Making a difference

Making a difference

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Presenting for the first time

There were times in preparing to give my first ever presentation at METM16 in Tarragona when I wondered why on earth I was doing it. Times like 3 in the morning on the day I was due to give the talk, when I was sitting up in my hotel room practising in front of a mirror after an extremely convivial dinner complemented by plenty of wine.

Sitting there desperately trying not to think about what I had to do later that day, I remembered that I had first thought about speaking in Tarragona while I was at the previous METM in Coimbra. Tarragona was going to be my third METM and I thought it was time I started giving something back to an organisation that had raised my standards in translation and opened my mind to different ways of doing the job. It seemed like a good idea. All I needed was a subject.

That came to me in a talk by the experienced although somewhat eccentric translator Graham Cross. He spoke of two ways of finding clients in translation: the tiger, hunting for its prey, and the spider, waiting for it to fall into a carefully prepared web. He was a spider. So, I quickly realised, was I. But how do spiders attract customers? What do we do to spin our webs? Graham didn’t have time for these subjects, leaving them temptingly for me to deal with. Here was my topic.

Through the winter I considered whether I would have the time to prepare a presentation or not. I really had no idea how much work was involved. When the call for presentations came in the spring, I made my mind up and submitted an abstract to MET’s peer review process. Swinging between confidence and loss of nerve, I wondered, not for the last time, whether what I was proposing to talk about was too obvious, too trivial or not interesting enough. But I needn’t have worried. MET accepted my proposal, although some minor changes had to be made, notably the title. “Spider marketing” was considered to be a bad idea because it was already a company name, and we settled on “Spinning your web”, which at least kept the idea of a spider in somewhere.


I put the project aside for a time and returned to it in August, when I returned from my summer holidays, spending one evening a week on it between then and October. I found that, for me, the natural approach was to write quite a detailed script, helped by the fact that I’d had the structure of the presentation mentally sketched out for some time. I used my own records to research my customers so I could give examples for some of the points I was trying to make. I also asked some of my clients for tips on things like how to keep customers and encourage them to recommend you.

I was doing this preparation at a time when my own thoughts on translation were developing quite fast, so the presentation became something of a balancing act between where I’ve been, which accounted for the bulk of the material, and where I’m going, which I tried to subtly suggest at one or two points. I convinced myself, though, that the emphasis on what I’ve been doing was not a negative factor. What I really wanted to put across was my own experience, and I’m not really qualified to teach things I’m only just now learning for myself. So I tried to shut out my doubts and give the best advice I could.

I also found there were one or two holes in my knowledge, particularly concerning websites, a subject I didn’t feel I could avoid. I particularly needed help with Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), the method of getting your website to come high up in Google searches, so I decided to ask a colleague who has particular knowledge in this area for advice. Her excellent SEO tips rounded out the presentation and made it more balanced, but they also added to the running time and it was back to the drawing board to prune it down to the 20 minutes I was aiming for, which would allow 10 minues for questions in a half-hour presentation slot.


Then there was the matter of making a PowerPoint presentation, which turned out to be nowhere near as difficult and much more intuitive than I had imagined. In no time at all, my slides were ready to go. So there I was in the hotel at 3am trying to make sure I wasn’t going to overrun, and polish my delivery and presentation, resisting the temptation to simply read my script.

I was lucky with my scheduling, in the very first slots of the conference proper on the Friday afternoon, following the morning workshops and first plenary session. That meant I’d have little time to think about what I had to do: it would be on me so quickly I’d just have to give my talk and get on with the rest of the conference. Mine was the first of two talks in a split session, which also suited me. So I turned up in the room early, made sure there were no technical hitches, experimented a little with delivery positions before deciding to speak sitting down, and I was ready to start.

It seemed that no sooner had I started than the presentation was over. Everything went exactly as I’d planned: I didn’t lose my way or dry up, there were no technical problems and the timing went perfectly. I finished my talk and then… nothing. Or almost nothing. I’d been expecting a series of questions, but there were just a couple of comments, which meant the whole thing was wrapped up five minutes ahead of schedule. I began to wonder if maybe something had gone wrong.

And then there was Jo. Jo Rourke was my co-presenter and she followed my talk with her own presentation on how to search for your ideal client. She was good…very good. I sat and marvelled at her effortless but powerful performance and the way she seemed capable of flashing her eyes at will. She attracted plenty of questions and I couldn’t help feeling a touch of envy. My approach seemed pedestrian by comparison and once again I wondered why I had got myself involved in the presentation circus.


It was only as people began to come up to me, particularly the following day, to say how much they had liked the presentation, how useful they had found it, and even how relaxed I had appeared when delivering it, that I began to feel better. Some of them were my friends and, although they seemed sincere, and I would have hoped they’d have told me if I’d made a fool of myself, I still couldn’t help wondering whether they were just being kind. Others, though, were translators I didn’t know and who had absolutely no reason for kindness or politeness. The majority were younger colleagues, and I felt pleased that I had been able to help them. The fact that my talk had made an impact, above all, on younger translators also made sense, both because of the subject matter and because of the lack of questions. These are colleagues who are perhaps reluctant to raise their voices in public but who preferred to sit there, listening and taking everything in.

And there was my reward. All I really wanted to do was make a difference to someone. I certainly didn’t do it for the money. METM presenters don’t get paid, although we do get a slightly reduced conference ticket price. The truth is that I would be very reluctant to make conference presenting, blogging or any of the other things I do aimed at translators part of my business. I am a translator, I am not a teacher. If I can help others with my experience, that’s great, but it really is as far as it goes. Nor have I any inclination to be a guru, collecting followers and wondering how I can make money out of them. My help is freely given and I don’t want or need to exploit those who might benefit from it.

It’s making a difference that gives me pleasure. I was delighted when Lucy Brooks, of the translator training webinar company eCPD, came up to me after her presentation eplaining exactly what her business does and told me “When I was putting this together I was thinking of you.” Readers of this blog will know that I was critical of her organisation in a post earlier this year and that we had some e-mail correspondence on the matter. In her talk, she went out of her way to stress that eCPD strives to provide quality content in its webinars, not “fluff”. If that emphasis was a result of my criticism, I could not be more pleased.

And I was thrilled when another translator approached me at a coffee break and confided: “Whenever I do my invoices, I think of you.” Not the most romantic of connections, I admit, but I immediately realised where she was coming from. At the Coimbra METM, a year before, we had stood in a coffee queue and she had told me how lazy she was about invoicing. I simply pointed out that it was an essential part of running a business, particularly if you want to be paid, and explained my strict monthly system, which may not be perfect but does get the bills out to the clients on a regular basis. If my colleague has learned from that; if I’ve helped eCPD focus on quality, and if anyone took anything useful from my presentation, that’s all the reward I need.


  1. Genevieve Shaw

    Simon, your talk sounds like it was really interesting. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the conference this year. Will you be repeating your talk at some point or publishing it online? Thanks.

    • Simon Berrill

      Thank you, Genevieve. In fact I’m planning to post an adapted version of it here next week and the slides will be available in the METM archive on the MET website.

  2. Mary Ellen Kerans

    It’s great that your post brings out a reason why many who participate in METMs work hard to develop workshops or presentations, Simon. This statement is always true for me too: "I also found there were one or two holes in my knowledge…." Then you set out to plug them! Of course a presenter needs to already possess solid knowledge — it’s needed even to think up a clear idea — but organizing a presentation that’s up to snuff for the colleagues we respect is what pushes us farther!

    • Simon Berrill

      Thanks, Mary Ellen. I think, however much you know, developing a presentation is bound to be an education because you have to be prepared to defend what you say against possible questioning and that means going that little bit further to make sure it is all solid.


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