you are asked to deliver a presentation an audience of a different background from you.

Are you nervous? Are you well prepared? Will you deliver your presentation as you normally would? Or will you adjust?

Presenting to an audience from a different background from your own can be daunting. Often times, we have limited knowledge and information about our audience and we (or your manager) have placed high expectations on the results. This is highly nerve-wracking indeed!

While we cannot prepare for all outcomes, here are 3 simple tips when preparing for a presentation or a training to an unfamiliar audience.

Tip 1: If you are not sure, don’t use jokes

Keep presentations formal, yet authentic.

Jokes are highly contextual. Presenting jokes to an audience from a different culture than your own may fall silence of blank stares. At the very worst, your joke will confirm your ignorance and offended the audience unintentionally.

There was a leader from an American company who has an interpreter with him whenever he speaks in China. He enjoys starting his presentations with a joke to his mandarin speaking audience. As always, the audience laughed at his joke.

When the interpreter was interviewed about his presentation style,  the interpreter said the audience do not understand his jokes. To save face and minimise awkwardness, the interpreter would say to the audience:

“The speaker is now telling a joke. Please laugh out of politeness.”

As they say, it’s better to remain silent than to confirm it.

Tip 2: Suspend Judgement of your audience and yourself.

Presenting to an unfamiliar audience for the first time is extremely uncomfortable. Their reactions may be very different from the audience you are used to. They might be chattier or less responsive than your regular audience.

A Japanese audience may respond differently compared to a french audience or an audience from New York.

Before reading too much into it, suspend your judgement. An audience’s silence does not necessarily mean boredom. It could mean respect. An audience’s laughter may not mean happiness, but nervousness in the presence of a foreigner. An audience’s chattiness may not mean engagement, but the avoidance of awkward silence.

Before coming to any conclusion, check in with a trusted local whom is willing and comfortable to provide you with constructive feedback. Ask them how you are being perceived. Ask whether your speaking points are received as accurately as it is presented and how you can better connect with your audience in a local context.

Tip 3: Be Flexible and Observe

What if you don’t know any trusted locals? How can you find out about the audience’s preferred presentation styles, the dos and dont’s?

If there is limited knowledge of your audience, be ready to experiment with different presentation styles. Presentation style in one culture may not work in another. For example, a Russian sales person may use an interrogative sales presentation to pitch to his Thai clients.  Only to find out afterwards that the Thai clients were offended by the questioning which nearly ruined the relationship and potential sale.

It is recommended to start off formally, yet if there is a style/joke/phrasing you’d like to experiment, try it during breaks or during periods when the group is in an informal mood. Then… carefully observe the audience’s reaction, learn from it and adjust accordingly. Avoid experimenting the style when presenting a critical point to your audience.

For example, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pacifist, experimented and adjusted his communication style every time he was interrogated by the Gestapo. He made extensive notes about the way he sat, his tone of voice and the words he used. He adjusted after each interrogation session.

The Good News

The world is full of people who value relationships and the collective good. There are plenty of opportunities to connect with someone locally. Once you have established a local connection, observe the way they communicate. Actively listen to the topics discussed and how they describe things. Seek their advice on how to connect with the local audience.

Most importantly, learn, reflect and document your discoveries. So the next time you are required to present or train this audience, you are better prepared.