Fifteen Public Speaking Lessons from Interpreting School

“Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning.”
— Maya Angelou, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

Every job is difficult in its own way and I’ve always loved the toughest jobs best. For me, however, the year of conference interpreting studies was thus far the most demanding. Putting on a headset for the very first time, I discovered what it actually takes to learn a highly complex cognitive skill. In terms of difficulty, everything else since has paled by comparison.

The mountain of linguistic knowledge we had to take in was daunting, but the most overwhelming part was consciously taking control over our bodies and minds. The skill of rendering one language into another was just one piece of the larger puzzle. What was equally important for projecting the image of a fully-fledged interpreter was the poise with which we delivered.

Our voices, breathing, gestures, eyes, and posture were scrutinized to the tiniest detail. But the strictness that we sometimes laughed off as something out of the Bolshoi Ballet School teaching manual was in fact a gift in the sense that, for me, the training proved harder than real life. Although interpreting meant having to constantly perform in front a very demanding audience of journalists, politicians and concerned citizens on solemn occasions, press statements, and confidential tête-à-tête meetings, it took us all a while to get accustomed to the lightness with which we employed the skill we had soaked up over the course of that longest year.

The audience, we were exhilarated to find, was not tuning in to judge. And as long you make sure to take your preparation seriously, neither will yours. Although I no longer work as an interpreter and have since moved to what some would say are much calmer waters of protocol, the diplomatic stage remains my professional setting. The lessons I learned over almost five years of professional conference interpreting are still as valuable. Here I’ve distilled the fifteen most important.

Lesson №1: Great delivery is 20% anticipation, 30% practice and 50% preparation.

I’m a huge fan of Tim Ferriss’s 4 Hour Chef and anything signed by Malcom Gladwell. Imagine my excitement when Ferriss interviewed Gladwell for his podcast recently, and they ended up discussing public speaking. What Gladwell said struck a cord:

“My breakthrough came when I realized that good public speaking requires a lot of work. It requires about ten times more work than I had been giving it when I first started out.”

If Gladwell, an extraordinary storyteller and writer, thought he had to put in ten times more work than he had had, than think long and hard whether you shouldn’t too. This conversation between Gladwell and Ferriss is awfully entertaining and informative. It’s available here. For the part on public speaking, go to 28:25.

Now let’s discuss how to actually distribute the time you plan to invest in your speech and performance. Intuitively it seems that practicing your speech should take the center stage, but in fact the major share of the work should be devoted to drafting and finalizing your speech. If you’ve ever simmered down a sauce you’ll know that the more time you devote to it, the more the flavors will intensify. Boil down your point and present the very essence of your information in the form of takeaways. Don’t water them down with unnecessary fluff.

As much as preparation is crucial, for interpreters anticipation was key. We were systematically taught how to anticipate what the speaker will say, to predict her line of thought, paint a mental picture of the room and the audience, their numbers, who they would be, and we excelled at it after a while. While you won’t be interpreting a speech but rather giving one, anticipation can still benefit you as a speaker a lot and prepare you for the moment of delivery. Think about the following:

  1. Who will your audience be? How large of an audience will you be speaking to? What ages and professions will the audience include?
  2. What will the location of the presentation be: a simple room, an office, a conference hall?
  3. What kind of a setup will you be working with? Will you be presenting behind a lectern, with a standing microphone or a clip-mic? Will you have a whiteboard for scribbling? Do you need one?
  4. What time of the day will you be presenting? Think about the pros and cons of a morning, afternoon, and evening presentation.

Finally, use your common sense to anticipate the questions that the audience might ask. Think of the toughest questions that may come up. Then ask your colleagues to think of the toughest questions they can devise. After you’ve compiled a list of questions, answer every one.

Lesson №2: Stand Up.

Public speaking is a performance. Some will say that there are times that call for a sitting presentation and others that call for a standing one. I always thought that by sitting down you’re doing yourself a disservice. Instead of demonstrating strength and ability, you lessen your impact. Standing up sets you apart from the audience and puts you at the center of attention.

Lesson №3: Start them off with an anecdote.

If you don’t have good introduction ready, start them off with an anecdote that either illustrates your topic or was the initial spark that got you thinking about the problem you’re presenting. The anecdote can be a general one, a historical fact for example, or better yet, something personal, something that will give the audience an idea of who you are.

A beautiful example of this was the First Lady’s speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. After echoing the address she had given eight years ago, she said:

I will never forget that winter morning as I watched our girls, just seven and ten years old, pile into those black SUVs with all those big men with guns. And I saw their little faces pressed up against the window, and the only thing I could think was, “What have we done?” See, because at that moment, I realized that our time in the White House would form the foundation for who they would become, and how well we managed this experience could truly make or break them.
— Michelle Obama, July 25, 2016, Philadelphia

Lesson №4: The present brings your story to life.

This point is particularly important if you’re telling anecdotes or jokes in particular. Some call it the jocular present, others historical present, but in essence it’s the same: instead of speaking in the past tense and telling a story about a past event, bring the story forward so your audience can become a part of it. Don’t say “I was walking and I saw …”. Use “I’m walking and I see…” instead.

Lesson №5: Train Your Voice.

What passes for good pitch range is low register. A lower voice apparently instills confidence in the listener. This means public speaking is twice as hard for women, because we generally have to adapt our voices to a lower register, which is possible, but requires some training. I absolutely recommend using your own register if you can’t keep your low register in check at all times. I also recommend using your own register if you couldn’t care less about socially imposed standards that favor the male perspective.

Lesson №6: Slow Down.

When we’re nervous about something, we instinctively just want to get the thing over with. This means that nerves will make your speech fast-paced, which will make it difficult for the audience to follow your train of thought. Do not feel you have to start speaking the moment you touch the podium. Take your time to take in the moment. Don’t put yourself off balance. Don’t hurry through your speech. Consciously take time to get your point across.

Furthermore, when making a particularly important point, pause, because nothing is as dramatic as a well-placed pause. This TED talk by Shonda Rhymes illustrates the point wonderfully. Depending on the solemnity of the occasion of course, I’ve found that a bottle of water can be a good prop for slowing you down. If you ever feel you’re losing your thread, grab the bottle and take a sip of water. It will give you those crucial five seconds to collect your thoughts and remind yourself to slow down.

Lesson №7: Do Not Read.

There’s absolutely no dilemma here. Reading a speech will bore your audience and their attention will drift. We tend to use more complex phrasing when we write. This complexity translates poorly into the spoken word. Speeches are not as dense in subordinate clauses and the sentences are generally shorter, for example. Keep this in mind when writing your speech and make sure to prepare well in advance, memorizing the key points and only using cards or shorthand to present.

If you’re using slides and have notes integrated in the presentation, beware. They often prove to be a crutch, so opt for remote control and stay away from the computer.

Lesson №8: Loud, Louder Still.

When practicing, use a voice louder than you normally would. Using your full voice shows that you have confidence in what you’re presenting. In turn, lowering your voice can be used to great effect too. It can captivate the audience and draw them in.

Lesson №9: Become Fluent in Body Language.

Although we’ve all been guilty of going overboard with this, the use of hands can bring a point home. It denotes energy and dynamics. Don’t hide your hands in your pockets; it will give the audience the impression you lack self-confidence.

Girls, lean in more, literally. Shifting your weight forward draws your audience in. Take up a lot of room on the stage. Instead of looking meek, you’ll look assertive. Avoid placing your hand on your face or neck or risk communicating a need for protection.

Look at your audience and make eye contact. Don’t go for the I’ll-just-stare-at-the-wall-above-their-heads trick. You’ll lose the connection.

Be careful with what you unknowingly bring to your presentation. It might be a pen you were holding in your hand before you walked onto the stage. It can quickly get out of hand, so to speak, and distract from what you want to communicate. By unwittingly tapping the object against a desk, you might also disrupt the microphone.

Lesson №10: Brevity is levity and digressing is regressing.

Don’t steer off your path. Keep it short and simple. Think about what you’re really trying to say in one subject-verb-object sentence. I know a great guy who has absolutely mastered the art of digressing. (It’s the gentleman who kindly offered to do the illustrations and then insisted on coloring them in. I won.) So whenever I help him prepare for a presentation, that’s the main point we work on. This is important for you too: find your weak spot. And then work on it.

Lesson №11: Work the room.

Presenting creates a barrier between you and your audience, so introduce yourself to as many people as you can before you take the stage. It will help you relax if you know the audience is not full of strangers, and the audience will feel more connected to you and the points you’re making. Maya Angelou, who I keep quoting silly, summed it up best:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
— Maya Angelou

Lesson №12: Don’t clutter the slides.

Think of slides as the blueprint of your speech, its backbone. Make them simple and evocative. Make them showcase the structure of your speech. They should never ever contain long sentence — simple bullet points will help the audience follow your train of thought better. Even better than bullet points are headlines. Even better than headlines are images.

Lesson №13: Start Strong. But Finish Stronger.

The first thirty seconds of your presentation are extremely important, so remember to smile, make eye contact and explain, in a likable way, who you are and why your audience should listen. However, the order of delivery should be ‘second best, then best’, so make sure you have an even stronger closing of your speech. Echoing the introduction often works well.

Lesson №14: Be your own worst critic.

Novice public speakers feel a rush of endorphins when they leave the stage and will tell you ‘that felt great’. However, a closer review of their presentation will reveal umms, ahhs, and disjointed delivery. To improve, record your presentations with video or audio and listen to the presentation as soon as you can. Watch a professional comedian or public speaker and see how crisply they communicate their message without saying: umm, ah, truly, actually, basically, very, and literally. Look for filler words and platitudes in your content and then as you practice, stamp them out. A good way to go about it is asking a colleague to listen to you present; she should clap her hands every time she hears you say your go-to filler.

Lesson №15: Embrace permanent beta.

The very best public speakers continuously evaluate their performances, seeking to move from good to great to excellent. You should too. The beauty of public speaking is that there is always something to improve. Pin down your sore points and work on them. Once you’ve mastered that one, find another. Again, a practicing partner is worth gold here.

Bonus Lesson: There’s No Such Thing as Fear

Glossophobia is speech anxiety, the fear of public speaking or of speaking in general. People perceive fear of public speaking as the greatest obstacle to delivering a good presentation. However, less than 10% of the population truly suffer from debilitating glossophobia. There are about 10% of people who thrive and look forward to public speaking. The rest, about 80% of us, feel anxious, nervous, but at the end of the day, do a fairly good job. A degree of nervousness and pre-performance anxiety are entirely natural.

The only way to truly get over stage fright is to engage in public speaking as often as possible. The thing that ultimately worked for me were impromptu speeches on a random topic that really pushed me out of my comfort zone and after a while I stopped feeling silly coming up with three-minute speeches on coffee, the nuclear threat, or urban gardening. If nothing, impromptu speeches will definitely teach you how to improvise.

And take note of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s wise words: ‘All great speakers were bad speakers at first.’

Illustrations courtesy of Tibor Kranjc

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