An expert on your subject, you have registered for an international conference. After weeks of waiting you are reading the message in your mailbox: Your presentation fits well into the program and will be accepted for the conference. Congratulations!
Presenting in your first language is comparatively easy for you. You know your way around the topic anyway. These questions may pop up in your mind when you are accepted to deliver a speech in a foreign language:
- How do I present my latest findings in the foreign language?
- Which linguistic pitfalls can I eliminate in advance?
- How do I adjust to the international audience?
Preparation: Content matters
To share your expertise on an international level, you allow more time to prepare than usual. The extra effort is definitely worth it if you can answer the following questions for yourself:
- Which topic do I cover and who is sitting in the audience?
- What new insights am I discussing and what do they mean with regard to the future?
- What should the audience know and do by the time I finish my presentation?
So far, so usual. International conferences are special since most participants do not present in their first language. This way you will often hear a colorful gibberish of different types of the English (or another) language. Your English does not have to be perfect. To be well understood and to stand out positively from the majority of colleagues, you can learn the proper pronunciation of technical terms and frequently used words. If you have no native speakers to ask, sites like dict.cc and dict.leo.org can help in many cases, while deepl.com helps translating full sentences.
You can jump a long way by rehearsing your presentation as you prepare: you can record it on your smartphone, then self-critically review and improve the delivery. In my blog-article “Speeches create knowledge” I provide further information.
No obstacles for your audience – Clear the way
If your audience understands you in terms of acoustics and content, this is a good basis for a successful presentation. I myself have seen many speakers throwing abbreviations and acronyms around. Some of them are well known to most experts. The more specialized the audience is, the more catchy and familiar are the corresponding technical terms and abbreviations. Excessively used, however, the audience’s attention suffers because translating the abbreviations costs a lot of thought work. This is at the expense of concentration and attention. This is why I recommend to briefly explain abbreviations, acronyms and technical terms when mentioned for the first time.
Do you know English words and phrases that can help to fine-tune your language style? Is that what sets you apart from your colleagues? Wonderful! If you present to native speakers only, you can make the most of this opportunity. In front of an international audience with a mixed-language background, most people will not understand all the details. You are on the safe side whenever you use words that are easy to understand. At least you should be prepared for questions.
This has happened to me before: Out of enthusiasm I wanted to communicate all of my findings to the audience. The result: excessive information overload in the presentation. Because to me, all analyses were important! 24 slides, several details with columns of numbers and text in only 15 minutes. The following summary does not only contain too much continuous text to read, but also a lot of distracting information with the numerous emblems of the organizations involved in the project.
Since long I get to the point faster in my presentation. My keynote speech with 24 slides in 60 minutes was focused on results from three analyses and contained many photos and graphics. The only text slide with keywords concluded here: I focused on key aspects that could be discussed in more detail. This way I maintained direct contact with my international audience.
In the international environment in particular, I recommend to use photos and images: They can be quickly understood and as speaker, you can share some concrete information. In this way you actively involve your audience in the presentation. In my keynote speech I shared essential information about one of the research sites and presented some selected results of my field and laboratory analyses.
Link presentation with discussion
As an accomplished speaker, you summarize main statements in a few words at the end of a section. Formulate your sentences briefly and avoid using multi-claused sentences so that your audience can follow quickly. Moving on to a new section of the presentation, you can enhance both structure and overview by adding statements like “My next topic is…” or “That takes us to my next point…”
Individual audience members may ask questions during the discussion. Repeat them to make it easier for your audience to follow. Plus, you have more time to think about a concrete answer. On provocative questions you can also react with a counter question. Depending on the situation, the following counter-questions are conceivable:
- What do you mean by…?
- How do you define…?
- What do you propose instead?
A portion of serenity can help you to act confidently on stage. Just now the concrete preparation is essential: In the rehearsal you have already answered many questions from colleagues who are either not familiar with your topic or who like to ask more advanced or in-depth questions.
Relevance of gestures and humor
Depending on the cultural background, body language signals are interpreted in a variety of ways. We should therefore better hold back with certain gestures if their meaning is not clear to us. Two examples: Many cultures interpret the “thumbs up” sign in such a way that certain things or tasks are done particularly well. But in Latin America and the Middle East it is interpreted as a vulgar gesture. I have also seen a number of speakers pointing their index fingers at the audience or even at individuals. This is considered as a particularly rude gesture in many countries of Africa and Asia and also in Europe. Instead, it is a good idea to point in the right direction with an inviting gesture and an open palm of the hand, but closed fingers.
Even humorous interludes should be treated with caution. While humor can create a connection between you and your audience, it is often understood by native speakers only – provided you have formulated everything correctly. However, the experience of professional speakers shows that the majority of international audiences do not understand even well-prepared jokes. You should therefore develop a feeling for the right situation: if the topic fits, the mood is positive and the audience is open to you, then of course there is nothing wrong with a spontaneous humor interlude.
Visualize your successful presentation
Another way you can successfully design your presentation is visualization. As you prepare, imagine how your performance is announced by the moderator and how you come on stage with a smile and momentum. With the first sentence your audience is fully with you. Put yourself in the position of being able to present central statements of your speech in a clear, short and concise way. What key words and phrases do you use? What results do you present? The stimulating discussion follows: What questions will your audience ask you, and what do you answer? Think also about the starting points for discussions with interested colleagues in the following coffee break.
If, after all the preparation, you actually succeed in giving your presentation in a foreign language, you have at best established a good international reputation and probably expanded your personal network. Now you can start your next presentation.
This post is also available in: German