Do This, Not That: Public Speaking Tips for Interpreters

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To be a great interpreter, you need to be a great public speaker. Having done a little bit of research on the topic of public speaking, I’ve found that most of the basic rules don’t apply. Most of the foundational skills for public speaking involve skills that are based on being a bit candid. Storytelling and using humor, for example, can make you a great public speaker but they will make you a poor interpreter. As an interpreter, it isn’t your job to be funny or a storyteller (you know that!). It’s your job to relay the messages of someone else who is a great public speaker.

As I researched, I asked myself “what makes a great interpreter in a public setting”. Here are three general tips that I’ve come up with:

1. Have you ever encountered a speaker that was fidgety? I mean constantly moving, shuffling papers, or adjusting their clothes. Did it bother you? If you said yes, you are part of the majority. Generally, audience feels less engaged and more distracted when the speaker nervously fidgets.

Do This, Not That
Before starting to interpret, make sure you are comfortable and organized. Adjust your clothing and arrange your materials prior to beginning your interpretation. Relax, put your hands at your sides (unless you’re an ASL interpreter), and start interpreting.

2. Omit your “umms” and “ahhs”. Make a concerted effort not to make “thinking noises”. This is often distracting to the listener. You’ll come across very professional and prepared if you omit your “umms” and “ahhs”.

Do This, Not That
If you need a moment to think, pause silently. I know interpreting must be on pace but an “umm” takes just as much time as a pause but it is far less distracting. Cutting out thinking sounds will be difficult especially if it is habitual. You’ll need to work to cut it out of your daily communications and work toward cutting it out of your interpretations.

3. Dress professionally and you’ll feel professional. This is classic advice. This is the advice my father gave to me and his father to him. The reason it’s classic is because it is one of those things in life that just happens to be proved time and time again. Trust me; this piece of advice is the real deal. When you feel professional, you’ll be confident and that will show through your voice, posture, and mannerisms.

Do This, Not That
Everyone has a different opinion of how professionals dress but there is some consensus. For men, you can’t go wrong with a dress shirt, black trousers, and black shoes. It is pretty standard and inexpensive to purchase if you require a professional look. Women can often dress in more versatile clothing (and to be honest, I’m not about to give advice on women’s fashion. I’m pretty clueless in that department). If you need some advice, check this out:

So there you have it folks, three public speaking tips for interpreters. Have any more to add? Comment below! If we get enough, I’ll put them in another tips blog.

4 thoughts on “Do This, Not That: Public Speaking Tips for Interpreters

  1. A great strategy for cutting out the “ummms” and “ahhhhs” comes from Toastmasters International (a club for learning public speaking). Get a friend to sit in the audience when you’re interpreting and mark down a hatch line for each “thinking word” you utter. You’ll probably be shocked at how many there are in the end. Next, be the “um counter” for another interpreter or speaker, which will make you hone in on how annoying the words are. Balancing the two exercises will make you excruciatingly conscious of your use of thinking words during subsequent interpreting sessions. Doing these exercises several times will quickly let you see your progress graphically, soon replacing embarrassment with pride.

  2. Yes I have, and it really works! It’s crucial to do *both* exercises — counting and being counted. For a while after doing them several times, all you can hear in *any* talking are other people’s “ums” and “uhs” — very distracting, but it shows how powerful the exercises are in highlighting these usually overlooked “thinking words” (I like your phrase a lot!).

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