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  • Sylvia Gonner

Virtual Has No Borders: How To Prepare Conferences To Go Global

The global pandemic of 2020 has brought travel, large gatherings, and therefore physical conferences worldwide to a stop overnight. Meeting planners, speakers and all involved in the events industry are now going virtual. Virtual events transcend borders, whether you intend them to or not. That is certainly a fringe benefit, but it’s important to not let it be an afterthought. To reap the benefits of reaching audiences across the world, avoid the pitfalls and risks that can come from being unprepared.

Appealing to an international audience, at the very least, requires cultural awareness, meaning a basic appreciation for differences across the world that will impact an event. Purposely targeting an international audience at a more advanced level will require cultural literacy.

Here are some basic recommendations to get started.

Avoid Localized Terminology

If your program, sessions, or meeting agenda refers to “morning” and “afternoon” sessions, you’ve ignored the multitude of time-zone differences around the world. And what about that increasingly popular “virtual happy hour?” You may have heard the popular expression “it’s 5 o’clock somewhere” used when someone is ready for a cocktail at noon. Just remember that it’s not 5 o’clock everywhere! Additionally, nothing is more off-putting than a speaker who starts their session with “Good morning everybody, grab your cup of coffee and let’s get started,” but your attendees across the world just put the kids to bed. It’s best to avoid time-stamps that localize your event but also seasonal references. A “winter conference” with a snow theme will not resonate with those attendees who are in the middle of their summer break.

Localized terminology will make people feel overlooked, and ignored. Ensure people around the world feel connected to your event by minimizing time and seasonal references in your programs. Adding tools for attendees to adjust the schedule of events to their local time will ensure they feel considered and connected.

The use of expressions, analogies, and abbreviations unique to a culture is one of the worst, yet most common, types of localization. These can lead to confusion, total misunderstanding, or even irrelevance in a global environment.

All cultures speak in localized code. Americans are famous for their use of sports analogies, many of which have made it into our everyday business lingo. Yet to this day, many of these make little sense for foreigners. If your speaker utters “it’s a slam dunk, we will knock it out of the park” many will be puzzled. Using sports analogies and other local expressions is a sure way to confuse your audience.

Another example that applies to event registrations is the popular American “early bird” special price. The concept of an advance lower price isn’t a universal (nor effective) concept around the world, and therefore an unknown expression in many countries. If you are going to offer such discounts, promote them as an “advance discount” instead.

Confusion and misunderstandings are not the only risks. Popular expressions that are often used to market our events, are typically reflections of social norms that aren’t universal. An expression like YOLO, meaning you only live once, is a concept that will not resonate with many cultures that believe in reincarnation.

Bottom line, it’s important to do some research and have basic cultural awareness of differences around the world when putting together an event that might attract people from other countries.

Do Your Homework

This is even more critical if your event is branded as regional or international, and purposely targeting a global audience. Many companies that launched products globally without any thought to cultural aspects learned the hard way that one size rarely fits all- particularly when it comes to slogans and images. The news is filled with such gaffes and cultural blunders.

For example, Nike had a major recall from the Middle East market because one of their new athletic shoes displayed symbols that were considered blasphemous to the Islamic faith as resembling the word for Allah (God in Arabic). This wasn’t the first time either. In the 90s, a similar blunder happened and it resurfaced again in 2019. This type of oversight happened recently to Kim Kardashian West who was accused of cultural appropriation when she initially named her shapewear line after the elegant Japanese Kimonos. These are costly mistakes that cause serious damage and that could have been avoided with a little homework.

Trying to customize campaigns for a certain market can also have its repercussions. IKEA thought they were being sensitive to the local culture when they airbrushed women out of their catalogues targeting the Saudi market, but didn’t anticipate the resulting backlash from Swedes who complained that such action wasn’t aligned with the company’s core values. The scandal was reported worldwide.

In a virtual, borderless environment, companies need to ensure their brands and campaigns are suited for a multitude of cultures. The same is true for the events industry. Make sure your imagery will pass the cross-cultural test. A photo of a hand making the “OK” sign could cause major embarrassment in the Brazilian market where that gesture has a very different, and rude, meaning.

So, what is safe to use across borders? How about flags that are often selected as an international symbol? Beware! Depicting a flag upside down, using the wrong one, or cutting it off can lead to a slew of complaints. Most cultures are very sensitive when it comes to their flag and will be quick to point out mistakes in the use of them. Don’t use flags to display languages, a common practice that makes little sense. For example, if you chose the flag of France to represent the French language you will offend many people as there are 29 countries in the world that have French as their official language. Bottom line, it’s safer to avoid flags altogether if you want to prevent such diplomatic problems.

When it comes to virtual programs that target global markets it’s imperative to do your homework and carefully review themes, slogans, and images to ensure they wouldn’t be offensive to other cultures. When in doubt, play it safe!

Develop Cultural Awareness and Literacy

More than ever, developing global cultural awareness and literacy is critical to success. Cultural awareness starts with the realization that culture is so engrained in our essence and behaviors what we don’t know it’s there. We’re not aware it exists until we step out of it and observe other cultures. Culture is like the software of our minds. It molds our tastes, values, habits, likes and dislikes, and just about everything else. It guides our communication preferences, our body language, our perception of time, and even how we view authority or make decisions. Being aware of our own culture means to understand how our values and beliefs impact our behaviors and communications. That awareness allows us to observe and interpret other cultures and appreciate that when someone from a different part of the world acts in a way we don’t understand, it likely stems from traditions and social norms that are deep-seated in their own culture.

Cultural literacy occurs when we appreciate that culture is so deep-rooted in people that it’s practically impossible to change it. And you don’t want to! No culture is right or wrong, better or superior. On the contrary, richness comes from the juxtaposition of cultures that all bring unique perspectives to the table.

The benefits that can come from operating globally will outweigh the challenges and risks if we are culturally mindful and prepared. Don’t hesitate to seek the help from cross-cultural experts to fully reap the rewards. People will notice and remember those who understand their audience and make an effort to avoid localized terminology. They will appreciate those who do their homework rather than assumed one size fits all, and demonstrate cultural literacy.

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