By Bob Pike CSP, CPAE
With risk goes reward. That truism hit home when I was invited to make a presentation at an international conference in Amsterdam, Holland. The presentation was to be simultaneously translated in three languages. I was told by the organizers to expect about 100 people in each of my four sessions on four different topics: leadership, problem-solving, training techniques, and marketing strategies.
I asked for and received a lot of pre-presentation advice from people familiar with the conference. My group involvement techniques, according to these people, wouldn’t work well when applied to people speaking different languages (they actually asked me to lecture on group involvement!). And the more reserved Europeans, they said, expect formal presentations. They would turn their noses up at a suggestion to openly participate in the manner American groups do. They also suggested I drop most of my American-based illustrations and anecdotes, implying they would get lost in the cross-cultural abyss.
I spent a lot of time thinking about their advice. And also reflecting on what I knew to be true about the Creative Training Techniques instructor-led, participant-centered principles I have been using and teaching all over the world since 1969. Some of the advice I accepted; some I didn’t. For years I’ve championed participation and involvement in my train-the-trainer sessions, as well as delivering interactive keynotes all over the world. Why couldn’t participation transcend language barriers and cultural differences? Why couldn’t illustrations be created with cross-cultural applications? Could this audience be totally different from those in more than 20 countries I’ve worked in?
I began my first presentation with a mini-lecture—as the Europeans expected—but then I asked a question: How many years’ experience do you have as a leader? We were seated in a theater, so I asked each row to add up the number of years for the row and then have the person with the answer stand up. Then each “row leader” wrote his or her answer on a 3x5 card, and the leader from the top row collected the cards and added them as I spoke with the group. When I got the card, the number was 1,026. I said, “We have 1,026 years’ experience in this room. I have 23 (this was a while ago!). It’s obvious that all the wisdom and experience is not in me, but in all of us. How many of you think it would make sense to honor all of the experience in the room, rather than just mine? Can I have a show of hands?” Virtually all of the hands went up.
Lost in Translation
Next, there was another challenge—not all the interpreters were translating properly. Each language had two interpreters who alternated. Participants were telling me that people were getting confused because one would translate properly and then the next would not. All the interpreters were comfortable with conversational English, but when you start to get into specific content such as leadership or marketing, words start cropping up that aren’t common to everyday English—words such as innovation, trickle down, downsizing (even “cropping up”!).
Since this was a four-hour program, I took the time to reorganize into small groups to facilitate networking (and solve the language problem). I took into account language differences by having all those listening in English separate into one group, and so on for those listening in French, Spanish, and Japanese. That mixed the groups, but allowed participants to remain working in a language they felt comfortable with. But within the language groups, I had people line up by the English fluency. Then we numbered off to form small groups, each of which had at least one strong English speaker. Now we had someone in each group who could clarify what was being presented.
Earlier, I had assessed each of the anecdotes, analogies, and illustrations I planned to use. In my discussion on effective leadership skills, I asked myself if the group (largely business leaders from more than 100 countries) would identify with iconic American leaders such as John F. Kennedy, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs and draw parallels to leaders in their own countries and organizations. Each country and each company is divided into those people who take charge and those who stay in the background. I found the examples transferred well, as did those about leadership in families. I found my group size grew progressively as the conference continued. My first group was a little more than 100. My last group was more than 400.
Relying more on natural humor than structured jokes was effective because natural humor doesn’t promise first to be funny, but rather catches an audience by surprise (though it was unusual hearing one part of the room laugh 30 seconds after another as translated versions were delivered). Most people identify with natural, spontaneous humor because of its true-to-life nature.
The point is that people everywhere can identify with illustrations drawn from real-life episodes. We all work with people and sometimes misunderstand each other. We all experience the same emotions—from elation to melancholy to despair—over similar issues. I’ve found people all over the world love to be involved and to share their unique experiences—but only if doing so makes good sense, and isn’t contrived or manipulated.
It’s true in our own organizations. People from the stockroom to the boardroom are willing to be involved and participate, but only if they see the participation as having true value to them. I took what I thought to be some risks in Amsterdam, but I discovered that when it comes to using involvement, real-world illustrations, and unassuming humor, the risks are generally small and the rewards great.
Vote of Self-Confidence
Was it effective? In subsequent years, I spoke at international conferences for this organization in Helsinki, Miami, Hong Kong, and Honolulu, not only because of my content but also because my processes brought people together from around the world and across cultures in ways lecture never could. One of my goals is to always have people leave impressed with themselves, rather than intimidated by the instructor. I want them to be excited about what they now know—that they didn’t know before. What they now can do—that they couldn’t do before. And to strengthen their self-confidence in their own knowledge, skills, talents, and abilities.
Before the 2013 Training Conference & Expo in Orlando, I keynoted at ASTD’s first MENA Conference (Middle East North Africa) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and following Training 2013, I’ll be keynoting at a Trainers Meeting Trainers Conference in Kuala Lumpur and hope you will connect with me. The audience and content will be different, but the processes will be the same. Why? Because I always focus on how people learn the best—and that’s through involvement.
As we begin 2013, I hope you’ll be as committed as I am to adding value and making a difference. And I’d love to hear your suggestions for what you’d like to see me cover in future columns—whether in the form of a question, concern, or challenge. Just e-mail me at: BPike@BobPikeGroup.com
Until next time—add value and make a difference!
Bob Pike, CSP, CPAE, is known as the “trainer’s trainer.” He is the author of more than 30 books, including “Creative Training Techniques Handbook.” You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook using bobpikectt.