These excerpts from the new Autobiography of Mark Twain address “a new and devilish invention–the thing called an Authors’ Reading” rather than a conference presentation, but Twain has some great advice about what not to do. These are from pages 383-384 in the print version, but you can read it online as well.
Twain had been asked to speak and foresaw disaster: “The introducer would be ignorant, windy, eloquent, and willing to hear himself talk. With nine introductions to make, added to his own opening speech–well, I could not go on with these harrowing calculations.”
1. It takes a long time to create a readable short paper.
“My reading was ten minutes long. When I had selected it originally, it was twelve minutes long, and it had taken me a good hour to find ways of reducing it by two minutes without damaging it.”
2. Time your presentation. Even Howells didn’t know this.
“Howells was always a member of these traveling afflictions, and I was never able to teach him to rehearse his proposed reading by the help of a watch and cut it down to a proper length. He [page 384] couldn’t seem to learn it. He was a bright man in all other ways, but whenever he came to select a reading for one of these carousals his intellect decayed and fell to ruin. I arrived at his house in Cambridge the night before the Longfellow Memorial occasion, and I probably asked [him] to show me his selection. At any rate, he showed it to me—and I wish I may never attempt the truth again if it wasn’t seven thousand words. I made him set his eye on his watch and keep game while I should read a paragraph of it. This experiment proved that it would take me an hour and ten minutes to read the whole of it, and I said ‘And mind you, this is not allowing anything for such[interruptions] as applause—for the reason that after the first twelve minutes there wouldn’t be any.’”
3. Keep it short.
“He [Howells] had a time of it to find something short enough, and he kept saying that he never would find a short enough selection that would be good enough—that is to say, he never would be able to find one that would stand exposure before an audience.
I said ‘It’s no matter. Better that than a long one—because the audience could stand a bad short one, but couldn’t stand a good long one.'”
4. Conference rooms can be stuffy.
“It was in the afternoon, in the Globe Theatre and the place was packed, and the air would have been very bad only there wasn’t any. I can see that mass of people yet, opening and closing their mouths like fishes gasping for breath. It was intolerable.”
5. Don’t belabor the obvious.
“That graceful and competent speaker, Professor Norton, opened the game with a very handsome speech, but it was a good twenty minutes long. And a good ten minutes of it, I think, were devoted to the introduction of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, who hadn’t any more need of an introduction than the Milky Way.”