It requires a fine discrimination to know when to tell a story, and when not to tell one though it is urging itself to be expressed. Few men have the rare gift of choosing the right story for the particular occasion. Many men have no difficulty in telling stories that are insufferably long, pointless, and uninteresting.
We have all been victims of a certain type of public speaker who begins by saying, "Now I don't want to bore you with a long story, but this is so good, etc.," or "An incident occurred at the American Consulate in Shanghai, which reminds me of an awfully good story, etc." When a speaker prefaces his remarks with some such sentences as these, we know we are in for an uncomfortable time.
As far as possible a story should be new, clever, short, simple, inoffensive, and appropriate. As such stories are scarce, it is advisable to set them down, when found, in a special note-book for convenient reference. It is said that Chauncey M. Depew, one of the most gifted of after-dinner speakers, was for many years in the habit of keeping a set of scrap-books in which were preserved stories and other interesting data clipped from newspapers and magazines. These were so classified that he could on short notice refresh his mind with ample material upon almost any general subject.
Anyone who essays to tell a story should have it clearly in mind. It is fatal for a speaker to hesitate midway in a story, apologize for not knowing it better, avow that it was much more humorous when told to him, and in other ways to announce his shortcomings. If he cannot tell a story fluently and interestingly, he should first practice it on his own family -- provided they will tolerate it.
Some stories should be committed to memory, especially where the point of humor depends upon exact phraseology. In such case, it requires some training and experience to disguise the memorized effort. A story like the following, for obvious reasons, should be thoroughly memorized:
The longest sermon on record occupied three hours and a half. But the shortest sermon was that of a preacher who spoke for one minute on the text: "Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward." He said:
"I shall divide my discourse into three heads: (1) Man's ingress into the world; (2) His progress through the world; (3) His egress out of the world.
"Firstly, His ingress into the world is naked and bare.
"Secondly, His progress through the world is trouble and care.
"Thirdly, His egress out of the world is nobody knows where.
"If we live well here, we shall live well there.
"I can tell you no more if I preach a whole year.
"The collection will now be taken up."
Dialect stories are usually rather difficult, and should not as a general thing be attempted by beginners. As a matter of fact, few persons know how to speak such dialects as Irish, Scotch, German, Cockney, and without undue exaggeration. For most occasions it is well to keep to simple stories couched in plain English.
A story should be told in simple, conversational style. Concentration upon the story, and a sincere desire to give pleasure to the hearers, will keep the speaker free from self-consciousness. Needless to say he should not be the first to laugh at his own story. Sometimes in telling a humorous anecdote to an audience a speaker secures the greatest effect by maintaining an expression of extreme gravity.
No matter how successful one may be in telling stories, he should avoid telling too many. A man who is accounted brilliant and entertaining may become an insufferable bore by continuing to tell stories when the hearers have become satiated. Of all speakers, the story-teller should keep his eyes on his entire audience and be alert to detect the slightest signs of weariness.
It is superfluous to say that a story should never be told which in any way might give offence. The speaker may raise a laugh, but lose a friend. Hence it is that stories about stammerers, red-headed people, mothers-in-law, and the like, should always be chosen with discrimination.
Generally the most effective story is one in which the point of humor is not disclosed until the very last words, as in the following:
An old colored man was brought up before a country judge.
"Jethro," said the judge, "you are accused of stealing General Johnson's chickens. Have you any witnesses?"
"No, sah," old Jethro answered, haughtily; "I hab not, sah. I never steal chickens befo' witnesses."
This is a similar example, told by Prime Minister Asquith:
An English professor wrote on the blackboard in his laboratory, "Professor Blank informs his students that he has this day been appointed honorary physician to his Majesty, King George."
During the morning he had some occasion to leave the room, and found on his return that some student wag had added the words,
"God save the King!"
Henry W. Grady was a facile story-teller. One of his best stories was as follows:
"There was an old preacher once who told some boys of the Bible lesson he was going to read in the morning. The boys, finding the place, glued together the connecting pages. The next morning he read on the bottom of one page: 'When Noah was one hundred and twenty years old he took unto himself a wife, who was' -- then turning the page -- 'one hundred and forty cubits long, forty cubits wide, built of gopherwood, and covered with pitch inside and out.' He was naturally puzzled at this. He read it again, verified it, and then said: 'My friends, this is the first time I ever met this in the Bible, but I accept it as an evidence of the assertion that we are fearfully and wonderfully made.'"
Personalities based upon sarcasm or invective are always attended with danger, but good-humored bantering may be used upon occasion with most happy results. As an instance of this, there is a story of an annual dinner at which Mr. Choate was set down for the toast, "The Navy," and Mr. Depew was to respond to "The Army." Mr. Depew began by saying, "It's well to have a specialist: that's why Choate is here to speak about the Navy. We met at the wharf once and I did not see him again till we reached Liverpool. When I asked how he felt he said he thought he would have enjoyed the trip over if he had had any ocean air. Yes, you want to hear Choate on the Navy." When it was Mr. Choate's turn to speak, he said: "I've heard Depew hailed as the greatest after-dinner speaker. If after-dinner speaking, as I have heard it described and as I believe it to be, is the art of saying nothing at all, then Mr. Depew is the most marvelous speaker in the universe."
The medical profession can be assailed with impunity, since they have long since grown accustomed to it. There is a story of a young laborer who, on his way to his day's work, called at the registrar's office to register his father's death. When the official asked the date of the event, the son replied, "He ain't dead yet, but he'll be dead before night, so I thought it would save me another journey if you would put it down now." "Oh, that won't do at all," said the registrar; "perhaps your father will live till tomorrow." "Well, I don't think so, sir; the doctor says as he won't, and he knows what he has given him."
While stories should be used sparingly, there is probably nothing more effective before a popular audience than the telling of a story in which the joke is on the speaker himself. Thus:
The last time I made a speech, I went next day to the editor of our local newspaper, and said,
"I thought your paper was friendly to me?"
The editor said, "So it is. What's the matter?"
"Well," I said, "I made a speech last night, and you didn't print a single line of it this morning."
"Well," said the editor, "what further proof do you want?"
Many of the best and most effective stories are serious in character. One that has been used successfully is this: Some gentlemen from the West were excited and troubled about the commissions or omissions of the administration. President Lincoln heard them patiently, and then replied: "Gentlemen, suppose all the property you were worth was in gold, and you had put it in the hands of Blondin to carry across the Niagara River on a rope; would you shake the cable, or keep shouting out to him -- 'Blondin, stand up a little straighter -- Blondin, stoop a little more -- go a little faster -- lean a little more to the north -- lean a little more to the south?' No, you would hold your breath as well as your tongue, and keep your hands off until he was safe over. The Government is carrying an immense weight. Untold treasures are in our hands. We are doing the very best we can. Don't badger us. Keep silence, and we'll get you safe across."
Punning is of course out of fashion. The best pun in the English language is Tom Hood's:
"He went and told the sexton,
Dr. Johnson said that the pun was the lowest order of wit. Newspapers formerly indulged in it freely. One editor would say: "We don't care a straw what Shakespeare said -- a rose by any other name would not smell as wheat." Then another paper would answer: "Such puns are barley tolerable, they amaize us, they arouse our righteous corn, and they turn the public taste a-rye."
But punning, when it is unusually clever and spontaneous, may be thoroughly enjoyable, as in the following:
Chief Justice Story attended a public dinner in Boston at which Edward Everett was present. Desiring to pay a delicate compliment to the latter, the learned judge proposed as a volunteer toast:
"Fame follows merit where Everett goes."
The brilliant scholar arose and responded:
"To whatever heights judicial learning may attain in this country, it will never get above one Story."
Story-telling may attain the character of a disease, in one who has a retentive memory and a voluble vocabulary. The form of humor known as repartee, however, is one that requires rare discrimination. It should be used sparingly, and not at all if it is likely to give offence.
Beau Brummell was guilty in this respect, when he was once asked by a lady if he would "take a cup of tea." "Thank you," said he, "I never take anything but physic." "I beg your pardon," said the hostess, "you also take liberties."
There is a story that Henry Luttrell had sat long in the Irish Parliament, but no one knew his precise age. Lady Holland, without regard to considerations of courtesy, one day said to him point-blank, "Now, we are all dying to know how old you are. Just tell me." Luttrell answered very gravely, "It is an odd question, but as you, Lady Holland, ask it, I don't mind telling you. If I live till next year, I shall be -- devilish old!"
The art of story-telling is not taught specifically, hence there are comparatively few people who can tell a story without violating some of the rules which experience recommends. But the right use of story-telling should be encouraged as an ornament of conversation, and a valuable auxiliary to effective public address. Many people might excel as story-tellers if they would devote a little time to suggestions such as are offered here. It is not a difficult art, but like every other subject requires study and application.
The best counsel for public speakers in the matter of story-telling may be summed up as follows: Know your story thoroughly; test your story by telling it to some one in advance; adapt your story to the special circumstances; be concise, omitting non-essentials; have ready more stories than you intend to use, because if you should speak at the end of the list you may find that your best story has been told by a previous speaker; and, finally, always stop when you have made a hit.