You’ve just been invited to give a presentation as an international guest at a symposium or conference overseas. Congratulations! Even if you’re already an experienced presenter, take some time to review your presentation to make sure you’re pitching it appropriately to your next audience.
And a good place to start is from the lens of your audience. It seems obvious…but this perspective is often poorly understood.
Do you ever tune out from or get turned off by a highly anticipated international speaker at a symposium because they’ve somehow failed to connect with you and their ‘expertise’ feels irrelevant to your situation?
You wouldn’t be the first. Many speakers, often billed as experts internationally in their field, fall short of pitching appropriately to their audiences and can end up unintentionally alienating them. This can happen to any speaker but as an international speaker, you also have to work through a number of significant cultural considerations to get your pitch right.
At a ‘Learning in a Digital Age’ publishing industry symposium I recently attended in Melbourne, the keynote speaker, a Finnish expert in secondary education teaching methodology, had this response to an panel discussion question about digital learning:
‘Oh well, that’s something that you might be looking at in early learning, but it’s not a priority at the secondary level’.
Heavy silence. Another panelist, a Czech international expert on how teachers modify educational materials in their teaching practice, had this answer when the same question was put to her:
‘We don’t do a lot in this area but digital education doesn’t give you the same quality of learning that you get face to face’.
I glanced across the theatre. People were exchanging baffled looks as an awkward tension hung in the air until the moderator stepped in with the next question. During the lunchbreak, delegates I chatted with said they’d felt rebuffed and patronised and that the speakers were ‘out of touch’.
So, a) at a symposium promoting digital learning b) in a geographically vast country where digital technology has brought educational opportunities to people who’d otherwise miss out and c) among world leaders in digital education technology and online learning, these international experts conveyed a poor understanding of or interest in Australia’s digital educational culture and success. Delegates, expecting a more positive response, felt snubbed.
Now, back to you. As a speaker, how would you have approached a similar situation? What do you need to think about to get your own audience pitch right? Here are some ideas to get you started.
Do your cultural homework
As the vignette above illustrates, you really do need to have some understanding and appreciation of the cultural context and background of your audience around the theme of your presentation. Your expertise is one thing but if there is a disconnect between that and your audience’s reality, then your message won’t cut through and you risk alienating people. Not only that, your expertise may be interpreted as narrow, parochial or false.
Understand your own and your audience’s cultural frames of reference
You already know that what works for you in one cultural setting doesn’t always work in another, even in familiar local environments. So when your audience is international, think about how you can step out of your own cultural frames of reference so your communication is relevant for your target group.
To do this properly, you need to ‘go behind the scenes’ to better understand your own and your audience’s cultural biases, assumptions and codes that underlie the way you think and communicate.
Focusing on your audience’s own cultural frames of reference will also help you establish a clear approach for how you will accomplish the goal of your presentation. Doing your cultural homework and infusing your presentation with meaningful cultural references that your audience will appreciate will pave the way for them to come closer to you. This will put you in a position to work out the minor but significant adjustments that will help you make a powerful and sustained impact.
Opening and concluding your presentation
Consider the format, content and style (including body language) of your opening and concluding remarks. This sets the tone for your audience engagement. Do you show an appropriate level of enthusiasm and formality with the group? How self-promoting are you? Also consider the cultural references you have chosen for connecting with your audience. Are these appropriate for their own expectations and approaches? What might you need to adjust?
Culturally stereotyping your audience
It’s entirely natural and valid for you to view your international audience through a prism of national identity. But take care you don’t superficially judge by broad cultural stereotypes and ‘codes’. For instance, a gathering of Singaporean food technology leaders is very different from a group of Singaporean telecommunications experts. You might overlook much more significant, underlying cultural nuances which make the difference between your presentation’s success or failure.
You may all be speaking the same language but many in your audience are criss-crossing language and cultural spaces and frames of reference – just like you. Remember that the same words can have different shades of meaning or completely different meaning in other cultures. Ask yourself: could your audience struggle to comprehend your presentation? Could you be damaging your audience engagement by unintentionally confusing, stressing or even offending people? Review and adjust your content and revise your delivery style if necessary, so you can be confident that you effectively convey your core concepts and messages.
Humour is laden with hidden cultural references and assumptions. It is difficult to translate across cultures, even those that share the same language. When employing humour during and outside your presentation, how will you adjust your content and style to relax the atmosphere and connect with your audience? What are other culturally appropriate ways, as well as humour, you can convey warmth and connection?
Different cultures gather and process information differently, even when the same language is spoken. Our vocabularies and discourses reflect this. These differences can cause confusion and sometimes real offence. Moral and spiritual principles and social constructs around ‘shame’, ‘heaven’, ‘hell’ and ‘karma’ are also understood differently across cultures. The same goes for what we implicitly assume to be universal principles about logic or reason. So your default approaches to presenting a case and persuading others, as well as the vocabulary we use and the structuring of our dialogue, may need adjusting…even though doing so will at first feel counterintuitive.
Questions and question time
Ways of asking or handling questions differ across cultures. Some groups ask challenging questions to check that your ‘case’ is watertight, so be prepared to answer robustly and keep your calm. Other groups will respond to a presentation with silence or a few courteous questions. You may find this highly disconcerting but this is a sign of courtesy and deference, not indifference or boredom.
Seek the advice of someone with local authority how best to handle question time. Some groups expect you to adhere to strict time limits on Q&A. Others will expect you to be flexible and stay as long as they want to ask questions!
Your audience wants to please you
Remember – your audience deeply appreciates that you’ve committed your precious time to travel across the globe and share your insights with them. Your speaking engagement will be nested in an atmosphere of good will, preparedness to accommodate your ‘foreign-ness’ and interest to benefit from your expertise. Enjoy your cultural learning journey. It will stand you in great stead for your future international engagements.
We’d love to hear your comments and questions! To find out how InterMondo can support your communications requirements in an international environment, click here.