Pitfalls of the unwary
What you need to consider when you really want to get your message across.
I often present to audiences with English as their second language, and a recent discussion with a client about to do the same reminded me of the pitfalls for the unwary. So, some tips:
- If in doubt, find out. If you suspect you may be presenting to a mixed audience, contact the organiser and ask. With such a multicultural world it’s not unusual to have a variety of non-English speakers (or as a second language) in the audience. The topic may also indicate an audience with limited English skills. If you don’t take this into account when preparing you will lose a percentage of your audience, and your results, right from the start. If presenting overseas, it’s a definite issue.
- Don’t use a long word when a short word will do. Most people can get by in everyday language with a vocabulary of between 800 – 1200 words. While this is sufficient to cope day-to-day, it’s not sufficient to comprehend high level or industry specific words…particularly when they are being presented verbally (as opposed to in writing) in a presentation situation. Words like “ill-liquid investment” or even simple words like “mooted” will quickly lose people. Avoid them at all cost.
- Slow down when you talk. This is a real challenging one for me. I naturally get excited and passionate when I speak publicly, which results in me speaking quickly. I don’t mind, it’s part of my energy and tends to create engagement for my audience, but I have learnt that with non-native speakers it loses them very quickly. Slow down and enunciate clearly.
- This doesn’t mean they are 5 year olds. With all of these changes in style don’t fall into the trap of thinking you are speaking to a group with the intellect of 5 year olds, so don’t talk like you are. They are capable competent human beings who need a little more time to assimilate what they hear against what they already know. They know a lot, a 5 year old doesn’t know much. If you confuse the two you will be insulting.
- If it’s a common first language, use a multilingual slide. If you are presenting to a group with a common first language, use both English and that language on the slides. The English will help both you and them, and the second language will definitely help them understand. Moreover, it is a sign of respect. You will be stunned by the acknowledgement you will get by including their language.
- Be careful of using their language orally at the start. Many think it a nice touch but it can be dangerous, particularly in languages that are tonal, like Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese, etc. Unless you get it perfect you risk making no sense to the audience or worse still, offending them. Need an example? In mandarin, the word in English sounds like “maidan” (买单) which means either asking for the bill at the restaurant…or buying an egg (买蛋). The only variation is an inflection on the second syllable that most westerners wouldn’t hear. If you are going to do it, get solid coaching from someone who knows.
- Don’t expect questions. For various cultural and language reasons you won’t get many questions from the floor when presenting to an Asian audience, but they will come up to you afterwards if they understood much of your talk.
Presenting to non-first language speakers can really be an enjoyable and fulfilling experience. Enjoy it!
Lee Featherby (@mrpresentations)
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