Working Abroad? How to Give a Presentation in the Local Language
Even if you’ve been working abroad for a while, and you feel comfortable getting around the city and chatting with colleagues, there’s something incredibly intimidating about being invited to give a formal presentation in your second (or third) language.
Take it from me: The first week I landed in Chile as part of a government-backed entrepreneurship program, a professor invited me to a faculty meeting to speak about Silicon Valley and how academics could participate in entrepreneurship through technology transfer programs. Though I grew up in the heart of Silicon Valley, was familiar with the entrepreneurship scene, and spoke fluent Spanish, I wasn’t sure how to start creating a presentation for a totally foreign audience from scratch.
But, I did it, and since then I’ve given dozens of presentations in Spanish as well as coached friends and colleagues as they’ve prepared to speak in formal, cross-cultural situations. If you’re panicking about your international presentation, here are a few pointers based on what’s worked for us.
Pick the Best Format
Before doing anything else, think about the goals of the event. Are you teaching something? Are you inviting everyone to participate in an upcoming program? Are you competing against others for the audience’s backing?
Once you have a strong sense of these goals, ask yourself if your language skills are strong enough to really move them forward. Be honest: If your vocabulary and fluency aren’t up to par, it might be more effective to present in English and team up with a translator. And that’s totally OK.
If your language skills are solid, go for it, but don’t think you can wing it the way you might in your home country. It’s still important to give yourself enough time to plan a well thought out, culturally appropriate presentation and practice far more than you usually would.
Design Your Message to Fit the Local Culture
As you’re putting together your presentation, remember that the stories, anecdotes, and persuasion techniques that you’ve used in your home country might not always resonate abroad. For example, sports references like “batting average” or “home run” won’t work in a place where baseball isn’t popular. Or, if most people live with their families throughout college, they might not understand anecdotes about dorms or roommates.
Instead, think about what might help you connect with your international audience. If you’re in a place with a strong tradition of family businesses, like most countries in Latin America, and you come from a four-generation legacy in the same industry, be sure to mention this history, because it will establish common ground. You might even want to include family photos if they support your core message. When I spoke about Silicon Valley at the faculty meeting, I started with a picture of myself at age five, playing on our family’s Apple Macintosh II. With this image, I illustrated that technology has always been an important part of my life, and it could play a similar role in the audience members’ lives, too.
When in Doubt, Use Visuals & Examples
Last week, I attended an event that featured a German manager from a well-known tech company. He’s based in Barcelona and speaks excellent Spanish, and during his presentation he told a story about a taladro. He mentioned this word at least 10 times, and it seemed essential to the point he was trying to make. However, a significant percentage of the international audience did not understand this word and started whispering to neighbors or looking up taladro on their phones.
The situation illustrated an important point: When there’s a language barrier of any kind, photos, charts, graphs, and visuals can be a great way to help get your point across. If the presenter at my event had shown a picture of the object—a drill—he would have been much more successful in holding everyone’s attention and getting his key point across.
This is especially important when you’re introducing a new concept to your audience. For example, say you’re pitching an energy efficiency app to a panel of foreign investors. When explaining this brand-new concept, you might want to show a picture of something they already know and understand: the energy guide sticker that’s typically found on refrigerators, for example. Explain how this information helps users save energy and money, then extend the analogy to your own product.
Refine and Practice!
As you prepare the content for your presentation, write it all in complete sentences. Share your written draft with at least two or three locals, and incorporate their feedback. Then, read it out loud, and record yourself on a webcam. Watch the recording, notice where you stumble or make awkward faces, and edit out any phrases that are tough to say.
When you’ve finalized the presentation, put the entire script on an iPad or notecards. You don’t want to read it word-for-word—it’s more important to engage with the audience than to get everything 100% right—but having the full text on hand can build your confidence day-of.
Then, practice—as much as you possibly can. Practice in front of a mirror. Practice with your language tutor if you have one. Practice in front of at least two or three native speakers. Make a list of the questions your audience might ask, and practice answering them. The more confident you feel with what you’re going to say, the more you’ll be able to relax and connect with your audience—and that’s what’s bound to make a great impression.
Thinking back to that first faculty meeting, it turned out to be smaller and less formal than I’d anticipated. About 12 faculty members and a few students sat around a big table. I shared my presentation about Silicon Valley, learned about their research, and then fielded questions about a forthcoming grant competition. I enjoyed the experience so much that I’ve gone on to give similar speeches all over the country.
That day also taught me that, as an outsider, you’ll stand out from the crowd. But if you prepare, personalize your presentation, and rehearse your message, you’ll be remembered for more than just your foreign face—you’ll be remembered for introducing a new world of possibilities.
Photo of man speaking courtesy of Shutterstock.
Leslie Forman is an entrepreneurial educator and global advisor based in Santiago, Chile, by way of four years in China. She teaches a university course about social entrepreneurship, partners with local startups, and is creating visual tools to help global citizens map their international careers. Follow Leslie on Twitter and check out her blog.More from this Author