Increasingly, CEOs and senior executives are being asked to speak to audiences made up of entirely different social and cultural backgrounds. Here are some tips to help you with the challenge of an international audience.
• Slow Down
You may think I am stating the obvious here but it really is that important. People who speak a different language to you need more time to absorb what you are saying. So, slow down and enunciate clearly and confidently.
• Watch your Body Language
In front of an international audience, before you even open your mouth, your posture and gestures can be sending a message to your audience. Crossing your legs in the United States is completely natural; sitting in the same position in Kuwait can be offensive. Nodding your head can actually mean “no” in some parts of Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey. Eye contact is considered a good thing in most Western countries but can be considered rude in many Asian countries and in Africa.
The point is, that which has a universal meaning in your part of the world may have an entirely different meaning in someone else’s.
• Avoid Slang
Your audience, almost certainly, will not understand slang. Someone from Malaysia who rarely speaks a language other than Malay may not comprehend expressions commonly used in Australia. Phrases such as “having a fair go”, “wrong end of the stick” or even common ones such as “do this a.s.a.p.” may be confusing to non-native English speakers. Speak clearly and avoid your favourite shortcuts.
• Beware of Stories
Stories and metaphors should always be included in any presentation because they make messages easier to understand and remember. When speaking to an international audience, however, you need to be careful about which stories you choose to tell.
In short, don’t use a metaphor that has the potential to be misunderstood by your audience because of their cultural background.
• Know what you are saying
This is important for two reasons. Firstly, as numerous companies have found out the hard way, not every word in your language has the same meaning in another language. If you are going to be using some jargon from ‘back home’ make sure those words don’t have an entirely different meaning in your audience’s language. It can be very embarrassing!
Secondly, while using your audiences language sparingly is nice and often appreciated (for example in a greeting) unless you are sure of the meaning of the word you are saying in a foreign language and its pronunciation, do not use it. This is because similar words in foreign languages can have completely different meanings in different contexts that may not really convey what you are trying to say. Slightly varying a vowel or the pronunciation of a word can completely alter its intended meaning. In some cultures even the point at which a phrase is uttered in a conversation can completely alter its meaning.
Finally, take the time to try and find out and understand whom you are talking to. Know a little bit about the background of your audiences and their cultural norms. Do they say “bike” or “bicycle”? Are they metric or empirical? Should you shake hands or bow?
Be respectful of their language, currency, beliefs and traditions and recognise there is no single correct way to do anything. Every audience has its own norms, culture and heritage and you should try to incorporate those same norms, culture and heritage in your communication.