Something strange happens when I know I am going to be presenting to an international audience in a foreign country. Although I have been doing this for many years and it is not unusual to have more than ten nationalities represented in my seminars, I always begin to have a feeling that I must label as slightly less than panic.
As a result, I find myself visualizing how diverse my audience will be and reviewing my list of ways to adapt to their international needs. I approach this activity almost as one would approach an exercise program, knowing that it is worth getting the adrenaline pumping and an exercise that always pays off.
My list consists of a dozen items that I have learned through trial and error. But I find that like a good luck charm or talisman, following it gives me confidence and ensures a smooth start.
- Give out my business cards in the beginning of the seminar. – Other cultures place great importance on business cards and giving them out early builds credibility and rapport. In addition, it helps with a name that is not familiar to my participants. Ironically, we most often give out our business cards at the end of the training in the U.S. when we are saying goodbye.
- Prepare a formal introduction. – Of course, I always have a prepared introduction, but I tend to be more formal and specific (not longer, though) when introducing the training in a foreign country.
- Tell the group of my sincere admiration for others who can speak more than one language fluently. – For most of us in the U.S. it is challenging to speak one language correctly; I am in awe of those who are fluent in multiple languages.
- Speak slowly. – Although most of the participants in our training are fluent in English, it is a second language. If I speak slowly at least until they are used to my voice, they can understand better.
- Make sure the participants can see my lips move when I am speaking. – Although I enjoy moving around when I present, I have learned that listeners hear with their eyes as much as their ears. For speakers of English as a second language, comprehension is increased if they can see the speaker’s lips move.
- Dress conservatively – I find this a safe way to begin as different cultures have different ideas of professional fashion.
- Leave the jokes home. Humor simply does not cross cultures.
- Avoid idiomatic expressions. – Every language has those expressions that do not translate exactly, such as “burn the midnight oil” or “cold feet.” Using these can baffle an audience that speaks English as a second language.
- Give detailed instructions using clear, specific words. – Again, don’t make it harder for those who are already working hard to learn in a second language.
- Do not skip pages or jump around when discussing points on a slide. – Same reason as above.
- Do not get personal too quickly. – Different cultures have different ideas about how appropriate it is to ask about family, work, etc. By the way, do not try to build rapport talking about sports. That is a distinctly American discussion topic.
- Remember that coffee breaks are social time and the ‘working lunch’ does not translate across cultures. – Eating is social and done separately from training. Only recently have I even seen participants bringing a beverage into a training room.
After doing all this, I am always amazed at how well all is going by the morning coffee break. I am reminded that no matter the culture, if the participants feel genuine respect and see the benefits from the training, I will have credibility and rapport. By lunch we are exchanging stories and personal anecdotes, and after lunch we joke about an idiom I accidentally used. After an explanation of the phrase, “the straw that broke the camel’s back” I learn that other languages have a similar expression.
What helps most is my natural curiosity and interest to know more about my participants and to make their training experience a valuable one. Don’t leave home without those goals!