7 Tips to Ensure You’re Understood when Speaking to a Foreign Audience


7 Tips to Ensure You’re Understood when Speaking to a Foreign Audience

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

This is a guest post by Leon Potgieter.

“Americans who travel abroad for the first time are often shocked to discover that, despite all the progress that has been made in the last 30 years, many foreign people still speak in foreign languages.” – Dave Barry

The phrase “tough crowd” takes on an entirely new meaning, with deeper shades of terror-inducing nuances, when public speakers face an audience made up of individuals who do not share the cultural background and world-view of the person behind the microphone. As a Westerner living in an Asian country, where more than 80% of the population does not speak English as a first or second language, I’ve learnt the necessities for communicating across cultural barriers. Below I’ve outlined some practical and easy-to-implement tips for anyone addressing an audience of ‘foreigners’. Use these for minimizing inevitable cross-cultural misunderstandings and appealing to a larger crowd.

1. Understand cultural assumptions – yours and theirs

Being human and all that, most of us automatically assume that our cultural norms are universally upheld and are often left confused when people don’t share our axioms. A simple overview of basic cultural assumptions would be enough to give you the knowledge you need to avoid most serious miscommunications.

International Business Etiquette courses are usually excellent for this sort of education. Barring that, the Internet can be a great help: ExecutivePlanet.com is a Wiki-style online business etiquette encyclopedia with helpful and concise culture tips for nearly 50 countries.

2. Use humor wisely

I’m a big fan of using humor in almost any kind of speech, but with non-English speaking audiences, most kinds of wittiness (1) do not translate well, (2) might even end up being inappropriate. Humor should be used wisely and preferably tested before incorporated into a speech of this sort.

A few years back, I saw a friend addressing a crowd of young Ukrainians. He was telling the story of Lance Armstrong and his rise to cycling-fame after his cancer diagnosis. In attempting to capture his remarkable recovery and near instant-success, my friend used the phrase “Zero to Hero” which, after translation drew blank stares from the crowd. Witty slogans like those might sounds funky in English, but will often be virtually meaningless in Polish, Korean or, as in this case, Ukrainian!

3. Work with your interpreter

I once spoke to a small group of Koreans and was to be accompanied by a seasoned interpreter. She asked to meet with me a few weeks before the delivery and asked for a copy of my speech draft. At a second meeting thereafter she had many questions and clarifications about certain words, phrases and content. I gladly helped and her interpreting on the big day was naturally excellent. It’s thus often a good idea to present your interpreter with a copy of your speech notes a while before the delivery, to help him/her with preparation.

The great, often overlooked benefit of working with interpreters is the natural pauses you automatically get between sentences. These are wonderful little time-frames you can use to gather your thoughts, pre-determine your next sentence and glance at your notes.

4. Skip the gobbledygook, completely

Jargon, unnecessary technical terms, geek-speak and “marketese” should be avoided like the plague. If English speaking audiences find excessive use of these confusing, how much more our crowd of focus! Non-English speakers won’t rave about your “quality transitional contingencies” since they probably have no clue what you’re talking about!

5. Speak to 12 year olds

A useful rule of thumb is to assume that English second language speakers in a non-English speaking country are able to understand at the level a 12 year old that grew up in an English country. That means that your ostentatious and delineative enunciations are better left at home and that you speak plainly and simply with clear and direct language. If a 12 year old won’t understand it, scratch it and simplify! Skip the PhD-isms, and avoid using complex and obscure sentences. See Wikipedia’s Simple English Pages for ideas on writing for non-English speakers.

6. Watch out for language nuances

Direct or forceful language is often considered rude in many honor-system countries like those of the Far East. Educate yourself on the aspects of your audience’s worldview (see #1 above) to avoid accidentally falling into the trap of offending them.
Personally, being of German/Dutch descent I grew up in a culture where indirect and vague speech is viewed with suspicion (“What are you hiding?”). And yet, living in east-Asia my to-the-point demeanor and no-nonsense approach to conversation has often been interpreted as aggression and I’ve thus had to learn to adapt my speech. You might find yourself in a similar situation when speaking to a foreign audience, so be careful of language nuances.

7. Use local terminology

I’ve heard so many Americans addressing “metric” crowds and talking in yards, miles and pounds, leaving the rest of us clueless. Similarly talking about 8th graders and 12th graders means nothing to the rest of the world. Localize your words, sentences and even your stories and parables – it makes you more approachable as a speaker and shows sensitivity and sophistication to the audience. If they notice it, they’ll appreciate it.

However, if you choose to incorporate local words or phrases in your speech, please for the love of sanity, practice your pronunciation! I’ve been at events where speakers, in an attempt to impress the crowd, have used words from the local language only to end up sounding terrible and completely incomprehensible to the audience. Don’t invite confusion – instead ask a local to listen to and help you with pronunciation. It’s better to say ‘Good Morning’ in plain English, than “Konichiwa” in Americanized Japanese that ends up sounding like “Go-knee-cheese-wow”!
Leon Potgieter is an English Teacher, Christian Minister and Public Speaking Enthusiast who’s been living in the Republic of Korea since 2008. His website effective-public-speaking-tips.com is an ever growing online portal for public speaking tips, speechwriting help and presentation techniques.

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What to do when you’re losing your audience

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011

Your audience’s attention will fade over time unless you take specific steps to keep them engaged. Here’s a graph showing the attention of university students during a 50 minute lecture – where the lecturer lost his audience (Reference: Hartley J and Davies I “Note taking: A critical review” Programmed Learning and Educational technology, 1978,15, 207-224).

Notice how at 40 minutes the attention seems to go up again (just a little!). I’m guessing that this is the point where the lecturer started his sentence with “In summary…”

And the students perked up their ears again and refocused to get the gist of the lecture. Here’s what happened – the lecturer stumbled upon the audience’s Attention Reset Button. Although our attention span is limited, we do have the ability to refocus on a task. When you push the Attention Reset Button you’re giving your audience that opportunity to refocus.

So that’s what you need to do when you’re losing your audience. Push your audience’s Attention Reset Button. Instead of fading to near zero, your audience’s attention will spring back.

How often should you push the Attention Reset Button

Plan to push the Attention Reset Button about every 10 minutes. This is a practical rule of thumb which seems to work for most audiences. For example, John Medina says in his book Brain Rules:

“I decided that every lecture I’d ever give would come in discrete modules. Since the 10 minute rule had been known for many years, I decided the modules would last only 10 minutes.”


But be aware that your audience’s attention span will vary according to many factors – warmth of the room, time of day, how much sleep they had the night before, how intrinsically interested they are in the topic. Be prepared to adjust to the needs of your audience. For instance in the morning you might plan for intervals of 15 minutes between each Attention Reset. During the potentially sleepy after-lunch slot you might decrease that to 5 minutes.

How to push the Attention Reset Button

1. Tell a story

We’re hardwired to listen to stories. They instantly engage us and require very little effort to stay focused. Even the sleepiest audience-member will perk up when you say “I’ll tell you about a time when this happened to me.”

2. Make them laugh

Nobody can not pay attention when the rest of the audience is laughing. We want to know what’s funny. The critical caveat is that your humor should be relevant to your presentation.

2. Make a transition

In the first graph I showed, the students’ attention rose near the end, and I’ve suggested that that was because the lecturer said “In summary…”

Now, I’m not suggesting that you should say “In summary…” when you’re not planning to summarize, but you can use transition statements as a signal to the audience that they should refocus. They may have got distracted for a couple of minutes and then found it hard to get back on track with what you’re saying. But if you make a transition statement such as:

“So that’s the problem we’re facing, now I’ll go onto my recommendation to address it.”

it gives them an opportunity to get back on board.

3. Break for Q&A

The traditional method of ending your presentation with Q&A is a waste of a great way of re-engaging your audience. A short Q&A session during your presentation is engaging because:

Build Q&A into your presentation, rather than leaving it till the end.

4. Change something…anything

We pay attention to change. You’re probably not aware of the air conditioning hum running in the background, but as soon as it stops you’ll notice it. Here’s what you can change in a presentation:

5. Get them to talk

Allowing people to process your ideas by asking them to talk to the person sitting next to them is an excellent way of re-engaging them. For example, you could ask them to share with their neighbour “What are three things you’ve learnt so far in my presentation”.

6. Get them to write

Asking people to reflect by writing is also useful. For example “Write down three things you’ll do differently as a result of my presentation”.

7. Take a microbreak

In a longer session (anything more than 50 minutes) take a 2-3 minute break for people to stretch their legs, use the restroom and refresh their drinks.

Warning: Be Conceptually Relevant

Don’t be one of those people who tries to spice up a deadly dull presentation with cartoons or funny images which are not conceptually relevant. It looks desperate and research by Richard Mayer (the guru of multimedia learning) shows that it harms the ability of the audience to take in your core message.

Use a variety of buttons

Don’t use the same technique every time – or your audience’s graph will look like this:

Instead use a variety of Attention Reset Buttons. If you’re using my Presentation Planner, here’s an example of how the planner might look with the Attention Reset Buttons highlighted:

What ways do you have of pushing your audience’s Attention Reset Button?


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