Quote: never could make a good impromptu speech without several hours to prepare it (Mark Twain 1879)

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Thu Mar 4 20:49:04 UTC 2010

It usually takes more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech

This quote about a multi-week preparation time required for a good
impromptu speech is attributed to Mark Twain in the Encarta Book of
Quotations (2000). It is contained in several internet quotation
databases: Quotationspage, Quotationsbook, Thinkexist, Bellaonline,
and WorldofQuotes.

The saying is not in the Yale Book of Quotations, the Quote Verifier,
or various Oxford Books of Quotations. A search for the word
"impromptu" yields no matches in the Mark Twain collection of quotes
in these resources. The quote also does not appear on the Wikiquotes
Mark Twain webpage or in the ADS-L archive. Twainquotes does have a
quote about impromptu speeches but it does not mention preparation

I was unable to find evidence for the quotation as stated above, but I
did find some remarks that Mark Twain made about preparing impromptu
speeches. The length of time mentioned is shorter than three weeks:
"several hours", "a week", or "four days". However, the comical
contrast with the definition of impromptu is still present.

Citation: 1885, Report of the Proceedings of the Society of the Army
of the Tennessee at the Thirteenth Annual Meeting Held at Chicago,
Illinois, November 12th and 13th, 1879, Page 354, Society of the Army
of the Tennessee.

Speech of Mr Clemen's, (Mark Twain) excerpt – 1879 November 12

I have not listened to a bad speech to-night, and I don't propose to
be the one to furnish you with one; and I would, if I had time and
permission, go on and make an excellent speech. [More laughter.] But I
never was happy, never could make a good impromptu speech without
several hours to prepare it. [Roars.]


This speech is listed on the webpage for the Chronology of Known Mark
Twain Speeches at the Twainquotes website, and it is included in the
collection Mark Twain Speaking (2006).


Citation: 2006, Mark Twain Speaking by Mark Twain edited by Paul
Fatout, Page 130, University of Iowa Press, Iowa City.


Twain discussed the composition and memorization of impromptu speeches
when he visited London in 1899.

Citation: 1910, Mark Twain's Speeches by Mark Twain, Page 380, Harper
& Brothers, New York.

Address at the Dinner Given by the Whitefriars Club in Honor of Mr. Clemens,

But impromptu speaking - that is what I was trying to learn. That is a
difficult thing. I used to do it in this way. I used to begin about a
week ahead, and write out my impromptu speech and get it by heart.
Then I brought it to the New England dinner printed on a piece of
paper in my pocket, so that I could pass it to the reporters all cut
and dried, and in order to do an impromptu speech as it should be done
you have to indicate the places for pauses and hesitations. I put them
all in it. And then you want the applause in the right places.


There is a discrepancy concerning the date of the Whitefriars Club
speech. Mark Twain's Speeches (1910) says the speech took place on
June 20, 1899, and Mark Twain Speaking (2006) says the speech occurred
June 16, 1899. The text of the overall speech and the excerpt above
appear to be the same in the two books, but the date differs. The
Twainquotes website follows the lead of Mark Twain Speaking.

Citation: 2006, Mark Twain Speaking by Mark Twain edited by Paul
Fatout, Page 327, University of Iowa Press, Iowa City.


On April 13, 1887 General Sherman provided an introduction for Mark
Twain before a dinner speech. Sherman's remarks included a statement
about the time Twain needed to prepare an impromptu speech.

Citation: 1917, The Life of Augustin Daly by Joseph Francis Daly, Page
432, Macmillan Company, New York.

General Sherman, as toastmaster, introduced Mark Twain as the foremost
wit, humorist, and philosopher of his time, who had once told him that
he could not make an impromptu speech unless he had four days for


Mark Twain Speaking (2006) agrees that the speech took place on the
date specified above.


The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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