Whether you’re a professional speaker or not, as a leader, you may have opportunities to speak outside your own country – or to a local audience that doesn’t speak your language. Speaking through a translator onstage to present a talk to an audience that doesn’t understand a word you’re saying is a challenge, but if you plan well, you can have a lot of fun.
I’ve spoken to audiences in many countries and worked with just as many translators. Based on that experience, some tips will help make your talk more engaging and successful.
1) Meet with your translator ahead of time. Even if it’s an hour before you speak, meet him or her, get to know them, see their personality, and get comfortable. And if possible, meet them soon enough that the conference could make a change if necessary. For instance, if you’re naturally funny, but your translator is deadpan, that’s not a good mix. I would never speak at an event without the opportunity to talk and get to know my translator beforehand.
2) Long before the event, review your speech (and PowerPoint presentation if you have one) with your translator. This is especially important when you’re speaking outside your own country. Jokes that work in the United States don’t necessarily work in other countries. I once had a Korean translator rip my presentation apart because all the slides I thought were hilarious she said weren’t remotely funny to Koreans. It was annoying, but it saved me from embarrassment. Plus, there are a million things like makes of cars, cultural issues, music, movies, and more that your audience may have no reference for whatsoever. Be sure you work out those bugs ahead of time.
3) Discuss your speaking style and preferences onstage. Do you like to walk when you speak? Stay in one place? Engage with the audience? Be sure your translator knows your habits because you don’t want him crowding you – or worse, bumping into you. And don’t be afraid to tell them how much space you like between you. I once had a translator who was so into it he was constantly pushing against me. I appreciated his enthusiasm, but he started freaking me out. With the best translators, they can just about mimic your every move, and that’s actually fascinating to see.
4) Talk to the translator about doing the translation after or over your sentences. I’ve always had translators repeat my lines after me, but speaking to marketplace leaders in Brazil, I had a fantastic Portuguese translator who would actually talk over me. With both of us talking simultaneously, it was incredibly confusing at first, but I eventually got the hang of it, and afterward, I discovered people loved it. But it takes an excellent translator to pull it off; plus, you must know how to stay focused and not be distracted.
5) Remember to cut your talk roughly in half. Remember that you’re saying every sentence twice with a translator. What you thought would be a 30-minute presentation can often take an hour. Depending on the language you’re translating into, it could be a little less or a little more. So check with your translator beforehand and get an idea of how much you may need to edit your talk.
6) Finally, have fun. Know that despite preparation, some words and phrases will get screwed up, or the translator will make a mistake. If that happens, stop, have him or her repeat it, and take your time. Don’t get nervous. If you have fun with it, the audience will also enjoy it.