As a native English speaker, life is pretty easy for me when presenting around the world. Oracle is an American company, so people are used to having to deal with English speaking presenters. Either the audience speak English already, or the events and audience expect to use a translation service. Even so, I often joke that when I’m presenting in other countries I’m still having to translate what I say on the fly, because my everyday language is not really suitable for an international audience. In this post I’ll look at some of the things you need to look out for when speaking in other countries. Some will be equally relevant to other English speaking nations.
Volume of information and speed of presentation
When presenting to an audience in their second (or third) language, you have to present less content and present that content more slowly. There is no point launching into things full steam ahead if some of the content is going to get lost. The volume of content and the speed is really dependent on the audience. If you speak to people before the session starts you will get a feel for how fast is too fast. Also, do some homework before you go. Speak to other presenters who have presented at that event before. Ask the organisers of the event for some advice.
Visual feedback from the audience
I recently did a post where I mentioned the visual feedback you get from the audience and how you can misinterpret it. This is especially true when you present in different countries. Different countries have different body language. The first time you speak to a Bulgarian and they shake their head for “yes” and nod for “no” it will mess with your mind.
Cultural differences can be a big deal too. In some countries they wouldn’t dream of contradicting a presenter (or teacher), even if they knew them to be wrong.
In addition, presenting to people in their second language can affect their body language. When concentrating, some people get a really serious expression on their face. Some look positively angry. Others take on a really vacant look. If people are concentrating on learning some new information and on top of that they are having to deal with a language barrier, you can’t expect “normal” body language from them.
Many people can understand English well, but struggle, or are embarrassed, to speak it. Don’t be surprised if your Q&A at the end of your session gets no questions. Often, people will then walk up to you and say things like, “I’m sorry, my English is really bad, but I have a question…” Invariably their English is fine and certainly better than me trying to speak their language.
Don’t put the audience on the spot and wait, or demand, answers to your questions. It’s just going to freak people out.
You know those words or phrases you use in your country, city or group of friends? The rest of the world doesn’t know them! Try to avoid them as much as possible, unless you are going to explain them. I remember sitting in a bar with a group of people at OpenWorld and Doug Burns said to me, “Do you think anyone here except for me knows what that word means?” It can be really hard to get out of the habit of using them, but you have to try.
For some people, like me, swearing is a normal part of the language. I have to constantly (try to) censor myself in everyday life. I’ve got much better since my nephews came along and I’ve always been well behaved at conferences. Short answer. Don’t swear in your talks.
You’ve got to be really careful with this. In regular life I’m quite self-deprecating, but when I’m presenting I try to avoid it. I remember discussing this with Mark Rittman at my first OpenWorld, who is also self-deprecating. This is the kind of situation we were talking about.
- You: “So that’s what you should do, but don’t trust me, what do I know? Ha ha ha”
- Attendee: “But I thought you were meant to be the expert?”
It’s probably better to assume that everything you say will be taken literally, unless you really spell it out to people.
Wow. This really freaked me out the first time I used it. When half of the audience are getting the information via a headset you end up getting a delayed response to everything you say. Sometimes they laugh when you don’t expect it, which makes you wonder what the translator has said. If you get a chance, spend some time with the translator and run through your slides with them. The more they know about what is coming, the better job they will do.
You may well have to listen to questions through a translation service also. That doesn’t feel at all normal the first time you do it!
I’ve found presenting internationally to be one of the most rewarding things over the years. People are so pleased you’ve made the effort to come to see them. It’s a really good experience and I would recommend it to everyone. In my case, I certainly feel a lot more like a citizen of the world because of it, which sounds a bit pretentious, but it’s true. The more places I go, the more I think about this quote.
“There’s a billion places like home. But only one of ’em’s where you live.”
Granny Weatherwax (Witches Abroad, Terry Pratchett)