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Mark Twain's Patent Adjustable Speech

There are few things as unnerving as being called upon to speak at a public function without warning. Speakers who rise to such an occasion and deliver what appears to be a brilliant off-the-cuff speech are more often than not drawing on a speech that they have given before—perhaps many times—or on material that they have memorized in advance. Oscar Wilde knew that trick, as did Winston Churchill. In fact, one of Churchill’s friends once quipped that the great British statesman had “spent the best years of his life preparing his impromptu remarks.”

In 1887, Mark Twain added an American perspective when he treated a staid Boston audience to a tongue-in-cheek commercial for what he called his “patent adjustable speech.”

“At a public dinner,” he explained, “when a man knows he is going to be called upon to speak, and is thoroughly well prepared—got it all by heart, and the pauses all marked in his head where the applause is going to come in—a public dinner is just heaven to that man.”

But what about the poor sap who is suddenly called upon to speak and isn’t prepared? To him the occasion is not heaven. Rather, it puts him “as nearly in the other place as he ever wants to be.”

“That man,” said Twain, “is to be pitied; and the very worst of it is that the minute he gets on his feet he is pitied ... He could stand the pity of ten people or a dozen, but there is no misery in the world that is comparable to the massed and solidified compassion of five hundred.”

So what does the hapless speaker do?

“He stands there in his misery, and stammers out the usual rubbish about not being prepared, and not expecting, and all that kind of folly, and he is wandering and stumbling and getting further and further in, and all the time unhappy, and at last he fetches out a poor, miserable, crippled joke, and in his grief and confusion he laughs at it himself and the others look sick; and then he slumps into a chair and wishes he was dead.”

The solution, according to Twain, is for every person who might be called upon to speak at the last moment to go forearmed with a cut-and-dried, patent adjustable speech—a canned speech that can be made to suit any occasion simply by changing a few words.

Suppose, Twain teasingly told his audience, a man is called upon to speak, without warning, to an audience of farmers. Ordinarily, he might feel panic-stricken. But fear not; he has memorized Twain’s patent adjustable speech.

He rises confidently to his feet and declares: “Agriculture, sir, is, after all, the palladium of our economic liberties. By it—approximately speaking—we may be said to live and move and have our being. All that we have been, all that we are, all that we hope to be, was, is, and must continue to be, profoundly influenced by that sublimest of the mighty interests of man, thrice glorious agriculture!”

But what if the occasion is a wedding? Again, fear not. Behold how, with just a few minor word changes, the patent adjustable speech will serve the speaker equally well: “Matrimony, sir, is, after all, the palladium of our domestic liberties. By it—approximately speaking— we may be said to live and move and have our being. All that we have been, all that we are, all that we hope to be, was, is, and must continue to be, profoundly influenced by that sublimest of the mighty interests of man, thrice glorious matrimony!”

And so Twain goes on, puckishly explaining how his patent adjustable speech can serve an impromptu speaker on any occasion, until finally he comes to a funeral. And, sure enough, the speech is elastic enough to cover even the last rites: “Death, sir, is, after all, the palladium of our spiritual liberties. By it—approximately speaking—we may be said to live and move and have our ending. All that we have been, all that we may be here, all that we hope to be, was, is, and must continue to be, profoundly influenced by that sublimest of the mighty interests of man, thrice sorrowful dissolution.”

And with that, America’s favorite funny man sat down. Maybe no one in the audience ever tried to make use of his patent adjustable speech, but at least they knew the secret for giving a great speech on short notice.