Mark Twain was someone who understood that being down and out is a phase, and not a condition. The empathy, wisdom, and warmth in his writing make it feel timeless. 

Given that, here are a few lessons leaders could learn about communication, straight from one of America's most treasured writers:

1. "Anybody can have ideas-the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph."

Twain spoke frequently on the importance of simplicity and the beauty of short, direct sentences. What would he have thought of a startup "Creating a fundamental paradigm-shift and disrupting the bathroom necessities industry by becoming the Uber of toilet paper"?

Had Mark Twain been alive today, he would have thought:

  • I have no idea what you just said, but you sound like an overeducated idiot.
  • I don't want on-demand toilet paper. I want to be well stocked ahead of time, in case things go sideways.

If you can't deliver your message using simple language, chances are what you are saying has no value--and you are trying to obscure that fact with buzzwords.

It doesn't work.

2. "Experience is an author's most valuable asset; experience is the thing that puts the muscle and the breath and the warm blood into the book he writes."

In an early season of The West Wing a character named Josh Lyman, Deputy Chief of Staff in the White House, makes a huge mistake and costs his administration an important piece of legislation. 

At the end of the episode Josh believes he will lose his job. His boss Leo McGarry, the Chief of Staff and a friend of Josh's father, comes along and shares this story:

"This guy's walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can't get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, "Hey you, can you help me out?" The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up "Father, I'm down in this hole, can you help me out?" The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. "Hey Joe, it's me, can you help me out?" And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, "Are you stupid? Now we're both down here." 

The friend says, "Yeah, but I've been down here before, and I know the way out."



Leo's message reached Josh, and he never made the same mistake again.

Being vulnerable and using personal experience as the foundation for your communication--especially the experiences where you were in the hole, not on top of the hill--will help your message be heard.

3. "I have been an author for 20 years and an ass for 55."

Huckleberry Finn and its portrait of Jim, a slave, is not just a good book--it's an important book, and a testament to the power of words.

Despite this, Twain never took himself seriously.

And if you want to move people with your message, neither should you.

Published on: Jan 25, 2019
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