International audiences can be very intimidating. The less prior knowledge you have of them, the more nervous you might be about how to appear and present before them. But, never fear. A little preparation goes a long way towards acquiring necessary the skills and gaining the confidence you need to handle international audiences.
There are three basic steps to assuring that you get at least a part of your message across and affect your audience. The old advice of "know your listeners" works better if you split it into two parts, one about the listener's needs and the second one about the manner in which they process information. This method will help you get beyond cultural stereotypes with its many shortcomings.
1. Identify your listeners' needs
2. Identify the manner of information gathering your listeners are used to
3. Tailor your message to suit the needs and learning style of your audience
Identify your listeners' needs
This is very difficult, as your listeners are not going to tell you "this is my need." It is up to you to discover their needs in relation to your presentation. Unless they are in love or are consumed by morbid hatred, people usually act rationally. So there must be a rational reason for your audience to come to listen to you. What is the reason for their giving you their time and attention? You can start discovering that by enquiring before you meet them "What brings these people to listen to me?" Or "How are they connected to my topic?" The answer usually is somehow connected to the theme of the gathering or that it brings some added value to them.
It is a bit too simple to assume that an audience has a uniform kind of expectation. People in the audience can have as many kinds of expectations and motives for being there as the varieties of their food tastes. Someone is there with a burning desire to learn new ideas. Another person is there because he found this topic to be the least boring among other presentations in the seminar. Yet another person can be there because she wants to be noticed for asking an intelligent question in an international seminar.
You wouldn't speak to a board of directors in Barcelona in the same way as you would to young nurses back at home, would you? Different audiences have different needs. One audience might need to learn more details about a new product or service or specific details about a project. Another audience might be looking for reassurance from the head office that their branch is not being downgraded or eventually shut down, while the official topic of the presentation may be "Presentation of corporate annual report."
The time concepts of the people you are speaking with also play a vital role. A strict timetable may be realistic in a culture that's exact and oriented towards immediate action. It may be considered pushy in another culture that's more consensus-oriented and more relaxed, to stick to a timetable running strictly to the minute.
Identify the manner of information gathering your listeners are used to
People have different learning styles. There are three basic learning styles or different approaches to learning. They are:
1. Learning through seeing or visual learning
Visual learners may think in pictures and learn best from visual displays such as diagrams and pictures, illustrated textbooks, overhead transparencies, videos, flipcharts and handouts. These learners prefer sitting at the front of the room to avoid visual obstructions (e.g. other people's heads).
2.Learning through listening or auditory learning
Auditory learners learn best through verbal lectures, discussions, talking things through and listening to what others have to say. Auditory learners try to interpret the underlying meanings of speech through listening to tone of voice, pitch, speed and other nuances. For them, written information achieves meaning only when it is heard.
3. Learning by doing, moving around, touching or tactile/kinaesthetic learning
Tactile/Kinaesthetic persons learn best through a hands-on approach, actively exploring the physical world around them by touching or trying things for themselves. They may find it hard to sit still for long periods and may become distracted by their need for activity and exploration.
Usually people feel comfortable doing things they are used to doing until the point is reached where they get bored and desire change. So if a person is used to gathering information by reading and underlining text with colour markers, she might not feel comfortable listening to a lecture with no handouts or possibilities for note taking. In some cultures like Finland or Japan interrupting a speaker is considered a breach of etiquette and all questions or comments usually are left till the end. In other cultures like Britain or USA presentations are usually interactive with lots of audience input in the form of short comments, jokes, questions or applause.
How interactive a presentation is depends much on the culture. Typically English speaking cultures like presentations to be lively and interactive. Paradoxically there are similarities among Far Eastern, Slavic and protestant cultures like Germany and Finland. Presentations there are formal and with few interruptions. Questions are answered either when the presentation ends or quickly as they arise. In Japan, it is common to show concentration and attentiveness in public by closing the eyes and nodding the head up and down slightly. You might feel you are putting your audience to sleep in Japan, but don't worry. Then again, don't forget to check that you really are not boring them to sleep.
Many Europeans—particularly Scandinavians and Germans—prefer to receive information in detail with lots of supporting documentation. They want their presenters to be systematic and build a clear point in their presentation. The Japanese business audiences—where senior managers are more likely to hold technical or management degrees—are very similar. American and Canadian audiences on the other hand like a faster pace. The Latin and many Asian cultures prefer presentations with emotional appeal.
Tailor your message to suit audience needs and their method of information processing
This is where presentation skills matter the most. If your presentation, offering or message caters to the needs of the audience, they would feel energised, eager and responsive. In the best of cases they wouldn't want to leave. If you know that your facts are shocking or revolutionary, you have to prepare your audience to digest these by guiding them to expect what you are about to give them. By giving examples and connecting your subject matter to their work or everyday life, you have to highlight the relevance for them.
Now how do you go about discovering the learning styles of your listeners? You just can't ask them or put them through tests. Well, who says you can't? Try asking your audience—they'll be flattered.
At the beginning of your presentation, take a few seconds to establish contact with your audience and watch them. See how they behave as you go on. Are they with you and paying attention? Are they taking notes? Are they gossiping with their neighbour? Are they looking at the diagram you are showing or listening to you first?
People who start taking notes right away can actually have three different learning styles and it's very difficult to know which is their strongest one. People who are gossiping with their neighbour can do for two reasons, either to discuss to topic or because they are not interested at all. So it's almost impossible that you'll have an audience with only one kind of learning style.
And we come to the conclusion that your presentation should cater to all three styles of information processing. Use graphics and diagrams along with oral presentations and if possible use methods like rhetorical questions or asking audience members guiding questions to place the topic in their midst. This way you try to appeal to different senses and different methods of gathering information and make the chances to getting the right message across and leaving a powerful impression higher. Good luck!
Rana Sinha was born in India, studied and lived in many places and travelled in over 80 countries, acquiring cross-cultural knowledge and building an extensive network of professionals. He has spent many years developing and delivering Cross-cultural Training, Professional Communications skills, Personal Development and Management solutions to all types of organizations and businesses in many countries. He now lives in Helsinki, Finland and runs www.dot-connect.com, which specializes in human resource development as well as communication and management skills training with cross-cultural emphasis.