When I was touring southern India with my husband, a guide took us to a five-elephant festival near the backwaters. We were the only outsiders. We were eager to remain standing still, just watching, but our guide told us to join the procession. At first we felt awkward, uncomfortable walking with the crowd trailing behind the elephants. But the more we walked, the more the feeling changed–we felt part of the procession, with the natural flow of the experience. We became connected.
In today’s global business world, leaders at all levels need not just to talk but to genuinely connect with their global audiences. It isn’t as simple as just going with the flow. But by taking note of these guidelines, you can connect with your audiences with authenticity, sensitivity, and impact.
You may not think a bullet-point structure is the most riveting way to arrange your remarks, but it’s remarkably effective nonetheless. In a written outline, bullet points are visual symbols to break down the components of your main idea.
The same goes for speaking–but instead of visual symbols, you use repeated phrases. You link each of your supporting ideas to your main idea by beginning each supporting idea (bullet point) in the exact same way. For example, if you’re discussing goals for your team, your oral bullet point is, “One of our goals is to . . . ” After you explain the goal, go to your next oral bullet point: “Another one of our goals is to . . . ” And so on.
This straightforward structure helps your audience follow along. When you speak in a stream of long, complex sentences, it’s easier for listeners to get lost–especially when English isn’t their first language. A few years ago I took part in a roundtable discussion on human rights with a professor from France. Our conversation was held in French. I understood every word he said, but when he went into long, complex arguments, I had to concentrate much harder. After two hours, I was mentally drained. A clearer structure would have been really helpful.
Oral bullet points also help you control pacing. Pausing between one point and the next lets you transition comfortably from thought to thought. These pauses are incredibly important for a multicultural audience, because there’s often a split-second lag in comprehension due to the need to translate and listen simultaneously.
We speak between 150 and 200 words every minute. Invariably, we miss a few words each minute that passes, using context clues to fill in the blanks–often without being fully conscious of it. That’s much harder to do when there’s a language barrier. The pauses that an oral bullet-point structure gives you room to make helps your audience catch up and relax.
Being passionate is great, but be thoughtful about how animated you become when you’re speaking to a global audience. In the United States, an expressive leader is often seen as charismatic and powerful. But in other countries–like Japan, for instance–power is more commonly associated with a reserved bearing. Even closer to home, in Canada, American leadership style can seem a little too bold and too aggressive. To maximize your presence and authority, maintain a balance between composure and expressiveness.
Keeping your animation in check doesn’t mean not gesturing at all. Just be sure that your movements correspond with your message. You can even build certain gestures into your presentation in order to better express what you have to say. When you talk a lot with your hands, your audience essentially has two performances to focus on–your verbal one as well as your gestural one. It can be like watching two different television screens. To help listeners stay tuned in, concentrate on bringing the two screens together.
The best way to connect your movement with your message is to use symbolic gestures that illustrate what you’re saying. For example, if you’re talking about rising costs, you can raise your hand in an upward movement, as if you were lifting a weight resting on top of your hand. This gesture helps your audience see what you mean, not just hear it.
Trying to use humor during a business presentation is a gamble to begin with. But it’s even riskier when you’re speaking to a multicultural audience. Obviously, humor is far from universal. What’s funny in one culture might be taboo in another–or just not make any sense. Even if you use extremely safe humor, you could still fall flat with listeners who don’t get the joke. Even after decades of working with leaders from the U.K., where we share a common first language, I still don’t always get the art of the droll understatement.
If you use an analogy, make sure it resonates across cultures. You want your presentation to be relevant to all your listeners. For example, nearly everyone in the world can identify with a traffic jam, a lesson in school, or a great meal. Sports, on the other hand, are more local. A client of mine from Saudi Arabia was fascinated when we took him to his first baseball game. He loved it, but I doubt he would instantly understand an analogy that referred to a competitive strategy as a double-play.
Keep these five tips in mind, and you’ll deliver your message more clearly no matter whom you’re speaking to. What’s more, you’ll stand a better chance of making a real connection. You’ll lead the procession, not just join it.