What, if anything, is different about speaking to an audience whose first language is not your first language?
These are questions I asked myself when I was asked to speak at the International Associations Congress in Switzerland in 2015.
My first language is English so I have tried to capture a small number of very specific things to consider, when speaking to an audience of English second language speakers. I’m not going to recap all of the useful advice available about public speaking that applies equally whether you’re speaking on home soil or internationally. My objective is to raise your chances of delivering an outstanding speech when speaking away from your home country that is clearly understood, and inspires and moves people in the way that you intend.
A useful thought to consider as you prepare: ‘I’m not on home soil. So, what do I need to do differently to really connect with my audience?’
Here is your list of 4 ‘Risks’ to consider, along with a ‘Fix’ to resolve each one, followed by one or two practical considerations.
Risk 1: Your usual pace is too fast for your new audience. The risk is that your audience misses your point and this weakens your message. This is especially likely when your audience are not natural speakers of your language.
Fix: Reduce your overall speed. Firstly, calculate your natural pace in words per minute when speaking on your home turf. Here’s how:
Take the last speech you made. Read it out loud, as if you were delivering it and time yourself. Then count the number of words in the speech (use Word tools) and divide the words by the minutes. So 1500 words taking 9 minutes to speak translates 1500 divided by 9= 165 words per minute. This gives you your standard ‘home turf’ benchmark.
Now you can time yourself as you practice and get used to speaking at a slower pace. The more you practice, the more comfortable you’ll get with the change of pace.
Next, think about where you can build in natural pauses. There are two ways to find the places where you can pause. Firstly, look at where you can ‘chunk’ your language. This is all about working out where you can group words to create a natural pause in your speech. Secondly, as you practice look at where your key messages are in the text, those important points that you really need your audience to understand. Build in pauses after these and accompany this by scanning the room.
Risk 2: You’ve ‘thrown the kitchen sink at it.’ Your speech contains phrases that are fine for your local audience but would not be understood by your international audience. By addressing this, you will maintain rapport with your audience.
Fix: De-jargonise. Go through your speech and remove any jargon, acronyms or phrases that might sound peculiar to those who don’t speak your native tongue. Be particularly vigilant where humour is concerned. If in doubt, leave it out and at best use wisely and test. Speak plainly and simply, using clear and direct language.
Risk 3: Your slides are reliant on words. Your natural style is to make words the dominant feature of your slides. The risk is that your audience misses what you are saying because they are having to spend more of their time trying to interpret your slides. By addressing it you will keep your audience engaged and with you throughout your talk.
Fix: Give your slides a visual emphasis. Don’t give words up altogether but place the emphasis on images, pictures or diagrams with as few words as possible. Take some key words from your script and put them alongside the image or picture and bullet them. If you can, consider working to a maximum of three words per bullet.
Risk 4: You walk onto the stage assuming that you’re on home turf. This is easily overlooked and a bit more subtle. It’s best addressed by imagining what is different about walking on stage in your home town to walking out on stage in a different country. The difference is that you’re not automatically ‘anchored’ to the place you are in. It’s easy to overlook but if you address it, you’ll build a strong rapport with your audience from the start, and move ahead with them by your side.
Fix: Use your opening to acclimatise to the moment and anchor yourself. One way to build empathy with your audience is with your introduction, taking time to acclimatise yourself to the occasion. In your opening, thank the people who have invited you. Then say something about the host city- how you feel about it. Keep it short, positive and upbeat.
Finally there are a number of logistical factors that change when you speak away from your home environment.
The space you’re going to be speaking in. You would usually be able to visit a local venue easily. If you can, arrange to arrive the day before you speak and pay a visit to see the space. If you can’t do this, ask the organiser to discuss the space with you. Failing that, see if you can find someone in your network who has spoken there and ask them what it’s like and whether there are any quirks. For example, will the speech be translated to delegates on headphones?
Get information on you and your talk to your delegates in advance. Consider writing a series of articles to give to your conference organizer that feed the main themes of your speech to your audience. Prepare a welcome pack for delegates to download that includes a welcome letter, your articles and if you’re running a workshop, a description of the session with one or two questions to get the delegates thinking about it.
The practicalities of being away from home. Finally, here are one or two safe guards given that you are away from home. Take your presentation with you in multiple formats and in your hand luggage. Also in your hand luggage take a fresh shirt, socks/tights and underwear. You never know if your luggage is going to go missing.
That’s about it. There are no guarantees for success but I hope that these guidelines will increase your chances of a performance that stirs and inspires your audience, wherever they are. Good luck.
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With thanks to Michael Thomson for his experience and insight, much of which has been incorporated into this article.