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.

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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.

It’s not a matter of will, it’s a matter of time, really.

That’s right. Everybody says that when there’s a will there’s a way, but I work full time and I’m starting a business. I really want to keep up my working languages and improve my passive language, but so far, I’ve only been able to stay afloat and not loose what has taken me years to achieve.

So here is what I do and I hope it helps other aspiring linguists with tight schedules


My husband and I speak English at home and we watch all our entertainment in that language. That helps a lot, but it’s not enough. Since I know he understands Spanish perfectly, I get lazy and do the very Chicano code-switching. In order to remedy this dangerous complacency, I take every opportunity I have to speak to a native English-speaker. I stay in touch via e-mail with some of my friends from college and I read the news in English every day. Every third boob I read is written in this language and I teach one English class a week. This particularly interesting because, on top of the extra income, it provides me with a scheduled opportunity to research vocabulary or rules of style, not to mention it keeps my oral skills in check.

My secret weapon, though is  my membership and regular attendance to a local chapter of the international leadership and public speaking club Toastmasters. I stress the fact that I attend regularly because otherwise is near pointless. this club meets every two weeks giving me the opportunity to interact with other native speakers, bilingual people and Spaniards with varying levels of proficiency. When following the program you are assigned a mentor who will help you prepare your first four speeches. Writing a speech has been a very interesting learning experience. Interpreters have to render a speech in a different language on a regular basis, but they never really get to write and deliver their own. So by doing this, I’m gaining valuable insight into my future clients’ perspective (I remain optimistic). Another added benefit of the Toastmasters program, is the fact that they suggest several techniques to improve your public-speaking voice. In my experience, this is crucial and should be part of every training program. Knowing how to use your voice will help you prevent voice strain caused by improper breathing, and it will also help you correct certain unpleasant qualities such as mumbling, exceeding speed, monotony or exceeding volume.


French is my passive language. I have been studying French for a few years now and spent some time in beautiful Nice last summer. Although I love the language, the fact that my husband has no interest in learning it whatsoever means that I can’t sneak in the winner combination of business and pleasure and watch a movie in French from time to time. I have to do magic and find time to stay in touch with this language. I read some international headlines and news summaries from different sites in this language on a daily basis and I try to listen to the radio at least three times a week.

Same as with English, I try to stay in touch with my French-speaking friends and I replicated the secret-weapon-strategy of joining a conversation club. DialoguesMadrid also meets twice a month at a public library. We first have a structures session in which there is speaker who delivers a «mot-du-jour,» then there is a features speaker who delivers a presentation on a topic of her choice (previously approved by the moderator) and then the speaker opens the floor for debate. After the library closes, we head out to a bar and have an informal social interaction. DialoguesMadrid has the additional benefit of the blog that Bertrand, the founder and moderator, writes. In the blog hw published regular posts in different categories such as «le verb du jour», «l’expression du jour» or «petites histoires». Besides adding this blog to my daily French reading, I like that Bertrand (the blogmaster and founder of the club) publishes an account of each session and evaluates the speaker giving grammar or vocabulary corrections and an overall account of their performance.


Spanish is my native language and here I feel I can add a lot of value if I manage to overcome a challenge. I was born and raised inMexico and I’m trying to enter the European market. What does this mean? Well, it means that from past experience I know some agency seek me out because I can deliver an interpretation in a very neutral and internationally understood of Spanish that makes me aware of the cultural nuances of Latin-America, but it also means that if my accent doesn’t sound neutral enough on the phone when a potential client calls me, it can be a huge turn-off for them and I may loose the job. I have learned not to take this personally.

In order to absorb the way my potential clients use language (inSpain, specifically) I read the news, books, go to the movies, but mostly, I listen. I work as an office manager in a financial firm inMadrid, and besides the fact that it has given me perspective and economic stability, this job has provided me with the invaluable opportunity to be inside my potential clients’ shoes. Everyday, I listen to all the things my colleagues say and to the way they say them: inflection, context, emotional charge, demeanor. I am aware that many speak good  English but I’m also aware of the language needs that go unmet. I wish I had done this the first time I dove into the freelance world, but the opportunity wasn’t there, I was a recent immigrant back then.

Mexico lives in my heart and I must never forget the wonderful and playful way in which people speak back home. Their choice of words, their nuances and inflection add richness to the A language into which I will interpret that must never be forgotten or underestimated. To keep my Latin-American connection to language alive, I simply let it flow whenever there is a chance.