The Art of Global Public Speaking
How to persuade international stakeholders through effective cross-cultural communication.
This article was originally published on Medium.
For a public speaker, there is only one thing worse than seeing a fellow speaker losing an audience; that is… losing an audience. Therefore, seeing a colleague failing to create a connection with the audience is painful, because, being your own worst fear, it is something you can easily relate to.
Connecting with the audience is the hardest part of public speaking and it starts with the moment you get on stage and open your mouth, when an icebreaker could easily turn into a dealbreaker. This usually happens when the speaker did not make the effort to properly understand the context beforehand. That is why preparation is the best hedge against the risk of a public speaking meltdown; a risk that increases exponentially when speaking to a foreign audience.
I am still stunned to see speakers with great resumes squander their knowledge by totally ignoring the importance of cultural intelligence when it comes to communicating and persuading across different cultures. Believing that their way of speaking in public is the way, they don’t make any effort to adapt their style and content to the culture of the audience, hence compromising the effectiveness of their message.
I saw this happening in the most surreal way a couple of years ago at an international conference in Istanbul, where an expert on leadership from the United States gave a presentation to an audience of Turkish academics and business executives.
After literally jumping on the stage, which was already weird enough for an audience not used to that kind of “informality”, the speaker, who had a military background, started by emitting some strange guttural sounds, which, apparently, were used in military academies to motivate the new recruits. The people in the room were completely puzzled, to put it mildly, and it got even worse when the speaker asked them to shout with her. It was the end of it, and the worst was that it seemed like she did not even feel the discomfort that was permeating the room.
I experienced a similar, yet less dramatic, level of embarrassment at another conference, this time in Tokyo, where a respected scholar from a prestigious European university gave a presentation on global leadership. Besides the fact that he was wearing black, the colour of mourning in Japan, at a certain point, after pronouncing the word “satisfaction”, he made a theatrical pause and then started singing “I can’t get no satisfaction…”. He might have used the same trick successfully with his students in Europe, but the reaction in Tokyo was quite different, with the audience staring into the void in the hope that that agony would end soon.
These are just two examples of how a lack of “localization” in public speaking can lead to very uncomfortable situations and prevent a speaker from conveying an effective and memorable message. And we know how crucial this ability to adapt a message across borders has become, especially for global executives who engage regularly with international stakeholders.
The fact is that, when faced with the opportunity to give a speech to a foreign audience, being a good speaker in technical terms is not enough. The rules of rhetoric are the same, but in order for them to be effective, their articulation needs to be adapted to the cultural background of the audience.
Ethos, Pathos and Logos, the three “artistic proofs” indicated by Aristotle over 2000 years ago as the main tools for effective persuasion, are only the ingredients in the kitchen of the speaker; their combination depends on the recipe. Certainly, not everyone has the possibility to become a “grand chef” in public speaking, but at least there are some rules than one can follow to become a decent cook or, at least, to avoid cooking an indigestible speech.
1. Know your audience.
Knowing your audience should be the first rule of public speaking in any case, but even more so when speaking to people of a different culture. Therefore, it is essential to take the time to research and try to find out what the audience’s assumptions and expectations are and tailor your message accordingly.
2. Be careful with jokes
In the West it is quite common to start a speech with a joke. But a joke that goes down well with people from our own cultural background has a very high chance to be met by silence or scorn in other contexts. We all laugh in different ways and at different things, and something very funny for, say, an Italian can be considered offensive for a Chinese (take the major communication blunder made by Dolce & Gabbana in China last year). If you are giving a speech in a foreign country and you know some locals, test your joke with them to avoid killing your speech right at the start.
For example, for my TEDx Talk on cross-cultural communication, I had decided to begin with a joke that shows the impact of cultural differences on leadership and decision-making by making fun, in a harmless way, of some traits of the cultures involved. In the weeks ahead of the talk I had tested the joke with different people from those cultures and, since they all laughed out loud, I decided that it was a safe bet. Eventually it worked out very well and it helped me reduce the distance with the audience by engaging directly with them through a liberating laugh.
3. Find a story that can connect to local culture
Storytelling is the best way to engage with your audience on an emotional level. This is why, when speaking to a foreign audience, it is usually very useful and effective to start a speech with a story, anecdote or a tested joke that can connect to the local culture or history.
To use a personal example, last year I was invited to give a keynote speech on global business and corporate diplomacy at the annual conference of the China International PR Association in Beijing. It was a big room filled with top Chinese executives who had no idea of who I was; so I had to find a way to establish an immediate connection and, with it, my credibility. I found it thanks to my mother, who exhumed from a dusty photo album a picture of a three-year-old version of me wearing a Mao suit and a Mao hat, legacy of the maoist past of a family friend.
I opened my speech with a slide showing a picture of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping followed by the photo of me as Mao’s “Mini Me”, while saying, in my shaky Chinese, that my dream had always been to become a Chinese leader. The trick worked so well that, in a couple of seconds, I was interrupted by a double round of applause (and an eruption of “aaww” from the female portion of the audience) and eventually the speech turned out to be a success.
Obviously we cannot always rely on the ideas of a resourceful mother, but, with a bit of effort and creativity, it is possible to find a story able to immediately reduce the distance with the audience and pave the way for a successful presentation.
4. Be simple and trim
This rule should apply to every speech, regardless of the cultural context. As with any kind of communication, in public speaking less is more; an effective message is not based on the quantity of information provided but by the quality of the delivery. You cannot say everything you want to say, but need to stick to two or three core ideas and express them with clarity.
This is even more important when speaking in foreign contexts, especially when your ideas will be conveyed by a translator. Great care must be given to reduce the potential for misunderstandings to a minimum. For example: do not try to look smarter by using difficult words, but speak in plain English; do not use slang or acronyms; avoid using irony, which in some cultures can be taken at face value; and do not use negative sentences such as “I couldn’t be happier to be here”, which, if something goes wrong, could be understood as if you are not happy at all to be there.
5. In Rome, do as the Romans do.
There is one thing that too many Western business and political leaders still do not get: people in the rest of the world (which represents 88 percent of the world’s population) communicate in very different ways. While the previous example of the US leadership expert jumping and shouting in Istanbul might represent an extreme, still many Americans do not understand that their level of informality and assertiveness as well as their very direct and explicit communication style is not perceived as “cool” in many (if not most) other cultures in the world.
An American might be motivated by the famous performance of former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer going crazy on the stage of his company’s convention, but for most people around the world (and I can attest it, because I always use the video in all my cross-cultural workshops) it is simply, well, crazy.
Certainly this does not mean that, when in China, you need to adopt the tone and posture of a member of the Politburo; for many foreign audiences a new speaking style can actually be refreshing and able to arouse their curiosity, but it needs to be done with care and poise, which requires a good level of cultural intelligence.
Moreover, in a cross-cultural context non-verbal communication is as important as verbal communication, if not more. Smiling, eye contact, expressing emotions, personal space, tone of voice, posture, can take different meanings depending on the context. These are not details, but a crucial part of a culturally intelligent public speech, because a normal gesture for you can be offensive in some cultures. For instance, putting your hand in your pockets is considered very disrespectful in Korea, as Bill Gates found out a few years ago, when he made the headlines of the national news because he had one hand in his pocket while meeting the president of the country.
In conclusion, if no effort is made to develop cultural intelligence, which at first requires a challenging process of cultural self-awareness, public speaking across cultures can be a minefield. However, with the proper preparation, it can open up new exciting opportunities, because being able to persuade people across borders can be a great competitive advantage in today’s global environment. And, most importantly, it can be an extraordinarily gratifying human experience.