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Do Monolingual Tech Conferences Make Sense?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: April 9, 2018

Almost every consultant interpreter will have been told at some point that conferences in tech or medicine tend to be English-only. “Everyone speaks English and interpreting is expensive so we just have the entire conference in English” say some organisers. While it seems to make financial sense, is it a good long-term decision?

Let’s start with a story.

I was interpreting at a negotiation. A French company were trying to get investment in their newest sure-fire, profit-making product. At least one of the two senior managers could have managed in English and the investor had decent enough French, so why did they hire me?

The problem wasn’t so much in terminology, although there were terminological differences, but in culture. The investor came from a culture where the point of a meeting was to quickly dive into the financial detail, especially the profit margins and earnings forecasts. He expected that everyone would want to get straight down to the figures and returns.

The French company were into building relationship, talking history, vision, and extolling the virtues of their community engagement. They needed an interpreter not just because of linguistic differences but to help them navigate the cultural difference.

English-only events exist because there is an assumption that people all know the same terms and so they can communicate perfectly. If the majority of the terms are the same in every language, there is no room for miscommunication, right?

Wrong! Just ask the Italian construction industry experts who fouled up a presentation of their company’s best ever project in front of hundreds of other industry bods because they presented in (broken) English, instead of Italian. Ask the British manufacturing company who almost lost a deal because they defined a word differently to a visiting buyer.

Terminology is just one part of language and often, it is the least relevant part. While it is possible to take the idea too far, it is well-known that different languages have different views of the world. A US company might look at a widget and see three parts to it, a company in Germany might see six. In some cultures, it is absolutely vital to show due respect to your hosts with a flowing, artful thank you at the top of your presentation; in others, that marks you out as a time-waster.

English-only events create an illusion of understanding and implicitly exclude ideas and thinking that don’t fit easily into English-language norms. For that reason English-only tech events block more innovations than they promote. How can machine translation experts learn to create more flexible and useful systems if they work, present and test in largely monolingual environments? Why else would so many companies chase after the low-value market for “instant interpreting on the go“, if not because their founders rarely speak anything but English?

The business case for English-only events is becoming weaker as time goes on. We know that people buy more, are more easily persuaded and learn more if they read and hear in their native language. Could it be that they think better and innovate more in that language too? And if that is the case, could it be that interpreting, rather than being a big expense could be the smartest investment that a company can make?

 

If you are looking at making that investment, this free course is designed to help you get the most out of it. Want advice right away? Drop me an email.

Online Venue Finding: A step too far?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: January 23, 2017

I am really excited to start a new series of guest posts. I have invited some colleagues from the events industry and language industries to tell me about the tools, apps and software that they couldn’t run their businesses without. But to kick-off the series, there is a warning. As the Managing Director of Clearwater Events, Stephen Morton-Prior knows a thing or two about saving time and keeping organised. In this post, however, he asks whether recent shifts in Venue Finding have gone too far.

Technology is always developing. I now have a lady called Alexa who can switch on and off my lights, change the temperature in my house when I ask and write my shopping list. I am a technology geek….. But with events, I do have a sceptical eye for technology.

 

Technology that helps improve customer experiences or helps us become more efficient is always a good thing. Our solutions are always technology rich but only when they provide value and positive experiences to our clients and delegates.

 

With that said, there is one area of technology that I find hard to fully embrace, and this is online venue finding tools.

 

I understand the need for online venue finding and in theory its genius. A database of thousands of properties that can be accessed with a simple click. RFP’s sent through to selected hotels quickly. And responses pre-populated into templates ready for client submission. What’s not to love about that?

 

There are many large agencies using these tools. Contentiously, you often get an ‘official’ and an ‘off the record response’. Officially, the tools are a procurement dream. Pre-negotiated rates can be loaded for venues and preferred venues and suppliers can be accessed. They provide data, reporting and a quick and simple solution for teams with multiple events to source. However, the systems are typically only as good as the users operating them and their success relies on compliance from all.

 

The off the record response is often rather different. With the systems only being as good as the users, there is an assumption that everyone has an understanding of what to do. There are many examples where enquiries have not been responded to or RFP’s sent to the wrong venues or wrong clients.

 

I can forgive all this. Training offers compliance. Where I struggle is the personal experience. I find the best rates and deals come from picking up the phone and talking. Building a relationship between the venue and the Event Manager is key in finding the right solution. What might not work on paper, might work once a conversation takes place.

 

Events are highly personal. And this experience starts with venue finding. Picking up the phone helps allows me to discuss out of the box solutions, negotiate and discuss the best way to deliver a client experience that goes above and beyond. Albeit a small event for 10 guests or a large conference for 500.

 

Of course, we use technology, the wonderful world wide web is a fabulous tool for sourcing new and exciting venues. My fear with online sourcing tools is that they are only as good as the information inputted and I wonder if the client comes away with the best venue for their event?

 

I think there is a need and a requirement for online venue finding, especially in procurement driven scenarios. But I would suggest combining these tools with my top tips:

 

  1. Do your research. Use your tool but, explore your options. Industry magazines, the web and recommendations will give you an edge.
  2. Remember that your competitors are likely to use the similar online tools with access to the same venues.
  3. When venues get multiple briefs for the same event, you don’t see the rates go down. You see a rate go up, locked in for all agencies.
  4. Ironically, the client might therefore select an agency based on their relationship (relationships are key).
  5. Build relationships. Online tools and email are easy but they don’t promote interaction. Pick up the phone and build a relationship.
  6. In a pitch with multiple agencies, try and find at least one unique option.
  7. A good relationship will lead to lower rates and an overall better option. It will allow you to access value adds and options perhaps not considered by competitors.
  8. Don’t be afraid to negotiate. It is expected. Be prepared to walk away and look for other venue options.

Keep the Lines of Communication Short

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: October 26, 2016

It was, on the face of it, a straightforward event. A brief evening AGM followed by an informative technical conference. Easy. Except for one factor that nearly scuppered the whole thing.

 

How to Mess up Communication with Interpreters

 

All the job needed was two interpreters and a bit of equipment called a Tour Guide Interpreting System (or bidule for those in the business). But the agency had quoted low and, to maintain margins, they deleted the second interpreter and the equipment without telling anyone.

 

Cue a confused client, a single exhausted interpreter and an event that ran on sweat and desperate creativity. The problem here wasn’t the fact that an agency was involved, nor was it budgets, but simply that there were more layers than necessary.

 

Find the Simplest Interpreting Solution

 

The more layers between you and your conference interpreters, the more there is potential for information to go missing. For simple jobs with just one additional language, often it is simply easier to hire direct. Conversely, you see the benefits of bringing in an agency precisely when the job needs a calm hand at the wheel of a huge ship.

 

What happened in that particular job was that information about equipment and requirements simply got lost somewhere along the chain. The addition of an only marginally necessary middleman added unnecessary complexity. Take away the middle and you reduce the muddle.

 

If the client had hired directly, an experienced interpreter could have guided them through the process and made sure everything was in place for a superb event. In fact, a good consultant interpreter might even have been able to give them advice on seating plans to reduce the amount of sound heard by those not needing interpreting.

 

But they weren’t and they couldn’t.

 

The Moral?

 

As with every events service you can purchase, interpreting thrives when those providing it have the same amount of knowledge about the event as you do. That means right-sizing how you hire interpreters and knowing exactly when to bring in an agency and when to go direct. And there’s a good guide to doing just that.

The Power of Custom-Builds

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: July 14, 2016

customised

After a clean run of a few years, my trusty laptop is beginning to show its age. While the machine itself is still holding up well enough, I have started pricing up its successor and I am beginning to be attracted by the lure of custom-builds.

 

We all know the deal. With a custom-build, you only pay for what you actually need and, if you have the right expertise, you can make sure that you get exactly what you want, at a price you can afford. It works well for computers and it works even better in events management and interpreting.

 

Work on planning a wedding and you will know that off-the-shelf doesn’t work. Who wants a package with exactly the same dress, flowers, cake and ceremony as someone else? Of course, each wedding has to be planned from scratch, even if some common features will be there.

 

What about a conference? Here, there is always more temptation to go for an off-the-shelf solution. We all know the drill. You’re going to have: at least one PowerPoint malfunction, a President’s address that mentions local cuisine (hooray for haggis and whisky!), someone proclaiming that the future is bright for those who dare to dream, and a few presentations that become a cure for insomnia.

 

Yet, even with common features, each conference exists for a slightly different reason and needs a different approach. One conference might be all about sharing best practice, while another might be simply about pushing sales. One might be about coming to consensus on key decisions, while another might prioritise networking.

 

The difference in purpose between one conference and another leads to the need for event managers to approach each differently. Gathering client requirements is more than just a tick-box exercise; it’s about getting under the skin of the event and really understanding what would make it a success. (Protip: reducing the number of boring presenters is a great place to start!)

 

That same need for customised service applies to interpreting too. Since no two conferences are the same, it makes sense that we never treat any two assignments the same. Our approach to preparation, delivery and follow-up needs to be modified to fit the needs of each individual client and each event. Basic changes such as spending slightly less time on terminology and more on the style of each speaker, researching press quotations to see what sticks and asking the right follow-up questions, instead of broad nonsense like “was the interpreting good?” will all go a long way.

 

Today, when competition is fierce and budgets can often be tight, it makes sense to show that you have a better handle on your client’s needs than your competitors. The best way to do that is by offering custom solutions.