Public Speaking Tip from Mark Twain

Mark Twain said, “No word was ever as effective as the rightly timed pause.”

In fact, the pause may be one of the most useful tools in the communicator’s tool kit.  Pausing helps you gather your thoughts, adds drama, and shows confidence, all at once.

We also recommend pauses to help people who are told that they speak too fast. In fact, it’s our experience that most people don’t speak too fast. The average speaker speaks no faster than around 150 words a minute. Listeners can perceive in excess of 300 words a minute.

Usually, the reason you’re told that you speak too fast is that you don’t pause long enough to allow the listener to process your words.

Faster talkers who throw in pauses will appear to be slowing down.

Pausing is far better than actually slowing down the rate of talking. If you’re talking too slow, you’re going to sound tentative and flat.

How long should you hold the pause?  Longer than you might expect. Three or four seconds feels like a long time to the speaker. But it will make you sound nice and confident to your listeners.

So heed the words of Mark Twain. Throw in some pauses. You’ll connect better with your audiences.

Can Anyone Become a Great Speaker?

“Can anyone become a great speaker?  And isn’t the ability to be a great speaker something that you’re born with?”

I get that type of question a lot. I usually answer by reminding the asker of the old joke that goes, “How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb?”

The answer, “It just takes one psychologist. But the lightbulb has to want to change.”

I do think that anyone can learn to be a great speaker. But like the lightbulb, they have to want to change, and be willing to work hard. Sure there are people who are gifted as speakers. And I suppose there are only a few people who can be as good as Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama.

But that doesn’t mean that the average person can’t learn to be highly effective at connecting with audiences.  I’ve seen it happen over and over again.

I worked recently with a woman who is the CFO of a large company. She worked extremely hard at becoming a great speaker. She constantly sought chances to speak. She rehearsed her presentations constantly. She sought a lot of coaching.

As a result of her hard work, she’s become a terrific speaker.

There are a three key things you have to work hard at: focusing your message, telling stories, and speaking with a highly-animated personal style.

To master those areas, you need give lots of speeches, rehearse a lot and, perhaps, get some coaching.

But with practice, anyone can learn to connect with audiences and move them. 

All this talk of commitment and working hard reminded me of the famous “Rocky” sequence where our hero is running through the streets of Philadelphia and doing one-handed push-ups to the song “Gonna Fly Now.”  It’s pretty corny. But I still like it.

Delivering a Great Speech Takes Courage

I had an English professor in college who said, “If you write a really great novel, you’re screwed.”  What he meant was that great novels are often self-revealing, leaving the writer personally and emotionally vulnerable.

I’ve often thought about that quote when advising clients about how to create a great speech. That’s because giving a great speech often takes a willingness to open up and be vulnerable. 

A CEO for a small public company called me recently asking how I could help him with a speech he must give to a trade show. I asked him to tell me about what he has done with his company.

He revealed that when he took over, the company was in terrible shape.  His executive team members weren’t speaking to each other. Customer service was in horrible shape. He knew he had to lay off some employees if he was going to save the company. 

In the 10 years since he has taken over, the company has turned around and is performing well.

It was an amazing story. But as he spoke, I became both excited and nervous. 


Because when I hear a story like that, I know that the speech could be fantasic if he’s willing to tell the real story. The reality of business is that we often can’t tell the real story. It might make the company look bad. And I understand that.

Unfortunately, there are also many business people who just aren’t willing to tell their own stories. They’re afraid of being personal, showing their true selves, looking vulnerable.

That, as the Cowardly Lion knows, takes courage.