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Donald Trump, Uber and the Rediscovery of Responsibility

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: September 22, 2017

Two stories have dominated my newsfeed over the past few days. In the first, Iranian interpreter, Nima Chitzas defended his choice to omit some content from a speech delivered by President Donald Trump at the United Nations. In the second, Transport for London has failed to renew Uber’s license to operate in the city.

As different as the two stories might be, they have one theme in common: responsibility.

In the first case, the interpreter’s justification of his decision is as interesting as the decision itself. His argument was that he could not relay content that he felt was untruthful and “against Iran”. In his mind, his responsibility to the “truth” outweighed any professional code of conduct that requires complete and impartial interpreting.

In the second case, as much as people are criticising the decision not to renew Uber’s license to operate, the grounds named by Transport for London in their decision seem to show that, for them, it was simply a matter of upholding existing licensing laws. From their point of view, any company that doesn’t play by the rules, doesn’t get to play the game. Being responsible in that case simply meant respecting the systems and regulations already in place, no matter how much of a disruptor you might want to be.

Whether we agree with either of those decisions, they remind us that every decision has consequences. Even the default “say everything” position upheld by many interpreters has consequences. Sometimes giving an unfiltered view of what was said can have direct and immediate consequences. We need only read a few accounts of the fate of warzone interpreters to learn that.

At other times, interpreters may have to stand up and defend their choice to do anything apart from presenting a close version of what the speaker said. No matter what we might think of Mr Chitzas, he stood up and took responsibility for his actions. We may not agree with his actions but by offering a justification, at least we can now understand the reasoning behind them.

Similarly, the Uber decision seems to be nothing more than the latest in series of long-running battles between those who want to disrupt industries by relying on increasingly casual and flexible labour and those who see this as a removal of workers’ rights. The very point of labour and employment law is to make sure that companies treat their staff responsibly. This responsibility is needed more than ever in the growing “gig economy.”

But what does this mean for businesses like event managers and interpreters?

No matter which sector we are in, we can never forget that technology does not erase the need for responsibility; it heightens it. We can disrupt all we like but we have to disrupt while respecting those already in the industry and while treating our colleagues, competitors and suppliers as valued partners.

This means that we need to understand the effects our actions have on others, whether positive or negative. It means being sympathetic to those who might lose out. It means being prepared to defend our decisions.  Our words, our decisions, and our business practices will inevitably make a difference to someone. Are we ready to carry that responsibility?

 

 

Interpreters Climb Inside Your Head for a Living

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 30, 2017

Yesterday, I talked about why preparing for an interpreting assignment involves a whole lot more than just looking up terminology. Today, I want to take that a bit further. As I am realising with this job especially, interpreters have to do more than understand what you are saying, we need to get inside your head.

 

There is one particular speaker at this event. When I read his speech, I can understand him on one level. When I watch him on YouTube, I understand him better but I will learn the most about him by doing deeper research on his writing, his affiliations and the things he has done in his work. Nine times out of ten, the trickiest terminological and phraseological issues are resolved by context, not by dictionaries. If I want to understand what someone is saying, I need to understand what they are trying to do with what they are saying.

 

For a trained interpreter, that is well-trodden ground. Most of us will have heard of or have been trained in speech act theory – the idea that people do things with the words they say. But when you are interpreting, you need to go even further than that. To interpret someone well, you need to really get a hold of why they are saying what they are saying and who they are saying it too. Even more, you need to be able to figure out the best way to project that to a brand new audience – one they might never meet or talk to personally.

 

To allow yourself to be interpreted is to trust someone to produce a version of what you said in another language that means the same thing somehow. They become your voice and your door to an entirely new culture. As long as you are being interpreted, you live in two (or more!) languages and cultures at once.

 

At this conference, it is clear that speakers will be trying to convince and argue, persuade and prompt, debate and describe. For our interpreting to even come close to working, we will need to figure out ways to allow them to do that an entirely different language, with entirely different ways of convincing, arguing, persuading, prompting, debating and describing. And all that while having no control over the pace or technicality or even clarity of the words we hear. It’s hard work but it is always worth it.

Another Look Behind the Scenes of Conference Interpreting

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 29, 2017

The conference season has started again with a nice new conference landing on my plate. Better yet, I get to interpret at it alongside my favourite boothmate. I thought I would take the opportunity to give you another behind the scenes look at what it means to prepare for and deliver a conference interpreting job.

 

The first thing I need to talk about is preparation. While new interpreters might focus on terminology (and this job has lots!), the more I do this job, the more I realise that terminology is not the issue. Under all the words ending in –ism and hyphenated pairs are attempts to communicate something that matters.

 

The problem with concentrating too much on terminology is that it can get in the way of understanding the meaning. Yes, I did just say that!

 

For this conference, I am not just going to practice interpreting, gather terminology and the like; I am going to write short summaries of the arguments of every talk I am sent. It will take time but the practice of really getting to know someone’s argument, even memorising it, will help me no end in the booth. Besides, as every translator and interpreter knows, the meaning of any word is determined by its context.

 

The more you learn and understand about what a speaker is trying to do, and the better you learn to see through the parade of buzzwords, the better you can interpret. And it’s excellent interpreting, not just excellent terminological knowledge, that clients need and want.

How to Lose a Prospect in One Step

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 17, 2017

It’s really simple. In today’s always-on, super personalised society, as soon as you use automated messages you lose people’s interest. Sending mass emails, automated twitter DMs or even copying & pasting generic messages into LinkedIn or Facebook PMs will lose you leads and push people elsewhere.

It looks like a timesaver but it isn’t. It’s a lead killer.

It’s especially awful when you have just had a conversation with someone. Imagine having just discovered what someone could add to your business, looked at their services and planned an email to look at a purchase. Now imagine that just as you are about to look at buying they send you an obviously generic, mass-style message. Will that make you more likely or less likely to buy?

So why do it to your prospects?

Craft each communication. Tailor each email.

The only time generic works is when you are doing something generic. Selling is not generic. Neither is building up a relationship with a prospect. Until the moment when someone has volunteered to be part of a programme or process, they need to be treated as an individual.

And if you are reading this while setting up your twitter autoresponse or writing your mass LinkedIn message campaign, I do hope it will give you pause. If it doesn’t and you lose high potential leads, you will now know why.

Do event platforms work?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 16, 2017

It seems that at least once a quarter, some new event sourcing platform will pop up. This blog has already discussed the possibilites and drawbacks of venue sourcing sites but, with more and more companies trying to be the next big directory of everything event managers need, perhaps it’s time to think about how things work from the other side. Are event platforms any good for suppliers? Do they actually get you work?

The answer to that question will, of course, depend on the platform and the supplier. However, there are good reasons to doubt that event platforms will create the market disruption they often claim.

To see why, let’s take a lesson from translation and interpreting. There, despite a parallel market trend to the events industry, with platforms springing up like weeds along a driveway, there are still one or two major players who dominate the scene. The biggest and best established, is ProZ.com, which has taken its size and age and turned them into advantages by launching revenue producing conferences, courses and virtual events.

Yet even a cursory glance of the discussion of the platform among industry insiders will reveal a very mixed picture. While it is entirely possible for someone to pick up clients there – and indeed many still do – much of the best work seems to come via individual direct contact.

In other words, the very best that a platform like that can do for a supplier is to function as a website. The problem with that is that it is a website that the supplier has little control over and which does not give them the kind of fine-grained data that most good website owners would use to improve their sales and marketing.

In addition, it is no secret that the jobs that come through platforms tend not to be at the very top of the price tree. Largely, the high value projects are still allocated based on personal contact and prior relationship. People still buy people first and it is highly unlikely that someone will assign a large, high-cost project to someone on the basis of their profile on a platform alone.

There are good reasons to expect that a similar effect will be found on event industry platforms. Sure, there will be some work that gets passed via platforms but the biggest projects will likely be won, not because of a shiny profile on a platform but because of trusting relationships, built up meeting after meeting.

So yes, event platforms work. But they are not disruptors. In-person contact and relationship building will still rule the day for a long time to come.

Interpreting is Expensive … But the Alternatives Cost More

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 8, 2017

It’s always a surprise when event managers receive the response to their Request for a Quote for interpreting at an event. Even the simplest simultaneous interpreting setup seems to cost thousands of pounds. Is it really worth it?

 

There is no getting away from the fact that interpreting is expensive. And while the traditional justification has been to write long posts on how hard interpreting is (and it is hard) or to talk about the training interpreters have to take to be able to deliver at a high level (lots), that doesn’t mean a lot to you. No matter how good interpreting is, if it has no value for your company, it won’t be worth it.

 

One common response to the cost of interpreting is simply to decide to do everything in English. In some cases, that might seem like a very good short-term decision, especially as English is a global language. But what works in the short-term is often ruinous in the longer-term. Statistics from the House of Lords showed that companies in the UK lose out on £50 billion worth of contracts each year due to a lack of language skills.

 

English-only meetings and events might be cheap to set up but by displaying a lack of cultural awareness and language abilities, you will be putting customers off rather than winning them over. Conversely, when potential customers see that you care enough to have professional communications in their first language, they are more likely to see you as trustworthy and be more comfortable parting with their cash.

 

Choosing to do business in only one language leads to inevitable communication struggles. Every conference interpreter can tell stories of speakers who really should have used the interpreters that were available. For me, one of the most striking stories happened at a specialist construction event. Two Italian businesses had the opportunity to showcase their work. The first team presented in broken English, even though there were Italian to English interpreters available. The team from the second company noticed the train wreck that ensued and decided to speak in their best, most powerful Italian, which was then interpreted into English and then into French, Dutch and Spanish.

 

The difference was most noticeable after the break, just by looking at the number of visitors to the booths rented by each of the two companies. The first team, who used broken English, found themselves alone and bored while their competitors, who realised the power of interpreting, found themselves swamped with interest.

 

If there is a single best advertisement for the ROI of interpreting, it came last year, when I was interpreting for a British technical manufacturer, hoping to woo a French buyer into placing a large order. The entire meeting and the entire contract turned on a misunderstanding of a single word. The only person who realised what was going on and was able explain the problem to speakers of both languages? The interpreter.

 

One interpreter, one troublesome word, one large contract gained by the end of the two days. That was definitely money well spent. Interpreters, if recruited correctly, briefed properly and provided with the right setup will always be worth far more than you will pay them. Their work is the difference between an international meeting that changes the future of your company for the better and one that turns into a frustrating waste of time. Choose wisely.

 

And if you would like someone to help you choose interpreting that will deliver great value for money at your events, drop me an email.

Here’s a Brand New Course to Improve Your Public Speaking

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 3, 2017

There is nothing that comes close to the impact of delivering a talk that wows an audience. There is no better way to make people take notice of your business, believe your results or give you a promotion. Yet public speaking is regularly listed among our worst fears. It’s time that ended.

 

For the past month, I have been working on a course covering the four basic building blocks of public speaking:

  • Content that carries the message you want to deliver
  • Communication that brings understanding and encourages change
  • Connection that makes you believable and relatable
  • Creativity that creates moments that people remember when they go home.

 

Those are the four building blocks that I have been teaching around Europe in my popular Public Speaking Workshop for the past two years. This has honed my presentation and allowed me to answer the big questions that people have about speaking. And now, I have gathered the very best content from that workshop and turned it into a four part course with videos, podcasts, FAQ sheets and a mini-guide for those who are new to speaking.

Until 9th August, 2017 the course is on offer at a bargain price of £29.99 for fifty minutes of video teaching, almost an hour of downloadable podcasts and all the other help sheets. Whatever your business, you will find that improving your public speaking gives you a noticeable boost and this course is there to do exactly that.

 

To find out more or to buy the course right now, simple go here: https://integrity-languages-courses.thinkific.com/courses/public-speaking-building-blocks

 

 

 

 

How to Fail at Pitching

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: July 20, 2017

I was pleasantly surprised at the positive reception that came when I wrote my Comprehensive Guide for Pitching. It was originally aimed at pitching to magazines but the guidelines (which have subsequently also appeared in the ATA Chronicle) apply just as well to writing pitches for guest blog posts or even asking for work.

 

That brings me to today’s post. Recently, I have begun receiving more pitches asking for a guest post on this blog as well as companies trying to sell me their products and services. Sadly, however, most of them have not been of a high standard. Since it seems that several of my colleagues are experiencing the same thing, I thought I would put together a hit list of ways to ensure that your pitch fails.

 

  1. Don’t bother checking the contribution history

 

Does it really matter that the blog or publication only ever has posts from the same people or that everyone comes from the same company? It’s not as if they will have made a deliberate decision as to whose voice they want to publish, right? Obviously, if they have made a decision as to what to cover, offering them something completely different will rarely result in acceptance. In fact, they are more likely to see you as a time waster.

 

The same goes if you are trying to sell a product. If the person running the website only ever talks about conference interpreting equipment and building interpreting teams, attempts to sell them Desktop Publishing services or expensive Translation Management Systems are unlikely to succeed.

 

  1. Forget the hook

 

All that stuff about reading previous issues and doing research sounds like a lot of work doesn’t it. Maybe you should just lob a generic pitch on a subject that has been covered a million times. It will be fine, won’t it? Guess again.

 

  1. Don’t proofread

 

Should we expect someone calling themselves a professional writer to send pitches that are grammatically sound and don’t contain any spelling errors? Or should you just hope that the no editor or site owner is not going to judge your writing skills based on your pitch? I will leave that to you to decide.

 

  1. Leave out all the stuff about targeting your pitches

 

Maybe I am the only person in the entire world who ever wonders, “why on earth am I getting this email?” It does surprise me to receive a pitch for a post on computer assisted translation tools supposedly aimed at a blog that deals with interpreting and events management. Trying to work out where a post will fit is the sort of challenge that busy people will tend to pass up.

 

  1. Start with a bunch of qualifications and history

 

We all know that the one thing editors and bloggers absolutely love reading on a Friday afternoon is the history of how long your company has been running and how many degrees your founders have. They fall over themselves to read about all the different services you offer, especially when a sum total of none of them are actually relevant to your pitch. In fact, the longer it takes them to actually figure out what on earth you are trying to tell them, the happier they are. That might just have been sarcastic.

 

  1. Use a generic salutation

 

We are in the 21st century so surely no one actually wants you to bother finding out their name or address them personally. “Dear Linguist” has that impersonal feeling that makes us all warm and fuzzy inside. And of course “hi” with no name will always be a classic. Even better, go all formal with “Dear Sir/Madam”, especially if you have sent them a message via the contact form on the website that actually tells you their name! There is no quicker way to get rejected than failing to even write a personalised salutation.

 

  1. Completely ignore guidelines and forms

 

Websites are designed with forms for a reason. Shove your email in the topic line, drop a call to action in the email box and do whatever you like with the rest of it. It will really make you stand out from the crowd in ways you cannot even begin to imagine, none of them good.

And please, if there are pitching guidelines on things like length and style, do adhere to them. If you don’t, you might as well give up before you even start.

 

 

Yes, I admit, this post has been rather heavy-handed in places. I have no doubt that those sending requests for blog posts or trying to sell their services are doing so for all the right reasons. But, since pitching essentially boils down to asking someone you have never met to do you a huge favour, it really does make sense to make it as easy as possible for them to say yes. Whether it seems fair or not, they will expect you to have done the research and targeting necessary to make your pitch relevant, professional and compelling. After all, it’s exactly what they will expect from your contribution and services too.

Over-hyped, Under-thought and nowhere near ready: Machine Interpreting

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: July 12, 2017

A few months ago, I was flying to an important meeting and I was flicking through the in-flight magazine (for pitching purposes, you see). As I did that I spotted a short paragraph touting the latest technological development: an in-ear device that promised to translate flawlessly from one language to another. It looks like from now own event managers can dispense with us interpreters for good and just load up on a supply of tiny devices to make sure everyone has a great event, no matter which language they speak.

 

Obviously that isn’t going to happen.

 

Despite the wonderful headlines in the press and the incredible claims made by marketing departments, the chances of machine interpreting ear-pieces doing anything more than replacing phrasebooks is miniscule.

 

Why?

 

Firstly, there is nothing fundamentally new in the technology used in such devices. Machine translation of some sort or another has been around since the 1940s and is still producing results that range from the plausible to the ridiculous. Remember when google translate turned Russia into Mordor? Remember all those websites displaying mangled English because of poor use of machine translation?

 

Without going into the fine detail of where machine translation actually stands right now (you can read that in this article), basically, unless you are willing to spend months training it and are okay restricting your language to controlled phrases, the results of machine translation will be a bit dodgy.

 

When it comes to magical translation ear-pieces, machine translation is twinned with voice recognition – the technology that is still giving us frustrating helplines, semi-useful virtual assistants and the fury of everyone who doesn’t have a “standard accent”. Sure, voice recognition technology is advancing all the time but it still works best when you use a noise-cancelling microphone and speak super-clearly – not quite the thing for crowded cafés or busy conferences.

 

The second reason why translation headsets are not a cure-all is that interpreting is about far more than just matching a word or phrase in one language with a word or phrase in another. Language is a strange beast and in all communication, people use idioms, metaphors, similes, sarcasm, irony, understatement, and implications and are tuned to social cues, intentions, body language, atmosphere and intonation. At the moment, and for as much of the future as we can predict, computers will struggle to handle even one of those things.

 

Human interpreters have to be expert people readers as well as having enviable language knowledge. Ask the CEO for whom an interpreter helped sort out a cultural and terminological misunderstanding that threatened to lose the company a deal with several million pounds. Ask the doctor who worked with an interpreter to be culturally-aware enough to give a patient the right treatment. Ask the speaker whose interpreter prevented him from making a big, but accidental cultural mistake.

 

When human interpreters work, they don’t simply function as walking dictionaries. They take what is said in one language, try to understand its meaning, tone, and purpose and then recreate it in another language in a way that will work in that specific context.

 

The only way that machines could ever do that would be if meetings and events were just about stuffing information into people’s heads and human beings always said exactly what they meant in a completely neutral way. With the current emphasis on the importance of delegate experience and our newfound awareness that people are more than just robots, it makes sense that we would realise that their communication deserves to be handled by experts, not machines.

 

So the next time someone tries to persuade you that you should let machines take over the interpreting at your event, just remember: for information processing, use a computer; for experience and expertise, work with humans.

5 Tips to Rock Your First International Event

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: July 3, 2017

Running international events is not easy, especially when you are new to the job. So, as someone who is often brought in as an interpreter to help make sure that the French-speaking audience love it as much as their English-speaking counterparts, here are my top 5 tips from the booth to you.

 

  1. Details matter

 

Yes, we all love nice rooms and a posh-looking programme but it is easy to spend so much time on the big things that the small but crucial details get left out. Little things, like the amount of water available, making sure everyone knows where the toilets are, keeping to time and having on-site staff who are competent and happy, make a huge difference. Just ask the people bursting for the loo while dealing with grumpy staff and they will tell you!

 

  1. Over-communicate

 

The post on keeping short lines of communication with suppliers is still one of the most popular on this blog. And it bears repeating. Given that every single international event will be a team effort, every member of the team needs to know what is going on and their part in it. What might seem like an irrelevant piece of information for you (the doors are opening fifteen minutes later than planned, two speeches are being swapped, an additional guest is coming) can make a big difference to any suppliers who are there. Better to give too much info than not enough.

 

  1. Treat Questions as Your Best Friend

 

In the same vein, while you will undoubtedly be busy in the run-up to the event, when someone in your team asks you a question, it is always worth treating it like a golden nugget, rather than an annoyance. Not only does answering their questions help them do their job more effectively but it can also save you precious time and money too. Queries such as “what are the goals of this event?”, “when can we get access to the room?”, and “what equipment will be onsite?” are absolutely fundamental to delivering a great event.

 

  1. Prioritise Purchases that Make a Difference

 

Ah budget constraints, the bane of many events! While it is absolutely true that every event has to be financially viable, it will always be worth asking about the consequences of different kinds of cost savings. Almost no one will notice it if you shell out on brand name water instead of standard stuff, if you put it all in clear bottles (is there actually any difference?) but they will notice if the PA system is rocky or if you have gone for cheap and unqualified interpreters and sub-standard conference interpreting equipment. A good rule-of-thumb is to prioritise purchases according to their importance in achieving the goals of your event. Few events really need the agenda printed out in gold-leaf anyway!

 

  1. Enjoy the ride!

 

Few event managers enter the profession for a quiet life! The thrill of seeing it all come together is a vital part of the job. And savouring that thrill is both a privilege and a necessity. No matter what happens, enjoy the fact that you did something that few people can do well: you brought together a team of experts to ensure that visitors from more than one country had an experience that made a difference to them. That’s worth celebrating.

 

If you are organising your first international event, you will need interpreting suppliers you can rely on. If you would like someone to save you time by making sure you get the right team every time, drop me an email. And here is a completely free template for briefing your interpreters too.

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