Thursday, 6 September 2007

Presenting to audiences whose first language is not English

Don't leave your audience in the dark!

As business becomes more global, we are speaking to an ever-wider range of nationalities and people. This is true not only in the multi-nationals, but also in the professions and the public sector. It is giving us greater opportunities for wider relationships and more business. Increasingly, the world is using English, and this appears to give native speakers great advantages. However, there are dangers as well...

The tendency is to think that one can go into a presentation without having to prepare for that extra English language element that our Japanese, German or Spanish counterparts have to. In addition, we may forget to prepare for different cultural perceptions; because if we use English, we often expect the cultural context to be ours as well.

Adapt your language to the audience

Careful preparation is required for business encounters with non-native speakers of English, both linguistically and culturally. Take the example of a medium-sized pharmaceutical company in North Italy. They supplied medicines to the Italian market, and the only language spoken by employees was Italian. The company was taken over in the mid-nineties by an Anglo-American multinational with its European headquarters in London. The new British general manager arrived and called a meeting for all management, to set out the new strategy. The employees understood little of the presentation, because he spoke fast, idiomatic English. They left the auditorium in a state of panic, knowing that in future, they would be reporting in English. The presenter had not adapted his language to his audience.

This is not an isolated example. Similar stories are heard whenever non-native speakers have to deal with native English speakers.

The young Spanish aeronautical engineer on a management development programme with British and Irish fellow students, felt isolated as he struggled to keep up with their language.
The group of French purchasing managers for a Franco-German pharmaceutical company had enormous difficulty understanding their British counterpart when he presented to them.
The Japanese manager of a Japanese electrical engineering company could not understand the Scotsmen on his team. The list goes on.

Use of Off-shore English is growing

We may ask: "Why don't they learn better English"? The answer is, they are doing so. Companies and individual invest heavily in English training, and there are increasing numbers of managers around the world using English daily. They use, however, a different form of English from the native speaker: 'Offshore English' (OE), is a practical, direct language used as a business tool throughout the world. It cuts out the idioms, expressions, indirectness, phrasal verbs and colloquial phrases that we use to add life, interest and magic to our language.

OE is growing rapidly. It enables managers from a Franco-Japanese automotive company to communicate effectively, or executives from an Italian-German manufacturing company to solve complex problems together. Frequently, non-native speakers tell us that it is easier to talk to the Dutch, the Germans or the Scandinavians in English rather than the Americans, Australians or British.

Why do native speakers not use OE? In our experience, it is because most people using English internationally do not realise that it exists. In addition, the relatively poor foreign language skills of native English speakers are well known, and many of us do not appreciate the practical difficulties of using a foreign language at work. We hear a frequent complaint: "There is one American in my team of ten Germans, and so we all have to speak English at team meetings in Germany". Or that the British manager has been in Madrid for two years now, and still is unable to understand a presentation in Spanish. There are accusations of laziness, but more frequently of cultural arrogance.

Cut out idioms

So, how can the native speakers help their non-native counterparts? Clearly, adapting their language to OE is crucial. "We'll do it willy-nilly" is difficult to understand. "We'll do it anyway" is not.

Cut out those delicious idioms we love, and use unconsciously.

A former British prime minister used a mass of cricketing idioms in a meeting with a Spanish minister proud of his excellent English. But talk of 'sticky wickets' and 'being stumped' totally confused him, and before the next meeting he demanded it be conducted through interpreters.
Phrasal verbs are a minefield for anyone learning English, and often a more formal equivalent will be more easily understood. To a Frenchman or German, "I'll contact her" is easier than "I'll get on to her", or "Let's postpone the presentation" is more understandable than "Let's put the presentation off".

Presenting internationally

We also need to take into account cultural differences when we present internationally. The more we know what an audience in a particular country expects, the more effective we can be. The British prefer the presentation to be short and to the point, full of humour, metaphor and analogies. However, this can appear lacking in seriousness in Germany or Scandinavia, or not detailed enough in Japan.

A presentation keeping strictly to the timetable will be appreciated in Northern Europe, but may be less relevant in Italy, as one executive discovered to his cost. Asked to present to an Italian business association, he delivered a concise, well-argued performance in two minutes! After he finished there was an awkward silence, and then polite applause. The other presenters spoke for much longer, some for as long as 20 minutes. The meeting ended two hours late, and afterwards the Englishman was approached by a friend, who asked: "Why didn't you spell out in much greater detail the many things I know your company can offer?" The Italians expected to hear a well-argued case with the appropriate embellishments, and felt short-changed by the concise English style.

Presenting internationally offers many challenges. We need to be aware of not only what we say and how we say it, but also what our audience expects from a presentation. The more we know about our own language, and how to adapt it to a non-native audience, the more the audience will understand, and be able to take an active part in the meeting. The more we understand the cultural dimension, the greater our chance of hitting home with the message we want to give, on the level that the audience understands and feels comfortable with. When we get it right, we can build relationships and trust, and do business effectively.

Original Article at

1 comment:

berryw said...

Great article. I was asked just this question the other day so I can now point people at this. Thanks.