How to Speak to a Non-Native English Speaking Audience
In today’s global economy, there’s a good chance you’ll have to speak in front of an audience of non-native English speakers. How can you speak so your listeners will understand? The Public Speaker shares 12 helpful tips to make your point clear.
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Tip #3: Use commonly known words to make your point. We sometimes refer to these as “nickel words.” Clarity is more important than creativity and sophistication in this case. If you’re trying to describe something very big, it’s fine to simply say "big" or "large." Don't use less common synonyms like "humongous," "giagantic," or "capacious." Google “commonly used words” for a list of alternatives you can use when speaking to non-native English speakers.
Tip #4: Do not use idioms. Don't suggest “back-of-the-envelope” calculations, or “belt-tightening” or explain that widget XYZ is a “cash cow.” Learning the meaning of idioms is difficult for non-native speakers, so you'll likely be misunderstood. Be as literal as you can with your descriptions. Just this past week I ran into trouble when I responded “fat chance” to Tian, our intern from Thailand. She asked, “Is that the same as slim chance?” I explained that it meant no chance at all. "What???" She said, "Slim is some chance but fat is none? That doesn't make sense." I had to agree!
Tip #5: Limit your use of contractions. For non-native speakers, the sounds of a contractions often run together and the words and meanings are lost. It's also generally a good idea not to let your words run together. When I was learning Spanish, this was something that was very difficult for me. For example, the first few times I heard, “tabien” I thought it was a new word...only to find out later that it was actually two words, "esta bien," which means "OK" in Spanish.
Do not use idioms. Be as literal as you can with your descriptions.
Tip #6: Avoid acronyms if possible. It's better to say all of the words in the acronym. A non-native speaker may not know that the COO is the Chief Operating Officer or that QA means quality assurance. If you absolutely need to use an acronym, explain what it is first and be sure you have the words and the acronym up on a slide.
Tip #7: Choose images your audience can relate to. If you’re using slides and your audience is diverse, include images of people from around the globe. If your audience is primarily from one culture, then include images that reflect that culture. For example, I recently presented to a Sino-American pharmaceutical group and I changed some of my images and examples to include Chinese-Americans that I have worked with in the past.
Tip #8: If presenting data, use the standard measurements of that country. Miles become kilometers, gallons become liters, etc. If the country you’re speaking in practices British English, use the correct spelling on your slides or handouts. For example, use "colour" instead of "color" and "centre" instead of "center." Google “British spelling versus U.S. spelling” for a comprehensive list.
Tip #9: If possible, start your presentation by saying a few words in the first language of your audience (even if it's just a simple greeting). Practice it several times with a native speaker to get it right. Put the word or phrase on a slide so the audience knows what you’re trying to say, even if you mispronounce it. This will create good-will in your audience and make them more receptive to what you have to say.
Tip #10: Provide detailed slides. Normally I don’t suggest handing slides out in advance, but if the majority of your audience does not speak English well, it is best to send the slides with detailed notes ahead of time. This way, attendees can read the presentation either before or afterwards. And if they missed any details as you were presenting, they can go back and read the presentation at their own pace.
Tip #11: Don't make a typical foreigner/tourist mistake. How do you find out what that is? Ask! Talk to your country host to find out what to avoid. For example, although many gestures are universal, there are tons of gestures, such as pointing with your index finger, that have different meanings in different countries. If you have a chance, practice your presentation with your host or a colleague who lives in the country. Ask them to point out anything you say or do that might be offensive or embarrassing.
Tip #12: Do basic cultural research. You'll want to gain a general understanding of the prevailing cultural norms. Just be sure to keep in mind that there is always cultural variety. Review web resources like cyborlink.com and worldbusinessculture.com for international business etiquette and cultural awareness. Since Emily’s company headquarters is in Japan, I suggested that she pick up a book about doing business in Japan to learn more about communication and business culture and practices in that country.
Speaking to an audience of non-native English speakers is not as difficult as you might think. Follow these tips and your audience will get more out of your presentation. Be prepared to stay afterward to answer questions and clarify meanings when asked. By the way, Emily wrote me after she followed my advice when delivering her presentation and things went well. She's looking forward to making more presentations at headquarters.
This is Lisa B. Marshall, The Public Speaker. Helping you lead, influence, and inspire through better communication. Do you wish you got an email from me letting you know the new podcast is available? Join my newsletter to get weekly updates and get a free bonus. Do you struggle with difficult conversations? Do you procrastinate when it comes to delivering feedback? Do you know how to effectively persuade and influence others? Learn this and more in my book Smart Talk. Radio personality, Maureen Anderson called it “The owner’s manual for your mouth!” Visit www.smarttalksuccess.com to get your personally signed copy.