This isn’t just a question of presenting to people who speak a different language. We might all be speaking English, but come for very different cultural backgrounds, with different experiences. So we may not be speaking the same “language”.
The tips should help you prepare a presentation that will not only play in Peoria, but be positively received in Paris or Prague, Perth, or Sao Paulo.
- Start with the basics
- Know your audience and watch their reactions
If you are in a conference room or small auditorium you may be able to see if they are getting the message or not. If they seem to be spending a lot of time talking to one another that might be a sign that they are having trouble understanding. You might need to slow down, or even back up to review some important point they may have missed.
If you are in a larger auditorium or remote broadcast – as in a teleconference or webinar – it may be harder to get that feedback. You may need to rely on questions or polls in your presentation, if the technology allows it.
If the presentation is prerecorded, this is the hardest, because you won’t be able to get any feedback until well after the fact.
- Be careful about jargon, slang, and sports and cultural references
In a similar vein, you can’t assume that everyone in your audience is fully aware of the latest singers in pop music, or the political intrigues in your local, or even national elections. So unless this is the topic of your presentation (and you will be explaining it in detail) it’s best to avoid these references all together.
The things people in your audience don’t know may surprise you. In one presentation I was explaining the Object Oriented concepts of Class and Instance, and by way of example I said “Paul McCartney is an example of an Instance of the Class of Famous Musicians.” One of the people in the audience raised his hand and asked “Who is Paul McCartney?”
- Too Many TLAs
The first time you use an acronym in your presentation it is a good idea to explain it. Alternatively, you might think about providing a list of acronyms at the end of your presentation, especially if you are providing handouts, so people can have them for later reference.
A colleague from the UK was leading a seminar in Russia, and describing products that were examples of CASE tools (Computer Aided Software Engineering). His presentation described UpperCASE and LowerCASE tools. He said CASE-this and CASE-that… but it wasn’t until he was finished that he learned the translator did not know about that acronym, and was translating the word CASE as a valise or suitcase. It’s no wonder his audience was confused, and couldn’t see any point to “upper suitcase” and “lower suitcase” tools.
- Brief bullet points vs. wordy and verbose
Some text is a good thing, because it will help them understand, and reinforce your message. Slides that some presenters describe as an “eye chart” – so much text that you can’t even read the words from the second row – should be avoided at all costs. If you have a lot of data that needs to be displayed, it is far better to spread it out across two or more slides, or provide it as a handout.
- Pictures - if they’re appropriate
Pictures that are not directly related, or obscure, may only serve to distract the audience. So don’t use photos or artwork just to make the presentation visually interesting. Use it is if it going to help convey the message.
- Notes and handouts
There are drawbacks to providing handouts. Some people will read ahead, and won’t be paying attention to what you are saying now. Or you may have concerns about proprietary information falling into the wrong hands. So handouts are not always an option, but if it is appropriate, they may be useful.
- Working with translators
First, is someone from your team repeating what you say in their language. That could be a local sales rep or support person. In this case you can probably rely on the translator having at least a basic understanding of your topic and material. This often happens when you are the one who is traveling.
Second, is a member of the recipient’s team doing the translating for their people who don’t speak your language. Often this is the case when people from another location come to visit you in your office, or at a conference. In this case the person acting as translator might be anyone in the team, and may not have a thorough grounding in the topic you are presenting. It may even be a third party translator they hired or brought along expressly for that purpose.
In both of these cases you will need to time the delivery of your presentation to allow frequent breaks so the translator can repeat what you have said. If possible, especially if the group is smaller, try to allow time for discussions.
You may find that you say something, like “this computer system is designed for high volume transaction processing” and find your audience going off for several minutes discussing what is meant by “high volume”, or what their systems can do now, or other related topics. Hopefully your translator will keep you in the loop about what they are saying. If you can participate in the discussion that’s great. If not, be patient.
The third type of translation is simultaneous translation, usually by a professional translator. I respect anyone who is fluent enough in two or more languages to be a translator, but these people just astound me. The ability to listen in one language, translate and speak in another language, and do it fast enough to keep up with the presenter is a very special skill. (I would include Sign Language translators for hearing impaired in this group.)
With a good professional translator you may not need to do a lot, but even with the best you should still be sure to speak clearly and go a bit more slowly than you might in normal conversational speaking. Give them time to translate – remember that some words or phrases in English take a bit longer in the local language. It is also a good idea to arrange for a signal with the translator so they can let you know if they want you to slow down or repeat or clarify anything.
Top tips for working with a translator-
- Go over your presentation with the translator beforehand – especially technical terminology and acronyms. If you can provide a list of key points for them that will help greatly. They may also have a list of words or phrases that are unfamiliar or require some clarification from you.
- Write a script and give it to the translator ahead of time. You may not need to stick exactly to the script, but if they have a good idea of what you plan to say it will help them translate the key points before you get there.
- Speak clearly and slowly. I know, I have said this many times already. It is especially important when you are being translated.
- Start with a good presentation or speech.
- Be careful with local/sports/political or cultural references.
- Explain your acronyms and industry-specific terminology.
- Use clear, concise bullets, and images if they enhance the message.
- Work with your translator. They are there to help you get your message across.
- Have fun with it.