Paul Martin: Why I delivered part of my recent TED talk in sign language and English at the same time

Posted on September 10, 2015

As a public speaker, it had been a long held ambition of mine to deliver a TED Talk. For those of you unfamiliar with TED you can read more about them at Suffice to say that for a speaker, it can be compared to sportsman playing at the SuperBowl or at an FA Cup Final.

So last June 18th I had my opportunity, to speak at TEDx Chelmsford.

One of the TED rules is that your talk has to be original, having not been delivered before. Accordingly, I had been holding on to my talk, How Mixology & Sign Language Opened The Door to a Communication Revolution, for the best part of two years.

In addition, I was about to do something that had never been seen on the TED stage before! Namely, as part of a demonstration in the middle of my talk, I was about to interpret myself from English to BSL, live on stage.

In order to understand the context of my sign-language feat, it is important to get a feel for the topic of my talk.

These days, I work primarily as a trainer of communication skills. I help companies to develop their staff in to more effective communicators, the most important element of which comes from improved body language skills.

My talk tells the story of how I came to understand the importance of body language when working as a cocktail bartender in my youth and how my involvement with sign-language and my local deaf community eventually led me to develop a technique that is having a truly dramatic impact on the communication skills of those that now attend my courses.

So, during my talk, I felt it would be vital to demonstrate one of the fundamental principles of sign-language… the fact that unlike spoken English, where body-language is purely instinctive and independent of the words being spoken (which in turn often causes communication conflict), with sign-language, body language is a integral part of the grammatical structure of the language and accordingly is intimately connected with the words and phrases being signed.

To achieve this sign-language demonstration, live on stage with no separate interpreter would be a significant challenge.

So, I came up with the idea of pre-filming myself, verbally delivering the sign-language section of my talk. Then when I reached the appropriate point in my talk, I played the video of me speaking on screen and interpreted it in to BSL on the stage.

Watch Paul’s video by clicking here (don’t forget to turn on the subtitles).

There was however, an additional challenge to consider. I wanted my demonstration to be interactive, for the audience to get involved and copy what I was doing at certain points.

This in turn meant that when I was pre-filming the spoken part, I had to anticipate audience reaction. For example, would they laugh when I wanted them to? And if so for how long? I certainly didn’t want the film of me to be speaking over the audience responses.

Alternatively, if I built in pauses for audience reaction and then didn’t get any, would I be left with a long silent, awkward pause?

I the end, I had to commit to what I hoped would happen and anticipate the timings, and as you’ll see when you watch the video, I think it was very successful. You can let me know your thoughts!

From a personal point of view, the day was everything I had hoped for, an amazing experience, and with enough support and interest in my talk, I may yet be invited to speak again at the Global TED Conference and get the message out to an even greater audience.

As a closing thought, the success of my day has been reflected in the huge amount of positive feedback about my talk and the new training technique but even more impressive has been the number of people contacting me and asking where they can go to learn sign-language.

Good for all I think.

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