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 (