Succeeding as a “foreign speaker”

You’re invited to speak at an event; your travel and accommodation will be paid for; and you get to tour a new city! It doesn’t matter if this city is within your own country or abroad, every audience is different and you are still perceived as the “foreigner.”

Demonstrate your knowledge of their country, city or culture

Before your talk, conduct some research about the political history of the area. Obtain a background of the challenges and triumphs of the community. Be aware of the economic developments in the city. Use people around you to gain this background: from the driver who might be taking you to the event; to the hotel staff where you are staying; you can even engage in discussions with people who are seated next to you in the plane (if it requires a plane trip). Local citizens provide you with unique perspective of their city and travelling consultants and speakers like yourself will offer you advice based on their experience of working with the local audience. Use this knowledge within your talk to show the audience that you have some awareness of the local culture and people.

Language barriers

Your audience might be speaking a different native language and only familiar with conversational English as opposed to fluent English. Speak slowly and ask for feedback on understanding. If needed, arrange for a translator. Avoid clichés, jargon and phrases that might not be understood. The conservative approach is to stick to your own language – learning how to say “hello” in a foreign language might be safe, but other words – if mispronounced could offend the audience.

Use “culturally-neutral” references

Review your slides, stories, and references, to ensure that it is non-biased and non-judgmental. If your audience is Asian, it will be a mistake to have Caucasian images. Err on the side of diversity. Avoid colours or symbols with religious or political connotations and pictures of people dressing or behaving in ways contrary to the cultures accepted norms. Sit with a local to review your slides to ensure cultural-neutrality. If during your speech you sense that something might be offensive, address it and ask for feedback. Thank the audience for teaching you something and avoid referring to it again.

Verbal and non-verbal connection

Connect verbally with the audience from the beginning. If the culture is more formal and professional – keep your introduction formal. If the audience is more casual and friendlier, adjust your introduction accordingly. Become familiar with hand gestures, expressions, body composures that might be culturally offensive. As an example, the “thumbs-up” signal is offensive and insulting to audiences in Asia and Middle East.

Inspirational Advice

  1. Wardrobe: Choose colours and clothing that is culturally-sensitive and neutral.
  2. Low-turnout: It can be disappointing to arrive to an empty room. Your energy and delivery should be no different to a fully-attended event.
  3. Master technology: Carry your own set of international electric adapters to ensure that your equipment works.
  4. Protect yourself: If travelling internationally, invest in an international data or text package to stay connected. Carry along back-up medication. Always have your own energy snacks and water to keep hydrated.
  5. Be humble: You are not only the “expert speaker” you are also the ambassador of your company and or city/country. Humility and respect will endear the audience towards you.

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