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The Pleasure of Looking Outwards

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: November 29, 2018

I have recently attended two events. The first was ScotExport18, organised by Scottish Enterprise. Largely driven from the stage, with a range of inspiring experts and speakers, it seemed aimed mostly at newer exporters – business seeing contact with the wider world as a track to properity and growth.

The second event was an event run by CBI Scotland, that challenged businesses of all sizes to see Scotland regain its position as a trading nation. Variously hashtagged as #TradingNation2018 and #TradingNations2018, it paradoxically had more traditional speeches but provided more spaces for businesses to discuss issues with each other.

While each event was different, the same themes came through in both. Businesses are actively looking to export and at every stage, they need to help of mentors, government agencies and professionals. Expertise exists but is not always easy to find or access and different sectors have different requirements.

While a couple of weeks ago, I pointed to the lack of any specific language industry experience at those events, I now see things slightly differently. Yes, translators and interpreters and their associations do need to step up and gain a voice in the commercial world but the comparitive lack of knowledge of the sector is an opportunity, not a threat.

The media might like to flag up xenophobia and fear but, among large sections of the business community, the opposite attitude is prevailing. Many businesses want to work abroad, creating opportunities and jobs both here and there. As businesses export, economies grow and horizons expand.

So perhaps it’s time to dial down the negativity and turn off the heckling. If the excitement at ScotExport and Trading Nations is anything to go by, there is huge growth potential left in the UK Language Sector. Who’s up for exploring?

#ScotExport and the missing language sector

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: November 13, 2018

This time last week, I attended the excellent ScotExport 2018 event, run by Scottish Enterprise. Among the useful sessions on building your international network, exporting for the first time and (oh yes!) Brexit, there was cautious optimism in the air that Scottish companies can still find ways to thrive, no matter the economic and political weather.

We heard from immigration lawyers, tax experts, experienced exporters, and even a government minister. We heard about legislation, customs procedures, cultural awareness and even the value of Scottish kitsch (apparently kilts and whiskies still pull in clients).

But there was a topic that was mentioned but had no actual experts speaking. While many of the speakers mentioned the dreaded “Language Barrier” and offered helpful tips about circumventing it (mostly involving alcohol and karaoke), there were precisely zero actual language industry people on-stage. This was a giant elephant in the room.

There are two reasons why that is a problem:

  1. Without the language industry, most exporting and importing stops. From translating manuals and contracts to enabling businesses to negotiate deals by supplying expert interpreting, languages make exporting work. Low visibility for the sector at key events like that one not only does the sector a disservice but risks selling the myth that the UK sucks at languages. Yes, we have a very low rate of second language learning but we have a strong and vigorous language services sector, manned by those rare Brits who took the time to learn other languages and by thousands of nationals of other countries who have made the UK home.
  1. An event on exporting with no space for language experts can lead to businesses getting bad or limited advice. While, for the most part, the export experts said all the right things, some of the strategies mentioned were a bit on the risky side. Yes, you can find an interpreter once you arrive in a country but unless you know where to find the good ones, you are as likely to get a keen amateur as an actual professional. To save their blushes, and their bank balance, it is vital that businesses get the right advice on how to find the right interpreters and translators when it matters most.

Whether you are a business keen to export or a language professional wondering when export shows will feature translators and interpreters, the message is the same:

There’s no such thing as a language barrier; just opportunities to win new markets. When exporting businesses work with with expert translators and interpreters, there are no limits to what can happen next.

 

 

And if you are looking for advice on how to best use translation and interpreting as part of your export strategy, it’s time we had a chat. Drop me an email to find out more.

The Death of Generic

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 23, 2018

My wife and I recently sent quite serious complaints to a local bus company. We both got a generic “your comment has been noted” response. Call up many companies and you will hear dodgy hold music and the words “your call is important to us. You are being held in a queue.” The same bland responses. The same angry customers. Given all that can be done with social media and personalisation, generic is dead.

Every single marketplace is crowded. There are literally hundreds of companies doing exactly what yours does. Unless you stand out, you will lose customers. It’s as simple as that.

Why are so many shops closing on the High Street, while others in the same street fluorish? It has nothing to do with price. It has everything to do with being unique.

The unique, the different, the customer-focussed, they all win. The generic, the seemingly uncaring, the bland, they are dying out.

If your company has recently adopted a technology because everyone else uses it, you are already too late. If your customers don’t get what makes you different to everyone else, all there is left to compete on is price. And no-one ever wins that race.

Generic is dead. It’s time to be special, to treat each customer individually, to deal with each complaint well and to market in a way that says something to the precise kind of person you need to convince.

Generic is dead. What happens next is up to you.

 

 

I don’t believe there is any such thing as a generic or typical conference. As a consultant interpreter, I create bespoke interpreting teams to make your next event achieve more than you could imagine. Sounds good? Let’s chat.

Less Greek Poetry, More Lifesaving, Please

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: July 27, 2018

You might have missed it but the world has another translation of the Odyssey into English. This one is different as it was translated by a woman, Emily Wilson, a professor of the classics at the University of Pennsylvania. You may have missed it as the excitement surrounding it has only reached fever-pitch in the lofty worlds of literary translation, literary criticism, feminist studies and in some corners of translation. If you are a business owner reading this, I doubt you could even be persuaded to care.

Yes, it is an achievement. Yes, it tells us many interesting things about the inherent bias of all translation (even machine translation is biased). Yes, it is a cultural milestone. But it leaves me with not much more than a nonplussed shrug. In fact, the waves of excitement about it that have hit the translation world have actually slightly worried me.

Just as interpreters only ever seem to make the news when they are working for politicians or apparently at risk from machines, it seems that we are rarely ever good at getting people talking about translation when it concerns a book, especially an old one written by a long-dead author.

As someone who spends time in the metal-clanging, mud-flecked world of commercial interpreting, with colleagues whose work in the medical world is more about saving the lives of people who are still breathing, I find it sad that we still find it easier to laud a new translation of the Odyssey than the shout about the fact that people didn’t die this week or businesses grew this week or websites could reach new audiences this week because of the work of lesser-known interpreters and translators.

Of course, non-disclosure agreements don’t apply to the Classics but is a new side of Homer really the biggest achievement translators and interpreters can shout about?

If the saga over Donald Trump’s Russian interpreter taught the world what we mean by professional secrecy and the translations of the UK Government Brexit White Paper allowed us to explain what we mean by quality assurance, what else might the achievements of everyday commercial translators and interpreters show the world?

An average conference interpreter might be worth millions to their clients. Medical translators and interpreters literally save lives every single day. Court interpreters allow everyone to receive justice, whatever their language, while saving significant sums in mistrials. Business interpreters give their clients the best possible chance of winning deals.

So if we are going to celebrate a new translation of the Odyssey, let’s spend even more time celebrating the less glamourous but vital achievements of those outside of the literary sphere. If we are going to be inspired by the Classics, let’s seek even greater inspiration from the Herculean effort of the 90+% of translators who will never translate a single book.

And here’s the biggest challenge. If we are going to decide that we want to hear encouraging, inspiring stories of breaking down barriers, going against the flow and building something genuinely new at our conferences, could we not find that just as easily from our most humble colleagues as we do from leading literary lights? We love speakers whose interests lie in either literature or tech but what about livestreaming some of our simplest colleagues as they tell (anonymised) stories of life on the front line, mediating between life and death, profit and loss, war and peace, injury and safety.

This isn’t just an appeal for translators and interpreters to shine a light on the everyday miracles of even our most humble colleagues. It’s a wakeup call to every business owner who finds this post. We are proud of our diplomatic and literary colleagues but we are equally proud of the colleagues whose work is more directly relevant to your concerns. We are more than headlines and articles in literary magazines.

We are those who increase your profits, open new markets, provide safety documents, allow multilingual inspections, let you receive medical care abroad, and create websites that lead people outside of your home country to buy your products. We are professional interpreters and translators and we make international business (and politics and law) work.

What Nelson Mandela can Teach Business Owners

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: September 27, 2017

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” 
― Nelson Mandela

One of the most inspiring figures in history, Nelson Mandela’s legacy is simply incredible. Everyone knows about his  work in fighting apartheid and leading South Africa. Yet, as inspiring as he is, one of his pithiest quotes is often forgotten.

In a world driven by information and communication, it is striking how many companies still have the attitude that everyone speaks English, so professional translation and interpreting are pointless. The bare facts show them to be wrong.

The All Party Parliamentary Group for languages has shown that, in the United Kingdom alone, companies miss out on £48 billion worth of contracts each year due to a lack of language skills. Research from Common Sense Advisory has found that 75% of consumers prefer to buy in their native language and nearly 60% of consumers will never or only rarely buy from English-only websites.

And, no, machine translation is not enough to bridge the gap. We only need to peruse the numerous examples of poor machine translation found around the web (supreme court beef, anyone?) to see why professionals are still needed. When it comes to interpreting, the results are even more striking, as can be seen from this video of a so-called “translation earpiece” in action.

Human professionals will always deliver a better job. Only last year, I helped a company land a seven figure contract by smoothing out a cultural misunderstanding during an interpreting assignment. Machines won’t do that. At best, they just tell you what the person said.

Interpreting makes a difference. You will always be more convincing when working with a professional than you will be without them. If you are looking for your business to reach international markets and persuade buyers who don’t speak your language, it’s time we talked. Drop me an email to see the difference professional interpreter can make to you.

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.

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.

Building Credibility in a New Market

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: June 6, 2017

Whatever kind of business you run, there will come a time when you need to take your credibility and expertise and apply them to a completely new market. How can you do that and what does it take?

I had been an interpreter for about five years before I realised the power of credibility. I had based my entire marketing strategy on the premise that if I contacted enough potential clients (almost all of them agencies), I would eventually get work. And that kind of worked. Except the flow of work was slow and the process was boring.

At some point, I had the idea that I might be able to apply the work I had been doing on research and on blogging research to my own business. So, I put together a very basic wordpress site and started writing there and then shortly after, I started writing articles for magazines in my industry too.

Slowly and after a few false starts, I started to build a reputation. At the first professional conference I attended abroad, someone said they recognised me from my blog. My CV got shunted to the top of the pile by a very busy agency because one of their project managers had seen me on twitter.

The effort of creating content began to be rewarded with the benefit of being invited to speak at conferences and universities across the UK and Europe and, of course, the publication of my first book. Add to that the opportunity to do work for some new clients and I could show that I was marketing something I could actually deliver.

About eighteen months ago, I realised it was time to start the process all over again. As much as it is still fun to be recognised at conferences in my own industry, that wasn’t sufficient to help me reach the event management clients I am looking for. To do that, I was going to have to build up a reputation in their industry too!

If you are looking at doing something similar for your potential clients, there are a few stages that you will go through.

In the early days, you will have a regular fight with imposter syndrome (who am I to talk to these people?), which won’t be helped by the pile of rejections that you will get.

But that’s okay. Rejections are part of the process. Keep pitching to conferences and magazines. Keep writing content. Keep reading the magazines your clients read. Eventually, something will work. Deliver with excellence and you can go to the next stage.

If you are smart, you will leverage any success you get for all its worth. Did you get an article in a client magazine? Mention it on your website and in every single proposal. Did you get invited to do a talk? Invite potential clients to come. Did you deliver an excellent project? Use that experience to get more.

Whatever level of success you attain, it will only grow if you make the most out of it. What you learn from one experience becomes the food for the next and the audience you meet today can often help you build one tomorrow.

One last point, in all of this, it is important to be able to give some worthwhile knowledge or expertise in the process and it is vital to always deliver even better than you promise. When I chat with event managers, I don’t try to tell them how to run events, but I do try to give away some useful ideas about working more effectively with interpreters or bringing translation and interpreting together at their events. True expertise is not the knowledge that you are great but the ability to help others achieve greatness.

Keep pushing doors and adding value. It’s the best thing you can do for your business.

And, if you are an event manager looking for someone to build teams to deliver high-impact multilingual events, let’s chat.

Whose World do you Live In?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: April 13, 2017

It is always tempting to stay around people like you. Interpreters like the comfort of being around other interpreters. Events managers like events for event managers.

 

But there is a limit on the amount of work that comes from there. People like you do the same work as you and so, unless they are routinely generating more than they can handle, they won’t be hiring you any time soon, at least not regularly enough to matter.

 

Your clients will likely not make an appearance at events for your sector. They will be behaving exactly the same way as you do – spending time with their people, occasionally popping their heads over the parapet to find a supplier of some specialist service.

 

So if you want to find clients, you need to be in their space, not yours. And the best thing about being in their space is that if you are surrounded by 1000 potential clients, it doesn’t matter if 950 aren’t interested in what you do. In fact, even 995 ‘no’ responses might be okay since the work from those 5 clients who say ‘yes’ will more than pay back any investment you made to get there.

 

And if you don’t want to go out and meet clients on their turf, don’t worry, I am sure your competitors will be there. Just don’t count on their success being much good to you.

Interpreters don’t need any more platforms

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: March 14, 2017

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At least twice a year, the world of interpreting is bombarded with another “solution provider” offering a game-changing idea that will revolutionise the industry… only to vanish in a puff of smoke. Why is the industry still dominated by the same few players? Why do the game-changers often turn out to be nothing more than a momentary distraction? 

The most common reason that new platforms make a big splash and then sink into obscurity is simply that, in many cases, the inventors either have little industry knowledge or try to solve a problem for which a good, but not perfect solution exists.

Take telephone interpreting. It would really take something special to knock the likes of Language Line off their perch, simply because the largest uses of that form of interpreting are markets where multi-year, exclusive supplier contracts rule the day. To win there, you need to be a technology provider, agency, quality manager and telecoms company all at once.

Then there is the rash of providers looking to provide human interpreting via an app, usually for ad hoc work. This is basically the telephone interpreting market but with less status and so recruiting interpreters means either paying professional rates to try to attract experts and running razor thin margins or going for “bilinguals” and sacrificing quality and hoping clients won’t notice.

It is pretty obvious then that “Interpreting via app” is not the cash cow that it looks like. Building another platform is a pretty risky way of trying to make money, especially since more and more interpreters are looking to win their own clients anyway.

Of course, there are a lot of new potential markets, such as webinar interpreting and remote interpreting for hospitals. However, in those cases, once again, just being a platform provider is not enough. Clients seem to want solution providers in those market to provide both the tech and the specialist interpreters to use it. And that is something you can only do if you already know the industry well.

So what should you try if you want to make money from the interpreting industry? By far the best course of action would be to tune into what the upper end of the market is doing, since the mid- and bulk-markets are already so competitive. Tech that improves interpreter workflows, such as automated term extraction, easier billing and payment management, slicker terminology apps and travel management will always be popular. There is also a need for specific CRM tools for the industry that link to client-specific term lists and ways of tracking practice. Add to that the need to service the needs of new tech-driven markets and there is enough space for a whole world of new providers.

There is huge potential for developers to create something of real value… just don’t make another over-hyped platform, OK?