Five tips to prepare for your first international speaking assignment


international speaking assignment

On an international speaking assignment a few years ago, I ended my talk with an inspirational call to action — “Today we all have the power to publish online and find our voice and power in the world,” I said. “All of us can find our opportunity to turn our passion into influence on the web.”

Afterward, a number of people in the largely Dutch audience came up to me politely complimenting me on my speech but also correcting me. They said that in their culture, people would never try to stand out on the web. In fact they are rewarded for fitting in, not standing out. They had some local saying about “if you try to stand out we will bop you in the nose.” I might not have that exactly right, but the sentiment is close.

I was crestfallen that my carefully-prepared speech had somehow missed the mark and was somewhat culturally inappropriate.

I had learned my lesson. To prepare for an international speaking assignment, I could never let that happen again. Here are some of my lessons that I took forward from that experience.

1. Scope the territory

Weeks before the talk, I start to read a newsfeed about the country and city I’m visiting. It can be something as simple as doing a daily web search for the news in that country. This way I get a feel for the political issues, potential hot buttons, and ideas I can use to “localize” the content. I always try to use some local references and photos if I can.

2. Scan your talk for confusing terms and phrases

I go through every slide and word in detail to find anything that might be a uniquely American cultural reference, or a term or product that might not be known where I am speaking. I either change the reference or double-check with a local contact to learn whether it is content that I can appropriately use or not.

3. Check off on major talking points

At least a month before my talk I have a discussion with a contact on the major points of my presentation. I find there are vast differences in marketing readiness and expectations in different regions of the world and this way I can build up or tone down points that make the biggest difference to my audience. There can even be big knowledge gaps between cities in the same country.

4. Schedule time with the translator

When you need a translator, the best conferences always want the slides far ahead of time but usually that’s not enough. I use very few words on my slides so a translator normally will not know what I’m talking about, even if they have the slides. Scheduling time with the translator a few hours ahead of time and telling the stories behind the slides can help both of you be much more accurate and successful.

5. Build in extra time for travel and AV preparation

I am always nervous until I know the audio-visual works and I have learned to always build in extra time in a foreign country. You would not believe how many times my electrical cord adapter won’t fit in the sockets at the event venue or the slides don’t show up correctly on the projector. As a back-up, I always have my presentation on a thumb drive in case my presentation plans break down.

And while you’re at it, build in plenty of extra time if you have to get through traffic to the event site. Most of the big talks are in large cities, which can have nightmarish traffic problems. At a talk in Mumbai, it took me two hours to move just a few miles.

Those are a few tips that have helped me be successful on the international scene. Do you have anything to add?

Illustration courtesy CC Chapman

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