International Audiences

How to speak to audiences composed of people with diverse social and cultural backgrounds.

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By Ramez Naguib

Giving a presentation or speech is difficult. It requires expertise in your subject and total attention to what you are saying, the tone you are using, and the needs and culture of your audience members – and that’s just the beginning. Always remember that your audiences do not have the luxury to rewind or slow down your speech. So you have to get it right the first time!

Combine all of this with international audiences of people who do not speak your language, come from diverse backgrounds and have different business and ethical standards than you are used to, and the matter becomes really challenging.

This article is based on my experience and will give you a few simple suggestions for speaking to international audiences.

Speak clearly and slowly.
This may seem an obvious point when addressing people who speak another language, but it is an especially noteworthy point. Make sure your pronunciation is clear and try to speak with a neutral accent. People within the United States can easily cope with different accents; this is not the case for international audiences.

Be cautious not to speak too fast. For example, the normal pace of speech in the U.S. could be considered fast and incomprehensible for international audiences. Again, always remember that your audiences may not use your language on a daily basis.

In one technical presentation I gave to Japanese customers in Osaka, the first question from them was about whom to contact for technical questions. I immediately replied “I’m gonna be your contact.” So they asked back: “And what is the e-mail of Ms. Amgona?” Remember: Speak clearly and slowly.

Use metaphors cautiously.
Metaphors are always welcome in international presentations because they bring the message closer to the audience. The important catch, however, is to be sensitive to cultural norms.

Some metaphors that are appropriate in one culture can be offensive in another. (A funny analogy appropriate with Western audiences could be completely offensive to Eastern audiences.) Do not mention political or religious figures or events in your presentation. People tend to be very sensitive in such areas. Likewise, stay away from references to sports not practiced in the host country, such as baseball or American football.

While giving a speech to a newly formed joint venture in India, the Western managing director wanted to emphasize the open culture he wanted to have with his new partners, so he said, “I don’t believe in sacred cows.”

Some of the Indian partners, members of the Hindu religion, did not receive this expression well! Do not use metaphors that can be wrongly understood by your audiences because of their cultural background.

Know your words.
The general rule goes like this: Unless you are sure of the meaning of the word you are saying in a foreign language, 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 a meeting with top officials from the national Saudi Arabian electrical company, one of the Western managers tried to look a bit friendly after a long, tense meeting. He said to the Saudis “khalas,” a word he heard them exchange among themselves during the meeting. The Saudis got very annoyed by this rude gesture. In Arabic, khalas means “finish?” However, in the context the Western manager said it, it meant in the Arabic culture “wrap it up and finish.” Avoid expressions in foreign language that you do not fully understand.

Avoid slang.
Your audience may not understand slang. Someone from Guangzhou who seldom speaks languages other than Chinese may not comprehend expressions commonly used in Texas. Phrases such as “gave him a cold shoulder,” “barking up the wrong tree” or even common ones such as “do this a.s.a.p.” may be confusing to non-native English speakers.

Talking to Brazilian engineers about the competence we have in their field, I said, “We do this day-in-and-day-out.” Their feedback was that we might not be competent enough since this represents only 50 percent of our business. “Didn’t you say that you are working on it only half the days of the week?” Do not use expressions that are known only to people coming from a certain background.

“That’s the way we do it back home!”
Never, ever say this phrase when talking to people who are not from “back home.” It can give the impression that you are showing off or being boastful. You will be met with hostility concerning whatever you try to say after that. On the contrary, try to praise the audience and tell them how much you have learned from them – even if that’s not necessarily the case.

Giving a technical speech during an industrial fair in Frankfurt, the North American presenter was asked how he came to make some of the assumptions in his calculations. The reply was, “Well, that’s the way we do it back home!” Needless to say, the German engineers attending the presentation did not appreciate this answer and the reply was, “Well sir, in case you did not notice, this is Frankfurt, not Chicago!” Do not use these annoying expressions! Know that each and every location is different and that a product or technology that may be suitable for one place does not automatically make it suitable for all. Make sure your comments are specifically targeted for your audience.

Watch your body language.
Before you even say a word, your posture and gestures convey a message to your audience. Crossing your legs in the United States is completely natural; sitting in the same position in Kuwait may be impolite.

My final advice to you: When in Rome, “speak” like the Romans!
Know the background of your audiences and their cultural norms. Do they say “one thousand-five hundred kilometers” or “fifteen hundred miles?” Be respectful of their language, currency, beliefs and traditions. Know that there is no one correct way to do things. Each country has its norms and heritage that you should try to accommodate. And always remember: “Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be broken!”

Ramez Naguib is based in Maryland, USA. He has lived, worked and studied in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America.

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