La Piñata

Se dice que las piñatas vienen de China. Durante el Año Nuevo se hacían imágenes de vacas o bueyes que se rellenaban con semillas. Si la persona encargada de romperla tenía éxito, habría buena cosecha y las personas guardarían las semillas durante todo el año como amuleto de la buena suerte.
Yo conocí las piñatas desde que era niña durante la época de las posadas. Me acuerdo que en mi casa se compraba la piñata, se rellenaba de fruta de temporada  (naranja piñatera, limas, jícamas) y dulces. Después la colgaban de un «mecate» y dos hombres de la familia se subían a algún sitio de altura llevando cada uno de ellos un extremo de la cuerda para mover la piñata y hacer que fuera más difícil atinarle. Nos formaban después por edad y estatura. Los más pequeños iban primero. Cuando te tocaba a ti, te vendaban los ojos, te daban un palo y te daban muchas vueltas para desorientarte.
Según la tradición, la piñata en forma de estrella con siete picos, representaba al diablo y a los siete pecados capitales. El niño con los ojos vendados y el palo representan la fé inquebrantable. Las vueltas que te dan antes de que puedas pegarle a la piñata representan la desorientación de las tentaciones.
Me acuerdo de la sensación de la pañoleta que me cubría los ojos y cómo me hacía aguzar los sentidos. Sabía que mis sin ver y con mis tíos tirando de la cuerda era casi imposible asestarle un golpe a la piñata. Todos los que estaban alrededor cantaban la tradicional canción:
Dale, dale, dale,
No pierdas el tino,
Porque si lo pierdes,
Pierdes el camino.
También sabía que mi turno iba a durar lo que durara la canción, así que hacía mi mejor esfuerzo por concentrarme, por escuchar, por percibir lo que pasaba a mi alrededor y así lanzaba un golpe, y otro y otro. Finalmente daba con la piñata. Lo intentaba otra vez, con perseverancia. Sabía que si no lograba romperla, por lo menos conseguiría fracturarla o arrancarle un pico, que después era muy útil para guardar la fruta y los caramelos que caían cuando alguien rompía la piñata.
Creo que la mejor enseñanza de estas fiestas y de mi querida piñata, es precisamente la idea de concentrarse en el objetivo y perseverar; de saber que a pesar de las circunstancias adversas, la perseverancia y la tenacidad nos llevarían a conseguir lo que queríamos.
Les deseo un fin de año rodeados de seres queridos y un 2014 en el que domine la tenacidad (para añadirse un «retour», para añadirse un idioma, para conseguir 150 días de trabajo, para sacarse un diploma de máster o para acabar el manual de Competent Comunicator de Toastmasters)  sobre las circunstancias.

Words are Powerful

I came back to my Toastmasters club after being away for almost a year. I got a Master’s in Conference Interpreting, which means I did a whole lot of public speaking, speech writing and feedback sessions during that time. However, I felt a certain level of intimidation which lead me to procrastinate and put off Project 4 because everybody says that this speech is precisely when things start getting difficult. Being a skillful public speaker is no easy task and you can see how challenging it can be from your Icebreaker. So, what is it about Project 4 that makes it so challenging? In the opinion of several senior members of the club, the difficulty resides in the precise requirements you have to meet for this speech.

The main premise of this project is that words are powerful because they convey your message and influence the audience and its perception of you. That is why you have to choose and arrange your words carefully. You have to make sure every word adds value, meaning and impact to the speech. If you want to do a good job, this will take time.

How to prepare your speech.

Since I had been away for so long, I felt I needed to go back to the basics. I looked over the executive summaries and evaluations of previous speeches. I actually paid special attention to Project 2 Organize Your Speech. My master’s taught me how to analyze the structure of a speech, and to me, making sure I had a good foundation, allowed me to stay on track. I found it very useful to write down the points I wanted to make in my speech on small note cards, using one card per idea and one sentence per idea, as suggested in the Competent Communication manual. Narrowing all the things I have to say down and making them fit in 5-7 minutes and three main points can be very challenging, but the note card technique helps me make my ideas more tangible, and since I can grab them and place them where I want, it’s also a good way to visualize the outline of your speech before you get to writing.

The next thing I did, was to actually write the objectives of this project on  a separate set of note cards. This was even more helpful to me that making a list on a piece of paper because I could constantly be referring to them in a three-dimensional sort of way. If you constantly check your objectives you can be sure you won’t leave any out and you won’t get side-tracked.


  • Select the right words and sentence structure to communicate your ideas clearly, accurately and vividly.
  • Use rhetorical deices to enhance and emphasize ideas (I also wrote definitions and examples of rhetorical devices on my cards: simile, metaphor, alliteration and triads.)
  • Eliminate jargon and unnecessary words. Use correct grammar (objective achieved thanks to my mentor)
  • 5-7 minutes (around 900 words)


The swans in the booth

August 1519. Two worlds collide: Old Spain versus Ancient Mexico; Hernán Cortés and Xicotencatl face each other, in a moment that changed the course of History. And in between them stands an interpreter. Her name is La Malinche. She spoke the language of the Mayans, the Aztecs and the language of the newcomers. It was thanks to her intellect and her words that Hernán Cortés forged the alliances that brought down the mighty Aztec Empire and eventually gave rise to a new nation.MALINCHE2-640x415

La Malinche was Cortés’s interpreter. Fellow Toastmasters, Madam Toastmaster, I am an interpreter too.

Please note that I said “interpreter” and not “translator”. This is because they are very different professions. Although they both love languages, interpreters deal with spoken language. Translators deal with written text.  Interpreters work in the present allowing people to communicate here and now. Translators have the benefit of extra time. We could say that  interpreting is like a live broadcast and translating like a recorded program.

Imagine you are interested in becoming an interpreter. How do you go about it?

While there isn’t just one correct way to become an interpreter, it is usually recommended to get a master’s in Conference Interpreting.

Interpreters come from many walks of life, but regardless of your background, it is important to have a very broad general knowledge and a natural curiosity. At any given time, you might need to know who Mikhail Gorbachev is, why the Mona Lisa is also called La Gioconda, and of course you have to keep on top of current affairs.

Now that we know that a potential interpreter needs to love languages, and trivia, let’s talk about the skills that you need to develop in order to become a successful professional interpreter.

First and foremost, you need to work on your listening skills. Why? Because you can only interpret what you understood, and you can only understand if you were listening carefully. You also have to have an excellent short-term memory.  How could you repeat an idea in a different language if you forgot what the speaker just said?

The next skill you’ll have to develop is public speaking, very much like  in Toastmasters, because after all, you are speaking to an audience. A good training program should also include a fair share of voice training to make sure we learn how to take care of our instrument.

Finally, there needs to be a strong emphasis on stress management. Several studies have confirmed that interpreting is a  high-stress profession. We are often under the pressure of having to present interpreted material in split seconds so that other people can make decisions based on that information. We are constantly multitasking: listening, speaking, reading, looking words up, dealing with strong accents, and with the unknown. I’m telling you, it’s like an extreme sport much better than bungee jumping in terms of adrenaline.

Now let me show what happens once an interpreter is in the booth. Many people have asked me if we really interpret what the speaker is saying at the exact same time. Well, the truth not quite. In fact, we have to wait a few seconds for the speaker to utter a complete unit of meaning. We really can’t say a word until we know what the speaker wants to say. However, once we have our first morsel of information the true magic begins.booth2

Imagine that you are the speaker. You get invited to give a talk about something you feel very passionate about, such as, how to honor your own “negative” emotions to better deal with them.

As your interpreter I would be sitting in my booth listening very carefully to what you say. I’d be looking for emphasis, body language, nuances and, of course, facts. Then, I would quickly analyze all this information, synthesize it and give it to the audience in a nice digestible package (in another language.)  Keep in mind that as I speak, I will continue to actively listen to your message.

Courtesy of Lara Weaver

As you might imagine, performing all these actions at the same time is very challenging because, on top of everything, you need to sound calm. Just like swans,on the surface we will look elegant and in control of the situation, while underneath, we’ll be paddling for our dear lives.

Now that you know what interpreters are, what we do and how we do it, it is time to ask the million-dollar question:

In a world in which everyone is learning English, why would anyone need to hire an interpreter? What value does interpreting add?

In order to answer this question, I’d like you to consider precisely this idea that English is enough. It isn’t.  Even if everyone in a multilingual setting spoke and understood English really well, why should we insist on this illusion of “one-language-fits all?”

If instead of forcing everyone into one language, we allow languages to be something plural, we will be establishing and honoring the social reality of difference.

The value that interpreters add is that they handle these differences and still allow you to connect. They work in the present moment to create relationships and these relationships shape society.

Since time, culture and power are now visible, interpreting helps us use languages in a truly plural social interaction that can bring about change, big change, that can even alter the course of History.


One of the reasons many people join Toastmasters is the feedback. I got very positive comments about my speech and delivery. However there are a couple of things that came up a few times in the feedback forms and that actually had appeared before:

  • I didn’t include a personal anecdote that allowed the audience to know me (I almost never do)
  • If the conclusion is good enough, you don’t need to say «to conclude» (This is debatable, I don’t think it is a bad idea to let your audience know what’s happening)
  • I was looking for the next visual before I needed it (guilty as charged! My visual aids are a huge memory aid for me. I’ll have to work on showing them more naturally and at the right time.)
  • Timing: 7:01. Although I was within the limit, this was perhaps the most challenging aspect about preparing for the speech. It took a lot of effort to get it down from its original 11 minutes to 6:50 when I was practicing. I think part of the problem was in fact the word density, and the fact that I use pauses and intonation to make sure my speech is musical and pleasant. A good way for me to practice timing and make sure I’ll get it right is to record myself with my webcam or smartphone. That way I know exactly how long I’m taking, I pinpoint difficult sections, awkward movements and pronunciation errors.


Most of the content came from my own recent experience and from all the stories I heard about La Malinche while growing up in Mexico.

Toastmasters Speech 3

Before going away for the summer I wanted to go for my third project in the Competent Communicator Manual.  I basically knew that I wanted to talk about a post about dance I wrote for another blog  and I wanted to improve on previous feedback I had gotten from club members.

The three main things I wanted to improve were:

  • Voice projection
  • Vocal variety
  • Having a stronger opening and closing

My main challenges with this project were:

  • Chosing a specific objective
  • Sticking to it

Some quick tips I have learned from previous projects that saved time and were effective:

  • In order to speak for up to 7 minutes my speech has to stay under the 1000 word limit.
  • Writing a quick outline with main points and sub-points
  • Having decided the topic way in advance.

My mentor, Julian D. Martelli, helped me enormously with his accurate feedback and suggested a post by Andrew Dlugan about Speech 3 that was so useful that I have added it to my recommended links.
I was having a very hard time staying focused on the point but then I read this and it helped enormously for the next round of editing (that’ what my Toastmasters mentor and my husband said)

The Harder Part: Stay Focused On the Point

The much harder part — and the part that many speakers struggle badly with — is staying focused on the point.

No speaker intends to stray from their purpose; rather, it happens quite accidentally. Somewhere between getting to the point and writing the first draft, a collection of off topic elements are inserted into the speech.

  • It might be an off-topic opening anecdote which is “too good not to share”.
  • It might be some jaw-dropping statistics that are only remotely related to the topic.

I also read through some of the examples offered here and that helped me realize what I was doing right and what still need work (like my closing).

Anther challenge in preparing this speech was the limited amount of time I had to memorize it. I learned my speech on the 20 minutes it takes me to walk from work to home and then I barely had time to practice it twice and get feedback from my loyal critic. Delivering the speech required a good measure of improvisation and a lot of concentration. Unlike previous speeches, some of the audience members noticed I was speaking faster, pausing less and I looked at the ceiling a couple of times.

Here is the speech.

Learning from Dance

«All the ills of mankind, all the tragic misfortunes that fill the history books, all the political blunders, all the failures of he great leaders have arisen from a lack of skill at dancing.» –Molière.

M. Toastmaster, fellow Toastmasters and guests, Dance is one of my great passions in life. And while almost everyone agrees that it is great fun I’ve often had to defend that it can be much more than a hobby where you go learn a bunch of dance steps. Dance can actually teach you values and skills that could enhance your professional life in very meaningful ways.
How many of you here have ever taken a dance class? Has anyone tried latin dances, Bollywood, or ballet? I am going to share with you an experience that reminded me of the impact that this art form has had in my professional life.

A few weeks ago I took an aptitude test to select future students for the masters in conference interpreting at the University of La Laguna. The application form said that besides evaluating the candidate’s general knowledge,  memorization skills and language proficiency,they would also be judging their ability to tolerate stress, be a team player and take criticism.

Only 16 candidates were chosen for this master’s and when they called me to tell me I was one of them I immediately started doing my “happy dance” feeling that I indeed owed this result to my dance training.

Why? you might ask.

There are certain core values and skills that dance instills in you from the very beginning and it turns out that they are highly appreciated in the professional world. I took a sample of the skills and abilities mentioned on the websites of 18 different organizations ranging from NASA to Mercadona as the most desirable for potential employees. This is what I found:

Among the most common elements, I found phrases like these:

«You must be a highly motivated individual and a team player.»

«You must have strong communication skills and be able to give constructive criticism.»

«You must be inclusive and respect diversity.»

«Stress management and the ability to accept criticism are highly valued.»

Before I tell you how I learned those skills and behaviours through my dance training, let me come back to Molière’s quote one more time. “All the failures of the great leaders have arisen from a lack of skill at dancing.” So, what are three things we could learn from dance that in Molière’s opinion could make us better leaders or maybe just better people?

Responsibility, Teamwork, and Stress Management.

1. Responsibility

In my first years as a dance student I learned that in order to make a group choreography work I had to be responsible for learning my part because in dance, the principle of “the chain is only as strong as the weakest link” definitely applies. Forgetting a step, or doing it too soon or too late could be catastrophic. Just imagine that you have to cross the stage towards the left while three dancers are running to the right. If you missed your cue and crossed just a little bit late, you could cause a collision. Remember I mentioned NASA earlier?

2. Be a better team player

The main objective in dance unlike sports is not to compete for a price. The main point is to work through the process of creating a work of art. From dancing with other people I learned that moving together creates a very special link. It makes you aware of others, it creates synchronicity. From creating dance pieces I learned that you had to be inclusive and respect diversity.  If you have dancers, musicians and technicians contributing ideas, you must get good at giving feedback and at receiving criticism and you have to be willing to negotiate and compromise. If you are a jerk when you are asking for something, you might lose your dancers. If you take criticism personally, you might find yourself replaced by someone who can take it better. I think the same principles could apply for example to a research team or to a sales force.

3. Stress management

How do you get over your stage fright? When you perform in a theatre you are under a lot of pressure. Our worst nightmare as dancers is failure translated as blanking out or falling on your butt. But Dance has a secret for dealing with stress: divide and you shall conquer, like  Napoleon said. First you work on your skill, that gives you self-reliance. Then you work on your memory and practice synchronizing with other dancers. Then you learn how to take care of peripheral elements such as costumes or lighting. While all these elements improve you remember how to breathe and relax. When the moment arrives and you have to perform in front of an audience, you think about how much you love doing this and remember all the preparation you’ve done. This is exactly the process I went through when I sat that test for the University and it worked.

Dance has been present in all the cultures of the world and through all the eras of human history because it is a primordial form of interaction and because it is great fun. Now that you know how it can help you enhance your sense of responsibility, teamwork or stress management abilities perhaps it is time to reconsider the role that the performing arts such as dance should have in our education.

Toastmasters «Thought of the day» as a memory exercise.

«Travelling the path of greatness, even in someone else’s footprints, is a vital means to acquiring skill.» Twyla Tharp

For our last Madrid Toastmasters session I signed up for the role of Thought/Book/Movie of the day. I took the opportunity to work on my memory, on expanding my vocal variety, on cleaning up my pronunciation and intonation in English, and of course on improving my delivery.

One of the recurrent things to improve I get on the club’s feedback forms is that I should increase my volume, vocal variety and speed (I’ve been told sometimes a speak too slowly for extended periods of time, which is very soothing but not very engaging,) so I felt that taking some time to work on shorter speeches as supposed to full assignments to polish these issues, would be a good experiment.

In her book The Creative Habit, Learn it and keep it for Life, Twyla Tharp explains that even though copying is not a very popular idea these days when we are constantly encouraged to find our own voice, it is a great way to learn, especially if you set out to learn from the best. She defends the value she found on patterning herself after people whose work she admired. She says that she would stand right behind a great dancer of her choice in class in what she calls «copying mode,» and fall right into their footsteps. This is how their style, technique and timing would become imprinted in her muscle memory (memory is the key) giving her more tools for her own creative work.

In my case, I chose to copy Neil Degrasse Tyson, a brilliant astrophysicist and excellent public speaker. In one of his interviews he was asked to share what he though was the most astounding fact about the universe. I began by listening to the audio paying attention to the nuances of inflection and vocabulary. Then I tried shadowing the speech a couple of times. After memorizing the words I moved on memorizing his pitch, speed, and volume. I practice and got feedback from a native speaker before trying it out in the meeting last Wednesday.

Did I succeed and deliver a perfect speech copying all of his masterful nuances? Definitely not. However, I learned a lot and I saw for myself  what my fellow Madrid Toastmasters had been telling me.  My mentor and other people noticed the difference in the delivery and encouraged me to keep working this way, which leads me to believe I found a good tool.

Would I try this exercise again? Definitely yes, and I strongly recommend it.

THARP, Twyla and REITER, Mark. The Creative Habit, Learn it and Use it for Life. A Practical Guide. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003.

My second speech

 My second speech was called Dangeorus Heigths. I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to challenge some cultural assumptions about high heels, present the health risks associated with them and and talk about their history.

In Toastmasters the objectives of the second project are the following:

Speak for 5-7 minutes.

Create a strong opening and conclusion.

Select an appropriate outline which allows listeners to easily follow and understand your speech.

Make your message clear, with supporting material directly contributing to that message.

Use appropriate transitions when moving from one idea to another.

From the manual I learned a very useful technique to organize information that I had never used before and I think I’ll use it from now on because it helped me solve one of my biggest challenges as a communicator: there is so much I want to say that it is really quite a challenge to decide what the main point will have to be.

The preparation technique consist in writing your main idea as a key word or short sentence on a card. Then you can develop the idea on the other side of the card. What I did in addition to this was to add a word on the corner classifying the idea developed on the card as INTRO, CONCLUSION, HISTORY, SYMBOLISM, HEALTH.

Once I got to writing down my outline the cards were very helpful because I could place them and move them according to the classification I had made. this allowed me to notice that if some information was repetitive or if it didn’t really support the main thread.

When I got to the club meeting, I made sure I arrived a bit early so I could place my visual aids under the lectern. I learned from the first speech

Toastmasters International
Toastmasters International (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

that it is not a good idea to come up when you are called and waste precious time and attention shuffling papers around.

I was very nervous, as usual, but I’ve been learning how to control myself. I was shaking at first but I managed to stop and breathe, smile and get talking!

The feedback I got from the club was wonderful although I must say it is not all objective, and if you are sensitive to criticism, like I am, you’ll have to learn how  not to take it personal. After all, the point of joining Toastmasters is to polish your public speaking  skills, and you have to consider your audience’s perceptions of what you say and how you say it. Overall, the club noticed my improvement in my use of notes  (I didn’t use tham at all, I memorized the whole thing!), visual aids and body language; they suggested I need to speak louder, smile more often and add vocal variety.

It took me a few days to recover from the stress of preparing and the adrenalin from delivering, but I finally feel ready to start preparing project number three.