How Do I Use an Interpreter When Delivering Presentations?
A friend of mine recently recommended a nearby police officer ask me for some friendly advice on how to speak publicly using a translator. The people officer (let's call her Lindsay) had to go in and start to work with women from another culture in the local community centre. Many of these women that she would be working with had only recently moved to the United Kingdom, and so were not proficient in English. Lindsay was to deliver the talks in English, and have a local interpreter work with her on delivering the content in a language the audience could understand.

My friend had recommended Lindsay speak to me as I have extensively worked with interpreters while delivering presentations throughout Africa.

On meeting Lindsay, we clarified that she had done many of these talks before, and was happy with the way she generally spoke publicly, so it was just tips and tricks about the actual use of the interpreter. On each occasion, she would probably only meet the person minutes before having to work together. There was quite a bit that I could suggest, and should you be using an interpreter in presentations, perhaps you could benefit from these ideas too.

The tips that I gave her were all aimed at a couple of main points. These were:
  • Make sure that the content of your talk is delivered as accurately and effectively as possible. Do not let any of your message be misunderstood, added to, or left out.
  • It is very easy for the people in the audience to become focused on the interpreter. The goal is to ensure that they stay focused on you, the principal speaker. I have seen interpreters that were so much more animated and excited than the actual speaker that people were more interested in the interpreter after the talk than the speaker.

Two people talking

Here are some areas to focus on when working with an interpreter

1. Try to always use the same interpreter if possible.

You build a relationship. You can start to trust the person, and any instructions that are given do not then have to be repeated each time. Sometimes, this is not in your hands and you just have to make do.

2. Keep each little section quite short.

If you speak too long before the interpreter gets a chance, the audience can lose interest or be distracted. Short sharp bursts make your reactions back and forth sharper and more “real time” for the audience. Try to agree on some basic rules beforehand, letting them know how many sentences you intend to say in each burst.

While we call each little section a burst, keep it slow. Actually speaking too fast simply puts pressure on your interpreter and you risk them not being as accurate as you would like.

3. Are you actually planning to use a script?

If so, give your interpreter a copy of it. They will be able to know where you are going with each section. Also, if it is possible, and you know how many sentences you want to say between each break, mark that in the copy you give them. They will then know exactly what you intend to say in each little burst. Most of my talks through Africa in the 1990s were handwritten. I had purchased one of those pens that has 4 colours in it, so each little section I wrote in a different colour.

4. Beware of an interpreter that takes far longer than you for each section.

Are they adding things of their own? The opposite is just as important, beware of an interpreter that takes far less time than you. Are they leaving things out? Maybe there are terms that they do not understand, which they just drop. If you have time beforehand, try to cover any jargon that you might be using, and ensure that they do understand what it means.

5. Is their body language totally different to you?

While this may be cultural, double check that you are not being too reserved. This can happen. You downplay your own body language expecting the audience to be looking at the translator. You must still show your excitement and enthusiasm. Also, make sure that you are engaging with your audience, and not the interpreter. You need to be making eye contact with people in your audience, even when the interpreter is saying their part. This will help with you gaining the respect and trust of your audience.

6. Are they producing results you would not expect?

You might be saying something that you think is serious, and the audience is laughing. What can have changed? A lesson we learnt while speaking in central Africa came up as we described digging a well, and uncovered a rotting carcass that stank. My colleague was stressing the hygiene risks. The translator was making it humorous about how the people digging were nauseated by the smell. We only found out afterwards when we asked the translator why the audience had been laughing.

7. Plan your timing carefully.

Your talk will now take at least twice as long as it would if you were simply delivering it all yourself. Make sure that you have factored that in when building the presentation.

Plan your timing carefully

Make your interpreter understand that they are never to answer questions, no matter how simple the answer. They must pass it on to you to answer. You have to be seen as the person with the knowledge and answers, it is you giving the talk.

8. Try to avoid humour.

Most interpreters tend to agree that jokes do not translate well. If you really want to try, test it on the interpreter first and see what their response is. This can prevent your humour from falling flat.

9. Have a clear CTA.

If you do have a call to action at the end, prescribe clearly what is to happen, and if anything is to be handed in, get them to hand it to you personally. In Lindsay’s case, she had to ask the ladies who would be coming to a series of follow-up meetings after each initial talk. People were to fill in a card and hand it in. She asked the people to still pass it to her at the end, not the interpreter, so at least she could make a personal farewell to each person.

Subsequent to this advice being given, Lindsay has let me know that she has delivered the first round of talks at the various community centres. The response has been very good, and many ladies have committed to attending the following meetings. Lindsay has also managed to secure the use of the same interpreters. Due to geographic location and a couple of different languages being used, she cannot use one interpreter for all the centres, but she can use the same interpreter at each location, so each group of ladies will only ever meet her and the same interpreter. This should make working together a lot easier each time. The tips had really helped, and she wants to now improve the way that they interact together before the audience.

By following these tips, like Lindsay, you should be able to ensure that you are still the focus of the talk, and that the content and message of your presentation will be communicated accurately, and in the correct frame of mind. It will also help prevent the pitfalls of working with a different culture group, and not let any miss-steps mean that you do not make your point effectively. It should hopefully make you the success that you are just as you deliver presentations to audiences who speak your won language.

What do you think? Let us know what you think in the comments below.



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