How to Give a Great Presentation Abroad

How to Give a Great Presentation Abroad

by Michael Shehane, Lighthouse Communications 

Your thoughts race. You just found out that your company wants to send you abroad to do a presentation in front of an audience who doesn’t speak English as their native language. First, you get answers to the logistics, How long is the plane flight? What time will the presentation be? Will I be jet lagged? What will I eat? And, now you are now asking yourself a more crucial question, How do I ensure my audience understands me?


Crafting a presentation for speakers who don’t speak your native language doesn’t take specialized skills with years of training. You’ve been delivering presentation for years, and you know how to communicate successfully to get the results. That’s why your company has chosen you to represent them abroad. Nevertheless, here are a few tips to keep in mind to ensure your message is successfully conveyed.


Tip #1: Ask, “Will I be working with a translator?”


English is the language of global business; don’t be shocked if your company says a translator will not be necessary. Having spoken to a handful of Americans who have recently traveled to China for work, I found out that only half of them worked with translators. That means that the engineers, technicians, and business stakeholders attending your presentation or meeting might be fluent enough in English to follow along.


If you find out that you will be working with a translator, don’t think that your overseas counterparts don’t speak any English. They might greet you in English, and then transition into their native language when doing business.


When you are working with a translator, arrive early to your presentation or meeting and shoot the breeze with him or her. When you engage the translator, ask him or her if you could go over some key words or jargon that are integral to your talk, see if he or she would like a script, and encourage the translator to interrupt you to ask you for clarification during the meeting or presentation.


If the translator does not engage you, don’t fret. Some translators take pride in their bilingual capabilities, or may not want to appear unknowledgeable in front of the people for whom they are translating.


Tip #2: Avoid Metaphors, Idioms, Slang, Buzzwords, and Cultural References


Whether you are working with a translator or not, you want to phrase what you say in simple, clear sentences that the translator can easily translate or the bilingual audience listening to you can simply translate in their heads. As a native speaker of English, you most likely add metaphors, idioms, slang, buzzwords, or cultural references to spice up your language, prove your linguistic acumen, or show off your insider lingo. However, this strategy can backfire when speaking to non-native speakers of English, because this culturally bound word play may confuse your audience or lead to an unfortunate misunderstanding. For example,


Don’t say this                                                          Say this


We got to the top                                                   We were successful.

We were dragged through the mud.                 We had a difficult time.

We knocked it out of the ball park.                   We had a huge success.

That will be a piece of cake.                                We can do that easily.

We had a hell of a time doing it.                        It was difficult.

Let’s strive for synergy.                                       We will encourage collaboration.

A paradigm shift is needed.                                We need to change many of our protocols.


If you catch yourself extemporaneously speaking in idioms, slang, or cultural references, don’t worry: just pause and then say, “What I mean by that is….”


Tip #3: Speak at a Natural, Regular Pace but Pause More Frequently


Have you ever been talking with someone in a crowded, noisy place like a restaurant or party, and, behind you in the corner of your ear, you heard someone say your name? And, your head sharply turned to see who this person was?


How is it that our brains can tune out so much irrelevant data, i.e. other conversations, loud music, but when a stranger says our name, it immediately catches our attention? Our brains have been trained to pick up information that applies to our interests and disregard everything else. That is why we can half-listen to meetings and presentations conducted in our native language. Our ears will perk up when the speaker says something relevant to us.


When speaking to non-native speakers, remember that they are doing double duty: they are not only unpacking what you are saying but also figuring out the business implications of what you are saying. Knowing this, you can help your non-native English speaking audience better process what you are saying by speaking slower, adding a few more seconds to every pause you make after an important point. If you are working a translator, this extra lag time will also give him or her to catch up. As soon as you hear your translator finish talking, you know you can proceed.


However, a word of caution: in my conversations with non-native speakers of English, I have been told that Americans who speak too loud and slow can come off as being condescending, patronizing, and untrustworthy. They feel like the American who is speaking to them is talking to them like they are children. Remember, just because someone may not be able to speak eloquently in English doesn’t mean that he or she doesn’t understand every word you are saying. Speaking and listening skills in a foreign language are two very different, separate skills.


So, err on the side of caution. Act like yourself. Speak loudly, at a natural, regular pace, like you would to an audience of native speakers of English. And, keeping metaphors, idioms, slang, and cultural references at bay, add a few seconds to each pause and pause more frequently to check in.


Tip #4: When Conversations Switch from English, Stay Engaged and Off your Smart Phone


When you are in business meetings or presentations with an audience who doesn’t speak your native language, the audience may suddenly break into conversation in their native language. You may wonder what they are talking about. You may feel alienated because you are suddenly excluded from the conversation. And, after the conversation has ended, you may be asked to continue with nobody telling you what was discussed. Don’t disengage.


In conversation with a client who had just returned in China, I was told that spontaneous Chinese conversation broke out quite frequently during his presentations. Because he is a busy project leader with his own team of engineers he needs to keep on back at home, during these often-lengthy conversations he had to fight off his hand from grabbing his phone and responding to email. He stayed engaged, listening and smiling even though he had no idea what was going on, until the conversation ended. He said it was mind-numbing, but remaining present reinforced his commitment to his overseas counterparts.


Tip #5: Be Yourself: Americans Are Known to be Friendly and Animated Speakers


This shouldn’t come at a shock, but Swedish, Israelites, and Chinese have stereotypes of Americans: while talking we smile too much, move our eyebrows a lot, and rapidly gesture with our hands. We also incessantly nod when a speaker is talking to show that we are listening, even if we are only half listening. The tip here is to not worry about coming off as an American. The world has an idea of what an American is, and there is no way you’ll be able to defy all stereotypes about Americans in one meeting or presentation. So, go ahead: smile, nod, gesture. Most importantly, be your polite self.


Tip #6: Culturally Connect


Be yourself, and show some cultural humility. Learn how to say hello, good morning, and thank you in the native language of the country you are visiting. Try Duolingo. You might butcher the pronunciation, but you can show an interest or awareness in the people with whom you are doing business. Pull up Google News and read the local news stories that pop up in your feed. If there has been a natural disaster or a recent cultural event, mention it during small talk, and see if someone bites. Then, listen to him or her describe the news from his or her perspective. One suggestion a business woman from China suggested to me was to include at the beginning of the presentation a relevant quote by a laudable Chinese person, written in Chinese and English. Cultural awareness shows respect, which is a global virtue.


Now that you have reviewed the six tips for presenting abroad, remember to relax and enjoy your time abroad! If you have any further suggestions, recommendation, or feedback, please leave a comment below. We look forward to reading your responses and answering any questions you may have.

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