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 (

The business of interpreting: FAQ 3 – Who is my client?

When we receive our degree, we all assume that now it’s only a matter of delivering our services. But very quickly we come up against the reality that work doesn’t fall from the heavens and we must think more strategically about our careers.

In FAQ 2 I noted some simple questions that are the basis of strategic thinking: “Where should I live?” “What field should I specialize in?” “What services do I offer?”, and the big one, “Why do I interpret?” But there are more questions down the career road and this article examines one of them: “Who exactly is my client?”

I can hear you asking “What do you mean, who is my client? Isn’t it obvious? It’s whoever pays me!” But this is far too simplistic an answer for so important a topic.

The forgotten client

First of all, your most obvious – but often forgotten – client is your colleague. Your partner in the booth is not only a fellow interpreter but may also have hired you for the job.

Colleagues are our best clients: they know exactly what we do, and best of all – they know the customers, so we don’t have to find them ourselves! They act as the middleman, organizing the meeting, making sure we get documents, and letting us know how we will get paid.

So why do so many of us treat our colleagues differently than we treat a chief interpreter or a business client? A colleague knows you better and may even be a friend, but this does not mean that they should be treated less professionally than a chief interpreter.

When your colleague calls, do you answer right away? When they ask you for information, do you reply immediately or do you forget, making them contact you again? When the job is over, is it your invoice the colleague is still waiting for to get everybody paid?

If we all made sure to treat our colleagues as potential clients all of the time, we would never forget to treat them as clients when they do hire us – which they might do more often if we treated them more professionally. A virtuous circle!

Who else?

“My client is whoever pays me” doesn’t work when it’s not a colleague either. Would you take any job at all? Would you work in a bar, interpreting for someone trying to get a “date”? When exactly would that job end? (Ewww.) And you would probably be paid in beer. This is exactly what a translation app is for. Plus, the app doesn’t get humiliated transposing bad pickup lines from one language to another.

Inventory yourself

You have to focus on your niche market to understand who your client is. The first step is to inventory yourself: your education, skills, likes and dislikes, hobbies and causes, what makes you tick.

Education: did you receive a degree in interpreting? An M.A.? A certificate? Conference interpreting? Public service interpreting? What else did you study – literature? Law? Engineering?Nuclear physics? All is grist to your mill.

What else do you know from life experience? For example, I have never studied medicine, but since several members of my family are diabetic, I need very little preparation to discuss diabetes, its causes, repercussions and treatment. Maybe you love Tom Clancy books – then you will know about the technical workings of submarines. Are you interested in fashion? Beauty products? Cars? Motivational speakers? These are all fields that use interpreters.

What about other skills? Are you a good cook? Can you make amazing gluten- and dairy-free chocolate confections? Are you a fan of musicals? Do you tango or salsa? Are you a great organizer? These can also be added to your inventory.

And don’t forget the valuable work we did determining why you interpret. This can help you understand if a potential client’s values match yours. You may think, “Well, they are paying me, so I don’t much care if our values align.” A valid point – but it is so much easier to sell your services if you really believe in what the client is doing and what you can bring to them.

Your market

Now it’s time to understand your interpreting market. With your language combination and education, what type of market can you target? Is this the market that you would ultimately like to be working in?

There are so many different places interpretation is needed: on the private market, for contract and business negotiations, sales conferences, information exchanges, seminars…; in the public service market, interpreting in hospitals, for insurance companies, in schools; in the legal market, for court cases, depositions, consultations, medical and mental health interviews; in the conference interpreting market, for international conferences, special courts, international organizations. Your possibilities are limited only by your imagination and abilities.

Now that you understand this, you realize that you cannot be all things to all markets, so it makes sense to focus on the market that will be most aligned with you.

Your Ideal Client

So who might work in your favorite place, field and market, using your favorite skills? This is where you develop your “ideal client avatar,” the description of the person you most want to work for. Of course, you will continue to work for the same people who have been hiring you already – but this focuses your attention on the clients you ultimately want.

When you make an ideal client avatar, you describe this person in great detail. The more specific you are, the easier it is to recognize your ideal client when you find him or her.

Approximately how old is your ideal client?

Male or female?

Married or single?

Would s/he live in the city in a house or an apartment, or in the country?

What kind of an education would s/he have received?

What type of company does s/he work for?

How much does the company earn?

In what position does your client work, and how much does s/he earn?

What hobbies, interests, causes, does s/he espouse?

What magazines, books, music, TV series, films, podcasts, blogs, social media sites does s/he like?

What kind of car does s/he drive?

What kind of clothes does s/he wear – designer, off the rack, what brands, what style?

Where does s/he like to eat, what cuisine, what does s/he like to drink?

What are the luxuries s/he can’t live without?

What will s/he want to buy from you?

And most important, what is the problem s/he has that you can solve?

For example, if you (1) have an MA in conference interpreting English and French, and a PhD in literature; (2) have always been very interested in cars – so much so that you worked for a stint as a mechanic when you were younger, and (3) keep up with all the car magazines, new car models, etc. For fun. Your ideal client could be: The head of PR for a large car company with international product launches, who makes a very good salary, reads car magazines, watched Top Gear religiously (while Jeremy Clarkson was the host), uses metaphors and colorful images, and sells to overseas clients. In this scenario, you should go to car companies, contact the PR Department, and show your specialized knowledge.

Or perhaps you (1) have been working as an interpreter and translator for years with Russian and English; (2) your university education was in policy-making with a concentration in the environment; (3) you like designer fashion and good food; (4) you like the prestige of working with important people, and (5) you are a good organizer. Your ideal client avatar may just be: A Russian oligarch, currently living in a house in London, eating in expensive but conservative restaurants, spending his money traveling to visit politicians and media heads, doing good in environmental remediation, and getting his point of view about the current government in Russia out to the West. In this case, you would actively find out who works on your avatar’s scheduling, see if you can get yourself in the mix as an interpreter, and try to make yourself indispensable, knowing all there is to know about environmental remediation, Russian politics, organizing, and policy-making.

None of the above means that you turn down work in other areas, or stop treating colleagues like clients. But it does mean that you will focus your marketing into more of a niche field, niche meaning less commoditization of your services, less competition, and more fulfilling relationships.

Now, all you need is to understand what you are selling, the topic of our next FAQ!

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

The business of interpreting: FAQ 2 – What is the cornerstone of a marketing plan?

Have you ever noticed that when you do something with a specific goal in mind, you do it muchbetter than when you “just do it”? I have noticed that when I practice a skill, or attend an event, orresearch an upcoming job, I get much more out of it when I have a goal in mind than when I simply practice, go to the event, or do the research. Attention is a very powerful tool; having a goal focuses your attention and lets you move forward farther and faster than you could have otherwise.

In the good old days we all hear about, back when there weren’t enough interpreters for all the workthat was on offer, you could usually just get your name out there, and the work would come in. Sowhat if last week you were a lawyer, this week you are an urban planner, and next week you couldbe an astrophysicist? Jobs were plentiful and lasted several days at a time, so any research paid off. You had work and you were in demand.

Where’s your focus?

Today, the world has changed. In the past we all had feast or famine cycles in our business year;nowadays it seems one person may be in a perpetual feast cycle while another is in perpetual famine. There are so many different situations that need interpreting, and they are limited only by your various skills, languages, location, ambitions, etc. Paradoxically, it is not those who will take anything, in any market, for any rate, who are on the feast side of the equation. Those who have a specific goal in mind, the focused few who have thought about the answers to a few questions before they start to work, will have a longer and more sustainable career.

“Thinking? But what questions do I have to think about? I am an interpreter, so I interpret! The only research I need to do now is for future jobs!”

This is something I hear from students all the time, but also from some experienced colleagues, many of whom are starting to see less work come their way thanks to these uncertain times.

Of course, there are the more basic questions – that some of us have already answered, but manydon’t even bother asking – things such as “with my language combination, where should I live to get the most work?” To illustrate, many young interpreters tend to stay in the same place where they received their interpreting degree. This is not always a bad idea, as their teachers have contacts that could give them work locally – but what about interpreters who would have had a much more lucrative market elsewhere and never did the research?

A second question that might arise is “what field would I like to specialize in?” Again, those of us who started interpreting in a boom market just took whatever came along. We were dilettantes in many fields, though the more polite would have called us universalists, and we still have to be. But did you notice that you tend to do more work in one or two specific fields than in others? You could consolidate your research to become even more of an expert, network in that world, and then you really do have something you specialize in.

Then there are questions such as “what types of interpreting services do I offer?” If we have graduated from a good conference interpreting school, then it is obvious that we offer consecutive and simultaneous interpretation, with a bit of whispering thrown in for good measure. But what about using portable equipment without a booth, more commonly known in Europe as “bidule”? It takes a different skill and attitude, so you would have to decide if you are able, and willing to do so. And what about remote interpreting? Video feeds into conferences have become commonplace, but what about doing the entire conference from a centralized place – or even from home – over the internet? And what about doing interpretation over the telephone? In what circumstances? Under what conditions? You cannot stop proceedings because suddenly, from out of the blue, something not in your negotiated contract is thrown into the mix, unless you have thought about all the possibilities ahead of time and know what your arguments for and against will be.

‘What’ comes after ‘why’?

When we move into the marketing side of our work, there are other questions to ask, such as “what am I selling” and “who is my client”, which I will discuss more in detail in future posts. But there is one question so important that it needs bringing up as soon as possible, even earlier than understanding what skills you have, or where to find work. A question that is the cornerstone of everything in your life, your career, your marketing, and will even help determine how much you can eventually make. In fact, it is so important that you must have seen books or TED Talks on the topic. But few of us have ever really thought in detail about “Why?” Or in our case, “Why am I an interpreter?”

If you have watched the Simon Sinek talk on TED with millions of views – “Start With Why” – you have already heard of a few examples from outside our field.

The example most applicable to us concerns computers: an ordinary computer company says, “we make great computers, they are easy to use, do you want to buy one?” – pretty much turning their computer into a commodity. Personally, when I buy a new computer, I decide on my basic requirements, and then buy the cheapest one that does what I want. Does that sound like what your prospects are doing when they look for interpreting services?

Now, Apple turns this approach on its head and works in the other direction. They have figured out their “why” first. According to Mr. Sinek, their “why” is “we believe in challenging the status quo in everything we do,” which leads to “how” – “by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use, and user friendly.” Very incidentally, their “what” is they “make really great computers,” with huge numbers of devotees all over the world who stand in line for hours at the launch of the next product and would never even think about owning a PC; all this despite the price, the closed-loop architecture, and the incompatibility with so many other useful programs and devices out there.

Most of us tend to do what all the run-of-the mill computer companies do and start with our “what”– we deliver interpreting services; moving to “how” – in a simultaneous interpreting booth, incorporating some sort of USP; but we all tend to neglect our “why.” Is it any wonder, when so many of us use this model to sell our services, that we are treated like a commodity by our clients?

So why are you an interpreter?

Is it because you love languages? Travel? Prestige? Are you inspired by a challenge? Are you fascinated by international relations? Do you love to help people communicate? Do you want to participate in events that will change the world? Do you want to change the world yourself?

Some of these motivations can be satisfied only outside the interpreting profession – if you want your own prestige or to change the world yourself, you should become a politician, an activist, a diplomat, but not an interpreter. You will be dissatisfied with your work and your life, and will always criticize those you are interpreting. Get out there and make the speeches, rather than interpreting them!

And some of these motivations can be satisfied outside or inside the interpreting profession – for example, if you love languages, or you like to travel, you could do many different things that would align with that love (and might bring a more stable income!): work in the travel industry, teach languages, work in a multinational company, work as a diplomat. Salaries are more predictable, and you would still be feeding your central love and what brings you happiness and fulfillment.

Another example would be the person who loves a challenge. This also can be satisfied outside the profession: you could go into the military, get a degree in advanced mathematics, start your own business… And if you love helping people communicate, then you could go into teaching, public relations, media, marketing…

But, to satisfy these motivations inside the profession, if you have become an interpreter because you love languages, you can focus on that part of what you offer. I know interpreters who read dictionaries like others read mystery books; beautiful language makes them happy. Well-written books, where they can bathe in creative and elegant expression, are their favorite gifts. They incorporate beautiful and elegant phrases into their interpretation, and know the origin of each one. Be the interpreter who focuses on the beauty of the language – you will be sought after when precision and elegance are what your client wants.

Or once you understand that you became an interpreter because of your love for a challenge, find out what kind of challenge inspires you and focus on that. Maybe you like the challenge of interpreting high level speeches on television. Maybe your challenge will be to make a difficult foreign language into your B, even if you have no family connections in that country. Be the interpreter who is unafraid when the going gets tough or the job is unusual, and you will be the person everyone turns to when other interpreters are too frightened.

Finally, if you became an interpreter because you love to communicate, and to help others communicate their ideas, then make sure to communicate to your client that you will be the best solution to get their ideas across to their audience. Be the interpreter who is so good at interpreting discussions, negotiations or arguments that both sides think you have bought into the other side’s point of view – then communicate to them that this is exactly how well you are putting their arguments across to their counterparts, and you will be the interpreter people go to when they have ideas to transmit.

And “why” also helps you figure out if you want to work with a client or not. I know, turning away business is a novel idea, but do you really want to work for someone who values you and your input so little that they never stop trying to find a cheaper solution, treat you badly, and overwork you? Or would you rather work for someone who shares your values, who understands what you bring to their project, who will recommend you to their peers, and whose work you so believe in that you are happy to help them?

“Why” is a very powerful idea, and a question that definitely should be answered by all of us, no matter where we are in our career. Communicate your difference, your “why”, to your client, and you will have convinced them that you aren’t just a commodity, like those cheap computers, but that you are unique and that you add value.

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

The business of interpreting: FAQ 1 – How can I get more work?

One question tends to come up quite often these days among colleagues, both old and new: “What exactly can I wear/say/do to get more work?”

It is a plea to learn that special something, that “je ne sais quoi,” to make sure that we get work and make a living in our most fascinating, but very difficult, profession. Difficult not only because speakers are getting faster and presentations denser, but also because familiar job opportunities are
becoming rarer. International organizations are cutting back on long and frequent conferences; and for those rarer days of work, they tend to hire people who are closer to the beginning of their careers because younger colleagues have a lower negotiated rate. So it is not only beginners who are looking for solutions; everyone is looking for that one wave of a magic wand, a magic bullet, without which they think their career is doomed.

In one way, everyone is right. The world has changed, and we haven’t yet changed with it. In the “good old days” (which always seem to be in the distant past for whoever is telling the story), international organizations had limitless work, conferences lasted weeks, and there weren’t enough
interpreters to fill all the seats in the booth. You just had to be good at interpreting for word to get around, and the cream rose naturally to the top. Interpreters didn’t advertise – it wasn’t classy. Consultant and chief interpreters found out about you from word of mouth alone.

Today, all organizations are giving us less work at a time when training programs have multiplied: in Europe alone there are 17 producing just French A interpreters! Interpreters who want to make a living have to create new niches for themselves, having moved from working only for international organizations, to international trade associations, to the private market. We now work on the private market for individual businesses who want to sign contracts with counterparts from other countries; for arbitration procedures when things go wrong with these contracts; and, coming full circle, for international works councils when the businesses expand. Word of mouth still matters, but connections are made not only from working next to someone in the booth. The world has become
more complex, and we as interpreters need to learn new skills.

Hope is not a strategy

Anyone who has studied economics in English has heard the phrase “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,” or its slightly less well known abbreviation TANSTAAFL. In this case, “free lunch” can be replaced with “magic bullet”. There are no easy, get-rich-quick schemes out there. There is no special suit you should wear to get the job (though, depending on the country, the color of your tie may play a larger role than you think!); there is no special key word you can include on your website to get it to the top of search engine results; a large ad buy in social and traditional media will
get your name out today, but without a lot of effort, will not get you any more work – at least not sustainably.

Among the hugely important hats that we interpreters need to wear – accountant, travel agent, bill collector, etc. – one that is only now being recognized by more interpreters is that of marketer. Too many of us hark back to those “old days” when advertising was the kiss of death because no member of a classy profession would sink so low, so you shouldn’t either. We still hope to rely on word of mouth alone.

Getting the word out

But really, marketing is just what we already do and always have done, simply in a much more systematic way. It is a way of getting the word out. In those “old days,” all we had to do was be good, and the word fell into the right ear. Today, we need to meet colleagues at conferences, give specialized training classes, and network. But since we now also have to create new niches for ourselves, our new clients are no longer only colleagues. And – again a new situation – when we meet these new prospective clients, they have no idea at all what it is we do, and why their nephew who spent his junior year abroad isn’t the perfect solution. So not only do we have to explain what we do, and educate people about our job, but we also have to convince them of the value of hiring us instead of letting things stumble along in “Globish” or “nephew-ish”.

Moreover, nowadays many things clamor for our – and our potential clients’ – attention. This means we need to be where they are, so they stumble across us without even having to look for us. We have to look familiar, by wearing what they expect us to wear; we have to sound familiar, by using their jargon; we have to present ourselves in a way they are used to; and we have to be present everywhere they are present: at industry conventions, at business gatherings, and on social media.

Being familiar doesn’t just mean going to one convention and handing out business cards. It means going to the same convention year after year, meeting the same people and building up a history: asking how their family is, checking in on how their projects are going, and generally becoming
their familiar choice because, “oh yes, wasn’t that nice person I see at our annual convention an interpreter, and couldn’t s/he help us out on this new project?”

Social media can be a bit like this as well, though rather less costly in terms of tickets, hotel rooms, and so on. On the other hand, when done correctly, this type of marketing can be just as costly in terms of time. You cannot simply set up a LinkedIn or Facebook account, forget about it, and expect
the work to roll in. You must keep the pages updated, increase your networks (and not only among colleagues), post articles, comment and “like” other people’s posts, and generally be present. You should say what people expect to hear, in ways they expect to hear it, while still explaining what makes you different – a daunting task, but not for language specialists! In other words, social media will help you to become the familiar choice without actually having to shake hands in person. But
just as shaking hands in meetings and conventions isn’t all that gets you the job, being present on social media won’t be all that gets you the job either.

Marketing, either through traditional means or social media, requires a strategy.

It requires mental elbow grease – you will have to sit down and spend time thinking about what you’ll do, for whom you want to do it, and how to get through to these prospective clients. It will mean that you come up with schedules for where and how you will be present, with whom to start conversations, and how to move forward in those exchanges. It is a long term, sustainable strategy, aimed at making you the familiar choice, and not a big spend on a large splash that then sinks to the bottom of the sea, forgotten.

And while it takes work and time to build up familiarity, once you are there you will be the preferred choice in your niche. So maybe the magic bullet does exist – it’s called a good marketing strategy!

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