Making a presentation in English to international audiences

Making a Presentation in English to International Audiences

Globalization has had many effects. One is that people increasingly find themselves having to give presentations to international audiences.  Whether it is an academic at an international conference; a lawyer speaking to colleagues about a topic of international law or a business person giving a talk on international opportunities for investors in his or her country, professionals around the world have started to engage in cross-cultural, transnational, cross-lingual interactions at a dizzying pace.

It is not always an easy task to successfully navigate international fora. First of all, there is the obvious language barrier. But there are also cultural nuances and industry norms that require your finesse. In order to make an extra-ordinary presentation it is a wise idea to plan your speech well in advance and a part of your planning includes researching the local area where you will be speaking to learn as much as you can about their cultural norms. You want to pay attention to things like your vocabulary, tone, pace and pitch when you present as well. But there are a few other important issues that you absolutely must consider – like the language barrier.

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The Language Barrier

It is important to use appropriate language.  One of the good things about international communication today is that there is a common “international language” that most people use to communicate with each other. This  language is English. Billions of people in the world are able to converse in, and understand, at least a little bit of English and English is often the common language between speakers of divergent languages. So many times, if you are giving a speech in international fora, English will probably be the language of choice. But beware that there are different types of English. In fact, there is a word used in linguistics called “Englishes.” In many countries where English is the main second language, “English” is localized to reflect some of their linguistic norms.

So what that means is that words, terms, jargon, slangs and idioms can change meaning depending on where you are; or they may not be used at all. So you have to acquaint yourself with the specific fora and you have to be sensitive to these local norms. The best way to approach this is simply limit your use of slang, jargon, idioms, collocations and even jokes since you have no way of knowing in advance if your audience will understand what you mean. Keep your speech as “clean” as possible and stick to basic, simple words. But even so, do not assume the audience has understood your message. Ask questions and follow-up on questions from the audience with some of your own. And use a translator if you can. This way you are more certain that the message was successfully delivered.


Cultural Norms

It is very important to consider cultural norms when planning and giving speeches in international fora. That is why you must research the local area before giving your speech. For example, certain colors mean certain things in certain cultures. Yellow is not a great color for South American audiences, for example. White is not a great color for Japanese audiences.

Certain hand gestures have certain meanings. Eye contact and facial expressions are forms of speech and have different meaning in different cultures. So you want to do your research and then practice your delivery to reflect and respect these norm.

In certain countries, certain specific seating arrangements are used. There is no way to know about these nuances unless you do your research ahead of time. In fact, if your budget allows it might be a good idea to get advice from someone (a specialist in intercultural communication) on best practices in the place you are going.

One of the things that presenters will have to consider is how to handle audience reactions to their presentation. Audiences react differently depending on where you are. In some cultures, it is quite normal to remain completely silent during a speech (Japan) or to ask very few questions after the speech; while in other, clapping, tapping, cheering (America), or interrupting with questions, is expected and encouraged. If you find your audience closing their eyes or nodding during your speech, as they might do in Japan, don’t assume it is because you are boring. It could just be a cultural thing. If you are boring or offensive, someone could throw a shoe your way as they do in Iraq.

The pace of your speech or presentation should be adapted to your audience as well. In some cultures, a quicker pace is favored (America) over a slower more detailed approach (Germany, France). That is, some audiences want the speaker to inform them using a “step-by step” approach while others prefer a “get to the point” approach.

You may want to consider having a professional interpreter to help you navigate any pitfalls and to make sure both you and your audience stay on the same page.

Industry Norms

Every industry has its own set of norms. What happens in the aero-space industry is different from the Oil and Gas industry and this is different from the Fashion world which is different from the legal field. So depending on where and to whom you are speaking, you may have to make additional adjustments to those mentioned above. For example, consider what you wear. This could change depending on the audience. Consider the visual aids you use. Consider your delivery and gestures.  Consider the seating arrangements, the length of your speech and your use of personal information in speaking with your audience.

Be sensitive to gender issues as well. In some industries, one gender could be a minority and this might affect the speech norms of the typical person in this field. But when you are giving a presentation, try to be gender neutral. Do not use language that could be offensive to any group even though the industry may “favor” one gender over the other.

There are definitely certain uses of jargon and inside language that are used in certain industries. But the local culture could over-ride the industry culture and so even though certain expressions are commonly used in your industry where you are, when speaking with an international audience in the same industry, you may find that your message gets lost if the listeners do not understand the jargon. So even across industries, you should limit your use of jargon.


The key to effective communication is ? passing the message. To do this, it is important to prepare in advance and to remember to remain sensitive to cultural differences and also, not to make assumptions about your audience.

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