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!

Fill in the blanks exercise – Islamic art

Here is something a bit different for you – a cloze, or gap, test.

The idea is to listen to the speech and fill in the gaps with one or more words that are grammatically correct and match the content and style of the piece.

This is a good exercise for many reasons:

  • it helps you with anticipation. You won’t be able to fill in every gap before hearing the following few words, but some of them can be guessed immediately because they’re part of a collocation, set phrase, or idiom, or because they make sense in context.
  • it helps you work on reformulation: some of the gaps have many possible solutions. How many can you think of?
  • it’s a good listening exercise. You need to concentrate really hard to follow the speech’s thread, so that you can fill in the blanks.
  • it’s a good reminder that we work at the level of ideas, not words. Imagine if you were interpreting the speech from English into your A language: you could make a good guess at the missing words; so if they were unknown words, you would still be able to follow the meaning in most cases.

Audio file – Islamic art

This is quite a challenging text. You will need to draw on your background knowledge and logic, as well as your English skills, to fill in the blanks successfully.

You can find the recording here.


I won’t go through every blank, but I thought it might be useful to discuss a few of the blanks where there were several possible solutions.

  • depictions of the prophet Muhammad are……. in Islam: you could say forbidden, or banned, prohibited.
  • The prohibition of images of the prophet, no matter how …….., is widely …….. today . There are many ways to complete this sentence, especially as it is ambiguous: does the adjective following ‘no matter how’ refer to ‘images of the prophet’, or to ‘prohibition’? Depending on what you think, you could say ‘the prohibition of images of the prophet, no matter how innocuous, is widely accepted’, or ‘the prohibition of images of the prophet, no matter how harmless, is widely criticised today’, or ‘the prohibition of images of the prophet, no matter how dangerous, is widely accepted today’. You need to think carefully about what has been said so far, and your background knowledge about this issue.
  • there is no such …….. in the Qur’an: this could be instruction, or prohibition, ban, or edict.
  • Islam was the only common …..: could be religion, factor, or denominator.
  • ruling elites ……. Islam as a binding agent: there are several solutions, depending on meaning. You could say used or exploited; or fastened on tolatched on to; or saw, perceived.
  • decade of economic pain and social …..: this could be decline, problems, tensions, or fracture.

Speech transcript

Here’s the transcript of the speech. I have highlighted the missing words in bold.

Though we often hear that depictions of the prophet Muhammad are forbidden in Islam, artworks bearing his image can be found in museums in Europe and the United States. And he is in many carefully curated private collections of Islamic art, appearing from time to time in the catalogues of prestigious auction houses when these artworks change hands.

The prohibition of images of the prophet, no matter how anodyne, is widely accepted today – but, as these examples show, it is a distinctly modern edict. The religious justification for the ban is far less clear than its proponents believe: there is no such instruction in the Qur’an. There is, of course, a pre-Islamic aversion to idol worship shared by all the monotheistic religions, and over the centuries this aversion gradually wore away depictions of Muhammad in Islamic art. But this was only a prelude to the modern charge of blasphemy – which arrived only in the 20th century, after the Muslim world had fractured into nation-states.

The modern majority-Muslim nation-state is a weak and unwieldy creature. Across Africa and south Asia, colonial forces lumped together disparate tribes and languages, drew boundary lines around them, and then abruptly decamped to Europe. For many citizens of these new nations, Islam was the only common denominator. In the absence of any coherent political programme beyond the maintenance of their own power, ruling elites fastened on to Islam as a binding agent. From there it was an easy step to pick out some sacred icons, such as the image of the prophet, and to draw arbitrary theological red lines, useful for dispensing with political opponents. The story of blasphemy in contemporary Islam isn’t about doctrine. It is about decline and dictatorship.

There is a lesson in this tale for all of us: the more that a society is preoccupied with its symbols, the more insecure it has become. In the UK, the Conservative government and its court press have seized upon the veneration of national symbols as a consolation for a decade of economic pain and social fracture.

And then, of course, there is the flag, the latest icon to be invested with a sanctity that demands it be flown longer and larger. The government has decreed that after the summer the flag should fly over official buildings every day rather than 20 days a year. No longer is it just jolly bunting on special occasions. This is the endpoint of a journey that began when Nigel Farage took a small union flag and placed it in front of him at the European parliament. In all its absurdity, that moment comes closest to representing what the flag has come to symbolise today – a false but potent claim of liberation from fictional oppressive forces.

Over the past few months, Tory MPs have tried to burnish their political credentials by posturing more and more aggressively about the flag, demanding that it be compulsory in all schools (and that anyone who has concerns can be “educated” into compliance). It is an even shorter distance between that public, official intimidation and private citizens taking matters into their own hands. Earlier this year, one mayor in Cornwall received death threats for removing flags that had been put up without the council’s permission.

“You can’t eat a flag,” said John Hume, one of the architects of the Northern Ireland peace process. When Muslim countries erupt with rage over images of Muhammad, I see governments who cannot feed their people, or provide them with dignity or democratic rights, so they feed them false pride instead. The images we see on the news from Cairo or Khartoum of protests against cartoons or authors, are pictures of astroturfed anger, whipped up and bussed into town squares in government vehicles. Some of that anger seeps into corners that then become impossible to scrub. The worship of icons, whether flags or statues, may seem like a harmless performance on the part of a government that has little else to offer. But behind it lurks the threat of something much more sinister.

I hope you enjoyed this exercise!

Fill in the blanks exercise – education for girls

Here is something a bit different for you – a cloze, or gap, test.

The idea is to listen to the speech and fill in the gaps with one or more words that are grammatically correct and match the content and style of the piece.

This is a good exercise for many reasons:

  • it helps you with anticipation. You won’t be able to fill in every gap before hearing the following few words, but some of them can be guessed immediately because they’re part of a collocation, set phrase, or idiom, or because they make sense in context.
  • it helps you work on reformulation: some of the gaps have many possible solutions. How many can you think of?
  • it’s a good listening exercise. You need to concentrate really hard to follow the speech’s thread, so that you can fill in the blanks.
  • it’s a good reminder that we work at the level of ideas, not words. Imagine if you were interpreting the speech from English into your A language: you could make a good guess at the missing words; so if they were unknown words, you would still be able to follow the meaning in most cases.

Audio file of the speech

You can find the file here.


I won’t go through the whole text; you can check the missing words in the transcript below if you like.

I thought it would be useful to go through just a few of the missing words, when there were several possible solutions.

  • the near-insurmountable …….. facing school-age girls in the world’s poorest regions: this could be challenges, but also obstacles, hurdles, difficulties, or even problems, if you couldn’t think of anything better.
  • Her story ……. that of millions of girls around the world: this could be mirrors, or perhaps echoes, or simply is similar to.
  • There is a need to ……stronger policies to ……. progress: the first gap could be devise, or develop, propose, plan, implement, push through, support. The second gap could be stimulate, boost, speed up.

Transcript of the speech

I’ve highlighted the missing words in bold.

Bright-eyed and clever, a young girl from a small village in Malawi shares her wish for a better life. From her confines, up early in the morning, cleaning and cooking, eating last, marrying young, she has little chance for school, much less a future with a career.

“Give me a chance,” she says disarmingly, “and I’ll take it from there.” The three-minute video, produced by Plan International, a UK-based global advocacy group on children, tells the story of the near-insurmountable challenges facing school-age girls in the world’s poorest regions, including many parts of sub-Saharan Africa.  Her story mirrors that of millions of girls around the world whose prospects are severely limited because they cannot finish school.

According to the 2014 Millennium Development Goals Report, a United Nations annual report that tracks progress towards achieving the MDGs, some 33 million children in sub-Saharan Africa were out of school in 2012.  While the situation varies from country to country and between rural and urban areas, overall 56% of the out-of-school children are girls

There is no doubt that a concerted global push for universal education has narrowed the gender gap in primary school enrolment between 2001 and 2008, says UNESCO, the UN agency on education and culture. Over the past seven years, however, the gap appears to have remained the same, according to the report. Pervasive poverty and persistent cultural attitudes, including forced early marriages and child labour, continue to be the main obstacles to girls’ education in sub-Saharan Africa. 

 “Poverty lies at the heart of many of the challenges that hinder girls’ access to education. The pressures of poverty mean that parents must constantly make decisions about how to utilize extremely limited resources and how best to provide a secure future for their family,”

Poor families, mostly in rural areas, are forced to send boys to school while keeping the girls at home helping with chores in the belief that chores are sufficient lessons for girls to learn how to keep a family. Even as more girls are enrolled in primary schools, their chances of dropping out continue to be greater than boys’. Girls may be withdrawn from school by parents for reasons linked not only to costs but to unwanted pregnancy.

There is a need to devise stronger policies to revive progress. UNESCO and UNICEF are recommending that countries focus on “broad investment to strengthen and expand education systems, a sharp focus on improving the quality of education on offer and targeted interventions for the children who are the very hardest to reach.” 

In a joint report, the two agencies said the priority should be to ensure that even the most vulnerable and disadvantaged girl has access to a school close to home—a school that meets her most basic needs for safety, privacy and cleanliness. 

I hope you enjoyed the exercise!

Interested in more material like this to help you boost your retour? Why not join my monthly membership site, Rock your Retour, with tailor-made written materials and weekly live group classes (online)?

Interpreting Coach logo with strapline

Sophie Llewellyn Smith, writing as The Interpreting Coach, is a coach, interpreter trainer, conference interpreter, designer of online teaching materials, and creator of Speechpool. Follow the blog to pick up tips on how to improve your interpreting skills.

If you’re interested in personal coaching, why not book a free discovery call?

An improvisation exercise to help you talk about time pressure

In this exercise, you will produce a short speech (5-10 minutes) using several idioms or phrases related to time.

I am providing you with a scenario to use for inspiration, but you are of course free to adapt it, expand it, alter it, or whatever you like!

Ban on single use plastics in the UK

Background reading:

article in the Guardian

article from the Independent

Article about time (see below).

Scene-setting for your speech:

You are a campaigner for a ban on plastic items such as drinks stirrers, straws, and cotton buds. You welcome the UK’s announcement that it plans to ban these items, but you believe we need to go much further and look at legislation to tackle all forms of plastic packaging.

Prepare an introduction to your speech, giving your background, the current legal situation, and any other background you think is relevant.

Choose Option 1 OR Option 2.

Option 1: time is short, and time has been wasted

Explain why it is urgent that this ban come about soon. Use several idioms and phrases to indicate the urgency of the situation, and back up your points with some facts and figures (e.g. about plastic waste in the sea).

Point out that the UK could have acted much faster in proposing legislation on this matter, and will now have to make up for lost time. See if you can come up with some reasons for the delay.

Option 2: this proposal comes just in time; the EU legislation will be too late

Explain why this proposal comes just in time – because the EU is about to legislate, but the EU legislation will be too late for Brexit-related transposition into UK law. At least if the UK legislates now, it will keep in step with EU environmental legislation.

Use several idioms and phrases related to time, and some facts and figures to back up the urgency of the situation (e.g. about plastic waste in the sea).


Conclude your speech with a call to action about future, broader, legislation on plastics in general.

Vocabulary assistance: how to talk about…time

Here are some tips to help you talk about time: time passing, time being short, getting things done in time, etc. etc.

The time is ripe

Here is a collection of phrases to express the idea that it’s the right time, or perhaps past time, to get something done:

It’s about time… Curiously, this can mean either that something needs to happen immediately, or that it is now happening, but should have been done sooner.

It’s about time the government provided more funding for mental health services.

It’s about time they tied the knot – they’ve been together for 17 years!

It’s high time…. This phrase is synonymous with ‘about time’ (see above), but a little more emphatic.

There’s no time like the present! The meaning of this phrase is ‘now’, ‘immediately’.

‘When would you like me to start working on the project?’ ‘There’s no time like the present!’

The time is ripe for… means the time is right, the timing is good.

The time is ripe for a remake of this classic film.

Being short of time

Let’s imagine you’re interpreting at a meeting, and the agenda is very long. The Chairman might say one or all of the following:

  • I’m just keeping one eye on the clock, because we have a lot to get through this morning.
  • Time flies! It’s already 11 o’clock, so we need to wrap up this point.
  • Time is marching on, and we need to move on to the next agenda item.
  • We’re short of time today, so we’ll have to come back to this proposal next week.
  • We’re a little pressed for time, I’m afraid. Perhaps we could discuss this bilaterally.
  • In the interests of saving time, I won’t read out the whole document.

What if there is a sense of urgency about a proposal/piece of legislation/action on the part of the authorities? Try:

  • Time is of the essence with this proposal: it will be discussed at the Plenary in a fortnight, so we need your written comments by Monday evening.
  • There’s no time to lose. We need to act immediately.
  • We’re in a race against time. Our competitors are ready to move on this, so we need to make our offer immediately.
  • The emergency services are working against the clock to reach earthquake survivors under the rubble.
  • It’s crunch time! Something needs to be done urgently.
  • Desperate times call for desperate measures.

If time has been lost for some reason (delays, illness of the project leader, documents lost in the post…), you might say:

  • We’re working around the clock now, to make up for lost time.

If there is no great urgency, you might say:

  • All in good time. We don’t want to be too hasty.
  • We have all the time in the world, as there’s no deadline.

Just in time

If something was done/adopted/achieved at the last possible moment, you can use the following phrases:

  • at the eleventh hour: The Parliament was still proposing changes to the Bill at the eleventh hour.
  • in the nick of time: We arrived at the airport in the nick of time; the flight was just about to start boarding.

If it’s too late, you might say:

  • Better late than never!


    • in no time means ‘very quickly’: the revised proposal was ready in no time.
    • to make good time refers to a journey, and means it took less time than expected. We’ve made good time, so we can afford to stop for lunch before hitting the motorway.
    • ahead of its time means radical, innovative (for the time): The play explored ideas about prejudice and tolerance in a way that was ahead of its time. The company was ahead of its time in its employment practices.
    • before my time means before I was born, or before I was old enough to understand. Margaret Thatcher and the poll tax? That was all before my time.
    • to buy time means to delay an event so as to improve your own position in the meantime. I bought some time by telling my supervisor I was ill. He postponed the essay deadline by two days. 
    • to call it a day means to stop for the day, even if you haven’t finished what you’re doing. OK, we still haven’t covered Item 5 on the agenda, but it’s 6 o’clock and we’re all tired. Let’s call it a day and reconvene tomorrow morning.
    • in time vs on time. What’s the difference? ‘On time’ means at the pre-arranged time, e.g. The meeting began on time, at 9 o’clock. ‘In time’ means before a deadline, before something begins: he arrived in time for the beginning of the meeting. He turned up just in time for the beginning of the speech. Imagine a meeting that begins at 9 with a presentation by an invited speaker, but the speaker starts a few minutes late. You could say: I didn’t arrive on time, but I was in time for the presentation.

Last few…

To stand the test of time means to remain popular or in force for a long time.

  • The US Constitution has stood the test of time.
  • Few pop songs of the 2000s will stand the test of time.

Time will tell is an incredibly useful phrase. Will a proposal be adopted following a round the amendments? Will the public support a groundbreaking idea? Will Donald Trump be booted out? Will the UK really leave the EU? Time will tell.

I haven’t mentioned it so far, but the adjective timely can prove useful. It means ‘happening at the best possible moment’ and can be a good translation for words like ‘opportun’ in French, for example.

  • The protests in London at the weekend were a timely reminder that this is still a controversial issue.
  • The change in the exchange rate provided a timely boost to the company’s falling profits.
  • Your comments on the proposal are very timely. We’ll amend the text as soon as possible, since the deadline is next week.

Finally, don’t forget a week is a long time in politics.

A reformulation exercise for English retourists

The purpose of this exercise is to help you work on the versatility of your English B and on deducing meaning from context and applying background knowledge.

I have chosen a short excerpt from a Guardian article, and blanked out some of the words.

Your task is to read each paragraph carefully, and come up with possible solutions to fill in the gaps. See how many options you can find.

If you like, you can be more radical, and change the whole phrase around that word.

Think about the solutions you’ve come up with. Are some of them lower register, or more formal?

Spoiler alert: I’ve given you the solutions under the text of the article, so avert your eyes if you want to make this a real exercise.

Text of the article

“MPs have criticised a project by academics that involved sending emails from fictitious constituents claiming they were concerned about financial support during the coronavirus lockdown.

Researchers at King’s College London (KCL) and the London School of Economics (LSE) sent emails to every MP’s inbox from _____________________characters including a cleaner and lawyer.

Copies of messages seen by the Guardian showed the ________________senders – who_____________ with names including Paul, Thomas and Maryam – wrote that they worked for large companies but were “______________about the long term” and saw “people all around me who are______________jobs or _____________pay cuts”.

All emails ended with the request: “I’d like to know what you and the Conservative party are going to do to______________this crisis in the best possible way.” Some added they were a “Conservative supporter”.

_____________________in different MPs’ offices discovered the connection only when they replied with a standard question, asking for the sender’s address so they could confirm they were the right person to help, and received no response.”

Para 2: the missing word is invented. You could have used fictitious or even fake. If you found made-up, be aware that this is more informal.

Para 3: the missing words are purported, signed themselves off, worried, losing, experiencing. You could use supposed instead of purported. You have several options for worried, including concerned – you just need to watch out for the preposition, which limits you. For experiencing pay cuts, you could try being hit by, being affected by, suffering because of…

Para 4: the missing phrase is get us through. You could have used overcome, tackle, address, get us out of (which is more informal), etc.

Para 5: the missing word is staffers, and you could simply have used staff.


Interested in more material like this to help you boost your retour? Why not join my monthly membership site, Rock your Retour, with tailor-made written materials and weekly live group classes (online)?

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Sophie Llewellyn Smith, writing as The Interpreting Coach, is a coach, interpreter trainer, conference interpreter, designer of online teaching materials, and creator of Speechpool. Follow the blog to pick up tips on how to improve your interpreting skills.

If you’re interested in personal coaching, why not book a free discovery call?


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