How to present to multilingual international audiences in English – Five rules

Multilingual, international audiences are now increasingly common. These non-English native speaking  audiences provide a unique challenge for speakers and presenters: How can you be clearly understood, without dumbing down your topic or patronising your audience?

In addition, if English is not your first language, you may feel at a disadvantage.

However, you do not need to speak English brilliantly to be an effective communicator. In fact, people who speak English as a second language are more effective at communicating to multilingual audiences, according to a BBC article.

At Benjamin Ball Associates, we have helped thousands of senior executives from Europe, Asia and the Middle East to present more effectively. From our experience, there are five simple rules you can follow to ensure your message is received and understood.

So whether English is your first, second or even third tongue, use these rules to present effectively to multilingual audiences:

1. Presenting to non-English speakers: Keep your language simple

Dale Carnegie, author of How to Make Friends and Influence People, claimed that, “90 per cent of all management problems are caused by miscommunication.” Effective presenters stick to plain and simple language – words most likely to be in everyone’s vocabulary – when speaking to those who don’t speak English as their first language. For example, a native French or Arabic speaker is less likely to understand the meaning of “plethora,” so you would be better to use “plenty” or “a lot.”

Avoid jargon, acronyms and cultural idioms, as your audience are less likely to understand them.

Varying your vocabulary throughout your presentation may also confuse a multilingual audience. For example, avoid talking about ‘benefits’ and then later referring to ‘advantages’.

2. Presenting to international audiences: Pause. Frequently

“Sometimes you need to pause to let everything sink in,” according to German racing driver Sebastian Vettel. Even a four-time Formula 1 world champion needs to slow down occasionally. Presenting in English to multilingual audiences is no different.

Pausing regularly gives you extra time to prepare your next sentence, and allows the audience time to absorb what you just said. Effective speakers strive to put the same care and attention into their pauses as they do their overall message. How can you use pauses when presenting to multilingual audiences?:

  •     Between different speakers, topics or sections.
  •     Before a punchline or key message (this also adds tension and emphasis).
  •     After a punchline or key message, to let it sink in.
  •     Combined with a dramatic action, for example uncovering a new product or pointing to something important.
  •     Alongside body language signals, to emphasise the pause.

3. Presenting to international audiences: Summarise regularly.

Have you ever walked away from an important meeting or presentation unsure about the meeting’s topic, its purpose, or your actions? Regularly summarising throughout your presentation will prevent your audience from leaving with these frustrating – and potentially damaging – outcomes.

The benefits of inserting regular summaries into your presentation:

  •     Checking your audience’s understanding of what you’ve said.
  •     Re-stating your key messages.
  •     Bringing topics or sections to a close.
  •     Re-stating any future actions for your audience.
  •     Refreshing your audience’s memory of what you’ve said.

You could also try splitting the presentations into clearly defined topics, or holding regular question and answer sessions. Both tactics help to consolidate everyone’s understanding. Boxer Muhammad Ali once said, “It’s the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen.” Keeping your presentation structure simple will also make your content much more easily digested.

4. Presenting to non-English audiences: Bring your subject to life with stories, examples and anecdotes.

An executive was delivering speech in a foreign country through an interpreter. Without warning the interpreter beforehand, he inserted a joke into the presentation. The interpreter knew the joke would not translate and knew of no equivalent to substitute in its place. So she said, “This man just told a joke that he thinks is funny, but it does not translate well, and you will not find it funny at all. So, when I stop talking, everyone please just laugh.” The audience did indeed roar with laughter, but not for the reason the speaker supposed.

Telling stories, like the one above, works across language and cultures and brings your subject to life. The power of storytelling is timeless, transcending industries and technology. Just ask Hollywood director James Cameron who said, “I don’t use film cameras… it’s all Computer Generated now… It’s a completely different toolset. But the rules of storytelling are the same.”

So, is there a short anecdote relevant to your topic that you could use to open your presentation? If you can, use a local or topical angle for your anecdote. The audience will then know that you have tailored your talk for them.

5. Presenting to international audiences: Start with impact

“Sadly, in the next 18 minutes when I do our chat, four Americans that are alive will be dead from the food that they eat.” Jamie Oliver uses the very first line of his TED speech on food ignorance to shock his audience and immediately hook their attention. Audiences form their overall impression of you and your message within the first minute or two. So, instead of simply introducing yourself or thanking the audience for attending, you could try one of the following tried and tested openers:

  •     Tell a short story that is relevant to your topic or angle.
  •     Ask a question that makes your audience think or respond.
  •     Describe a scenario that sets the scene and encourages the audience to imagine what they would do in that circumstance.
  •     Do something unexpected or shocking, that makes the audience reconsider their preconceived ideas already.

Leave the housekeeping, introductions or pleasantries to the person who welcomes you to the front of the room. If you need to cover some low impact but essential content – or if you won’t be introduced by anyone – it’s still important to begin with a high impact start. You can then loop back to the housekeeping, introductions or thanks / pleasantries at the end of your presentation.

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If you apply these five essentials for delivering presentations to multilingual audiences, you will connect with every member of your audience – without your message getting lost in translation.

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About Benjamin Ball Associates

Benjamin Ball Associates Team

Benjamin Ball Associates helps clients to communicate better.

Over the years the BBA team has coached thousands of senior executives from Europe, Asia and the Middle East to better present themselves in English. We have developed a robust toolbox of techniques that we use to help our clients become clear, confident communicators.

We’ll help you create a powerful first impression that hooks and engages your audience immediately and we’ll coach you to deliver clearly, confidently and with impact.

Speak to Louise on 020 7018 0922 or email louise@benjaminball.com to find out more and discuss your upcoming speech or presentation.

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