7 Tips to Ensure You’re Understood when Speaking to a Foreign Audience

This is a guest post by Leon Potgieter.

“Americans who travel abroad for the first time are often shocked to discover that, despite all the progress that has been made in the last 30 years, many foreign people still speak in foreign languages.” – Dave Barry

The phrase “tough crowd” takes on an entirely new meaning, with deeper shades of terror-inducing nuances, when public speakers face an audience made up of individuals who do not share the cultural background and world-view of the person behind the microphone. As a Westerner living in an Asian country, where more than 80% of the population does not speak English as a first or second language, I’ve learnt the necessities for communicating across cultural barriers. Below I’ve outlined some practical and easy-to-implement tips for anyone addressing an audience of ‘foreigners’. Use these for minimizing inevitable cross-cultural misunderstandings and appealing to a larger crowd.

1. Understand cultural assumptions – yours and theirs

Being human and all that, most of us automatically assume that our cultural norms are universally upheld and are often left confused when people don’t share our axioms. A simple overview of basic cultural assumptions would be enough to give you the knowledge you need to avoid most serious miscommunications.

International Business Etiquette courses are usually excellent for this sort of education. Barring that, the Internet can be a great help: ExecutivePlanet.com is a Wiki-style online business etiquette encyclopedia with helpful and concise culture tips for nearly 50 countries.

2. Use humor wisely

I’m a big fan of using humor in almost any kind of speech, but with non-English speaking audiences, most kinds of wittiness (1) do not translate well, (2) might even end up being inappropriate. Humor should be used wisely and preferably tested before incorporated into a speech of this sort.

A few years back, I saw a friend addressing a crowd of young Ukrainians. He was telling the story of Lance Armstrong and his rise to cycling-fame after his cancer diagnosis. In attempting to capture his remarkable recovery and near instant-success, my friend used the phrase “Zero to Hero” which, after translation drew blank stares from the crowd. Witty slogans like those might sounds funky in English, but will often be virtually meaningless in Polish, Korean or, as in this case, Ukrainian!

3. Work with your interpreter

I once spoke to a small group of Koreans and was to be accompanied by a seasoned interpreter. She asked to meet with me a few weeks before the delivery and asked for a copy of my speech draft. At a second meeting thereafter she had many questions and clarifications about certain words, phrases and content. I gladly helped and her interpreting on the big day was naturally excellent. It’s thus often a good idea to present your interpreter with a copy of your speech notes a while before the delivery, to help him/her with preparation.

The great, often overlooked benefit of working with interpreters is the natural pauses you automatically get between sentences. These are wonderful little time-frames you can use to gather your thoughts, pre-determine your next sentence and glance at your notes.

4. Skip the gobbledygook, completely

Jargon, unnecessary technical terms, geek-speak and “marketese” should be avoided like the plague. If English speaking audiences find excessive use of these confusing, how much more our crowd of focus! Non-English speakers won’t rave about your “quality transitional contingencies” since they probably have no clue what you’re talking about!

5. Speak to 12 year olds

A useful rule of thumb is to assume that English second language speakers in a non-English speaking country are able to understand at the level a 12 year old that grew up in an English country. That means that your ostentatious and delineative enunciations are better left at home and that you speak plainly and simply with clear and direct language. If a 12 year old won’t understand it, scratch it and simplify! Skip the PhD-isms, and avoid using complex and obscure sentences. See Wikipedia’s Simple English Pages for ideas on writing for non-English speakers.

6. Watch out for language nuances

Direct or forceful language is often considered rude in many honor-system countries like those of the Far East. Educate yourself on the aspects of your audience’s worldview (see #1 above) to avoid accidentally falling into the trap of offending them.
Personally, being of German/Dutch descent I grew up in a culture where indirect and vague speech is viewed with suspicion (“What are you hiding?”). And yet, living in east-Asia my to-the-point demeanor and no-nonsense approach to conversation has often been interpreted as aggression and I’ve thus had to learn to adapt my speech. You might find yourself in a similar situation when speaking to a foreign audience, so be careful of language nuances.

7. Use local terminology

I’ve heard so many Americans addressing “metric” crowds and talking in yards, miles and pounds, leaving the rest of us clueless. Similarly talking about 8th graders and 12th graders means nothing to the rest of the world. Localize your words, sentences and even your stories and parables – it makes you more approachable as a speaker and shows sensitivity and sophistication to the audience. If they notice it, they’ll appreciate it.

However, if you choose to incorporate local words or phrases in your speech, please for the love of sanity, practice your pronunciation! I’ve been at events where speakers, in an attempt to impress the crowd, have used words from the local language only to end up sounding terrible and completely incomprehensible to the audience. Don’t invite confusion – instead ask a local to listen to and help you with pronunciation. It’s better to say ‘Good Morning’ in plain English, than “Konichiwa” in Americanized Japanese that ends up sounding like “Go-knee-cheese-wow”!
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Leon Potgieter is an English Teacher, Christian Minister and Public Speaking Enthusiast who’s been living in the Republic of Korea since 2008. His website effective-public-speaking-tips.com is an ever growing online portal for public speaking tips, speechwriting help and presentation techniques.

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6 Comments

  1. Olivia,

    Great post, and interesting points raised, particularly about cultural empathy and respect for ‘foreigners’ from US, and I’d add UK speakers too. We tend to treat ‘foreigners’ as our imperial subjects, even if only in our heads, and that trickles into the language, ‘tone’ and foundations of our message.

    If I was going to add anything I’d suggest that when speaking to an international audience, articulation and physical expressiveness are the key skills to work on. Even when working through an interpreter.

    The end consonants are so often missed by native and non-native English speakers, and this means that the words just run together in an unintelligible lump.

    Add to that a speaker with little or no non-verbal expression, then words, emphasis and meaning go missing. Then the audience tends to follow.

    • Thanks Jim for adding your expertise, Olivia.

  2. I have found rehearsing and using visual cues have helped me a lot. Also being very deliberate with your mannerisms help a ton!

    Also this is my first visit to your blog. I look forward to exploring it further and sharing in one of my future posts!

  3. The first point, regarding cultural assumptions it always works better sharing things. But one of the best point is finding out what the audience expectations are, like if they be comfortable asking questions or how do they expect to be addressed.

  4. Good posting. For understanding local culture, I warmly recommend the Hofstede book (theory explained in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hofstede's_cultural_dimensions_theory )

    I would slightly object the concept of foreigners being on 12-years old level. One major difference is that 12-years old English speakers know less Latin-based words (precipitation, syndrome, objective ..) which are well known to all speakers of Latin languages and to most of educated crowd anywhere. Instead, I would like to warn about acronymes (TLAs !) especially in spoken language. Names of the alphabet are different in different countries, so even HIV or HTML are very difficult to comprehend.

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