What to Say (or Not Say) When Presenting to a Foreign Audience
Imagine that you're giving a presentation you’ve given many times before, but this time listeners are staring at you as if they don’t understand a word you’re saying. What’s going on?
It could be that they don’t understand. When the native language of the audience differs from yours, idioms and colloquialisms in your presentation may not be understood, so it’s important to avoid such speech patterns.
Not that that’s easy. As I pointed out in my book, Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals, these speech patterns are so familiar that we don’t even realize we’re using them. Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill (an example of an idiom that may not translate well). I could care less (which is a colloquialism we use when we actually mean I couldn’t care less.) Too much slang is a red flag (another idiom).
If you’re presenting to a foreign audience and you catch yourself using an idiom or a colloquialism, or for that matter, a buzzword or cliché, simply rephrase or explain it. For example, if you said “That’s the $64,000 question,” simply add “In other words, I don’t know the answer.”
While taking care to avoid saying certain things, there are other things you should strive to say. In particular, it’s important to localize your material. So, in a country that operates in the metric system (which is to say, most of them), avoid speaking about inches, yards, and miles. Use examples that are meaningful to your audience.
Keep in mind that many English words have different meanings when translated to another culture, and sometimes those meanings are inappropriate or insulting. For example, "mad" usually means angry in the United States. To a British audience, it means "insane."
Speaking of which, don’t assume that just because the audience speaks English, it’s identical to our English. Fortunately, numerous websites can help you convert between American English and, for example, British English or Australian English.
Finally, be careful about your gestures. Exceedingly careful. Many seemingly innocent gestures may be offensive or insulting elsewhere, such as holding your palm, fist, or arm in a certain position or even just pointing your finger. Check out the following two posts for examples of gestures that could get you in trouble in countries other than you own.
Even if you don’t use slides in your presentations, it’s a good idea to use them when speaking to foreign audiences. With access to your information in both spoken and written forms, listeners will be better able to understand what you’re presenting. Aim to use graphs, flowcharts, time lines, and images instead of bullet points to minimize misunderstanding.
What other suggestions would you offer for presenting to a foreign audience?