Six Tips for Working with an Interpreter While Public Speaking

I spoke in Beijing on Saturday, and worked with an interpreter for the first time. Public speaking is hard enough, and working with an interpreter complicates things… unless you’re prepared.

I had two interpreters. One was the primary and the other was a secondary interpreter, plus they had two on stand-by (paranoid event planning I guess). The primary interpreter, Sally, was a subject matter expert, and the secondary interpreter, Rebecca, was a professional interpreter. Sally kicked it off and was doing great (I thought) and then I got a note to have it switch to Rebecca. Then a note to switch back to Sally. Apparently, because Sally wasn’t a professional interpreter, she was looking at me and at her notes and not at the audience. Even though she is a compelling communicator when alone on stage, they felt she was bringing down the energy of the talk. They slipped in Rebecca, coached Sally and had Sally come back on and she kicked it up! She and I both learned from this experience.

Interestingly, it was when Rebecca was interpreting that she created a S.T.A.R. Moment. That’s an acronym for Something They’ll Always Remember. In my talk, I was describing in what a S.T.A.R. moment is. But when Rebecca relayed in Chinese what a S.T.A.R. moment was the place roared with laughter (they didn’t laugh when I explained what it is.) Rebecca had inserted a traditional 4-character Chinese saying that means “something you’ll remember until you’re so old your teeth are falling out.” She did a great job mapping my information to the local culture.

Here are six tips for working with an interpreter:

  1. Prepare half as much material. If you are given an hour, prepare half an hour of material. It takes twice as long to convey your information with an interpreter.
  2. Transcribe or write out your talk. A week ahead of time, I sent over a transcript of a similar talk that I had delivered so the interpreters could read through it and practice. Even though I didn’t deliver it exactly the same way, most of the material was incorporated.
  3. Work through idioms and metaphors. Many of the phrases and sayings we use have no direct interpretation into other languages. Since my interpreters had the transcript ahead of time, by the time I landed, they had already identified areas where they had questions, so they could make sure they applied regional stories and metaphors that would work. They also identified where some of my language should change or simplify so the English-as-a-second-language audience members would understand what I was saying.
  4. Practice for pacing and pauses. You need to practice with the interpreters. Each interpreter has a different length of phrase they can handle interpreting at one time. They also need to coach you on the speed you’re talking, so the English-speaking audience members can process what you’re saying.
  5. Complete your thoughts. Each burst of content you say should be a complete thought. Sometimes I would say a phrase that felt like the length the interpreter would need, and I would leave the last few words off for the next phase of interpretation. It broke the content into odd blocks and opportunities were lost for laughter and understanding.
  6. Have good chemistry with your interpreter. I was very fortunate that I knew Sally before I went to China. She writes a blog in Chinese about presentations, so I knew she would know the material. Rebecca spent most of the morning with me getting me to laugh and relax. I knew both these ladies so well. Several times on stage we would laugh together and even hugged on stage as we pulled the audience along. It made me more comfortable to feel like they were comrades, and being able to trust they would value my material and represent it well.

One of the greatest things I’ve learned on this trip is that when you’re presenting in another country, knowing your audience is almost more important. The studying I’ve done about the culture and how it communicates paid off. I modified my natural communication style and even answered questions with more nuance to their culture and, threw in historical context and cultural examples that were relevant. So, know your audience and know your interpreter and everything else will fall naturally into place.

Delivery / Message / Tips


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