Rebel Rising Podcast

4 Key Lessons To Remember When Public Speaking Using An Interpreter

Today's guest post is brought to you by Peter Billingham. Imagine you are about to step-on stage to give your big speech in front of 300 of your closest friends. Except these friends are Russian, they don't speak English, and are going NOT going to be paying attention to you but to an interpreter. Learn from Peter's own experience. 

Public speaking through a translator is a lot like playing telephone

Public speaking through a translator is a lot like playing telephone

I could see more white on her knuckles than a Chorophobic would have at a Saturday Night Fever Convention. The sweat was trickling under her makeup like a spring stream under frozen winter ice. Her pleading eyes were fixed like the stare of a baby rabbit caught in beam of terminal headlights. I turned and looked to my right where there was now only silence, I knew that I was in deep trouble.

  • It was a key speech, so I had a constructed a single clear thought I wanted to communicate.
  • It was an important speech, so I had carefully thought through my audiences’ needs.
  • It was a critical speech so I had crafted a compelling opening, call to action and practised hard.

I was fully prepared. I was ready to give to my main platform presentation, The Power of Words,” to an audience of more than 300 people at a national media conference in Kiev, Ukraine. While these basic requirements of preparation for public speaking are critical, there was one other important factor to consider. While I had done all I could, someone else was going to be my voice and to communicate my well-prepared message. I hold the greatest admiration for interpreters. It is an extremely difficult, stressful and skilled occupation to pursue. On this particular day, the interpreter that had been allocated to me had had little experience in translating a British English speaker. And, importantly, a British English speaker with a strong regional accent! That was not fair at all to the interpreter who was skilled at working with American English speakers. But it was also not fair to me as the conference speaker, after the time and preparation that had been invested up to that point. There is a lesson to learn in checking carefully before an event.

I have spent the last five years working Kiev, Ukraine. I have used interpreters in almost every form of public speaking and day to management. From inspiring messages casting vision and encouraging staff teams, to management training and presenting on subjects as diverse as social media marketing and listening skills. I have worked with technical translators at a legal meeting buying commercial buildings to dealing with an irate neighbour who is not happy with the way the cars are parked.  During these and many other occasions I have learned some key lessons how to be effective as a public speaker when using an interpreter.

Speak using complete phrases or communicate one idea 

When I observe people public speaking and using an interpreter for the first time, the most common mistake is speaking too few or too many words for the translator to construct the phrase or idea in the language they are interpreting. There is a big difference between an interpreter and a translator. Using an interpreter you speak a few words and then the interpreter takes your words and ideas and communicates them in the local language. A translator would take a document and translate it word for word into the local language. Getting good at using an interpreter is learning how to “chunk” together enough words to establish a flow. Too few words and it’s difficult to build momentum. Often the way grammar or words translate it’s hard for the interpreter to communicate your words if there is not enough spoken. Too many and the interpreter fails to communicate fully the message in the depth you have said.

Rephrase rather than repeat 

When you are communicating your message, especially if you have not been able to go through the text before hand, you can sometimes reach a point when you have used a phrase or words that confuse or are unknown. A classic mistake is to repeat the same words or phrase. Then maybe repeat it again, but this time slightly louder, as if by increasing the volume it makes it easier to understand! Rephrase rather than repeat. Think of other words that describe the thought you want to communicate. Suggest a few synonyms and you will find the interpreter gets the context of what you are trying to say.

Humour doesn’t travel to the same destinations as you do 

As an experienced speaker would know, when you are on your feet in full flow you can get a line or thought that you know could add a touch of humour to your speech and, with the correct timing, you drop it in. Don’t do this when using an interpreter. There is nothing worse than either the blank stare from the interpreter or the uncomfortable silence following a line that bombed because the humour didn’t work. Even worse, don’t try to explain it! That never works in your own native language let alone when being interpreted!

Keep eye contact with audience, not with the interpreter

Whenever we speak in public gaining and keeping eye contact is vital to create and build trust and rapport with your audience. Another common mistake I often see when people use an interpreter, is to look at them rather than the audience. I prefer to have the interpreter on my left hand side or even behind me if I am speaking without notes. I am right handed and naturally feel more comfortable gesturing and moving when speaking to my right.

Those are four key lessons I’ve learned when using an interpreter. Perhaps, if it’s at all possible, let the interpreter have the transcript of your speech in enough time to read it through and ask questions. I was speaking recently at another conference in Kiev, and I was able to use an excellent interpreter. But even then, the word “Bonnet” of the car (as in “hood” in American English) caused some problems! The interpreter had the transcript a few days before, and it really helped in being able to communicate a better flow in the speech through another language.

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Using an interpreter when public speaking demands very different skills and I hope you find these lessons helpful, it would be great to hear from you if you do.

Peter Billingham is visionary leader, conference speaker, public speaking coach and storyteller. His role as CIS Regional Director for an International Charity has seen him envision and lead a number of “start up” operations in Ukraine including One Hope, an NGO that recruits mentors for children in state orphanages. Based in Birmingham, England (which makes for an interesting commute) Peter is an active member of Toastmasters, loves adventure travel and creating intentional memories for his family. He once flew 7182 just to cook them a cheeseburger! You can find more about Peter at or on

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