Are you attuned to the needs of diverse audiences?

As people cross national boundaries to meet and collaborate, the demand continues for speeches and presentations aimed at international audiences. Are you attuned to the special needs of these listeners? The event might be scheduled to take place on the other side of the globe, or it could be happening close to home and attracting participants from different countries and cultural backgrounds.

Whatever the case, such assignments call for extra awareness and sensitivity to avoid gaffes that could mar the message. After all, the last thing you want to hear is that the audience roared with laughter at a faux pas, or, worse, sat in stony silence because they were offended. Yet, either scenario can unfold in a heartbeat.

How you plan and edit your work can make a big difference. It can be a matter as small as choosing one word over another, or as large as structuring your speech or presentation to suit the listeners’ cultural expectations. No one can say for certain what will work in every situation. But, by following some guidelines and practices based on experience, you can raise the chances that your talk will get a warm reception.

Here are some suggestions:

• Limit your vocabulary - If people will be listening in their second or third language, stick to simple, common words. Also, edit your speech text or presentation script to remove idiomatic language and phrasal verbs (a verb plus preposition or adverb that creates a new meaning different from the original verb). I once heard a car ad on TV that began something like this: Whether you’re moving up, moving down, moving out or moving in, you’ll appreciate the roominess of the new XYZ … What a nightmare for a non-English speaker to decipher.
• Consider the meaning or multiple meanings of words - Even among English speaking nations, certain words are used in different ways. For example, in the United Kingdom, to be shattered commonly means to be exhausted, while in North America it means to be crushed or devastated. When a social worker I know was making a presentation to a group of new Canadians, she mentioned how parents often make sacrifices for their children. The group’s coordinator immediately asked her to define what she meant by sacrifice.
• Consider modifications to structure - North American audiences prefer to hear the main point followed by an explanation, while other cultures prefer to listen to a speaker build up to the main point.
• Remember, the audience will have different terms of reference - Be careful about making mention of events or figures that may not resonate, and using humour, which is culturally specific, and doesn’t translate well. If you need examples to illustrate your points, you can always turn to a more universal subject like nature.
• Do some research - Get a sense of the people you’re going to address, their country (or countries) and history. Search online, visit the library, and, if possible, talk to someone who is knowledgeable. That way you can avoid getting into hot water, as a couple of political figures have done recently after giving speeches that included faulty historical references.