Recently, I had the privilege of presenting for several hours, through an interpreter, to high-ranking officials in the Chinese revenue service.

I am pleased to say that I had the benefit of a very skilled interpreter – Barbara Grieve, Chief Executive of AXCEN Australia China Business Development.   I also had the benefit of very helpful tips from Lachlan Wolfers, a KPMG tax partner who is currently based in Hong Kong as leader of KPMG’s Centre of Excellence for Indirect Taxes.

Based on this helpful advice, some other research and this recent experience, I have set out below some ideas that I hope might help with presenting through an interpreter.   If you would like to share your experience or comment on or add to these ideas, we would love to hear from you.

  • Try to have a chat with your interpreter before the session.  The quality of interpreter skills varies greatly.  It will be helpful if you have an idea of how skilled and comfortable your interpreter is.
  • Send your presentation to the interpreter in advance of the session and try to allow time to chat to the interpreter about any queries before the session starts.
  • Look at your guests most of the time, not at the interpreter. Especially when answering questions.
  • Allow approximately twice the usual time – for your presentation and for questions and answers.
  • Try to give a complete phrase or communicate a single idea before pausing to allow the interpreter to speak. But, of course, only speak for 20-30 seconds before allowing the interpreter to speak.
  • Check in with the interpreter from time to time, to see if you are going too fast or too slow – particularly if there is a break.
  • If the audience or interpreter does not seem to understand what you have said, try rephrasing rather than repeating what you have said. Beware of the tendency to speak louder than you normally would.
  • Through the interpreter, try to engage with anyone asking a question – ask questions to ensure that you understand their question, ask for their perspective or experience etc.  Do not assume that polite smiling or nodding means the audience has understood you.
  • Use body language when speaking to your audience – for example, holding up three fingers consecutively if there are three points to make.
  • Be aware that some members of your audience may speak English and may even do some quiet translating for colleagues next to them.
  • Avoid acronyms, technical jargon and idioms and the like.
  • Avoid double negatives.
  • Use simple language.  But this does not mean simple concepts – your content should match the professional standing of the audience. You must not come across as superior or condescending.
  • Take care with humour  – it often will not translate well.  Some people advise not to use humour at all.  However, it is a good way to build rapport and some humour is universal. But never use sarcasm.
  • Research or take advice on cultural sensitivities.  But don’t be too hung up on this – you are expected to be your own nationality, not that of the audience.
  • Using a few words of the language of the audience can be a nice touch – especially at the start – and if, as is likely, you are not expert in your pronunciation, it can be a source of light humour and bonding with the audience.  They will appreciate your effort.
  • Always be respectful, erring on the side of being more rather than less formal and respectful.
  • Thank the audience for their patience.
  • Thank the interpreter – it is a difficult and stressful task.

Good luck with your presentations! And remember, if you would like to share your experience or comment on or add to these ideas, we would love to hear from you.