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  • Sylvia Gonner

How to Speak to a Multicultural Audience

Updated: Jan 25, 2022

A benefit of shifting to virtual conferences, training, and events is reaching participants in all corners of the world from a multitude of cultures. While speakers have recently focused on learning the mechanics of presenting virtually, they must also learn a new set of skills to address the increasing international and multi-cultural nature of their audiences. To avoid embarrassing cultural blunders that can appear insensitive, or worse offensive, to people of other cultures it’s nowadays vital for presenters to follow some important guidelines.

1. Avoid geographic-centricity – Since there are 24 different times zones in the world, chances are it’s a different time of the day (or night) where your audience is located. And don’t forget that the seasons and temperatures are quite different around the globe as well.

· Instead of using “Good Morning/Afternoon” say/write Hello, Greetings or Welcome.

· Instead of using Spring or Summer, say/write Q2 or Q3 or the specify the month.

· Instead of using “West Coast” or “up North,” say/write in California, or in Canada.

Even terms like “foreign” “foreigners” and “foreign-language” must be avoided as they are centric to the location of the speaker or event and therefore ambiguous in a global context.

2. Avoid non-universal terminology – Don’t confuse your audience or ask them to do conversions.

· Dates: Instead of writing 11/04/2021 (which could be interpreted as November 4 or April 11 depending on the country) spell out November 4th 2021.

· Times: Instead of listing 3pm, say/write 3:00pm/15.00h.

· Measurements: If you quote miles, include km; if you include gallons, add liters, etc.

3. Slow down – Don’t rush through your presentation. Speaking slower than with a native audience, and pausing here and there will assist international participants in several ways.

· Non-native speakers: If speaking in a language that isn’t someone’s native language, a fast talker can be much harder to understand.

· Accents: A slower pace of speech can help alleviate issues with heavy accents that may otherwise be difficult to understand.

· Better pronunciation: Slower speech helps lessen mumbling, slurring, word contractions and overall improves the elocution of a speaker.

· Closed-captioning (subtitles): Increasingly, virtual events software includes closed-captioning that assist not only hearing impaired but non-native audiences and those struggling with foreign accents. The accuracy of the closed captioning increases when the speaker speaks slower.

4. Use simple language – Err on the side of simplicity, using short sentences and words that don’t carry a double meaning. Rather than “protagonist” say “person;” rather than “gratuitous” use “unnecessary;” rather than “promulgate” use “spread” etc. When you speak of an “engagement” specify if you’re referencing an assignment or an agreement to get married. And when you say “I was so mad” remember that it means angry in the US and insane in England.

5. Beware of humor – Humor is rooted in cultural norms that vary greatly around the world. Consequently, jokes may not reflect universal values, and can elude, even possibly offend, a percentage of the audience. While humor can be an effective means to connect with virtual audiences, make sure it’s culturally appropriate and inclusive if you use any kind of humor.

6. Beware of cultural stereotypes – Speaker who wish to acknowledge they have an audience from other countries should look out for unconscious biases and stereotyping. Even with the best intentions, generalizations in the form of greetings, sayings, and the use of images or photos can create awkward, or worse offensive, results.

7. Avoid being locally-constrictive – Speakers should not assume that people in other countries know anything about their local/national news, events, personalities, and trends. Try making your messaging less locally-constrictive. If it’s important to include references to anything local in your presentation, make sure you provide context and an explanation so a multinational audience will be able to follow.

8. Beware of gestures – Did you know that the American OK hand-sign has a totally different (and rude meaning) in some countries? Before you flash hand-gestures on screen, make sure they are universal and non-offensive.

9. Don’t use sports metaphors – There are several issues with the use of sports metaphors:

· Chances are when sports analogies are used in presentations, they are either misinterpreted or not understood.

· When used repeatedly, sports analogies can make those who don’t know or understand the sport feel out of place and left out of the conversation.

· Sports analogies (particularly for national sports) cannot be translated literally into other languages or be localized. Interpreters, if available for the event, will be lost.

10. Don’t use war analogies – War analogies are of poor taste and carry negative connotations that may reflect insensitivity on the part of the speaker. Don’t speak of war lightly, use terms like “war on …” for anything trivial, or expressions like “fire-bomb” when unnecessary. This is particularly problematic if anyone in the audience could be impacted by active (or past) wars.

11. Spell out acronyms and abbreviations – Abbreviations (such as TBD, COD, NLT, ROI, etc.) permeate our written language and often appear in speaker slides and session descriptions. Acronyms and abbreviations can totally confuse an international audience. The increasing use of abbreviations in messaging/texting doesn’t mean these should be used IRL (in real life) without explanation. The rule is to spell it out on the first use before further using any abbreviation.

12. Skip corporate jargon and insider lingo – Jargon often reflect the internal lingo of a company’s corporate culture or industry. The use of corporate lingo in presentations can be off-putting to anyone outside or new to the group and who isn’t familiar with the terminology.

13. Don’t get into politics – Bringing up politics (unless it’s relevant to the session) is a recipe for disaster. Regardless of the state of world events at the time, foreign affairs in particular can be very risky with an international audience. There are too many opportunities to offend, anger, or embarrass those in the audience that could be referenced by such political comments.

14. Don’t include religious or spiritual beliefs – To respect the multitude of beliefs that can make up an international audience, conferences and events should skip any religious/spiritual rituals, scriptures or activities. Out of respect for all beliefs (or lack thereof), presentations are best kept free of prayers, blessings, as well as faith-based quotes and symbols.

15. Avoid idioms and expressions – Because expressions are highly integrated into our everyday language, it can be difficult to avoid them. You may think “you hit the nail on the head” and “passed with flying colors,” but using expressions could get you some “dirty looks” and “leave you in hot water.” Idioms and expression are rarely (if ever) universal, and chances are people in other countries (even if they speak the same language) will not be familiar with them as each culture has its own unique sayings. It’s therefore important to search for all idioms and expressions within a prepared speech, notes, and slides and eliminate or minimize their use.

16. Don’t overlook attire – All eyes are on you on the screen so while it’s always important to check your appearance, consider the following when presenting to an international audience.

· You cannot go wrong if you overdress to appeal to cultures that favor more formal attire.

· To respect more conservative cultures, avoid wearing anything revealing or exposing too much skin.

· Don’t wear clothing and jewelry with writing or symbols, especially in other languages you may not be familiar with.

17. Double check your background: When using online technology for presentations, make sure what appears on the screen as your background (on the wall/self behind you or the image you any virtual background you chose) is free of any personal revealing photos or paintings, writings, as well as religious symbols, etc.

18. Be cautious when using images – Pay particular attention to any images, photographs, graphics and illustrations used in the presentation. With an international audience and in the face of languages barrier, graphics and images can be helpful tools and to enhance written and verbal communications. However, watch out for anything that could be viewed negatively or interpreted differently in other cultures.

· Flags: Don’t use country flags to represent languages. Many countries use some of the common languages so a flag of France would be inappropriate to represent the French language for example. Many flags look alike, so when displaying a flag to show a country make sure you use the correct one and that it’s not reversed or presented upside down.

· Maps/globes: Maps and globes typically show only one part of the world so they may appear country/region-centric. Use maps of the entire world and abstract type of globes (not showing the continents) to project a more international feel.

· Don’t stereotype cultures by selecting images based on how people look or dress (for example: a woman in a kimono to depict Japanese people or a girl in a hijab to portray a Muslim). There is a lot of diversity and sub-regional variations within each culture.

· When displaying symbols (such as currency, historical figures, or landmarks) to represent concepts, opt to show a multitude of examples to address the diversity across the globe. (Ex: Use a yen, euro or British pound rather than just a $ to represent money).

· Don’t hesitate to use emojis as they are increasingly recognized as a universal language. Note that some emojis are available in cultural variations such as skin tone and clothing so chose a variety to reflect a multicultural feel.

19. Be prepared for the Q&A: International audiences have different learning styles and behaviors when interacting speakers. Knowing your audience can help you interpret non-verbal responses during your presentation as well as verbal feedback during a question-and-answer session.

Here are some examples:

· Don’t worry if Indians shake their head, as this means they agree.

· Don't expect feedback from Swedes, they may remain silent even when they like you.

· Expect to be challenged by the Dutch who value debate even when they agree.

· Don’t think you are putting your audience to sleep if Japanese people occasionally close their eyes. They are concentrating and being attentive.

· Expect the French to ask unrelated questions. They often depart from the agenda.

· Don’t be surprised if Germans address you formally as Mr. or Mrs. They reserve first name basis for personal relations and more private settings.

These are generalizations of course, but examples of how differently audiences from other cultures might behave during an interactive event or the Q&A part of a session. Remaining open-minded, aware of your own style, and curious about the communication preferences of other cultures will help alleviate any misunderstandings.

20. Seek multicultural expertise – Virtual events offer an exciting opportunity to reach and interact with people around the world from other cultures. Following this list of guidelines is a good start to avoid common pitfalls. Cultural blunders can cause reputational damage and harm relations not just for the presenters but for the entire program and organization. For organizations and individuals who are increasingly attracting or targeting multi-national audiences, it’s a good idea to seek the help of experts in cross-cultural communications to conduct an advance review of all material. Seeking the help of a trained eye is ultimately the best way to prevent unintended results ranging from comical to extremely disastrous.

Don’t hesitate to contact CultureWiz for help.

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