Integrity Languages


Monthly Archives: August 2016

Could you boost your skills with the 30/3 Challenge?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 26, 2016


Imagine how good you could become as an interpreter or events professional if you dedicated time to developing your craft, even when you aren’t working. Could just a little time each week lead to dramatic improvements?


If that interests you, keep reading.


This week, I had a very special project. It was as high-level as you can get and my entire shift was my work webcast live. No room for mistakes. No do overs. To add to the pressure, another booth of interpreters was taking relay from me too!


In preparation, I had spent some quality time listening to the speaker and practising interpreting. I had found that, because of his comparatively slow speed and detailed thinking, my output was a little choppy for my taste. So, following the thinking of the great Elisabet Tiselius and her ideas on deliberate practice, I decided to target improvement on just the delivery aspect of my interpreting. Specifically, I wanted to sound smoother and pause less.


After just one targeted session, I noticed a marked improvement, which lasted right through the job itself. Just one quick session with a known target improvement my performance markedly.


Now, having seen the results for myself, I am completely committed to deliberate practice. But what does that mean anyway?


Deliberate practice happens when you practise a skill outside of work, with a specific target or area that you want to improve, preferably with a coach or mentor. For me this week, my target was to improve the smoothness of my output when dealing with slow speakers and I recorded myself to check my progress.


For an events professional it might be people management or improving the clarity of your emails. For an interpreter, it might be your consecutive note taking or your summarising skills or your intonation.


The trick is to have a target and to hold yourself accountable. It’s even better when you work with someone else who can monitor you. But for now, I want to set the bar deliberately low, just to get us started.


Here is where your part comes in. I would like to challenge all interpreters and events professionals to join me in the 30/3 challenge – for a minimum of 3 days per week do a minimum of 30 minutes deliberate practice on a skill that is core to your job. So, no working on marketing or networking or the skills that get you clients. Concentrate on the skills that you are paid to deliver.


Focus on just one area of one skill at a time. So, don’t just say “I will work on my delivery skills” say “I want to have a smoother output with more natural intonation.” Don’t just say, “I want to manage people better”, say “I want to manage a project with volunteers to improve my motivation skills.”


To add that all-important accountability, I want you to drop a comment to say that you are in. If you are an interpreter and you are on Facebook, join the Community of Practice group and add your current target to the thread.


Together, we can all improve our performance. Who’s with me?

Preparing for a Specialist Event

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 23, 2016

Yes, I know, every event is special. Like fingerprints or snowflakes, no two are exactly the same. Yet there are some events that, by their size or their scope or simply due to those who will attend, get marked out as different and need special care.


This week, I have one of those. I have an interpreting shift at a very special summit to cover the work of a very special guest. While I can’t say any more than that about the event itself or the guest, I can let you into the secrets of preparing for events that are outside of the norm.


I will assume that you already know about preparing to add value to clients, if not, go read the relevant posts. With that in mind, preparation follows a familiar trajectory, at least initially. Read the event publicity, understand the impact of your work, and know what success will look like in the eyes of your client.


From there, you can add on preparation that is catered to the differences between your event and others. In my case, I have to get to know the special guest, understand which parts of their work are likely to come up and then practice the procedures that I will need to use to handle the specific way they will be presented.


This means doing research like a superfan, thinking like an MC and practising putting myself in the shoes of the client and the audience.


Ideally, I would like to find videos of other interpreters handling similar situations, especially with the same guest. In this case, I will need to think laterally and look for interpreters handling similar problems in other settings. If I were interpreting at a journalistic interview, for example, I would look at not just interpreted interviews but press conferences too. If it were the launch of a snazzy new product by the CEO of a leading company, I would not just look for that company but for how interpreters handled the work of their competitors.


Working at specialist events means taking your existing skills up one more level. It’s a challenge but it’s a challenge I enjoy. What about you? How do you handle specialist events?

The Problem with Productivity

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 22, 2016

What kind of deal is it to get everything you want but lose yourself? What could you ever trade your soul for? (Matthew 16:16 TM)

It’s 6.30am and I have just gotten two of my children out of bed and I look at my phone to check the time. Already, about ten of my local colleagues are apparently up, coffeed and have set to work setting the world to rights. How do they do it? Then there is the other colleague who travels the world, works on every single form of transport and has written more guides than you can shake a stick it.


We are all very productive. But apparently that isn’t enough.


Recently, there has been an arms race to be even more productive. People have told us 10 things that mega-successful people do before 6am (apparently sleep isn’t one of them). Twitter is full of time-saving ideas and tools. We download apps, buy fancy 4G internet dongles so we can work halfway up a Chilean mountain and even send emails from the bathroom.


We are producing a lot but what kind of people are we producing? Actually, let’s be more honest, what kind of people are we becoming?


As part of the Being a Successful Interpreter courses, I run an interactive session on Your Career and Your Life. One of the main messages of that session is that the two things are not the same. Your career is not your life.


But ask any interpreter or events professional and they might have difficulty telling the two apart. Ask them about their hobbies and they will tell you something career-related. “I read Conference News” or “I learn more languages” or “I blog on [something career-related].”


Since we all love the daily stresses of our jobs, we can often mistake doing professional stuff that we enjoy for actually relaxing. As much as I love blogging and writing, for the sake of my own mental health (not to mention my family), I have to class them as “work”. As much as I love learning about new fields, that is not the same as giving my brain some downtime.


There is a reason why every major religion in the world mandates that people take one day a week and stop anything that could be classed as work. Our bodies were not built to be running at 100% effort, 7 days a week. And, that is all the more true when you have jobs that are as stressful as ours.


The secret of achieving is not in how much you produce but in how sustainably you work. One of the most powerful questions I ask in my courses is this: “Being honest with yourself, how sustainable is your current rhythm and volume of work?”


How would you answer?


Sure, for some people, there is a need to ramp up. If you do one job a month worth £50, you won’t be able to pay your bills after a while. But most events professionals and interpreters I have met live on the other end. They are like me, when I eventually dragged myself to the physio with dodgy knees.


“Mr Downie,” he said. “Your problem is your job.”


I had been spending too long at my desk, too long stressing and fretting and not enough time exercising, enjoying the company of my friends and family and breathing outdoors.


There really is no point in producing like a wild thing for a year, only to land up in hospital by Christmas. Amidst all the voices pushing us to do more and create more, we need to listen to the voices calling us to think more and rest more.


Perhaps the hardest challenge for us all is not to get up earlier or douse ourselves in ice water but to rest. How about we all take on the Sabbath challenge? For one whole day every week, do no work at all. Rest, read good books, go for a walk, meet friends, watch a sunset, play with children, do anything that is nothing to do with work and doesn’t require an internet connection. Try it and see just how much better you perform.

The Danger of Single Example Learning

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 17, 2016


At most events I have been to, I have observed the same pattern. The speakers who get the best reaction from the audience are the ones who speak from their own experience and tell great stories. As a professional speaker myself, I know that this is completely normal and there is a lot to be said for this approach. As a researcher and events professional, however, part of me wonders whether we might be setting ourselves up for a fall.


To understand the danger of learning from the experience of one person, we need to understand a very basic research concept. If you want to research a phenomenon, there are two broad approaches. The first is to look really deeply into one particular example.


The advantage of this approach is that you can draw a wealth of information and can uncover insights that would simply not be visible any other way. A really good example is that of a researcher friend of mine, Jiqing Dong, who looked at communication inside a single interpreting agency. The depth of her analysis is incredible and it offers some amazing food for thought.


The disadvantage of going deep is that you can never be sure that you have found something that is valid in any other situation. Sure, you might discover the secrets behind this single event drawing crowds of thousands but how do you know that those same secrets will work for you or anyone else?


An alternative approach is to look at several examples on a more superficial level. The classic example of this is a survey. Hardly a day goes by when someone doesn’t want ten minutes of your time to get responses on your social media habits, political affiliation, response to a website redesign or something else.


The advantage of going wide is precisely that, if you have done your work properly, your results will tell you something about general trends and principles that apply to a large number of cases. Researchers can and do generalise on the basis of representative surveys, which allows us to know things like the fact that the whole discussion over “what Millenials want” is a load of nonsense, as any generational differences we perceive are simply continuations of existing trends.


The disadvantage is, of course, that in drawing from many examples, you have to limit the amount of information you get about any one example and often, you also have to limit the range of responses. You might learn, for example, that your twitter posts get more clicks if they go out between 6 and 7pm but you won’t know what people were doing at that point or their emotional reaction to the post.


All this is a rather long way of saying that, if we fixate on the insights of one person and on their experience, we can fall into the trap of trying to extrapolate from their experience to our situation when the two are not at all linked. Sure, there might be a corporate conference company turning over £150 million per year but their techniques might not apply to a sole trader wedding planner.


Stories of “how I did it” are fun to hear and read but they might not actually give you anything more relevant to your work than a case of the warm fuzzies. Much better to gather a number of case studies of people in similar context from you and learn from a multitude of counsel. While no two examples are the same, the more we look for patterns and trends, the more we gain relevant insights into our own work

Free Interpreting at the Olympics: Is it a big deal?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 16, 2016


The world’s most watched sporting event might not seem to be the ideal context in which to debate the ethics of free interpreting but, while we are all watching incredible gymnasts, stunning runners and mesmerising tennis, Japan is already limbering up for its shot hosting the Olympics in 2020. At the heart of this will be some 80,000 volunteers, including many volunteer interpreters.


So should we be alarmed? On the one hand, as professionals, we might want to shout loudly that this undermines our value and paints the picture of quality interpreting being something within reach of anyone with a few years of language skills under their belts. On the other hand, people are quite right to point out that there are other volunteers doing skilled tasks for no pay and the Olympics is after all, about displaying the virtues of sportsmanship, generosity and unity.


Except the Olympics earns mind-numbing sums from corporate sponsors and some people do get paid for their work. So not everyone involved in making the games a success is a happy amateur or plucky volunteer.


Obviously, a line has been drawn somewhere and, for now, many interpreters are on the “don’t worry, they can do it for free” side of that line. Does this mean we have a cause for consternation? Might we hold some kind of protest or, I don’t know, start a mass emailing campaign?


We could but I doubt it would work. There are already thousands of people desperate for their shot at helping and, you never know, for some it could be their first chance to interpret and some of them may become future professionals. If we don’t put them off with arguing and moaning about them not getting paid, that is.


At the risk of revisiting old ideas, a lot can and should depend on the perceived value added by the interpreters. If, as some people have suggested, their contribution amounts to giving directions, explaining subway maps and helping people buy travel tickets then it is very difficult to argue for them to be on professional rates. There are apps that do that kind of thing rather well and I can’t see many established professionals wanting to sign up for those jobs anyway.


If, however, there are plans to use inexperienced volunteers in broadcast settings, then that is a different matter entirely. Just as no TV station will ask their camera crew to pay their own way; it would seem rather ill-advised to put a volunteer interpreter into the limelight. Of course, as you can read in my book, there are some interesting debates the choice of interpreters in media work but the bottom-line is that it is our responsibility to convince people that interpreters add value when it really counts.


As with most things in life, the issue of free interpreting at the Olympics is far more complex and subtle than it seems at first glance. While it is nice to imagine that all interpreters would be paid, the reality is that pay correlates with the perceived value of our work. When we are doing tasks that seem routine and when clients think we are little more than language machines, we should not blame them for trying to find the cheapest option. Instead, we should take on the responsibility of openly discussing those situations where interpreting really makes a difference and describe what exactly it is that we add.


In short, partnership will always beat protest as a marketing strategy.

The Problem with “Merely Beginning”: A Response to Seth Godin

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 15, 2016

training wheels

There comes a time in everyone’s career where they will disagree with those who have inspired them. I am a big fan of the short, pithy posts from marketing maestro, Seth Godin but yesterday, he slipped up. Or rather, he missed an important detail.


His post, “Without Training Wheels” is, on the face of it, a masterful piece of motivational thinking. His argument is that the best way to learn a skill is to do it. If we want to learn marketing “You don’t need to go to school for four years. You need to do marketing.” Following the metaphor of learning to ride a bike, he argues that “All training wheels do is confuse, distract or stall.” In other words, real-life is a better teacher than the classroom and any sandbox environments will just get in the way of your development. Far better to be let loose on the world promoting “a worthy charity” or a “micro business” than to sit in a library reading a book about how to do it.


Convincing? Yes. Accurate? It depends.


While it is true that we are learning that children learn to ride bicycles better when they start with bikes with no wheels, that doesn’t mean that no-one ever learned with training wheels. Similarly, while there is no argument that we will learn more in our careers out in the world, that doesn’t mean that a little time in the classroom (or doing one of Seth’s courses?) can’t give us a helpful boost or even help us avoid some embarrassing falls.


There are few better examples than the world of interpreting. There are definitely talented interpreters who came into the profession having never set foot in an interpreting classroom. Many of those, however, have found it helpful to do courses later in their career to sharpen precisely the kinds of skills that are now taught in a good interpreting degree course.


There is a reason why most organisations ask for you to have trained as an interpreter before you bang on their door looking for a job. Interpreter training will not make you a perfect interpreter but, if it is delivered well, it can give you the basic techniques you need and, more importantly, the crucial skills of effective learning and critical thinking.


In the past few years, researchers like Elisabet Tiselius have started to argue that, if interpreters are to keep on improving, they need both the initial academic training and close mentoring from other colleagues. In other words, just doing interpreting is not enough to actually improve at it. We need to be able to think about our practice and learn to work with others to improve it. And, without the critical thinking skills that a good interpreting school should teach, it is all too easy for interpreters to get side-tracked with bad advice.


In the world of marketing, I absolutely defer to Seth’s wisdom. Perhaps there it is much better for people to dive right into the pool than to learn in the classroom and then jump in after learning a few strokes. But in interpreting, the most effective route to excellence still seems to be to get solid training from practising experts and challenging theorists, and then to take your first few strokes, knowing where the sharks are knowing where to find ongoing mentors.


Do you need to spend four years in school before interpreting professionally? Probably not. Will it help to get training from the pros first? Absolutely!

Scheduled Social Media Posting and Marketing Your Business

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 11, 2016


As a trained researcher, I am a big fan of experiments. So, nowadays, whenever I go on holiday, I queue up a whole bunch of posts using a MavSocial campaign and watch my website stats. What do you think happens?


Before I get to the results, I want to explain something for those who are social media newbies. One of the biggest decisions you will ever make when doing social media marketing is deciding what to measure.


You can measure the increase in sales but then, given the complexity of most sales funnels, it can be difficult to unpick what might have caused any change. This is made even harder by the fact that any smart business should be marketing through several channels.


For example, I use social media, writing in professional magazines for my target market, guest blogging, in-person networking, and attendance at tradeshows. None of these on their own is going to increase my sales but using them together, alongside good old client retention strategies, just might.


At the other end of the scale, you can measure how many people see your posts. The problem with this is that it’s far better to have 5 potential buyers see your stuff than 10,000 people who will never be interested in what you offer. A qualified lead in the hand is worth 5,000 likes on Twitter, as the phrase should go nowadays.


Because of that, I measure something in the middle. All of my holiday posts have links in them and I measure how often those links are clicked. The deal is that, if I can just get people to my website, I can increase the likelihood that they will buy from me. At the very least, I will have raised their awareness of my services, which is a good step to take in marketing while you are sunning yourself on the beach.


Here is the rub, whenever I post new content to my website, traffic surges and I get lots of new interactions. But, obviously, when I am on holiday, no new posts will appear. So what about when I setup automated posting of content that is already there?


The first thing I have learned is that scheduled posting of existing content will not get you the same peaks as brand new stuff. Scheduled posting simple raises the default amount of traffic. What happens is that the boost from the latest piece of new content lasts longer, with traffic not returning back to normal until the schedule runs out of posts. Visit rates sit at between two and five times their default levels right up to the end of the schedule.


Strangely, both social and direct traffic numbers increase markedly during scheduled posting. It may be that scheduled posting encourages people to bookmark articles, which they come back to later.


In short, while having a schedule for reposting existing articles won’t give you the same pleasing peaks as regularly creating new and exciting content, it will encourage more background traffic to your site.

Do Webinars Work?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 10, 2016

They have become ubiquitous in most industries. The ease with which we can now beam live audio and video over large distances has led to an explosion in online training in the form of webinars, MOOCs and other online courses. Sure, organisations like Open University have been harnessing that kind of technology for years but the number of providers continues to grow almost exponentially.


But wait, have we ever sat down and had a serious conversation about the benefits and drawbacks of this way of learning? Sure, we all know about the fact that webinars make it possible to learn wherever you are and they seem to democratise access to knowledge but are they actually effective?


I am sure that, even by asking that question, I am tacitly inviting providers to slap me round the head with satisfaction statistics and stories of happy clients. As someone who has created webinars myself, I am not about to gnaw on a hand that fed me but still, we would be wise to be cautious.


When I went through my training as a university lecturer, we were introduced to the idea that there are such things as deep and surface learning. Surface learning is the name given to the (temporary) memorisation of facts and figures, such that you can regurgitate them later. Deep learning is when the knowledge becomes part of you and makes an actual, lasting difference.


If you take Marta Stelmaszak’s Business School for Translators, for example, surface learning might involve writing a marketing plan or thinking for a few minutes about your business strategy. Deep learning would be applying it each day to your work.


My fear is that the very setup of webinars, which very much resemble old-style university lectures, encourage short-term, surface learning. Just like those leading university lectures, webinar leaders can and do encourage deep learning by setting exercises and offering individualised feedback. But, in my experience, this kind of involvement is still all too rare. The more common (although thankfully, not universal) model is for the webinar to stand alone as a unit with very little in the way of support or monitoring before, during or after.


Universities have learned that the traditional model of an “expert” taking for an hour while a group of novitiates sit and take notes is not exactly the most effective way of teaching. People seem to learn better when they are involved in the process and get a chance to apply their knowledge as soon as possible.


Do webinars allow this? How often do those attending a webinar lose focus and browse cat pictures in another tab?


At the very least, I think it is time to have open honest conversations about what webinars can and can’t do and where in-person teaching, as expensive as it can be, is the best option. Oddly enough, it’s a lesson that even the old-hands at Open University have learned, as they combine multimedia, online learning with a few choice sessions, in-person with a tutor and the rest of the class.


I don’t pretend to know all the answers and even writing this has opened more questions than answers in my head. The whole area is crying out for research and for providers to think beyond the kinds of questions found in a satisfaction survey.


I do know that, for now at least, I want to concentrate on in-person courses both in the CPD I deliver and in the CPD I attend. As an interpreter, I know that there is something about being there in the room with other learners and with an experienced tutor that you simply don’t get from a webinar. It is even better when you are learning alongside your clients and growing with them too. This is not denying that webinars have their place;  yet I do wonder whether we need to rethink the format.