12 Tips for Speaking to a Foreign Audience
Because of the global nature of our economy, the world has become a much smaller place. You may therefore find yourself speaking more and more often to predominantly foreign audiences. This means learning a new set of ground rules for each country and each cultural segment you are addressing.
You will need to familiarize yourself with a vast array of ethnic and cultural do’s and dont’s, different viewpoints and attitudes, different standards for public conduct, and so forth. We have come up with a set of 12 simple guidelines which should help you maneuver through these tricky waters without getting sunk.
1. Research cultural differences.
Take your starting point from your audience's country of origin, the language they speak, and their cultural traditions and mores. Do online searches, talk to friends or colleagues who have visited or done business in the country, read up on the traditions of the area. The differences may run much deeper than you ever imagined. Find out if certain facial expressions, hand gestures, or topics of conversation are to be avoided. We've all heard stories of speakers being met with a wall of stony silence during their presentations, only to find out later that a casual hand gesture they were unconsciously using during their talk was the cultural equivalent of flipping the bird.
2. Hire an interpreter.
If the audience is predominantly non-English speaking, find a good interpreter and work with him/her going over your material. This person can also be a wealth of information regarding the culture and the form of your address. Find out what the accepted pleasantries and forms of address are, and whether it is appropriate to express your appreciation to specific persons (members of the delegation, organizers of the event, etc.).
3. Be mindful of the length of your presentation.
Find out how long you are expected to speak and structure your presentation accordingly. In some places you may be expected to speak for a much longer time than you're used to - you'll need to expand on your material to fill the extra time, or take questions from the audience, if appropriate. Remember too that your talk will become considerably longer if an interpreter is translating the material for the audience. Run through the presentation with the interpreter to determine the time required, and to see how well the presentation flows with the focus switching back and forth between the two of you.
4. Find out what the audience expectations are.
Will the audience expect a certain type of structure or formula to be followed during the presentation? Would they be comfortable asking questions? Do they expect a very formal address? Will a more informal style be unacceptable?
5. Inject a cultural reference or two.
The audience expects you to do this. Learn a polite opening phrase in the audience's native language, such as “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, it’s a pleasure to be here.” Make sure you get the pronunciation right – it’s a good idea to write it out phonetically and practice the correct inflections. And make reference to a local passion - such as the local sports team. For example, every politician, best-selling author, self-help guru, and rock band that visits Canada feels compelled to drop one or two hockey references into their stage presentation to make us feel like they really "know" us. Things to avoid? Politics and religion. Do not go there. Ever.
6. Observe proper etiquette at all times.
It is very important to learn people’s correct titles and forms of address, and whether there is a specific order in which you are to greet or introduce people. Are there any ceremonial or ritual greetings to be observed? Is it proper to shake hands with the person you are meeting, or should you bow, or kiss them on both cheeks, or press noses?
7. Avoid humor.
You must be VERY careful when injecting humor into your presentation. Different cultures have entirely different tastes when it comes to what is funny. As a general rule, the wise choice is to stay away from the jokes.
8. Be conscious of your body language.
Just like humor, body language varies from culture to culture. Your body language is sending messages to your audience even if they can’t understand what you are saying. Strive to be natural and relaxed, with good posture and speak clearly and more slowly, so that those audience members who are not as fluent in English can follow. Confirm with your local guide whether making eye contact with audience members is appropriate. If it is not - and especially if you are so accustomed to making eye contact with your audience that you do it without thinking - practice your delivery while consciously avoiding eye contact with your listeners.
9. Prepare and follow a script.
Remember that your audience may not be fluent in English – if you're not using an interpreter, your audience must be able to follow your speech and grasp your meaning. You therefore need to slow down the pace to accommodate them, and the best way to accomplish this is to work from a prepared script. An additional benefit of working from a script is that you can provide the audience with a printed version of your speech, so that if any members of the audience are unable to follow all of it at the time of delivery, they can read it at their own pace or even have it translated later.
10. Use proper language.
Avoid slang, lingo, jargon, pop culture references or any other types of expressions that may mean nothing at all to your audience.
11. Stay on topic.
Keep the focus of your speech tuned to the common ground that has brought your audience together to listen to you. You obviously have information and insights that they consider valuable enough to be worth their time and money, or they would not have come.
12. Practice, practice practice.
Schedule a live run-through of your presentation with your interpreter and with several people who are representative of your audience, to ensure that your material and performance pass the test. Practice all the things you've learned from the foregoing 11 tips until they feel comfortable, and you'll be ready to face that new audience with confidence.