Speaking internationally

This month, Pierre Morsa and I ran a seminar for executives at HEC Paris, all about International Presentation Skills. It is a fascinating and all-too-rare subject which I recommend any speaker to spend time learning about.

(Incidentally, this was our first training event under the Ideas on Stage banner – our new company aiming to be the foremost presentation specialist in France. More on this soon.)

I won’t attempt to summarize a whole day’s seminar in one post, but here are a few snippets which will be relevant to anyone who has to make a presentation in English to a group comprising non-native speakers of English.

Overall there are two particular barriers in this situation, which likely won’t appear to the same degree if a native English speaker is addressing other native English speakers from the same country:

  1. Different cultural filters
  2. The language barrier

We all have our own filters which colour how we see things. As the French writer Anaïs Nin put it, “We don’t see things as they are – we see them as we are.” There is a very strong scientific basis for this, but I won’t go into detail on the Reticular Activating System here. The simple point is that people from culture X share many filters, whereas people from culture Y share other filters which may be different or polar opposites.

For example, in most Western cultures, direct eye contact is seen as a sign of strength and respect. In Japan, direct eye contact is considered most impolite in many circumstances. In some countries, burping or belching is considered very impolite, whereas in others, it is a sign that you enjoyed your meal. In many countries, a dog is a friendly pet whereas in others, a dog is a nice meal. Why? People in different cultures are conditioned to see things in different ways.

As a speaker, you always need to put yourself in the place of your audience, and see things from their point of view. When your audience comes from a different culture – or multiple different cultures – this is more difficult, but also more important. By understanding your audience and tailoring your presentation to them, you will make yourself easier to understand, you will show respect for their culture, and you will avoid falling into traps such as making jokes about mad cows in India…

As for the language barrier, this is where non-native speakers of English have a major advantage over most Anglo-Saxons.  Whereas native speakers tend to speak quickly and use a very wide vocabulary, non-native speakers will usually speak more slowly, and will usually use a far more limited vocabulary, which is much closer to the vocabulary known by the non-Anglo-Saxon audience.

This is the principle behind Globish, a term coined by the French businessman Jean-Paul Nerrière to denote a very simple version of English, with only 1500 words, which is used widely between non-native speakers to communicate in English, which is often a lingua franca between people from different countries.

The key point for Anglo-Saxons to remember is that they are not trying to impress anyone with their immensely rich vocabulary – they are trying to communicate a message. It is therefore vital to use simple words and language, repeat and paraphrase regularly, check understanding, and above all, speak slowly and clearly with plenty of pauses.

This is a huge and important subject, which could easily have filled more than a one-day seminar, so this post is an extremely high-level summary. I repeat my recommendation to learn more if you ever need to present to non-Anglo-Saxons in English, whether you are a native speaker or not – and if you would like Ideas on Stage to come and organise a seminar for your company (in English or French), we’d be delighted to hear from you (email: info@ideasonstage.com).


4 Responses to Speaking internationally

  1. Brian Barker says:

    Globish reminds me of another project called “Basic English” Unfortunately this failed, because native English speakers could not remember which words not to use 🙂

    So it’s time to move forward and adopt a neutral non-national language, taught universally in schools worldwide,in all nations.

    As a native English speaker, I would prefer Esperanto

    Your readers may be interested in the following video at http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=_YHALnLV9XU Professor Piron was a translator with the United Nations in Geneva.

    A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

    • Phil Waknell says:

      Thanks Brian for your comment. I see exactly your point about native English speakers having trouble remembering which words not to use. I also appreciate the link to the video of Prof Piron which I indeed recommend – eight worthwhile minutes.

      Equally in my view, Esperanto has been around for long enough to succeed, and sadly people appear to talk about it less and less. I believe the Internet has been the final nail in its coffin, and like it or not, English is turning into the de facto international language. I should also declare that I am a native English speaker, although having learnt 6 other languages, I’m well placed to state that English isn’t the one you’d ideally choose as the international standard. In that I’d certainly agree with Prof Piron. Unfortunately the choice isn’t being made consciously by governments or linguists – it is just happening, whether it is logical or not.

      Even some long-established French companies are at last switching to using English as their standard internal language, which is a major change. American and British companies are not going to switch away from English, and most professionals who need to communicate internationally have already learnt to speak enough English to do it well enough – better, in many cases, than native speakers.

      It would take massive landmark decisions by the EU, India and China (and perhaps Japan) to make any headway on replacing English as the international standard, and the US would of course resist strongly. I can’t see it happening in my lifetime.

      In the meantime, I think we agree that if nothing is done, English will continue to be used poorly for international communication, especially by its native speakers. I aim to help people to use English more effectively in a multicultural environment, and sadly I can’t see the market for that service going away any time soon.

      • Phil Waknell says:

        I have done a little more reading on what Esperanto enthusiasts think of Globish (thanks Tony). It is suggested that Globish is “bad English”. I would disagree: it is correct but simple English, easy to understand with limited effort.

        Equally I am not a lover of Globish as such. I do however believe that if a speaker needs to address an audience and their only common language is English, the speaker must make an effort to use English in a way which the audience will easily understand.

        Yes it would be better if everyone learned Esperanto as a second language. That would be a ‘prevention’ of the difficulties in international communication. In the meantime, I am treating the illness of poor communication in English and trying to ‘cure’ people. It is less ambitious, but it will continue to be a significant and important mission, until Esperanto enthusiasts succeed in theirs.

  2. Tony says:

    Thank you for your comment, Phil.
    I expressed why I don’t like the concept of “Globish” in my blog in Spanish. A rough automatic translation is available at http://bit.ly/anNifI.
    Obviously, I prefer Esperanto 😉

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