Do you present your project in English for an international audience? Do you adapt your presentations to people with different cultural backgrounds? Are you ready to take the next step delivering even more professional speeches?
Here are some highlights on how you will succeed with your presentation.
Connect with your audience
The German way of thinking is said to be very precise. In short, their highly functional language can be traced back to numerous wars and subsequent reconstruction efforts. UN interpreter and author Susanne Kilian attributes this to Germany’s central geographic location in Europe. In fact, many German lecturers introduce technical concepts full of details while also including numerous technical terms.
In other parts of the world, especially among Asian and Latin cultures, people pay much more attention to the context of what is said. They ascribe particular importance to non-verbal communication reading between the lines, especially facial expressions and gestures. At the other end of the spectrum, presentations from people of the US, Canada, Australia and the Netherlands are generally brief and very much to the point. They include a rather general overview of the project, sharing the most relevant information and ideally including a maximum of three subtopics. Technical details are often distributed in a handout only. Their presentations focus on more practical aspects: How does a product work? What’s in it for me? And even more important: What vision do I share in my presentation? Kilian writes about Americans suffering once they listen to presentations without a vision.
Consider the cultural Background of your Audience
Compared to 372 million native English speakers, there are more than one billion people worldwide who use English as their second language (figures according to the World Economic Forum). At international conferences outside English-speaking countries, the latter are usually in a clear majority. Cross-cultural understanding may therefore become a specific challenge in international presentations: emphasis, tempo and sentence structure vary depending on linguistic background. It is our challenge to be well understood by everyone. To native English speakers, the “Denglish” gibberish mixing German and English vocabulary within sentences may sound rather strange.
When speaking to a global audience, it is important to be understood easily: If in doubt, use simplified English with common words and phrases. For your audience, short sentences and stressed breaks give time to reflect on what has been said. Pay attention to whether they stay attentive and look at you. It also helps to ask short questions involving your audience, such as “Who of you has experienced the same challenge? Please raise your hand!” Interactive presentations also create a common level of communication.
If you are speaking in another country, you can also pay attention to the following aspects in advance:
- Value system: What is important in the host culture? Which values are important for the locals?
- Hierarchy of power: Who are you talking to? Is your target audience in the same hierarchy group as you are? Do you address your speech to leaders of the upper management level?
- Openness: Do you add value by sharing personal experiences, telling short success stories which might be relevant with regard to your project?
Mentioning a few words in local language and referring to country-specific aspects is another good approach to connect to your audience. But beware of not addressing problematic topics from country-specific or local politics and religion!
Communicating culture-specific Gestures
We communicate more than just the spoken word: Body language and especially facial expressions and gestures are of particular importance. People from context-rich cultures in countries such as Japan, China, Korea and Indonesia are paying much more attention to non-verbal signals: Are we facing the audience? Do we convey professional authority? Are content and body language congruent?
Of course, all of the above aspects apply worldwide. However, we have to take into account the varying cultural importance. If we are in the US, Australia or Canada, our audience expects us to speak more plainly, while in the Netherlands and Germany, we should also be able to express ourselves precisely, since every word is given special meaning in these countries.
These cultural differences become even clearer when paying attention to our gestures. There is particularly high potential for cultural misunderstandings. To avoid them in the first place, we should keep our fingers to ourselves, as emphasized by Gayle Cotton in her book “Say anything to anyone, anywhere. 5 keys to successful cross-cultural communication.”
According to Cotton, the “Thumbs up” gesture is interpreted positively in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Hungary meaning “Super! You did well!” Accordingly, I made this gesture during a project in Ecuador to provide positive feedback to my colleagues. At the time, however, people around me looked irritated because they only knew “thumbs up” as a vulgar gesture. I have been correspondingly cautious about this during my later work in Australia and a stay in Iran, where this gesture might be interpreted in a similarly negative way.
The same applies to the “Victory!” gesture, which has the positive significance we know in Iraq, Iran and the US. However, in parts of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Great Britain and Ireland it can have the same meaning as the extended middle finger in Germany.
I myself attended a lecture with an experienced speaker walking into the audience during his presentation, when he pointed his index finger directly at the head of one of the audience members. For this particularly rude gesture, he later apologized personally. Some of my African colleagues recently pointed out using their index finger on dead objects only, but never on living beings and especially not on humans.
If we want to address someone explicitly, we can alternatively use the open palm with closed fingers to show to the audience.
So beware of supposedly unambiguous gestures. Cultural differences and the corresponding interpretation for non-verbal communication are very pronounced.
Essential Aspects of Outstanding Presentations
What is the difference between a good and an outstanding presentation?
The best speakers grab the attention of their audience from the first minute and do not let go until the end. In their clearly-structured speech, they intersperse short stories and anecdotes relating to their topic, sharing surprising twists and ultimately bringing new insights. They arouse emotions in the audience. Depending on the situation, they release tension with humor, partly with humor in short succession. But take into account that especially in the international context, business presentations should generally be delivered on a rather serious level, otherwise you may even lose authority.
The best speakers can simplify complex facts in an easily understandable way. They focus on the essential contents, getting to the point and leaving out any unnecessary side stories. Those speakers do not need to repeat their information, since their message has already been received.
Another strength of the best speakers is that they create realistic images in the minds of their audience. If speaking for more than ten minutes, those speakers can easily vary their presentation style: They may bring clearly visible objects. Such props help to illustrate contents supporting their message. Julian Treasure, sound consultant and TED speaker uses various sounds or “soundbites” and encourages his audience to actively participate in short exercises during his presentations. As a consequence, such captivated audiences are not distracted by status messages on their smartphones. Further possibilities are the use of short videos, questions to and discussions with the audience or even inviting people from the audience to come on stage.
Last but not least, professional speakers respect the time of their audience. They finish their presentation in the scheduled time or a minute earlier.
If you take into account the above tips while preparing your presentation, you will succeed with regard to your international audience.
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Dr. Stephen Wagner ist Rhetorik-Trainer, Redner und Moderator an der Schnittstelle Wissenschaft/Wirtschaft und im internationalen Umfeld. 20 Jahre Vortragserfahrung mit Keynotes, wissenschaftlichen Präsentationen, Exkursionen und Workshops in Australien, Deutschland, Ecuador, Iran, Mexiko, Neuseeland, Österreich, Schweiz, Thailand, Tschechien, USA. Forschungsprojekte als Geograph in Australien, Benin, Italien und Spanien. Er ist wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter der Universität Bonn mit Vorlesungen, Seminaren und Exkursionen.