Speech writing for and coaching a non-native speaker

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Speeches that rock

Speeches that rock

What’s different about writing speeches for a non-native speaker?

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve written about a half-dozen speeches for a French client who can understand written English, but who does not have the opportunity to converse in English.

The verbal and non-verbal ease with which my client presents in French understandably does not translate into the same naturalness in English.

When you speak your own language, you are not aware that your brain is automatically controlling everything from vocabulary recall, to tongue placement, mouth movements, breathing, hearing and the non-verbal communication that accompanies thought, feeling and expression.

When you speak in a foreign language, most of your energy focuses on controlling neuromuscular functions, not on expressing meaning. Moreover, our experience with our native language tends to warp how we perceive foreign languages.

Speech writing for and coaching a non-native speaker on delivery must consider these differences.

5 suggestions to help non-native speakers deliver persuasive speeches

  • Get to know your client in person
    Hear how he or she speaks in their native tongue and in English. Listen to the melody, the tempo, the pitch. How do they change? What gets lost in the process? How can your speech writing skills restore some of that music?Watch their body language and visual cues closely. What changes? In what circumstances does the disconnect between verbal and non-verbal expression take place?
  • Time your client
    You need to know how much space (words) you have to convey your client’s message in a specific amount of time. To do so, you need to time your client to find out at what speed they express themselves on average in English.While I deliver a speech at about 130 words per minute, non-native speakers will speak more slowly, even if they have practiced their speech repeatedly. My client came in at 105.

    Delivering a speech in a foreign language takes tremendous mental and physical concentration. If a speech is to last longer than say 10 minutes, the speaker will tire and probably speak a bit more slowly. It’s wise to reduce the WPM rate you are using.

    Running overtime on a speech or presentation is a deadly sin. For my client’s 30-minute speech, we dropped to 100 WPM, 2500 words total, to come in at 25 minutes.

  • Revise your speech “live”
    You’ve had several exchanges on content and objectives. You’ve written an almost final version, formatted in a large font size and sprinkled with “/” signs to help your client group words and find the right rhythm. And you’ve recorded the speech to help him or her practice.When you meet with your client to work on delivery, listen carefully to the types of words or phrases on which he or she trips or gets tongue-tied. Change them on the spot.

    Client confidence and fluid delivery are far more important than that perfect word or phrase you took an hour crafting!


  • Film your client in action if you can
    Depending on how much time you have to work with your client, filming them may be a good idea. Most of us are uncomfortable speaking in front of a camera and can be unpleasantly surprised at watching the first few takes.Film only if you have the time to go through the coaching process several times so your client can see the improvements in oral, vocal and non-verbal delivery. Any less and the exercise may prove more destabilizing than helpful.
  • Reconnecting with emotions
    Most non-native speakers apply their energy and concentration to “getting the words out” and pronouncing them correctly. The freedom to feel and express the emotion of what is said we enjoy in our native tongues is difficult to find space for in a foreign language.Yet without that quality of music and conviction, the best speeches can fall flat.

    One practice exercise, disconcerting at first to some, is delivering the speech without the words.

    Substitute one word or one sound (I use “mumble”) and have your client deliver the entire speech using that word or sound and the full array of non-verbal communication techniques. The verbal channel is only one of several in play when carrying a message, particularly in front of an audience.

    This exercise can seem silly at first (you’ll probably share a good chuckle), but those of you who have young children or animals know how clear their communication can be. It gives your client the freedom to reconnect with the emotions, beliefs, values and conviction inherent to the speech.  The audience (you) may not understand the factual details, but will discern the speaker’s engagement, mind-set and passion.

    And when your client practices the speech again, this time with the real words, he or she will be able to feel what the words mean, not just hear how they sound, boosting the quality of delivery.

What helps you deliver speeches or presentations with ease in a foreign language? Please share your suggestions!


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Comments: 3

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  • Thank you Patricia for these fine-tuned and precious tips. It is certainly a good idea to time the speed of speech! I also deeply appreciate your concern about the need to film enough or not at all. Should I ever need to deliver a speech in English, I guess I’ve found my coach 😉

    • Hmm… Maybe the next time I give a marketing workshop for Aprotrad, I’ll have all of you try “mumbles” to boost your engagement in presenting yourselves 🙂

  • Blame you google for finding this two year late 🙂

    As not native speaker delivering Speech in English, I would like to tell you that you have understood some of the fears we go trought