The business of interpreting: FAQ 4 – What exactly am I selling?

Are you clear on what it is you are selling? You know it isn’t interpreting, right? That goes without saying – if you were a plumber, they wouldn’t have called to ask you to quote for aninterpreting job. So they know you sell interpreting skills – but is that what they will buy from you? How will a future client differentiate between you and the other interpreters out there, when s/he believes that you all offer the same thing, that you are all a commodity?

Well, you know for sure you shouldn’t sell quality, because that says nothing. Who would bother selling low quality stereos, or low quality legal services? High quality is the very least that yourclient can and should expect, so it can’t be a benefit or a selling point, and should be more implied than mentioned.

So what are you selling?

If we look to the world of products, one excellent example is Kodak. Eastman Kodak was in thebusiness of making and selling imaging products and image capture technology (cameras and film, for those of us born before pixels). But they weren’t really selling their programs, film or cameras. Kodak was actually selling you feelings and memories – in fact, they were selling you your memories. They were selling you the look on your mother’s face when she watched you get married (finally!); the way you feel when you see palm trees on your favorite beach (and the taste of the ‘pissaladière’ you were eating there); the laughter you can still hear when you look at the photo of your children when they were younger. Nothing to do with image capturing at all – you bought the technology for your memories.

Another good product example is how clothing is sold, or how cigarettes used to be sold. It doesn’t matter what brand you like or buy. What matters is the lifestyle you can see yourself living: theparty you would love to attend, the people you want to spend time with, the places you would go – not so much the clothes you would wear at these parties or the cigarettes you smoked there, though you think it is.

Cars are the same – we all want to drive that fabulously winding road through gorgeous countryside with that beautiful person next to us. We want to be able to pick up at any time, throw the luggage into the back, and take off for parts unknown. We want to belong to the tribe that drives that car, to flash our headlights at each other as we pass on the street, to turn heads as we rumble by …

So what are we selling?

We deal in abstracts, in communicating ideas, which are much more difficult to sell. There is no literal sun shining, no sense of place, nothing to engage your senses at all. The ideas we deal in have to fire the imagination through words alone. The UN has done this – they had to sell cooperation and long term peace just after the most widespread war in history. UNESCO has been able to call people to action through ringing phrases: “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.”[i]

Ideas can spark new behaviors, new approaches, new products, new connections. We can gather together and exchange them, firing each other up to do great things. Ideas can get people excited –why else would so many have come out to Washington DC in 1963 to hear the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. speak? He had a dream that the country could rise “from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.” Winston Churchill spoke of the world moving forward after World War II into “broad sunlit uplands.” Here are ideas expressed with feeling: you can feel the cold of the darkness giving way to the light and warmth of the sunlight. Each of them was selling a big idea, an abstract idea – racial equality or victory – but doing so through the senses of their listeners.

We need to understand exactly what we are selling.

Just as those speakers did, we also have to describe what we are selling in great detail. And yes, it is difficult to say what each of us sells. We all sell the same type of service, but again, it isn’t really interpreting that gets us the job, or the client would stop at the first phone call. It isn’t even “French interpreting,” whatever that may mean to the client, whether it be interpreting from FR>EN,or EN>FR, or FR<>EN, or … It is something intangible, something that belongs solely to you, your specific skill set. After all, what skills I include in my service will be different from what you, my colleague/competitor, include in yours. My unique selling proposition will be different from yours, or else it wouldn’t be unique.

Each of us has to sit down, apply some mental elbow grease, and think what it is we provide that is different. After all, if the prospective client called us, they want us to be their solution. They don’t want to sit through a recital of why you are the best, how you provide high quality services, ad nauseum. Everybody does that, and they wouldn’t have called you if they didn’t already know that part of your package.

So is your special ability that of bringing people together? Can you somehow introduce people to each other as part of your job?

Is your gift being an excellent organizer? Could you somehow include organizing meetings as part of your contract?

Could your contribution be to ensure that the client’s product is marketed in the best possible way to target foreign language-speaking counterparts during the client’s big event?

This specific skill, this intangible something, must somehow be made more tangible for the client to be able to imagine it. Your prospective client is thinking, “How will this service specifically benefit ME?” and doesn’t care about any other thing you might want to tell them about.

If you can bring people together, why not go through your contact list and see who might be good contacts for each other? This will show that you are thinking about the clients and their needs rather than your own. If all they need is the introduction, but no interpretation in this particular interaction, they will remember your selflessness and your ability to see to their needs.

If you are an excellent organizer, why not suggest to your client that you organize a meeting, or a series of telephone calls, to maintain relations with their foreign clients? It would take very little time out of the client’s schedule, as you would deal with the organizing, the note taking, and reminders of the main points of previous interactions. This could make you indispensable to the client in their foreign customer relationship management.

If your prospective client is hiring you to interpret at his big marketing event, and your talent is to really become the speaker, why not let the prospect know that? Explain what specific benefits you can bring to him, his company, and his products or services, and how much better it will be for the speaker’s enthusiasm to target the foreign audience segment in the same way as the local audience.

Yes, we sell communication (note, not ‘high quality interpretation’), possibly even intercultural communication services, but what specific benefits does that communication bring? We need to make what we are selling as real as possible in our client’s imagination. We need to describe specific outcomes that can be seen, felt and touched.

Once a client can imagine using your services, feeling the warmth of the handshake at the end of the negotiation, and deriving a concrete benefit from your service, the sale is made and the job is yours.


[i]Preamble, UNESCO Constitution.

originally published on the blog of the International Association of Conference Interpreters (


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