How to Present to an Audience Using Simultaneous Translation

Executive Summary

I’m fortunate to travel the world, doing what I do, and speaking English is a distinct advantage, as much of the world does too. However, there have been a number of occasions when English wouldn’t do and I needed to be translated. I’ve been translated into Japanese, Farsi, Italian, Mandarin, and Russian on my travels.

So let me share with you what I’ve learnt to give you a head start if you’re ever asked to do so.

Brief them

The translators will come in pairs, as it’s an extremely tiring job, and they’ll switch over after 20 minutes each. In Japan, I met with the two girls the night before and talked about my topic. I ran through some technical terms that wouldn’t normally translate, and I gave them a generic picture of the presentation. I answered their questions, they attuned to my accent, and I calibrated theirs.

Don’t think for a moment that your talk will translate literally. It won’t, and they’ll need some background first.

Give them slides and handouts/notes

My two translators in China were ferocious consumers of my written materials. They wanted slide copies, the handouts used and copies of my books. In English too. During their 20 minute breaks, they read and digested the written word to help them in their translation. They preferred hard copies so do ensure you have these available.

Increase the time

It will take you longer to deliver the presentation and I’ll explain why in a moment. Start with the time it normally takes and multiply by 1.5. So if it normally delivers in 60 minutes, assume it’ll take you 90 minutes. Plan around this concept.

I was delivering day long sessions to around 25 people in the room so I had to cut topics down to size.

Shorter sentences and more pauses

The mistake many speakers make is to speak slower; ironically this doesn’t help and is just plainly difficult. Instead speak in shorter sentences, include a full stop (period to my American cousins) by physically pausing longer. Get used to this staccato approach and your translators and your audience will live you to bits.

Graphic based slides – 65% visuals

I’ve seen three sources recently that state that 65% of adults are visual thinkers and prefer pictures and images to understand meanings. We’ve always known this. My advice is to put more pictures, movies and images on your slides and animate them more. Pictures cross language barriers.

Ditch the flipchart, welcome the whiteboard

Continuing the theme of visuals, I found building pictures and infographics on a large whiteboard very effective for getting across complex messages. The physical building and creation of an infographic helped the audience to understand the message more clearly. But make sure your translators can see the image clearly as they use this to help with their translation.

Flipcharts are too small for images for large groups.


Some speakers feel involvement is nigh on impossible when being simultaneously translated. I disagree because I was delivering day long sessions to groups up to 25 people and without interaction and involvement, I would’ve bombed.

I’ll explain the kit needed in a moment that you need.

The involvement is team based activities that we often call syndicate exercises. Choose random teams and set them tasks to complete. Small team discussions work really well and they can communicate in their own language. Choose your feedback mechanism well and let teams come back to you with their findings or conclusions. Let them populate a flipchart sheet with writing or images to help their presentation and let them present back in their own language.

I had a great time with my mandarin friends in China who just loved spending 20 minutes in small group activities and reporting back in their mother tongue. I had them move around the room, present back whilst standing, pinning their charts to the walls for a peripheral image set.

Get the kit right

Have a look at this photo.

I’m tooled up to go interactive. I have a lavaliere or lapel mike pinned to my shirt so whatever I say in English can be translated immediately to the group who all wear earphones. On my left ear I have an earphone which is wirelessly linked to the translator’s booth so anything my group say in Japanese or Russian, my translators will give me in English.

This allows me to get interactive and to hear them feeding back in their own language and respond in mine. It does take a little longer, naturally, but is very effective.

And it looks cool too.

Taking questions

I tried the odd group discussion but it was clunky and didn’t work. Instead I ran regular Q&A sessions. I made sure that each table had a mobile or cabled microphone so the group could talk to me in their own language. A ratio of 4 people to 1 microphone is desired.

Then you do a normal Q&A session. When receiving their answers, there’s always a delay as the translator translates, so to prevent the embarrassing silence I would hold my hand to the earphones when I was listening to indicate to the group that I was still listening. This allowed for a 3 to 4 second period of silence.

Asking questions

This worked well. Rather than setting a timed group activity, ask a question and let the group respond. Point them to their microphones on the tables; they’ll need to be reminded. My friends in Tokyo were so keen to answer; they forgot the microphones so needed to be reminded.

Other than these tips, be prepared to repeat things occasionally, keep an eye on the translators in the booth in case they don’t understand something. And finally if you tell a joke, don’t expect the audience to laugh immediately on the punchline, be prepared for them to laugh 4 seconds afterwards. That’s a surreal experience. It’s probably best not to tell jokes as these don’t always translate, culture etc. I told funny stories; they went down well because everyone can relate to these.

And above all enjoy as its great fun