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Keeping the Connection: Presenting to Non-Native Speakers

“The single biggest problem with communication according to George Bernard Shaw, is the illusion that it has taken place.”  You don’t have to be a famous Irish Playwright to understand that critique for the ages. And while he wasn’t aiming that comment specifically at business executives, there’d be no need to exclude them.

Hi. Welcome to Presenting With Power. I’m your host Aileen Pincus.

The truth is, It always takes a degree of effort to make sure you’re communicating what you intend to communicate. That’s especially true if you’re speaking to non-native speakers. It’s never a bad idea to make sure you’re being clear of course. But If your audience isn’t fluent in the infinite varieties of ways Americans speak English, your audience is going to have it’s hands full just keeping up.

Because native speakers do what I just did. They include idioms in their communication without even thinking about it…like saying “having your hands full”…or telling your audience someone included everything “the whole 9 yards” in their analysis . That gap between the way language is formally taught, and the way it’s spoken in common usage happens in every language. Americans use so many of these colloquialisms in every day speech, with new words and phrases being added all of the time, that this alone can be hard for non native speakers to understand your meaning. Heck, if you’ve travelled widely throughout the US, you know it can even be hard for native speakers to keep up with regional phrases, and accents. Simplify simplify simplify. This also applies to using industry jargon and abbreviations. Wherever possible, just find another more direct way to communicate your information.

So, if you’ve got clients or colleagues and partners who are non-native English speakers, let’s go over some other tips that’ll increase the chance communication actually takes place as intended.

Regular listeners know that I always stress the importance of preparing your messages and your content, but allowing yourself to “be in the moment” during your delivery…in other words, allowing yourself to depart from the script depending on your read of the audience in front of you.

Well, this is especially important if there are nonnative English speakers listening. Go through your content and check for clear, direct speech. But while you’re speaking, put the priority as well on watching your audience. You’re looking for indications from that audience that you’re being understood.  Now, this doesn’t mean making them uncomfortable by constantly asking if they’re understanding you. No one likes being talked down to. It just means paying attention to removing the barriers to clear speech when you know your audience may already have their work cut out for them in understanding you.

A good rule to follow is to try and speak in direct, short sentences when possible. A short declarative sentence is simply clearer. (I just gave you an example. There were no commas, no dependent clauses. Just a direct statement). A bonus for you is that being clear and direct also increases your authority. Simply look at your notes or remarks and break things up into statements that can be understood. The details supporting that statement should also be simplified.

This isn’t really about the knowledge base of your audience. No matter how sophisticated they are, they may still have to work to make sure they’re understanding you if they’re not a native speaker. And you want to make that process as easy as you can for them. Many of us have a habit of making audiences work too hard to keep up, either by adding needless detail or by reaching for explanations and examples that our audience simply doesn’t understand or relate to.

Make sure you use short, declarative sentences where possible, and you’re more likely to be understood. As you add detail, keep referring back to your key points so audiences can follow along with the progression of what you’re saying .

English isn’t one of the top ten fastest languages spoken, but it’s still a good idea to try and slow your rate of speech down to make yourself understood. That’s not easy to do, especially for naturally faster talkers, so concentrate on deliberate pauses. Let your BIGGER ideas breathe…in other words, pause when making your key points.

And don’t be afraid of some repetition. You can do it in a way that doesn’t seem repetitive, by rephrasing your language.

If you do have hand-out materials of some kind, or present with slides, lean into the visuals. Think about visuals that tell your story and back up what you’re saying. Keep those charts and graphs pared down. You can opt for more pages, but with less detail in the version you show…. In the version you hand out,

You can add more detail because your audience will have time to go over it.

And where it makes sense, pause your remarks to get feedback or ask for questions.

Do enunciate so that you can be heard clearly…. That doesn’t mean to unnecessarily exaggerate your speech…just simply pay attention to pronunciation.  Simplify your speech when possible. For instance, in addition to short, declarative sentences on key points, avoid contractions. Ask yourself if the vocabulary you’re choosing is the most direct…and clear choice you could be making.

And I’d also offer this word of caution. Be careful about using humor. Humor often loses something in translation and it’s easy to be misunderstood across languages and cultures.  Just seek to be direct and understood and you’ll be on solid ground with all audiences.

If you want to see examples of this done well, run a random search through TED TALK videos. The platform that began as a Technology,  Entertainment and Design information sharing, now runs videos in over 100 different languages and for a world wide audience. The videos by experts in a wide variety of fields are limited to no more than 18 minutes. That means even topics that may be difficult to understand are going to be explained at their highest level. It’s a good way to see any number of examples of clear and concise communication, regardless of how difficult the subject matter. While some of these videos are more effective than others, all are examples at effective communication to a general audience over a limited amount of time.

Finally, get some feedback if you can. If you can have a colleague join you, or ask someone directly, do that. Again, no need to make anyone uncomfortable by asking if they understood you. Simply ask if they found the information useful, and which parts they keyed in on. You’ll get your answer if they can feed you back some of the key points you made.

That’s presenting with Power for today. I’m Aileen Pincus. For more check out our website at  and join us next time for tips and techniques for charging up the power in your communications. Until next time….


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