A few days ago I posted this piece from Diplomatic Courier about the hopeless public speaking performance by the French and German Foreign Ministers in Sarajevo in 1997 (emphasis added):

Where did the two countries’ diplomats organizing this event get things wrong?

Basically, neither the Ministers’ respective offices nor their Embassies in Sarajevo had devised a formula to make sure the event would work as an event. I suspect that most of the clever effort before their visit had been devoted to crafting the words of the speech, ignoring the fact that what makes a speech successful is (of course) the words themselves but also the way in which they are delivered to the audience. Thus an audience that (perhaps for good practical reasons) is standing up needs a short, punchy speech; an audience sitting down is more comfortable and can cope with something longer and more thoughtful.

This applies all the more so if consecutive interpreting has to be used for a standing audience. A ten-minute speech by the Minister becomes a twenty-minute speech when delivered through an interpreter. This is a long time for people to stand and listen and try to absorb the words, when for precisely half the time they do not know what is being said.

It is much better to format the speech so that the speaker’s words are translated sentence by sentence by the interpreter. This creates a direct sense of conversation with the audience. It keeps their minds engaged on the speaker, not on the discomfort of standing to listen.

If (as on this occasion) the politics of the event require two speakers, both using consecutive interpreting, a way has to be found to coordinate the two speeches to keep them short, sharp and accessible.

Perhaps in fact only one speech is needed, with the two speakers taking it in turns to deliver different sections of it. Something like this will have novelty value, and in itself will symbolise political cooperation and high-level mutual trust. Plus the very way the speech is delivered is more likely to keep the audience interested and alert.

However, that sort of thing requires a lot of extra work, plus a sophistication and self-awareness that typically escape the high chancelleries of today’s Europe…


The wonderful Media Officer at the British Embassy in Warsaw, Malgorzata Smierzycka, reminds me of my speech to the Last Night of the Proms event in Krakow in 2007.

This is a jolly annual gala occasion where Krakow Poles gather en masse lustily to sing Land of Hope and Glory and wave Union Flags and generally have a heady Britophilic experience. Tradition has it that the UK Ambassador to Warsaw joins the occasion and addresses the throng before it all starts.

My Polish is adequate for many reading purposes but pretty rotten and trending towards zero for extempore speaking, especially when people might be listening. Hence I felt that I needed an interpreter. But how best to do this to achieve success on the night in front of a packed concert hall? Hmm…

The obvious easy safe idea is to speak in English and get someone smart like Malgorzata to translate into Polish.

So, let’s do the unobvious idea instead.

Malgorzata and I duly ascend the stage. I apologise for my lack of Polish and tell them (in English) that alas for such a distinguished occasion I’ll need to use an interpreter.

Then (long pause) I give my prepared speech, reading it out sentence-by-sentence but in Polish. And Malgorzata translates into English.

Wild acclaim. It then does not matter (much) what I say, or how strangled my Polish pronunciation is. The sheer amusement of watching this zany duo perform this speech interpreted ‘back to front’ hooks the audience and achieves the key result, namely everyone having a good time and feeling warm and fuzzy about UK/Polish relations.

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