Specialists in oral translation services

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Changing, Updating and Adapting – A checklist for speakers

By Mary Fons I Fleming, AIB

It’s been a while since I last wrote for this blog, and we’ve learned a lot in the intervening period: among other things, that most headsets with boom mics are not the ideal solution for interpreters or speakers.

As a result, we’ve had to update the advice we give our speakers. We used to tell them to use a headset, but many were reluctant to use them, even when issued by their employer, apparently because, the claim goes, “it makes them look like call center operators”. Fair enough. Other speakers didn’t get the difference between a wired headset and wired phone earbuds (“But my earbuds have a microphone, see?”). And many fail to see that there really is a huge gap in quality between the omnidirectional mic right there in their laptops and the kind of cardioid or supercardioid mics that we need them to use (“But no one has ever complained!”). The message that headsets are not the end-all and be-all hasn’t yet reached all conference interpreters, so it’s hardly a surprise that speakers have trouble figuring things out.

The fact is, as long as the organizers of a meeting are not prepared to send every remote speaker the right kind of microphone for their setting and provide the right kind of on-site or off-site technical support, interpreters will still be dealing with bad sound, at least part of the time, and the ensuing need to either stop interpreting or put their hearing at risk.

AIIC has done a great job of producing a simple set of tips for remote speakers (found under Item 24 on the website’s Guidelines page, in 16 languages by my current count), but speakers (and interpreters!) still need a little more guidance than that.

If I were a prospective speaker at an engagement with remote simultaneous interpretation and I were trying to comply with most of the advice available out there, including what’s in the guidelines, I would find myself at a loss. If I already have a headset or a microphone, is it “quality”?

As an interpreter, over the past year I have learned that a wide frequency response that is tailored to music can be as troublesome for interpreters as too narrow a response, because all it does is introduce noise that is extraneous to human speech. This goes for both the speaker’s microphone and my headphones. And I have also learned of the importance of a flat frequency response curve within the ISO-stipulated 125-15,000 Hz range, meaning that all frequencies are picked up more or less equally. 

As the speaker, I will assume (or hope) that the platform is able to carry the full ISO range provided by the mic I select (not always the case). So, back to my speaker’s quandary: if it turns out I have to do some shopping, what should I choose? And what if I buy something recommended and it doesn’t work on the day of the event? (This happens, out of the blue, with the best of equipment. The more you speak, the more likely this is to happen to you at some point.)

Right now, in early April 2022, if a remote speaker asked me what to buy without breaking the bank, unless the speaker is forced to speak from somewhere absolutely cavernous with zero options to dampen the sound, I would suggest either a standalone supercardioid USB condenser mic, preferably mounted on a boom arm, or a lapel mic plus a sound card, and I would suggest a few specific models which appear to generally work well. While I know that some experts are starting to look at inexpensive dynamic USB mics, I would rather wait for their feedback on results before I start recommending anything, although I’ve been eyeing what’s available. I would also suggest a very, very long, flat Ethernet cable to run through the house, if their computer is not close enough to their router for a regular Ethernet cable.

Beyond equipment, if remote speakers have no on-site tech support available (where “tech” includes a bit of audio and bit of IT), then someone who is either in the meeting or available to meeting participants should know how to remotely troubleshoot different kinds of microphone on different operating systems and, if necessary, try out two or three different available solutions.

I would also recommend the following checklist (some of my readers already know me as a fan of checklists!):


Early sound test:

  • Unless you regularly speak using remote simultaneous interpretation on the same platform you will use for the event, ask if an early sound test is possible several days before the event, even if the organizer doesn’t suggest one. This will give you time to find solutions, if need be.
  • Follow the same steps listed below.
  • Make sure you get interpreter-oriented feedback about your sound. Online conference technicians vary in terms of their sensitivity to sound issues and to interpreters’ needs, and some of them are satisfied as long as they can hear your voice. Ask, “Will this be good enough for the interpreters? Is my sound ‘clean’?”
  • If appropriate, check that you can take part in a discussion where you need the interpreters to understand some other speakers.

Day before:

  • Update computer operating system the day before the event – or ensure that updating is postponed beyond the meeting time.
  • Update all browsers or apps required for the videoconference (if more than one browser is allowed, make sure they are all up to date).
  • Finish any presentations and make sure the final version reaches the interpreters, one way or another.
  • If you don’t have a powerful computer or a very good connection, agree with the meeting hosts for someone at their end to share your slides.
  • Save any required links as shortcuts in the computer you will be speaking from.

At least an hour before the event:

  • If you know how, restrict computer startup apps to the items you will need during the event. Don’t do this for the first time ever just before a live event, though.
  • Make sure the computer is connected using an Ethernet cable and then, bravely, disconnect the Wi-Fi. (This is because Wi-Fi has a way of taking over the connection and is inherently less stable than Ethernet: your voice can wobble even with a great Wi-Fi connection.)
  • Test your connection speed and make sure it matches the platform recommendations (not just the bare-minimum requirements).
  • Reboot the computer you will be speaking from, and don’t open any applications on it that are not absolutely essential to your talk.
  • Disable or pause all backup and cloud storage apps.
  • Test that the computer recognizes your microphone as well as whatever device you are using to listen to the audio (we recommend headphones during any interactive session, but you might prefer a loudspeaker the rest of the time).
  • Put the computer in Do Not Disturb (MacOS) / Focus Assist (Windows) mode so your computer won’t be pinging at your audience.
  • Ensure a quiet environment: send the family and the dog out for a walk, banish them to the farthest end of the house, ask colleagues to leave their conversations for some other time or place, disconnect the doorbell, take the phone off the hook, mute your cell phone… whatever it takes, except for one thing: don’t let the kids download movies or play high-resolution online games while you’re speaking.
  • Join at the time requested by the organizer and follow any instructions received regarding screen names (this is important so that you are assigned the proper role). When you are asked for a sound test, say at least three sentences, preferably ones with plosives (especially “p” sounds) and sibilants (“s” sounds). Introducing yourself or your presentation works fine. Check that the interpreters are being consulted about your sound quality.
  • Do use headphones to minimize echo during any discussion period, both before and after your main talk.
  • Check that you can hear the interpreters if you need them for questions or for other speakers.
  • Make sure your face can be properly seen on camera, especially your lips. Adjust lighting and camera angle if need be.
  • If there is a lot of interaction in more than one language, allow enough time for the interpreters to switch their incoming and outgoing languages. If it’s a multilingual event (rather than just a bilingual one), it can take a bit longer for everyone to sort it out.
  • Do give the interpreters any feedback you may have at the end of the meeting. And if there’s a pressing issue during the meeting (e.g. a term you want translated differently), you can point it out when speaking or you may be able to tell them or the organizers via the chat function.