Author and coach Tom Leech describes how careful crafting of your message and style to appeal to international audiences can serve as a passport to success.
1 "We really appreciate the chance to talk to you folks from Japan. We have some new ideas we want to bounce off you that we think will really blow your minds."
2 Given today's high degree of business and governmental linkages, presenters often find themselves speaking to audiences from countries other than their own. Language and cultural differences make this a vastly different presentation situation from what speakers may be used to. The stakes can be high and the pitfalls many, so wise presenters will consider these differences in preparation and delivery.
3 When presenting internationally, the fundamental requirement is to recognize that business as usual is risky business. "They" are not the same as "we." We speak different languages, even if we both speak English. In addition to alternative meanings for the same words, we also act differently and view things from different perspectives. These issues set the stage for communication difficulties and potential misunderstandings.
4 The concept of presentations differs among cultures. In the United States, full-blown graphic presentations are a standard part of business. This style of presentation may not apply in countries where business proceeds in a less structured, slower manner and often on a one-to-one basis rather than in groups. Without knowing your audience, you can easily head down the wrong track.
Plan, Plan, Plan
5 The importance of careful planning cannot be overemphasized. Learn all you can about your listeners and how they do business. Use experts, such as the Department of Commerce and embassies that know the specific country well. Tap into advice from other local business people with relevant experience. Review the dos and don'ts guidance available in many publications. Organizations specializing in international meetings or managers of international hotel chains can provide valuable consulting and handle arrangements in other countries.
6 Rehearse your presentation, preferably with listeners who are knowledgeable about the target country and culture. Adjust your speaking pace so participants can readily follow you. When necessary, rework your spoken message so it flows better. Simplify convoluted phrases that even English speakers can barely follow. In coaching an executive for whom English was a second language, we identified several phrases he kept stumbling over. We replaced these with words he could pronounce more easily.
7 Allow time to meet with interpreters, if they will be used. Especially review any technical terminology to help them stay with you.
On the Scene
8 You and your audience need to have presentation content that is understandable, accurate, and received positively. Use explanatory titles to increase comprehension. Tie your words closely to the visual aids. Lead your listeners through the aids, using a pointer to help them track you.
9 Summarize frequently and be aware of information overload. Whilst coaching a presenter heading for Japan, I immediately concluded that he was trying to cover too much, so we significantly reduced the amount of material. Reporting back later, he said he quickly realized he still had too much information.
10. Watch your language. Avoid slang, colloquialisms, clichés, metaphors, and other expressions that mean nothing to the listeners. Limit acronyms and jargon, and then explain those you do use, checking for mutual understanding. Explain key concepts or data in several ways and allow ample soak-in time.
11. Listen intently to questions and comments. As appropriate, paraphrase them before responding to make sure that the question is understood correctly. Be patient if it takes a while for your audience to comprehend your message. Be aware that your audience's non-verbal messages may mean different things from what you think. Facial expression, eye contact, hand movements, touching, use of space, and timing are all ripe areas for misinterpretation and irritation. Be slow to make assumptions on the basis of non-verbal messages. Keep checking and be patient—they can't figure you out either.