Languages, Translation Travel, Culture

How to Organize a Multi-lingual Conference

My stomach was in knots. For the next eight hours I was going to be moderator of a conference that was doomed to failure! My client was a multinational jewelry firm headquartered in Mumbai, with branch offices in London, New York, Bangkok and a ton of other places. The conference was being held in Guangzhou, China where I’d been living and working as a Corporate Trainer for nearly six years.

I’d been recruited by my long-time friend Tanya, a Chinese businesswoman fluent in English, Mandarin and Cantonese. Tanya is both competent and beautiful, and by all rights she should have been leading this conference. However, the jewelry company had stipulated an American male – for “cultural reasons.”

East Meets West
East Meets West

Most of the jewelry workers were local Chinese. Most of the mid and upper level managers were from India. The jewelry company had insisted on English as the language of the day. Well, easy enough for me, but was it realistic to expect conference attendees to understand and retain much, if anything?

The purpose of the all-day conference was to conduct an Employee Workout modeled after the one developed by Jack Welch, the famous CEO of General Electric.The idea is to tap into unused human potential that exists in every business hierarchy by “turning the company upside down.”

Cross-discipline employee teams are asked to identify problems and propose solutions. This requires courage, creativity, candor and directness in an open, supportive environment. Chinese culture is all about giving face and keeping face. Candor and directness do not come easily, especially in the workplace or in a conference such as this.

Although I had little experience with Indian culture, I also guessed that the Indian managers (mostly male) would have their own agendas. For them, a temporary foreign assignment was just one step on their climb up the corporate ladder. Make a good showing in the conference, and who knows what branch office one might head up next year!

Does the above scenario seem familiar to you? Sure, the names and places are changed, but the plot is the same – somehow you’ve been saddled with the seemingly impossible task of organizing a conference where the players come from far-off places with strange-sounding names. And your hands are seemingly tied by company politics and/or decisions beyond your control.

Fear not. Here are a few simple things to bear in mind when planning such an event. (By the way, if you keep reading, I will also tell you how my ill-fated conference turned out.)

The first thing to do is take a deep breath, close your eyes and repeat after me: “We are all alike and we are all different.” Again: “We are all alike and we are all different.” Interestingly, it’s not just a mantra. Scientific evidence supports the notion that your DNA could be a closer match with someone who lives in, say, Timbuktu than it is to the DNA of, say, your neighbor.

Repeating the Alike-Different Mantra will help you remember that seemingly insurmountable obstacles are just nature’s way of telling you to FIND ANOTHER WAY! Okay, so enough Zen mysticism already – let’s lay down some conference guidelines:

1. Make a game plan, starting with the most obvious, but often overlooked item: What do you hope to accomplish? If you could be sure that every conference attendee would remember just one thing, what would it be? Write it down. Your conference agenda should build towards this one point.

2. Make an inventory of your resources. This will include physical space, supplies, reference materials, mentors and of course, your conference interpreter. There is a professional organization of conference interpreters. Here is their website:

3. Plan, plan, plan and then delegate, delegate, delegate! If you are the obsessive, compulsive person that I think you are (why else would they have chosen you?), the first part will be easy, but the second part will be tough. Yes, you want the conference to be a flawless thing of beauty, but remember there is a thing called synergy!

4. Get your conference materials out as soon as possible. You will probably want to invite feedback at an early stage. This accomplishes two things: one – you’ll be able to head off an impending train wreck (for example: a religious holiday on the same weekend), and two – it allows conference participants to feel invested in your mutual success.

5. Remember to take frequent breaks. This means not only during the conference, but also in the planning stages. Every three hours is good, two and a half is better.

6. Remember to have fun.

This last item reminds me of my promise to you. My conference turned out to be a smashing success. Mostly due to one thing, I think.

After I introduced myself I asked everyone if they wanted to meet my girlfriend. Of course, they couldn’t resist. No, it wasn’t Tanya (I wish). I brought out my constant traveling companion: my guitar. I struck a chord – literally and figuratively – and began to sing. Everyone joined in and I knew it was going to be a great day!

Further reading:

By Ron's Blog

At home in the Global Village.

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