When you are invited to speak at an international gathering, chances are that you’ll be interacting with people who speak different languages. Even if in today’s world everyone is expected to understand and speak English, the reality is that not everyone does, and that you need to acquire some particular skills to interact in a multilingual (and often multicultural) environment.

When there are several languages involved, usually the conference organiser relies on conference interpreters to translate whatever is being said throughout the conference. Conference interpreters deal exclusively with oral communication, and translate speakers’ messages in another language, making sure that not only the words are translated, but also that the rendered message reflects the tone, the delivery and the convictions of the original speaker. They do this simultaneously and either sit in a soundproof booth at the back of the meeting room, or they participate virtually. Their work is arduous and requires full concentration, which is why you’ll find that there are two interpreters per language, and that they switch every 20 to 30 minutes.

OK. So how should you prepare when you know that your audience will listen to you through an interpreter? What can you do to help the interpreter render your message exactly like you intended it? Here are a few straightforward and simple things that will cost little effort, yet make all the difference:

Before you present

  • Make your presentation available to interpreters before the conference takes place
  • Share any supporting material that can help them to fully understand your presentation (e.g. glossaries, abbreviations, background information on yourself/the topic, …)
  • Make sure that they can reach you in case they have questions on the material (preferably via one contact person, or else you’ll find yourself answering questions 24/7)
  • Use big font so that during the presentation interpreters can read your slides from the back of the room (or online)
  • Check whether interpreters can hear you before you start, simply ask them to give you a thumbs up if they hear you, no need to check in every single booth. If you present online, take the time to do a sound check before the event starts
  • Feel free to liaise with your interpreters before you give your presentation. Look at it as meeting your alter egos to explain what you’re going to say. They will appreciate the extra attention you give them.

During your presentation

  • Try to talk at a moderate pace. If you rush, interpreters won’t be able to process the information and translate it accurately, and if you speak too slowly, they will struggle to keep your presentation enticing.
  • Speak into the microphone. The easiest is to clip a microphone to your tie or vest, but don’t put it to close to your mouth, or interpreters may end up cringing at every sigh and plosive you produce. Also, if you cough or sneeze, cover the microphone or you may blow your interpreter’s eardrum.
  • Don’t fiddle with pens or shawls, or tick or rub anything against the microphone, or any goodwill that you’ve created by sharing information beforehand, will be lost for good.
  • During the question and answer session, make sure to leave a couple of seconds between the question and your answer. This will give interpreters the opportunity to process the question, and then correctly interpret your answer. If you rush, they may not hear either the end of the question or the beginning of your answer.
  • Avoid culture-specific jokes or puns, they usually don’t translate, and their effect may be lost on the participants listening to you through an interpreter.

After the presentation

  • This may seem like a no-brainer, but interpreters will appreciate it if you thank them for helping you get your message across. Goodwill cannot be overestimated, and it contributes to your reputation as a good speaker.
  • Ask for feedback, both from interpreters with regards to your presentation, and from participants regarding the interpreters’ work. This will help everyone to do an even better job next time.

In the end, all of the above boils down to this: you need the interpreters to bring your message across, and they need your help to do a good job, so you are all on the same team. If you do what you can to help one another, you are sure to achieve the best result.

Would you like to know more?