I am only half English and have a wife from two national backgrounds, neither of which is England. I have presented and worked with people all over the world on all five continents. The following are some points derived from my experience and mistakes!
1. Keep it extremely simple
This refers not necessarily about the point you are making, but the approach and language you use. Absolutely no idioms. No humour. No side comments. No political points. No stories. No acronyms. Just plain and simple in a step-by-step reasoning that can easily be followed – preferably with suitable developing diagrams. Remember that they may not have great English so keep words to 3 if not 2 syllables. Having said that, don’t use words like “did’ or “got’” or “make” if you can find a synonym. The problem is that because they can mean so many things, they are difficult to interpret if linguistic abilities are limited.
2. Prepare your presentation well in advance
Yes, they always request this, but think why this is more important now than ever. If your programme does not work on the systems then if you have sent it ahead, there is time to react and retrieve the situation. If you waited to the last minute and then find there is a problem, there is nothing to be done but wing it – and that does not work when people have difficulty understanding you in the first place.
3. Do you have an accent?
You may think you have a beautiful voice (and you may do) but most foreigners find Oxford English, Queen’s English or the BBC style easiest to understand (this latter is the so-called “received pronunciation” – think of Sir Trevor McDonald who grew up in Trinidad but who adopted this style when he worked for the BBC and then subsequently ITV). So if you acknowledge you do have an accent, try to soften it, try to ensure you do not use phrases or expressions specific to that accent and make sure you speak slowly so that your meaning can be followed. For example, I remember being confused by the difference between ‘service’ and ‘surface’ – when not clear they can come out the same – and the meaning is lost instantly. Similarly with ‘vision’ and ‘virgin’!
4. Repeat yourself
Yes, really! Not every sentence, but repeat key sentences so that they really stick. The listener will latch onto these and focus on translating these first – so make sure you pick the key sentences. Remember the mantra: “say what you will say, say it, then say what you said” – while it is demeaning in a way, there is not doubt that repetition does work at getting people to come away with the ideas you were pushing.
5. Speak slowly
Never rush – even when the timekeeper is pressing you to finish. If you speed up to allow yourself to finish, all that happens is that you loose all value of all the remainder of the presentation. Better to cut bits and say the rest slowly. Yes, you lose some of the points, but you keep some too. Better still, of course, practice speaking your piece to time beforehand – not once or twice, but at least 6 or 7 times. Time yourself. If you are consistently still speaking when the slot ends, you HAVE to cut something.
6. If your words are being translated, remember that the translators may not be perfect!
They may paraphrase, they may miss bits, and they may misunderstand you – especially if they get left behind. When a translator is in use, you have to speak even more slowly, with gaps (it is best when you can hear in the background what they are saying – even if you do not understand a word – if they stop, then you can guess that they have likely caught up). Here too, you can see the advantage of repetition and simple phrases – your concepts will come across, almost however bad the translator is!
7. Keep your message simple
English is a rich language with, for native speakers, a great deal of emphasis on nuance and idiom – much of which is simply confusing or incomprehensible for foreigners. Other languages have far fewer words (English has one of the richest languages in the world in terms of the number of words used – some have less than 20% of the words – with a consequential blurring of finesse when it comes to translations). So keep your message simple and if you have to describe a specific instance to avoid nuance, then do so, but with simple language.
8. Get it checked
See if you can get the presentation to the translators (or locals) in advance and get one to run through it to make sure there are no misunderstandings, inadvertent insults etc. With translators, try to run through the concepts you are trying to get across, so they know firstly the sort of vocabulary you will use and secondly have an idea what you are getting at so that if they lose track on the day, they can say something appropriate instead. This is especially true for specialist language for your field (industry sector acronyms, specialist buzzwords and so forth).
9. About your slides
Your slides (if you have some – and it is recommended) should be either pictorial (ie no words) so that the concept is clear from the image (a picture tells a 1000 words concept) or, if you have words, then you should read them word for word. ‘WHAT!’ I hear you cry, ‘that’s nonsense! We were taught never to do this!’ Agreed, when your audience can understand you clearly. But when they cannot, the spoken word combined with the written word helps comprehension. Remember, the point is not to demonstrate you are an ace presenter, but that you can get across the points you want to make. Some presenters make sure every word they say is in the script, just to be sure that the viewers can read what is being said.
10. Have copies
Make sure you have copies to hand out or, better still, electronic versions that they can take away, or send out to all or to those leaving business cards (although some nationalities are less keen on leaving them). That way they can take the presentation back to their organisations and either have time to look at it longer, or to get someone else to read it.
If you feel this makes it sound as though you have to be a pedantic, repetitive and inane simpleton, then remember that anyone can make a point if they talk long enough. The best speakers are the ones that say it succinctly, clearly and plainly so that there can be no misunderstanding. Only then can people learn, and act!
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