What interpreters know about public speaking

They are a bit weird, really. Interpreters sit at the back of the room, in comfy-looking boxes and just talk. Whatever you say, they talk. However funny (or otherwise) your jokes, they come up with something. In fact, the bulk of conference interpreters have sat through – and had to cope with – just about every kind of speech you can imagine. They know a lot about speaking and speakers. So here is what interpreters could tell you about public speaking:

1)    No, you don’t need to slow down that much.

The speed freak phenomenon is well-known but there is another side to the story. Every so often, you find a speaker who, in an effort to be more intelligible decides to … speak … incredibly … slowly … Ahnd … overrr … eenunciatuh … eh-veh-ry … word. After more than a few minutes, the audience starts to get annoyed or fights an attack of the giggles and, if there are any interpreters there, they are reaching for their coffees.

The truth is that, funnily enough, speaking at a natural, conversational speed makes you easier to understand. Technically, the sweet spot is between 110 and 130 words per minute. If you want an idea of how fast that is, listen to a UK or US television newsreader and you will get an idea. Once you get used to speaking at that kind of speed and can do it even when nervous, you will not need to think about speed again.

2)    Jokes are powerful; use them wisely.

At this point, I want to diverge from the usual advice given to speakers. I would never advise anyone to get rid of jokes entirely. Nor would I advise anyone to pepper their talk with more anecdotes than content. However, somewhere in the middle, there is that place where, once you have a rough idea of your audience, you can connect with them by dropping in a few witty (i.e. clever and not rude or racist) remarks about the setting or the people.

I need to add one caveat. If you are speaking to a multicultural audience, be careful with puns. I remember using a lovely pun at a conference, only for it to be met with confused silence. Don’t make my mistake.

3)    We are smart but we aren’t computers.

I saw an article recently that told writers to drop numbers from their writing whenever possible. I would advise something similar for speakers. Even in the most intricate of economic speeches, the limitations of the human brain will mean that, after the third GDP figure, we will lose the plot. Much better, if you want people to actually be able to follow you, is the practice of telling people the overall story and, where necessary inserting an image or metaphor to demonstrate. This leads me on to the whole question of PowerPoint

4)    PowerPoint is a visual medium so drop the text and numbers

I imagine the king of the bullet point kingdom rejoicing merrily at the invention of PowerPoint because he knew that suddenly he would rule over a mighty kingdom of billions of little dots. It is very rare to see a presenter who does not think that PowerPoint is an excuse for hundreds of bullets standing before row upon row of tiny text – a recipe for squinty-eyed disaster.

The best presenters are those who realise that visual aids are extremely powerful when used to backup a point and firmly entrench it in people’s minds. This means reducing text to an absolute minimum and using appropriate pictures, diagrams and even videos wherever possible.

Returning to the theme of figures from point 3, it is almost always a better idea to turn  figures into come kind of chart or graph to show trends than to present them in one big ugly table. It will also help you present more naturally and keep to the overarching story (or t-shirt message) you are trying to get across.

5)    Don’t tap the mic!

There are few more headache-inducing noises than a speaker who feels they have to test the mic by tapping it. Not only is it likely to have your audience (and any interpreters nearby) reaching for their aspirins, it makes it look like you are unsettled and unprofessional. Much better to start with something that wouldn’t be much of a loss if the equipment is not working but would still makes sense if it is. I personally recommend “thank you very much” or “good morning/afternoon/evening ladies and gentlemen”.

Very soon, there will be a specific post on working with interpreters. See you then.


About Jonathan Downie

I am a conference interpreter, public speaking coach, preacher and researcher.
This entry was posted in Audience, Delivery, Public Speaking. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to What interpreters know about public speaking

  1. Pingback: Weekly favorites (Jan 24-30) | Adventures in Freelance Translation

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