Three Weeks to Prepare a Good Impromptu Speech

Mark Twain? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have to present a speech soon, and I would like to use a quotation attributed to Mark Twain:

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

The intended audience has the background to know that impromptu means without planning or preparation, and the quip should cause a chuckle. But reading this blog makes me wonder if Twain really invented this joke. It is listed on several of the quotation websites. Could you investigate this quote?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no evidence that the exact quote you gave above is authentic; however, Twain did make several similar pertinent remarks. For example, in 1879 Twain said the following. Details are given further below.

I … never could make a good impromptu speech without several hours to prepare it.

The questioner is correct that the saying about three weeks prepapration is attributed to Twain in several internet quotation databases, e.g., QuotationsPage, QuotationsBook, ThinkExist, BellaOnline, and WorldofQuotes. It also appears in the Encarta Book of Quotations (2000).

However, the saying is not in other thoroughly researched references, e.g., The Yale Book of Quotations, The Quote Verifier, The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. A search for the word “impromptu” yields no matches in the Mark Twain sections in these resources. The quote also does not appear on the Wikiquotes Mark Twain webpage. The valuable website TwainQuotes does have a fine quote about impromptu speeches, but it does not mention a specific preparation time. 1

QI did find some remarks that Mark Twain made about readying impromptu speeches. The length of time mentioned is shorter than the indicated period. Preparation requires “several hours”, “a week”, or “four days”. However, the comical contrast with the definition of impromptu is still present.

Twain said the following about his strategy for giving speeches at a meeting of the Society of the Army of the Tennessee on November 12th in 1879: 2 3

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.]

In 1899 Twain visited London and he spoke at a dinner given by the Whitefriars Club in his (Samuel Clemens) honor. He discussed the composition and memorization of orations that appear to be extemporaneous: 4 5

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.

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. 6

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 preparation.

QI did find a handful of websites that strove to present an accurate quotation from Twain on this subject; kudos to Toastmasters International and Erica Stull.

A different prominent individual made a humorous remark about speeches that might be useful to the questioner. According to an anecdote published in 1918 Woodrow Wilson was asked about the amount of time he spent preparing: 7

“That depends on the length of the speech,” answered the President. “If it is a ten-minute speech it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it; if it is a half-hour speech it takes me a week; if I can talk as long as I want to it requires no preparation at all. I am ready now.”

QI has examined a family of similar sayings about speeches in an entry located here. QI hopes that the questioner can find something appropriate for the upcoming speech.

Update history: On March 5, 2014 the 1918 citation was added, and the overall article was revised.

Notes:

  1. TwainQuotes webpage titled Speech presents an excerpt from a Speech in New York City, 31 March 1885. link
  2. 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. link [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). link
  3. 2006, Mark Twain Speaking by Mark Twain edited by Paul Fatout, Page 130, University of Iowa Press, Iowa City. link
  4. 1910, Mark Twain’s Speeches by Mark Twain, Address at the Dinner Given by the Whitefriars Club in Honor of Mr. Clemens, Page 380, Harper & Brothers, New York. link [There is a small 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 appears to be the same. The TwainQuotes website concurs with Mark Twain Speaking.]
  5. 2006, Mark Twain Speaking by Mark Twain edited by Paul Fatout, Page 327, University of Iowa Press, Iowa City. link
  6. 1917, The Life of Augustin Daly by Joseph Francis Daly, Page 432, Macmillan Company, New York. link [Mark Twain Speaking (2006) agrees that the speech took place on the date specified.]
  7. 1918 April, The Operative Miller, Volume 23, Number 4, (Short freestanding item), Quote Page 130, Column 1, Operative Miller Press, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link