autumn of his years to win over an audience. But I think you will agree he did not need his fame to succeed with this speech. If this were our talk to give, you or I could have done nearly as well with a little practice. Great words make for a great speech. A great speech starts with preparation: research, writing, re-writing, and practice.

We’ll analyze the speech see what makes it great.

First, he opens with a reference to someone other than himself, gets to his topic immediately, and ends with a mild self-deprecating quip designed to get a quick laugh. It’s all done in forty words.

My heart goes out in sympathy to anyone who is making his first appearance before an audience of human beings. By a direct process of memory I go back forty years, less one month—for I’m older than I look.

He follows this tight intro with nuts and bolts material. Who, What, Where, & When. Each sentence is dense with information, and could have served as the topic sentence for a paragraph devoted to it. This is the way pros move things along. They provide information that creates a feeling of, “Interesting, tell me more…” in the listener. What is left unsaid is as important as what is said. Similarly in music it’s the note you don’t play that contributes to the appeal of a piece. People don’t like it when someone drones on in excruciating detail that numbs them into dull submission and inattention. Twain avoids over explaining.

I recall the occasion of my first appearance. San Francisco knew me then only as a reporter, and I was to make my bow to San Francisco as a lecturer. I knew that nothing short of compulsion would get me to the theatre. So I bound myself by a hard-and-fast contract so that I could not escape. I got to the theatre 45 minutes before the hour set for the lecture. My knees were shaking so that I didn’t know whether I could stand up. If there is an awful, horrible malady in the world, it is stage fright—and seasickness. They are a pair. I had stage fright then for the first and last time. I was only seasick once, too.

Using a kind of simile, he pairs seasickness and stage fright. It is a common speech device. Early filmmakers applied it as well. They found that if they followed scene one with any scene two, the audience would connect them no matter how unrelated. Our brains automatically create order out of randomness. Twain connects stage fright and seasickness by saying he suffered both only once. He does this to set up a gag:

It was on a little ship on which there were two hundred other passengers. I—was—sick. I was so sick that there wasn’t any left for those other two hundred passengers.

He gets a laugh with an anecdote he probably has included in hundreds of speeches on as many subjects. In about a minute, Twain has gotten two laughs, endeared himself to the crowd, and shown himself to be humble and as susceptible to the trials of living as anyone. Having won them over with his ethos, he proceeds with the story.

It was dark and lonely behind the scenes in that theater, and I peeked through the little peek holes they have in theater curtains and looked into the big auditorium. That was dark and empty, too. By and by it lighted up, and the audience began to arrive.

Once again, the story moves quickly. He uses short declarative sentences, a trademark of good storytellers. The plot thickens.

I had got a number of friends of mine, stalwart men, to sprinkle themselves through the audience armed with big dubs. Every time I said anything they could possibly guess I intended to be funny, they were to pound those clubs on the floor.

Next, Twain plants the seed for a classic comedic technique: The callback.

Then there was a kind lady in a box up there, also a good friend of mine, the wife of the governor. She was to watch me intently, and whenever I glanced toward her she was going to deliver a gubernatorial laugh that would lead the whole audience into applause.

For a callback to work time must elapse, he continues:

At last I began. I had the manuscript tucked under a United States flag in front of me where I could get at it in case of need. But I managed to get started without it. I walked up and down—I was young in those days and needed the exercise—and talked and talked.

Here’s the set-up for the call back

Right in the middle of the speech I had placed a gem. I had put in a moving, pathetic part, which was to get at the hearts and souls of my hearers. When I delivered it, they did just what I hoped and expected. They sat silent and awed. I had touched them.

Now comes the call back or pay-off. Twain avoids beating them over the head with it. He talks up to his audience, presuming they are with him.

Then I happened to glance up at the box where the governor’s wife was—you know what happened.

Twain wraps up with a three-line summary, offers sincere thanks, and leaves them laughing with a nicely structured gag: the laugh cannot occur until his final word.

Well, after the first agonizing five minutes, my stage fright left me, never to return. I know if I was going to be hanged I could get up and make a good showing, and I intend to. But I shall never forget my feelings before the agony left me, and I got up here to thank you for helping my daughter, by your kindness, to live through her first appearance. And I want to thank you for your appreciation of her singing, which is, by the way, hereditary.

Here are the keys to Mark Twain’s impromptu speech:

 The Intro

•  Acknowledge the audience.

•  Say specifically, briefly, what you are talking about.

•  Make them laugh.

 The Middle

•  Move it along.

•  Leave things out. Do not explain everything.

•  Use rhetorical devices:  examples, compare & contrast, self- deprecating humor, callbacks, similes.

The End

•  Say it again in as few lines as you can.

•  Say thanks.

•  Make them laugh.

The key to an effective impromptu talk is that is it is not really impromptu. Very few people can speak “off the cuff” effectively. The phrase “off the cuff” refers to the notes one would scribble on a sleeve when called at the last minute to speak before a group.

I have been called upon to speak at the last minute, and I did indeed write notes on a napkin minutes before getting up. Although the audience was entertained, it would have been better if I had anticipated and prepared in advance.

If you speak regularly, then you already have several “bits” that you can pull out at the last minute to spice up your hastily composed remarks. If you have never spoken before, you must think ahead. How likely is it that you will be called upon to say a few words? If there is any chance, then make some notes before you get there.

If you model your impromptu talk after Mark Twain’s First Appearance, you’ll be prepared, interesting, and brief. A hat trick in public speaking.

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Steve Rapson is the author of the Art of the SoloPerformer: A Field Guide To Stage & Podium. He is a songwriter and solo guitarist with several CD’s in release.  www.soloperformer.com