Using American Speakers for International Groups

Are you planning out-of-the-country meetings? Here’s how to score when speakers and audiences speak different languages.

Now I finally know why my speaker friends are so interested in working abroad. It can be a very positive and rewarding experience, even when the speaker and audience speak different languages.

Knowing all the difficulties, I had usually turned down such jobs. But in November of 1998, I spoke at three public seminars and four in-house meetings in Taiwan, a total of seven Chinese-speaking audiences. It was such a triumph that I can’t wait to go back. Here is what you can do to help your speakers have a similar success.

1. Ask for advice. Start by asking other meeting planners to share their own experiences and offer you their suggestions. Learn from other’s mistakes!

2. Suggest a language lesson. Recommend that your speakers acquire a few key phrases in the local language. If you are booking a lot of speakers in the same country, consider developing a phrase book or arranging a tutor or taped instructional program for them. A young woman from Taiwan helped me acquire eighteen Chinese phrases. Although my pronunciation wasn’t great, I got an A for effort.

3. Translate speaker’s handouts well in advance.

4. Suggest an early arrival so speakers can adjust to any time change, rehearse with the translator, and preview their material with test audiences.

5. Select a good platform translator, one that will compliment the speaker. This does not necessarily mean that a man must translate for a man or a woman for a woman. Rather, that it is a good “match” in energy and interpretation.

Start by providing the translator with a tape of the speaker’s material well in advance so he or she can become familiar with the speaker’s phrases and personality. Then arrange for the speaker and translator to rehearse together, even briefly, before the presentation.

I arrived several days early in Taiwan and rehearsed my programs with my translator, Paul, so that we worked the platform like dancers, alternating sentences in English and Chinese. The audience responded positively to our Fred and Ginger interaction, and all eyes were on me when I spoke, not on my translator, awaiting the next words the audience could understand.

One internationally known speaker recently had seventy percent of an overseas audience ask for their money back. He was working with a translator who couldn’t communicate his message effectively. Many American speakers think it’s the translator’s job to get the speaker’s message across. Wrong! Encourage the speaker to think of the translator as an essential partner in the presentation.

My good relationship with my translator enabled me to offer extra value. For example, Paul had learned the kind of thing I was looking for, and at one in-house meeting, he pointed out and translated the signs on the meeting room walls. I wrote them down in English and used them in my opening remarks. As I pointed to each sign, I said, “I see that you are committed to excellent customer service, to teamwork, to excellence–” I built my remarks around their core values as if I were reading them on the signs.

6. Set up a preview. Arrange an opportunity for the speaker to test his or her material in front of a small test audience prior the actual presentation, using the assigned translator. Assemble a group similar to your paid audiences (salespeople, executives, etc.) and explain that you need their feedback. Ask for their specific evaluations of how relevant and appropriate the information will be for the intended audience. What should be added or omitted?

7. Ensure a strong introduction. I was incredibly fortunate, rehearsing my introduction with my promoter and his staff. I’ve never had a client warm up the crowd so well. The Taiwanese are traditionally “traditional,” rarely effusive, but before my first presentation, the audience had really been warmed up. Then I came on stage to lively rock music, with fifteen staff members clapping and dancing behind me. The 1500-member audience rose to their feet to join in. Elton John has rarely gotten a more energetic reception.

You may not be able to orchestrate anything as dazzling as this, but don’t send your speakers out cold. Be sure everyone in the audience knows they are about to hear from celebrities!

After each public seminar I delivered in Taiwan, I was presented with six bouquets of flowers. The audience raced up to the stage for autographs and videos, and at least fifty people asked to have their photos taken with me. This scene was repeated on a slightly smaller scale at the more intimate in-house meetings.

Your speakers can get similar receptions if you do your homework. Presenting speakers to audiences that don’t speak the same language can be an exhilarating and rewarding experience. I recommend it heartily. But, as with your American bookings, do your homework and plan ahead. When you do, the rewards will be enormous.