Friday, April 21, 2006

Addressing an International Audience

My friend works in the PR business. She sent me this last week. I think it greatly applies to your situations this summer. Please read it and apply it to the items you are preparing for this summer.


Pointers for addressing international audiences
Apr.13, 2006
Copyright © 2006 PRSA. All rights reserved.
By C. Peter Giuliano

If the world were a demographically balanced village of 1,000 people, it would include some 584 Asians, 124 Africans, 95 Europeans, 84 Latin Americans, 52 North Americans, six Australians and New Zealanders, and 55 people from the former Soviet republics. They would speak more than 200 languages and reflect a dizzying mix of cultures. Now imagine giving a presentation to that group of 1,000 people.*
No, it’s not likely you’ll be facing so diverse a group any time soon. Still, there are pointers to keep in mind when you’re addressing any international audience. The first, clearly, is to recognize that differences among the world’s many cultures directly affect how people receive and process information. Call it the what-works-here-doesn’t-always work-there rule.
It’s all up to you
The onus is always on the presenter. Presenters whose first language is English must communicate effectively in English and not rely on translators to do the job for them, even if English remains the most spoken business language around the world. The author Patricia Kurtz wrote that when she observed European executives struggling to understand presentations made by their American counterparts, she found it was due to the Americans’ failure to use clear language, and not to the Europeans’ grasp of English.
Even within a given audience, proficiency in English can vary widely. So the best approach is to clarify your content as much as possible. Use simple, neutral language, avoiding complexities as well as jargon or buzzwords that are familiar only to the audiences you normally deal with. That applies to regional American idioms as well. Also be careful when using analogies or metaphors. American presenters, for example, like to use sports analogies. While these may work with American audiences, they don’t work in other cultures. Avoid sarcasm completely. Reduce long, complex words to short, simple ones as much as possible. Winston Churchill said it well: "Short words are best and the old words when short are best of all." That applies especially when you’re speaking across cultures. Difficult as some may find it to do, there are no business concepts that cannot be explained in simple words. Underscore your points with uncomplicated, vivid illustrations. If you’re using an example to illuminate a point, you’re better off citing one from nature; such examples are universally understood.
For an international audience, a script is recommended. This will allow you to stick to precise, carefully crafted language, and can be especially useful if you’re addressing a technical audience. Your script can also be used as a handout to your listeners afterwards.
If your presentation calls for certain actions to be taken by your listeners, be sure what you’re asking for is practical. A given timetable may be realistic in a culture that tends to be exact, precise, and oriented towards immediate action. It may not be realistic in another culture that’s more consensus-oriented and relaxed, especially about time.
In most Europeans countries, audiences generally prefer to receive information in greater detail than those in other regions, with lots of supporting documentation (though there are signs that may be changing). Japanese audiences follow a similar pattern. That’s especially true among business audiences in those countries where senior managers are more likely to hold technical degrees. Those audiences also prefer that speakers build to a point in their presentation. American and Canadian audiences, on the other hand, prefer a faster pace. They usually want speakers to speak from a point, rather than build step-by-step towards one.
Presenting technical material is a special challenge. Avoid the temptation to repeat something in the hope of reinforcing a point or adding clarity. Instead, it’s better to clearly define your terms the first time, and to be consistent in how you use that terminology throughout your presentation.
Know what to expect with questions. It’s practically inconceivable for Americans and Canadians not to ask questions. In some Asian cultures, on the other hand, audiences are more likely to greet a presentation with silence or just a few questions. When asked a question, be sure you fully understand it. Especially where language barriers may exist, always repeat the question. It’s okay to rephrase the question to help you get its real meaning. Establishing trust is critical. In a business presentation, you’re expected to know all your material, all the numbers, and be able to answer every reasonable question. In some European cultures, your inability to answer a key question can be more damaging than it might be even before a demanding American audience. So a thorough knowledge of your subject becomes even more essential. The idea is to present selectively, but be prepared to present more if necessary.
Slow down — and don’t crack wise
People for whom English is not their first language will retain more of your presentation if you speak slowly and deliberately, giving your listeners time to absorb your remarks. So slow down your normal pace a little and use pauses more than you normally would — but not so much that you appear to be patronizing. Add a few words or sentences to explain your important points, more than you would to a familiar audience. Speak realistically; exaggerations can confuse.
Use humor judiciously. In many cultures there’s a risk your humor will not be understood. Worse, it can be offensive. Humor just doesn’t work the same way from one culture to another, so proceed with caution.
As to body language: various audiences react differently to gestures. In some Asian cultures, for example, audiences find sweeping, rapid gestures distracting and downright annoying.
Be careful when selecting visuals. Colors carry different suggestions and meanings in diverse cultures. In some Latin American countries, for example, yellow has strong negative connotations. Keep your visuals simple. Limit the amount of detailed information. At-a-glance visuals are always best, the more so when you’re presenting to a cross-cultural audience.
Audiences around the world respond outwardly to presentations in different ways. In Japan, for example, it’s common to show concentration and attentiveness by nodding the head slightly. In some countries, audiences will sit expressionless through an entire presentation. The speaker who is unprepared for these unfamiliar reactions can easily be thrown off. I know from experience: Many years ago, after one of my first appearances before an international audience in Munich, my listeners began pounding on their desks. I was taken aback, to say the least, until my host let me know that was a sign of approval.
The most important thing in presenting to an international audience is to learn about the cultures of whom you are addressing. You have options. You can travel and establish relationships. You can also read widely. Learn all you can about your audience’s cultural composition. Question the meeting organizers; they should certainly be able to help you. Also ask anyone you know who may have addressed similar audiences. Focus on possible areas of sensitivity — anything you suspect can be misinterpreted or be found insulting or offensive. There are plenty of reference materials and Web sites that serve foreign travelers. The U.S. State Department Web site ( is an excellent source. You may need to use all or some combination of these to gain insight into the culture or cultures of the audiences you’ll be addressing. Of course, it’s always helpful to get feedback afterwards. Get a candid assessment of your presentation and delivery.
In sum, if you’re playing in a global arena, be prepared to play well.

* From a profile compiled by the author and educator Donella Meadows.

C. Peter Giuliano is chairman, Executive Communications Group, a global communication consulting company based in Englewood, N.J. He can be reached at
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1 comment:

Shannon said...

are we supposed to bring laundry detergent and towels and stuff like that?