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Avoid these 3 Mistakes When Running International Events

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: May 17, 2017

If you are new to managing international events, they can often be daunting. Imagine taking all the work you do for a national conference or company team building event and trebling it … and then adding in international flights, wide differences in expectations, and invisible cultural norms that you might not be aware of.

With all that complexity before you even start, it can be tempting to look for any shortcuts you can find, especially when it comes to the relatively easy-looking job of selecting suppliers. Yet this is often where things go horribly wrong. Here are my top three mistakes that event managers can make when managing an international event for the first time.

  1. Pushing price or location over quality

We all know the story: the client has a strict budget and wants to reduce “frivolous” expenses like travel costs so they pressure you into hiring local and cheap.

Now, to be fair, I have already written here that, in some cities, there is a real virtue in hiring local. If your event happens to be in a graphic design hub or if your conference is being hosted in a boom town for hospitality staff, by all means stay local. But none of this can ever come at the cost of quality.

On one project, I decided against using my preferred specialist AV supplier and instead worked with the end client to get quotes from two local suppliers. I would soon regret that when I saw the equipment they provided! I would regret it even more when the interpreters and audience had to fight through two days of sound quality issues.

It is never worth sacrificing quality for cost. Excellent quality might cost more upfront but cheap costs more to fix when it inevitably goes wrong.

  1. Only Designing for One Audience

Of course, every event includes different groups with their own requirements and needs but when it comes to international events, complexity increases dramatically. Let’s contrast a couple of examples to see how this plays out.

For an internal company briefing, professional conference organisers need to take into account the company’s personality and style and the types of venues and food that attendees are used to. It is very likely that most of the attendees will have been at a similar event before and will be able to guess a lot of the agenda before they even receive it. As an event manager, your job is simply to make sure that the event works for a single audience: those who already understand internal norms and procedures and are familiar with how the company works.

Run the same event but invite delegates from seven countries, speaking three languages and the situation changes dramatically. They will come with different expectations as to how the meeting will run and may  wish to have information in their language before they arrive. Unless you have a plan to manage that or an expert on hand, the event could turn sour very quickly.

When you manage an international event, you have to make sure it works for every audience in the room.

  1. Doing it all yourself

I have found that each stage of my business growth has meant finding another set of experts to learn from. The same is true when you move from arranging monolingual, national events to managing international events.

Your new best friends will be country experts and consultant interpreters. Country experts are an invaluable source of knowledge of cultural norms and expectations; consultant interpreters build teams and make informed decisions to ensure that communication works no matter which language someone speaks. And, if you ask them nicely, some consultant interpreters will do the same for written communications like brochures and email campaigns.

Wherever you are on your event management journey, working with specialists such as consultant interpreters will help you create events that deliver more value for your clients.

Choose quality over price, design for every audience and work with specialists: three choices with one outcome: incredible international events.

Make it Work

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: April 14, 2017

Recently, one of my very first clients came back to me after a break of several years. The work was as tricky and as interesting as ever but now I had a lot more confidence in my own abilities.

 

With one translation – a CV – I asked permission to omit sections that would be legally uncomfortable for both the end client and anyone reading the CV. They were also entirely unnecessary and irrelevant for the job. What did my client say?

 

“Of course, please take out the unnecessary parts to make it work.”

 

Make it work. That’s what our clients really need us to do. Making it work means being more than a walking or typing dictionary. It means knowing more than where to find the French for “spinneret” or the Spanish for “left-handed wedge sprocket”. It means caring about and knowing about the end result. It means understanding the processes that the document or meeting will be part of and making sure that your document of meeting will work for that purpose.

 

This is why accuracy matters – because without the right kind of accuracy, nothing will work.

 

This is why partnership and transparency is a much more useful set of concepts than “neutrality” or even “impartiality”. Interpreters and translators are always intimately linked with the work they produce. Our skills and personality and expertise shine through and we absolutely should care deeply that what we produce works for everyone involved. We are never truly neutral. We are always involved.

 

Make it work. It’s not a theory or a philosophy; it’s the basic standard of all real professional translation and interpreting.

4 Keys when Changing Event Interpreting Suppliers

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: February 2, 2017

If you have been organising international events for a while, you will know that there is a wide range of different event interpreting services, from big agencies, to individual interpreters. You will also know that getting the right interpreters for your conference is a vital part of making sure that the whole event works for every attendee. Here then are 4 issues you should bear in mind whenever you are changing interpreting suppliers or hiring one for the first time.

 

  1. Spot the warning signs of a bad supplier

Every interpreting agency and ever consultant interpreter will have their own standard ways of doing business but a number of these internal policies are simply there to guard their interests, rather than being there for your benefit.
A prime example is that some conference interpreting suppliers will ban you and the interpreters from speaking directly before the event starts. All good event managers knows that having short lines of communication is vital for the success of any event. It is therefore worth asking yourself whether it is really in your interests to have to go through a middle-person and rely on them relaying information accurately and completely, every time you have information to pass on.

 

Every interpreter in the business will have had occasions where they could not deliver the very best service because they were not given the right information at the right time. If your supplier is insisting on keeping the contact details of your interpreters secret and refuses to even tell you which interpreters they are using until the last minute, it is worth looking elsewhere.

 

A similar red flag should be raised if it seems that you find yourself dealing with someone different each time you talk to or email your supplier. You should have a single point of contact who manages the whole process.

 

One last, and more subtle red flag, should be raised if you come across a conference interpreting supplier who is happy to give you an instant quote for any job. Sure, it might seem that it makes your life easier and saves time but it tends to be a sign of a box-ticking approach to delivering service.

 

Your event is unique. You will have specialised content, a specific audience and your own set of KPIs to fulfil. For that reason, the interpreting delivered at your event will be unique too. It makes sense then that excellent suppliers will need a little time to build the right time and put together a price that is as unique as your event.

 

  1. Understand restrictions and eliminate those that are bad for you

Even the very best interpreting suppliers will likely have some restrictive clauses in any contracts they offer. It is common to see bans on contacting conference interpreters directly for a period of time, if you chose an agency to supply them for your event. It is also not unusual for event interpreting suppliers to ask for exclusivity deals and for conference interpreting equipment suppliers to work exclusively or semi-exclusively with a single booth manufacturer.

 

None of these, on their own, are wrong but it pays to ask which ones are right for you. It may be worth asking, for instance, whether you should be able to hire interpreters directly if you liked them but weren’t pleased with how their services were managed. You also may wish to have a clause allowing you to request for a different interpreting team for future events or different equipment.

 

Remember, you are the buyer and it is up to you to decide which restrictions are worth allowing and which will get in the way of delivery.

 

  1. Understand the strengths of the three main event interpreting solutions

There are three ways to manage event interpreters. Either you locate and manage each interpreter yourself, or you call in a consultant to create and manage the team or you book through an agency. There are no wrong answers but each solution does have its pros and cons.

 

If you hire interpreters for your event directly, you get a short chain of communication and you grow to know your team really well. This is often the cheapest option too.  However, this comes at the cost of having to spend time finding interpreters and somehow checking that they are good enough and then doing the admin to pay them all!

 

Hiring a consultant gives you contact with someone whose job it is to build the team for you and who has most likely worked with most, if not all of the team before. Their prices are often cheaper than agencies. They become your single point of contact and so you still get to keep a short chain of communication, especially if, as usually happens, they are actually interpreting as well as consulting. The disadvantage is that they may not have the same coverage as an agency and so for complex jobs, an agency could be better. Their team might also be busy just at the time when you want them.

 

Of all the solutions, agencies are the best at doing large-scale jobs. Their advantage is usually found in their ability to find lots of interpreters covering lots of languages, in a short space of time. Working with an agency also means less admin and only one bill to pay for you. The price of this, however, is usually that their fees are higher and that your chain of communication is longer, increasing the risk that something will get lost along the way.

 

  1. Look for people happy to talk through your options and your situation

If all this seems confusing, it shouldn’t be. All you need is a guide who can walk through your decisions with you. Whether you chat to someone from an agency about their solutions and prices or to a consultant about your management process, it will help to have someone lead you through the process.

 

Since your situation and events are unique, it will help to find someone who is open to creating something unique for you. If you are looking at changing your interpreting provider, feel free to get in touch. I would love to guide you through the process.

 

 

Why Event Managers Should Beware of Package Deals

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: January 10, 2017

Great event managers are always on the lookout for ways to simplify processes. They will learn scheduling and automation tools, return to the same suppliers, and integrate technology throughout the process. Yet sometimes, that instinct for simplification can lead to poor decision-making, that is especially the case where interpreting is concerned.

Let me explain how this can happen. For many conferences, especially where interpreting is needed into more than one language, there will be a need to book soundproof interpreting booths, headsets and various microphones, as well as the interpreters themselves. Some Audio Visual equipment (AV) suppliers, having noticed that their clients want to keep things simple, now offer to supply the interpreters for free, if the events agency give them the contract for AV equipment hire.

 

It sounds like a good deal. They get a nice contract and you can tick two items off your to-do list at once. So what’s the problem?

 

The big issue with package deals like this is that they put AV suppliers in a position where the biggest potential drain on profits is the service that represents the biggest risk and greatest potential benefit to you. Your delegates probably won’t notice much of a difference between a set-up based on XLR cables versus one using CAT-5s. They will notice the difference between professionally trained and prepared interpreters and people who just learned the language on holiday.

Since the AV providers already have the equipment, payment to interpreters will be the biggest risk to their profit margins. That, in turn, can lead to them trying to find ways to save money on the interpreting itself. This is the same interpreting your clients are relying on for the meeting to be a success.

 

All professional interpreters have a minimum fee and the AV suppliers who take the package deal approach may negotiate hard to reduce these minimum fees. If you hire interpreters directly or via a reputable agency, these agencies and consultants will know that the return on investment of great interpreting is always higher than its costs. These same interpreting specialists will also know who the great interpreters are and how much it will cost to get them on board.

 

So, while package deals are tempting, it always pays to ask yourself whether such deals sacrifice quality on the altar of speed. If you want the kind of interpreting that ensures your event has the right impact, it will always pay to go to a reputable agency or an experienced consultant.

Preparing to Interpret at Special Events

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: November 21, 2016

Every event is special. No two conferences are exactly the same. But, for even the most experienced conference interpreters, there are occasions where they are asked to apply their skills in settings that are definitely not run of the mill. This is how I get ready for such events.

 

Only provide interpreting where you know you can excel

 

Before we even look at preparation, I need to make sure that one thing is clearly understood. While, at the beginning of our careers, wemight find ourselves outside their comfort zone, interpreters should never take on work unless they are trained for it and are sure they can deliver. So, in my particular case, I leave medical and court interpreting to the specialists and check topics and contexts carefully before accepting an assignment. It does you no good to turn up and do a poor job.

 

Even with that proviso in place, there are times when you end up using familiar skills in slightly less familiar environments. I have interpreted in muddy fields, on factory tours, in a power plant and on tour buses and for cartoon pandas and theatrical performers. Each time, those extra little quirks and changes in location or interpreting mode have meant a shift in preparation.

 

Same interpreting skills, different environment

 

While in the booth, it’s all about concentration management and delivery skills, outside of the booth, you need to rely on situation management. Suddenly, you are a lot more visible and your interpreting is just as much a part of the conversation or the tour as anything else.

 

My next assignment is very much in that vein. It has whispered interpreting, consecutive interpreting during an extended QA session and an artsy feel. Suddenly, performance and attitude will mean as much as accuracy and terminology.

 

So how do you prepare for special events?

 

If there is a single secret to preparing for special events, it is to try to tap in to the ideal experience of the event. What will send people home happy? What will make the organisers glad they invested? Why is the event even taking place in the first place?

 

While every event will require terminology preparation, watching videos of speakers, reading the agenda and such like, for some, it is just as necessary to try to understand what the organisers want people to feel during and after the event. Cultural events often aim for an impact on people’s hearts as well as their heads. Product launches often aim to leave people amazed enough to pull out their wallets.

 

Understanding that experience and practising interpreting in a way that is still accurate but it tuned to that situation is vital. This means not just interpreting videos of the speakers in ways that get information across but taking time to work through ways to get across their tone and enthusiasm and the atmosphere they create. Product presentations might need you to express enthusiasm and attention-to-detail, emotive speeches might require you to carry some of that emotion across suitably too.

 

So for this next assignment, one of the biggest but most rewarding challenges will be to put myself in the shoes of both the speakers and the organisers and find a way of speaking and interpreting that will fit in seamlessly with the event itself. After all, as soon as you bring an interpreter into a performance or any kind, they become performers themselves. Once you understand that, preparation becomes something you do with your whole body and not just your mind and mouth.

What could a Conference Interpreter do for your business?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: November 3, 2016

Great leaders often get frustrated by anything that looks like a restriction on the growth of their business. They push themselves and their staff to find solutions to anything that looks like it might cause their company to stagnate. But often, the most obvious growth barrier can be missed.

 

Languages: a barrier or a door

 

One of the toughest barriers faced by any company is a lack of language skills among their staff. People who don’t understand you can’t buy from you. For those who don’t understand your brochures or websites or sales people, you simply don’t exist.

 

How big is this problem? In the UK, the All Party Parliamentary Group for Languages recently estimated that the UK companies lose £48billion per year in lost contracts due to poor or non-existent language skills. In my own work, this year alone, I interpreted for one company who were on the verge of losing a multi-year multi-million-pound contract due to language issues. After two days of interpreting and explaining, they qualified for the contract.

 

But if languages present a potential barrier, they also present an incredible opportunity. Every language your company speaks literally adds millions of people and thousands of companies to your potential client list. Even the steepest investment can generate unheard of ROI, simply by creating new markets for your products and services.

 

Where Conference Interpreters Come In

 

While any company that wants to reach international markets will necessarily have to look at multilingual websites, translating marketing and regulatory materials, and making sure that everyone understands contracts, before all of that you will need to build up a presence and credibility in your target market. Put another way, you can have the greatest product and the fanciest website but if you don’t spend time meeting people in your market, learning about them and presenting what you can do, you are throwing money down the drain.

 

Where conference interpreters and indeed any interpreters help is that they allow you to communicate face-to-face with potential clients. From trade shows to product demos and from PR stunts to press conferences, interpreters create spaces where two or more groups of people can use the languages they prefer and yet still understand each other.

 

A classic real-world case happened when a large construction equipment manufacturer wanted to showcase their newest lines to an audience of industry press. In that case, six interpreters, covering three languages, ensured that the presentations were as persuasive in Russian, German, and French as they were in English. The result? Positive coverage in industry press and increased exposure as a result.

 

Interpreting and Brexit

 

If you are a UK company trying to make sense of Brexit, the power and potential of interpreting is exactly what you need. You surely don’t want one country to be the upper limit of your growth. Now is a great time to launch efforts to snag new markets, while the doors are still open and the opportunities are still there for the taking.

 

And if you are an EU company wondering whether the UK will still be worthwhile, the time is ripe for you too. If you get in now, before any barriers are erected, you stand the best chance of establishing a market and place that can continue to provide much needed additional profit to your company.

 

So what should you do now?

Ask your marketing team to size up one EU country (or the UK) as a potential market. Look at population size, incomes and the like and then begin to plan an event to appeal to this audience. Then, while you are still at the planning stage, get in touch with an experienced conference interpreter and ask them to build you an interpreting dream team, to give you advice, as well as make your event sing. It’s one investment that reaps dividends.

 

Ready to talk about the potential of interpreting to grow your business, let’s have a chat!

Translator or interpreter: Which One Does your Event Need?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: September 2, 2016

You know your next international event is going to be an extravaganza. You know there will be delegates from several countries at the event, all wanting to hear the proceedings in their language. They might even want the event guide in their language too. So, do you need to hire conference interpreters or translators and what difference does it make anyway?

 

Here is your simple guide.

 

If you need people to hear the conference speeches or product presentations in their language or if there are deaf people who will need to see what is going on in a Sign Language, you need interpreters.

 

If there are signs, guides, websites, or paperwork that needs to be available in other languages, you need translators.

 

It’s that simple, really.

 

After that, if you need interpreters, you have decisions to make. For big events and conference, with interpreting into more than one language, you really can’t do without professional simultaneous interpreting equipment. This means soundproof booths, headsets, mics, etc. A good interpreting equipment supplier will know exactly what you need and will be able to integrate cleanly with whatever audiovisual setup is already there.

 

For small events, or when there are only two or three delegates there who need interpreting into a single language, you might be able to use whispered interpreting. However, the problem with this is that it inevitably causes some disruption to the people nearby and, due to the inevitable restriction in the volume the interpreters can use, it is not likely to be as immersive as simultaneous interpreting.

 

For some events, like after dinner talks or events where interpreting is needed into a single language and you want to showcase it, you can use different forms of consecutive interpreting. Some speaker, for example, find that working with an interpreter next to them on the stage gives another dynamic to their performance. Other times, it makes more sense for the speaker to deliver the entire speech and then for the interpreter to give an interpreted version,

 

Whatever the event, a good consultant interpreter or experienced interpreting agency will be able to recommend the best setup to achieve your aims. And, with more and more interpreters and interpreting agencies having solid contacts in the translation industry, they might be able to recommend translators too, so that all your communications with your delegates are smooth and effective.

Soft Skills and the Successful Interpreter

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 6, 2016

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I have a fascinating conference interpreting assignment at the end of this week and I will be blogging regularly in the run-up, to show a little bit of the work that goes into preparing for an assignment. In almost all cases, preparation has to be woven round other business work, although a rough guide is that a day of work requires a day of preparation. Obviously, this does depend on the assignment.

 

Before we get that far, however, it is useful to start with some of the skills that interpreters need to have. Sure, we all have to be on point with our simultaneous interpreting techniques, our notetaking, our terminology management and the like but the ability to use all those skills intelligently hangs on our “soft” skills.

 

For me, soft skills are those personal skills and character traits that give meaning, power and direction to our “hard” or technical skills. So soft skills would including negotiation, sales, determination, self-control, creativity, ability to work in a team, marketing, situation management, ability to read context, change management, calmness and so much more.

 

There has been a bit of a needless ruckus in parts of the translation community as to whether you actually need soft skills or whether having excellent technical skills is enough. Five minutes thought will suffice to settle that. Unless you are truly irreplaceable, there are only so many personality faults you can have before your clients have enough to leave. How many of us have left utility companies, mobile phone companies or banks due to poor customer service?

 

For interpreters, soft skills make up the majority of the skills we need. Those who have heard me speak will have heard my catchphrase: “I used to think interpreting was a language skill with people attached; now I know it is a people skill with language attached.” Our entire job consists of keeping people talking long enough for them to agree, or learn, or gather evidence, or fulfil whatever the purpose of the meeting was. If we can’t get on with people and don’t want to understand people, we aren’t interpreters at all!

 

Now, I am a conference interpreter (I also do some business interpreting work), so my perspective may be a little skewed on this but here is how I see it. When clients see interpreters, their impression of all of us is determined by their impression of each of us. Simple things like shrugging off last minute agenda changes, accepting it when texts of speeches arrive three minutes before they are due to be delivered and laughing at the organiser’s attempts at humour go a long way towards creating a good impression and, on some jobs, that impression will be a large factor in the client’s view of our performance.

 

Yes, we all perform better when we receive good, accurate, and comprehensive information early, the event is predictable and the speakers are cooperative but as a speaker myself, I can tell you that last minute changes can happen for a variety of reasons, not all of them to do with poor preparation.

 

Great people skills and the ability to present yourself as a solid, dependable and creative professional give clients that feeling of being in good hands. Without good marketing and sales skills, we won’t get any clients in the first place. Without the technical competence, we won’t keep them. Without people skills, we can’t tune into what they want.

 

The only problem with soft skills is that they can be hard to teach. How do you teach the skill of reading a room? How do you help someone learn to defuse unnecessary tension and survive necessary tension? How can we help new interpreters acquire the ability to look calm, even when their nice prep has been thrown out the window by some unforeseen glitch?

 

I don’t know the answers to those questions but I am absolutely certain that the soft skills I have picked up from other interpreters, and good old real-life, will be vital on my next job.

The Future of (Conference) Interpreting

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: March 15, 2016

Today, professional interpreters stand at a crossroads. Behind them, the well-worn paths to professionalism and even regular work seem to be showing signs of wear and tear. …

The same market forces and political motivations that have threatened court interpreting are beginning to affect conference interpreting, too.”

Being a Successful Interpreter: Adding Value and Delivering Excellence, Routledge, May 2016.

 

If there is one thing guaranteed to get me out of post-conference work motivation slump, it’s a meaty discussion about interpreting. It seems that, while I was wrestling with the “fun” of fixing the index for my upcoming book, interpreters and interpreting trainers were at the offices of SCIC (the European Commission’s Interpreting Service and Conference Organising service) hearing about the future of the institutional conference interpreting market.

According to the interpreting twitterati, the outlook is not great.  For whatever reason, the demand for institutional interpreting is down. We might not yet be at the point of mass layoffs and empty booths but this definitely isn’t the cosy, secure world many of us were trained for.

In the face of the market shift which seems set to continue, it would be easy to get depressed. Where is the golden ticket to 100 day work years we were all promised? How are we supposed to live lives of multilingual glamour if the biggest single industry player can’t supply us with a conveyer belt of cushy assignments?

Some of us, those sad few who don’t have enough passive languages or who for some reason didn’t catch the first flight to Brussels or Paris, have had to live in a similar reality for a while. If you live and work in the Scottish market, it will take a good chunk of your working life to book the boothdays that a Brussels-based interpreter will pencil in before they have finished their first waffle of the day.

Simple and brutal market realities force you into diversifying, at least for now. My preferred boothmate is also the director of a property rental agency; some Spanish-speaking colleagues of mine also clock-up hours as public service interpreters and teachers. On top of that, unless you feel like relying on agencies, you soon discover that marketing to direct clients and building teams of people to take on jobs together becomes a lifeline. In short, if you want work, you will need to push for it.

Please don’t read this as a case of schadenfreude. No one in this industry actively wants any sector to lose out and, just as we all rallied round those affected by the court interpreting contract in England and Wales, now is the time to work with and for those who will lose out due to the vagaries of the institutional market.

For that reason, this is all about hope. Having met some prospective interpreting clients, I can tell you that the demand is still there, but perhaps not in the markets we thought. I can also tell you that our main competition will not be from cheap labour markets or technological solutions but from the option to have no interpreting at all.

With that in mind, we simply can’t keep selling ourselves using the same straplines as before. “Accuracy, neutrality and confidentiality” might be attractive to diplomats and politicians (many of whom are beginning to think they can muddle through without us anyway) but it doesn’t persuade exporting SMEs, busy event managers, or jet-setting executives.

For such clients, the only compelling reason to hire interpreters is that a multilingual event is more effective, more efficient and, dare I say it, more profitable than a monolingual one. Our goal in that market is not to prove that we are getting every detail across but that we are adding value. In other words, we need to demonstrate the real, tangible return on investment.

The translation industry has shown us the way. There are figures on how much more likely people are to buy a product when the website is in their native language. There are detailed guides on how to approach direct clients and there is even an admission that aiming at the bulk and routine markets is a recipe for commercial disaster.

Might it be time for us to do the same? We have the expert guides: people like Esther Navarro-Hall, Judy & Dagmar Jenner. We have the ability. And now we have the motivation. Instead of shrinking, with creativity and determination, we could actually see the interpreting market explode. Interpreters assemble!

PS. If you would like to find material on how to navigate this difficult season in a single book, including interviews with all three of those experts and many more, you might want to pick up a copy of my upcoming book. Available on pre-order from Amazon US, Amazon UK (and others), and direct from Routledge.