For native English speakers, making a presentation overseas or to an international audience presents some special cross-cultural challenges. Taking the dos and don’ts below into account will ensure that your message is communicated effectively, without embarrassing, insulting, or offending the diverse members of your audience.
WHAT TO DO
- Speak Clearly
This means enunciating clearly so that people can hear and understand each word you are saying. Don’t mumble, slur your speech, or speak super fast when addressing a crowd whose native language is not English.
- Speak Slowly
Help your listeners by slowing down. Give them time to catch your words and digest the meaning. Use verbal and non-verbal clues to gauge whether you are being understood. If people ask you to repeat what you have said, look puzzled, or respond inappropriately, most likely they have not understood you. Repeat your idea slowly in the same or different words. If all else fails, write it down.
- Triangulate your main ideas
This technique involves expressing the same idea three times in slightly different ways. It gives your listeners three chances to catch what you are saying. For example:
|Speaker’s Words||Listener’s Thoughts|
|“I believe he’s the right man for the job…”||Yes…|
|“He has all the necessary qualifications…”||Right…|
|“He is the best candidate of all till now…”||I understand, it’s as I thought…|
- Use meaningful tempo and intonation
By changing the tone of your voice, varying the tempo, and placing stress on areas you would like to emphasize, you provide added clues to help your listener grasp your message.
- Provide signposts along the way
Signposts prepare your listeners in advance by informing them about the planned direction of your discussion or presentation, as well as any changes along the way. For example:
“Today I’ll be speaking about three areas: the market for our products in Canada, our new marketing strategy, and the timeline for implementation of this project.”
“Now that we’ve completed this section, let’s turn our attention to…”
- Use verification loops
In inter-cultural communication, especially, it is valuable to keep checking whether your listeners are following along with your argument. This can be done by asking:
- “Do you have any questions?”
- “Is everything clear till now?”
- “Would you like me to elaborate?”
In this way, listeners have the opportunity to clarify confusion or misunderstanding at an earlier stage.
- Say numbers and dates slowly
Numbers are often expressed in different ways in different parts of the world, so exercise special care when saying numbers, which are such a critical part of doing business. These include phone numbers, prices, quotations, dates, flight numbers, exchange rates, zip codes, addresses, and so on. For example:
- $1500 can be expressed as fifteen hundred or one thousand five hundred.
- 16 can sound like sixty so you should repeat, “That’s sixteen – one six.” (The same is true for all “teen” numbers.)
- December 20th can sound like December 28th.
- In India, the terms lakh(representing 100,000) and crore (10,000,000) are used and must be clarified.
- Write down unfamiliar names or technical terms
Unfamiliar or unknown names and terms are best shown written down on a slide or handout. Repeated use of a term that others don’t know or cannot understand is annoying and thoughtless.
- Double and triple check time arrangements
Confirm any arrangements related to time or dates. One possible approach is to pretend you’ve forgotten, flip through your papers and say, “So we’re meeting at / on …” and see what the other person has to say.
- Be careful using English words from other languages
Remember that English is a mongrel language and has adopted words from other languages. Beware that sometimes these adopted words have different meanings or shades of meaning in other languages.
- Be sincere
By showing genuine sincerity and interest in building a good relationship, a positive atmosphere is created which makes it easier to do business. When both sides assume such goodwill, many potential hurdles can be overcome.
- Keep a sense of humor
Even with the best of intentions, cultural mistakes may be made from both sides. The best advice is to be relaxed, keep a sense of humor and appreciate the cooperative efforts being made by all sides.
WHAT NOT TO DO
- Avoid Slang
Unless the listeners have lived in your country for a long time, avoid slang. Also be aware that slang changes and the listener may not know the current meaning.
When a recently graduated Canadian student went to teach English in Japan, she learned this the hard way. During her class, one of the students told a particularly amusing anecdote, which the teacher enjoyed very much. Unfortunately, the teacher expressed her enthusiasm by laughing and exclaiming, “Shuuuut uuuuup!” in the lilting tone of voice, characteristic of some North Americans when they hear something they like. The student shifted in his chair, looked awkward and said no more. Later in the same lesson, when the student made another interesting observation, the teacher responded enthusiastically once again by saying, “Gettttt ouuuuut!”, at which the poor young student, red-faced and confused, packed up his belongings, got up and walked out the door, never to return. Slang can be disastrous.
- Avoid contractions
Contractions may blur the sound of words and make it more difficult to understand you. In some cases, they can lead to direct confusion – as when someone says ‘can’ or ‘can’t’ too quickly. In this case it is better to use ‘can’ and ‘cannot’.
- Avoid idioms
Using idioms is one of the most common ways of crippling communication with non-native English speakers. These expressions and colloquialisms confuse and confound; avoid them in the interest of greater clarity. Just imagine how these expressions sound to the uninitiated:
- to see red
- to strike out
- to call in sick
- To be in the black
- to jump the gun
- to blow one’s top
- To do lunch
- to give the cold shoulder
- to have a soft corner
- Avoid double-negatives
This convoluted way of speaking, which may be followed by native speakers, is very hard on non-natives. Spare them the trouble by speaking more directly. For example, instead of saying “I’m not saying it’s impossible…”, just say “ It’s possible…”
- Avoid understatement
This style of speaking is culturally sensitive and may be misunderstood in intercultural situations. For example, if you state that you’re an okay graphic designer, when in fact you’re very talented, you might be taken at your word.
- Avoid sarcasm and irony
This is another area in which backstage cultural information is required to interpret the message. Don’t make sarcastic comments about yourself or others. Get your message across in more direct terms.
- Don’t use curse words
Especially when used outside one’s own culture, curse words often signal disrespect and may damage business relationships. The best policy is to avoid all language that could be offensive.
- Be careful about humor
Humor is one of the most culturally sensitive forms of communication and doesn’t usually work well in cross-cultural situations. The jokes that you consider funny may be viewed as crude or rude by others. In addition, humor is based on an in-depth understanding of a cultural mindset.
- Don’t speak loudly
Speak at normal volume. Your foreign listeners are not hard of hearing or deaf. This is not the issue.
- Don’t assume anything!
This includes: don’t assume the person doesn’t speak English well and don’t assume the person doesn’t know your native language. Many people have studied and traveled widely today and have lived in many different countries. Don’t be caught in an embarrassing situation because of incorrect assumptions.