Many speakers dream of traveling the world, speaking to diverse audiences in exotic countries and becoming internationally recognized for their work. It’s an admirable and ambitious goal — one that comes with many benefits and sacrifices, both personally and professionally. It also carries responsibilities that can often get overlooked. Whether you are speaking from the stage, or seated at a conference table, doing a few things in advance can help you succeed.
Recently I had the honor of being the keynote speaker in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. It was the first time I’d visited the Arab country and experienced its historic and culturally-rich capital. I knew I had to be prepared. I made certain that the experience would be enjoyable for me, the audience, and my gracious host.
Here are 3 things to keep in mind if you want to be successful with an international audience.
1. DO Speak the Audience’s Language
I don’t mean literally — although, if you can speak the local language, kudos to you. Instead, I mean: are you sensitive to national (and regional) cultural differences?
Each region within a country often has unique cultural and language nuances. When you travel beyond your own country or entertain guests from foreign lands, those differences get even greater. Being sensitive to those differences shows that you’ve done your homework — and that builds trust and goodwill with an audience.
Don’t Create Extra Work for the Audience or the Interpreters
When it comes to currencies, weight or time zones, don’t make your audience do complicated conversions. Do it for them. For instance, I’ve given presentations in the United Kingdom where the sales examples I use are illustrated in pound sterling instead of dollars. By doing that currency conversion for them, audience members can just listen and process what I’m saying rather than be distracted doing mental math.
If you don’t actually speak the local language, try to tailor your presentation to suit the needs of translators. Here’s what I mean: recently, I gave a talk in Quebec City where the local language is French. There were two interpreters, a man and a woman, who were translating from English to French for audience members listening on small headphones. Aside from secretly wondering if my baritone voice was being translated by the female interpreter, I made sure to speak slowly and articulate my words so the translators had time to translate accurately. I also made sure I didn’t use any U.S.-specific references or colloquialisms that would confuse my Canadian audience. In addition, to ensure key phrases and concepts were properly translated, I met with the interpreters in advance so I could explain to them what I wanted the audience to understand. I also repeated key points throughout my talk.
2. DO Check Your Materials In Advance
Before heading to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, I wanted to make sure I was sensitive to the country’s social norms. I reviewed my materials with a critical eye to remove any content that could possibly be viewed as offensive. As a result, I eliminated a question about wine in one of my exercises because Saudi Arabia culture does not allow for consumption of alcohol. Asking participants how much they liked wine would have been inappropriate.
Don’t Use Polarizing Or Obscure Examples
Whenever possible, use local examples. A Los Angeles example might be as irrelevant to a Riyadh audience as a Quebec example would be to an audience in London.
Avoid politics or religion unless you look in the mirror and discover that you are either an elected official or clergy. If you want to polarize an audience, there’s no better way to do it than bringing up controversial or socially unacceptable subjects.
3. DO dress appropriately
Just because the locals wear robes or headdresses, doesn’t mean that you should. But you do have to respect the local dress norms. Foreign women visiting Saudi Arabia, for instance, are expected to dress modestly by covering their heads, arms and legs. Similarly, men are not to wear short-sleeve shirts or shorts.
Don’t Go To Extremes
But that doesn’t mean you should go to extremes, like Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who looked painfully out-of-place dressed in Indian garments on a recent trip to India. If I had shown up in Riyadh wearing white robes and a flowing Keffiyeh, the local head covering, I would have looked painfully out of place too. Instead, I packed slacks and long-sleeve shirts.
So, whether you’re traveling to Toronto, Canada or Cebu City, Philippines it’s important you do your homework on what is (and isn’t) acceptable to the local populace. And remember: don’t go overboard to try to fit in when you’re a guest in another country. Be respectful, and ultimately be yourself.