Speech prep in a jiffy – the process

I ran a webinar recently about improving your retour (i.e. interpreting into a B language – a language other than your mother tongue), and I asked participants to send me any questions in advance, so I could tailor the content to their needs.

This is a useful exercise, as it often provides inspiration or discussion points for the webinar, but it can also be a double edged sword, because it’s not unusual to receive questions that you really don’t want to address, for whatever reason – they’re too controversial, they would take up too much time, they’re too specific, they don’t match your knowledge, expertise, or niche, and the list goes on.

On this occasion, one of the participants said this:

I’ve been on retour courses before, and the trainer nearly always suggests preparing speeches in your B language as a good exercise for improving your retour. Who has time for that?!

I confess this stung a little, as I do indeed often suggest speech preparation as a great exercise, and I was going to do so on this occasion as well! So I had to give extra thought to alternative exercises I could suggest; but my first instinct was to defend speech prep, and above all, to stress the fact that it doesn’t have to be time-consuming, and it can be fun and creative as well as beneficial! You can prepare a consecutive speech from start to finish in less than 20 minutes.

In this post, I’d like to explain why I think speech prep is such a great exercise for retourists, and give you some time-saving tips to make it less of a chore (if that’s how you think of it), whether you’re preparing a speech in your mother tongue or in your B language.

How speech prep can boost your retour

The bottom line for a good retour, as I see it, is this: if you can’t speak spontaneously on a given subject in your B language, using appropriate terminology and correct grammar, how can you hope to interpret someone else’s thoughts convincingly?

Doing a decent job of interpreting is a corollary of speaking well on a given subject; hence the importance of language enhancement work when you’re trying to develop your retour, as opposed to focusing exclusively on interpreting practice.

[On a side note: this principle, which appears self-evident to me, is generally unpopular with interpreting students, who tend to feel that anything other than practising interpreting from A>B is a waste of time.]

Speech preparation is therefore an excellent way of expanding the range of subjects on which you’re able to speak with authority.

I think it’s probably fair to say that the weaker your retour is, the more beneficial speech prep will be. If you already have a very strong retour or near-native competence in your B language, you can pick up important vocab in other ways.

Benefits of speech prep

Here’s a breakdown of some of the benefits of preparing speeches in your B language:

  • it improves your general and subject knowledge because of the research you have to do.
  • it’s an opportunity to practise and improve your public speaking skills (eye contact, pace, intonation).
  • it’s a great way to ‘activate’ vocabulary, i.e. make it part of your active vocabulary, rather than vocabulary you understand passively but never use.
  • if you prepare your speech in the form of interpreters’ notes, rather than bullet points, it’s a good way to improve your ability to decipher your own notes, i.e. it can help improve your consecutive skills.
  • similarly, if you’re working on consecutive, it’s a great way to introduce or consolidate symbols.
  • it’s a good way to prepare for an assignment on a specific topic.
  • learning to prepare well-structured speeches is a good way of improving your analytical skills and recognising structure in other people’s speeches.

By the way, all of these points are true of preparing speech in your A language as well, although in this case there will be less emphasis on vocabulary acquisition or consolidation.

So far, I’ve covered benefits that are related to your language or interpreting skills, but there are others:

  • speech prep can be important if you’re a member of a practice group, or you work with a practice partner. You can give speeches to each other!
  • if you’re an interpreter trainer, there’s a good chance you will give speeches to your students at some point, either because you can’t find suitable source material, or because you want to be in control of the type of challenge or level of difficulty of the speech.
  • Preparing speeches is an excellent way of ‘giving back’ to the interpreting community, by contributing to practice groups or repositories such as Speechpool.

A method for rapid speech prep

Topic selection

There are many ways to prepare speeches. I can’t possibly cover all of them, nor produce a framework that suits everyone.

Here’s an important caveat, for starters: I’m giving your advice for preparing the type of speech that you would have to interpret at an EU accreditation or retour test, or at a final exam in interpreting school. You would need to follow a different method if you were preparing practice material for certain types of public service interpreting, say.

Now that’s out of the way, let’s take a look at a simple method for preparing practice speeches.

Often, the hardest thing is finding a good topic! Once something catches your interest (on a news programme or podcast, for instance), you’re off and running.

  • if you’re preparing a speech for as a ‘swap’ for a practice partner, or for an interpreting practice group, why not choose a topic that will help you improve your subject knowledge (e.g. if you’re weak on finance, pick a financial topic)?
  • if you’re preparing a speech in your B language, think about areas where your vocabulary is lacking.
  • Another option would be to prepare a speech in your B language to prepare for an assignment where you already know the topic.

If you regularly prepare speeches, it’s a good idea to keep a note of topics that inspire you. You could have a document on your computer (or use a Notes app) to keep track of links to interesting blog posts or newspaper articles. (Back in the day, interpreter trainers sometimes kept a file with newspaper clippings to turn to when they needed inspiration.)

Once you’ve found a topic or looked for one by browsing the news headlines, you can get to work designing your speech. I’ll give you a 4-step process for doing this,

Step 1: Researching your speech

The amount of research you do will depend on the purpose of your speech, and your existing background knowledge.

You may not need to do much (or indeed, any!) research if:

  • the speech is for interpreting students who are beginners. If they are just starting to pick up consecutive without notes, in particular, you may be able to give a speech based on your existing knowledge of a topic, or your opinions, since you won’t want to include many names, dates, or figures.
  • the speech is rather philosophical or based on your opinions or reactions to a film or book. You already have all the knowledge you need to outline this speech!

You will want to do more research if:

  • the speech is designed as a simultaneous (for an EU accreditation test, this would be 10-12 minutes long, instead of 5-6 minutes for a consecutive). That amount of material usually requires an outside source of information!
  • you’re preparing a speech in a B language, and you want to make sure you’re using appropriate vocabulary.
  • you’re preparing a speech on a technical subject or one that is unfamiliar to you.

In my next blog post, I’ll give you three shortcuts for researching a topic quickly and efficiently.

An exam-style speech typically contains a range of challenges, e.g. contrasting opinions (to check the interpreter is conveying them accurately), some facts and figures, a personal comment or opinion, and perhaps a reference to current affairs, to check the interpreter’s background knowledge.

So when you’re doing your research, you might want to look for:

  • a few facts and figures about your topic – you’ll only need a few for a consecutive, more for a simultaneous
  • a ‘hook’ from the newspapers, i.e. some event in the news that make this topic relevant and interesting
  • how different people or organisations feel about this topic
  • your own opinion!

You can find relevant information in all sorts of places: the news, an article you’ve read in a magazine, a podcast episode, a blog post, a conversation with a friend or colleague. Or you could build a speech based on your reflections about a film you’ve just seen, for example, or a book you’ve read.

When you’ve done the research, jot down your ideas, arguments, figures, dates, etc. on a piece of paper. At this stage, it doesn’t matter if the material isn’t organised.

Step 2: Structuring your speech

Speakers organise their material in all sorts of ways. I’ll stick to three simple speeches structures:

  1. linear. Typically, this would be a chronology, or a story that starts at point A and finishes at point B.
  2. pros and cons. You can either list all the pros, then all the cons; or you could give one ‘pro’, then a matching ‘con’, and so on. This ‘opposites’ structure is particularly suited to consecutive without notes, because it’s very easy to remember.
  3. an logical argument that leads the audience from a premise or hypothesis to a conclusion, using logical connectors like ‘and, ‘but’, ‘so’.

Realistically, most speeches contain a mixture of several structures: perhaps a more narrative introduction (linear), then the argument.

Think about your research: does your material lend itself to a pros and cons structure? Or is it a story (linear structure)? Do you want to make an argument that will persuade the audience or win them over to your opinion, in which case you’ll need to be very clear about cause and effect or other logical connections between your ideas, and have a strong conclusion?

Step 3: Create a detailed outline of your speech

People do this in different ways. Some people like to produce a spider diagram or mind map; others visualise their speerch as a tree with a trunk and branches; and still others write a bullet point outline. This is the most common way of organising material, I think, although something like a mind map can give a speaker more freedom when giving a simultaneous speech.

Now’s the time to organise your facts, figures, explanations, details, etc. into a legible outline. Make sure your bullet points are connected clearly with links.

Once you’ve organised your material, you can write a conclusion. This often follows on logically from the body of your speech.

Personally, I often add the introduction at the end of this process, because by that stage, I know where I’m going and what I want to say, and it’s easier to find a good ‘entry point’ into the speech. The introduction is a good place to say something personal to ease the audience into the speech quite gently, and to engage them and make your speech more relatable. Or you can use the introduction to mention an event in the news which makes your speech topic relevant.

Step 4: Rehearse your speech

How much you rehearse your speech will depend on its purpose.

If you’re an interpreter trainer giving a speech for an interpreting exam, you’ll obviously want to go through it several times to make sure the timing is right.

Be careful not to overrehearse: this removes all the spontaneity from a speech and makes it very dense, and often rather too fast.

And on that subject: I do know some colleagues who write out their entire speech in longhand, or type it out, rather than having a bullet point outline. While I understand that this makes them more confident, particularly when they’re giving an exam speech, personally I much prefer to speak (semi-)spontaneously from an outline. This produces something more conversational and closer to normal speech, rather than read-out material; it’s usually much more engaging, and means the speaker makes more eye contact with the audience.

Speech prep in a B language

If you’ve read this far, you’ll have realised that almost everything I’ve said applies to preparing speeches in your mother tongue or in a B language.

So what’s different or special about preparing speeches in your B language?

The process is exactly the same, but the emphasis is different.

If you’re preparing a speech in your B language, your primary aim is likely to be vocabulary acquisition or consolidation.

To this end, when you’re researching the topic (reading a couple of articles, or listening to a podcast), make sure you note down a few key words, phrases, or idioms that strike you as useful in other contexts.

Incorporate them into your speech. The more you say them out loud and hear yourself saying them, the more likely they are to become part of your active vocabulary.

I find when I’m preparing a speech in my B language that

  • I research it more (i.e. I read several articles, or listen to more material, rather than just working with the ideas that are already in my head).
  • I write down whole chunks, or sometimes whole sentences, to reuse in my speech.
  • I rehearse it more.

The risk, in your B language, is that you will end up reading out a speech that you’ve basically rehashed from a newspaper article, rather than ‘digesting’ the material and reformulating it.


Have I made it sound long and complicated? Probably! 🤣

In fact, it’s probably taken you longer to read this blog post than it would be outline a consecutive speech.

I’ll leave my examples and shortcuts to a second blog post, so that my word count doesn’t explode!

2 thoughts on “Speech prep in a jiffy – the process”

  1. Such useful advice, Sophie. I am currently an « experienced » interpreter studying at the University of Bath (MAIT). I have had to prepare speeches on numerous occasions in the past semester. I will make sure to save this post for future reference.


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