PracticeAccounting FirmsTraining and development special: foreign affairs

Training and development special: foreign affairs

Making a presentation to foreign clients can be tough. Jack Downton offers advice


For those in accountancy, giving informative, engaging presentations is often
a difficult challenge. Presenting your thoughts, feelings and ideas to audiences
can be nerve-racking and stressful, particularly in front of a large group.

When presenting to a foreign audience whose first language is not English,
what sends many into a cold sweat at the best of times is even more likely to
lead to disaster. Thankfully, a few tips, a bit of practice and an understanding
and awareness of your audience can prevent even the least experienced orator
from a cross-cultural catastrophe.

Lost in Translation

The first thing to remember when preparing your presentation is that however
good your audience’s level of English is, it may not be as good as yours.
Therefore, you need to be acutely aware of the level of English you use and
grade it accordingly.

This is particularly important if you are presenting a highly technical or
esoteric topic. Jargon, technical language, academic names and acronyms may
sound impressive, but may be completely lost on your audience.

Similarly, all idioms should be avoided as these are usually based on culture
and do not translate easily.

Also bear in mind that non-native speakers often say that it is easier to
listen to another non-native speaker of English than a native speaker because of
the form of English they use ­ clear, idiom-free, no British cultural references
etc. Therefore, simplicity is the key. If you can use simple, clear English to
convey your meaning ­ then do so.

However, you must be careful not to patronise. Never underestimate your
audience: as teachers of English to adults who are based overseas soon learn,
their students may not be able to speak with much accuracy or fluency, but are
often businesspeople, doctors, accountants, journalists and politicians.
Therefore, grade your language and above all, don’t talk down to them.

Body Talk

Use your body language to express meaning. Where words don’t make sense
meaning can often be inferred by the tone of your voice, facial expressions,
hand movements, gestures and even eye contact. Body language will also help
retain your audience’s interest. Paying attention to a speech in foreign
language can be difficult enough: add to that a stiff, monotone presentation
with no physical element, and your audience will switch off faster than Bart
Simpson in advanced calculus.

Pause for thought

Your audience needs time to process what you have said in any presentation,
whether speaking to a room full of people from France, or Fulham. Pausing is
more important than ever when listeners have to translate in their own minds the
information you have presented. It is almost impossible to pause for too long.
Although a long pause may seem an eternity to the presenter, for the audience
the length will feel comfortable and will give them the time to digest what you
have said.

A big mistake many presenters make is speaking very slowly to make themselves
understood. All this does is turn your voice into a dreary monotone. At best
this will bore your audience, or worse, will appear patronising and offend them.
Speak at your usual pace with your head held high and remember those pauses ­
this enables successful voice projection.

Follow the leader

Just as you would with a friend following behind you in his car, you have to
constantly check that your audience is following you and that they haven’t lost
you at the first hurdle. It is not the audience’s responsibility to keep up with
you. Therefore check understanding frequently. Ask questions to check
comprehension. After each subject area, give a summary of your main points to
reinforce the meaning.

However, never ask ‘do you understand?’ It makes you look like a teacher. You
will never get an honest answer, particularly with some East Asian audiences who
will be unlikely to admit that they don’t understand.

Worse still is ‘what don’t you understand?’ Instead, ask for their thoughts
on the topic, what they feel about what you have just said, or if the same
applies in their country. That immediately creates interaction and shows you are
interested. It also allows you to make sure they are following you.

Keep it short and simple

Don’t attempt to get too much across. Pay attention to the length of your
presentation and make the point early – and then stop. It is harder to pay
attention in a foreign language ­ go on for too long, and you risk them
switching off.

Jack Downton is managing director of
Influence Business
and a former colonel in the Royal Marines

Talking their language


If you find yourself presenting to a German audience, then make sure that you
introduce yourself with assurances that you are qualified. A simple ‘Hi, I’m
Mike and today we’ll be looking at fraud’ is not enough. For a German audience
to give you their attention, they’ll need reassuring that you are qualified to
talk on the subject. German audiences also tend to like lots of detail so make
sure you can back up your assertions.

Traditionally, the French have loathed the fact that the world’s business
language is English. Former President Chirac even famously walked out of an EU
summit when the native French speaker decided to give his speech in English
instead. It always goes down very well if you can say a few things in their
language (in any country, not just France). No one expects you to be able to
master the language, but if you introduce yourself or thank them in their mother
tongue, it will endear them to you.

Any US citizens should remember that many people in South America don’t like it
when those from the US refer to themselves as ‘Americans’. There are many
Americans: North Americans, Central Americans and South Americans. America is
seen as a continent, not a country. Someone from Argentina has just as much
right to call himself an American as someone from California, just as a
Frenchman or an Italian can call himself a European.

In Japan, be wary looking for laughs as self-deprecating humour is not as well
received as in the UK.

In Spain, expect lots of questions at the end, as the Spanish love interaction.
In some Asian countries, such as Taiwan, however, don’t expect much interaction
as the feeling is that it is the speaker’s role is to speak and for them to
merely listen (this is the way they were taught at school).

You will be seen as an ambassador for not just your company, but your
country. So relax, have fun, be yourself and who knows ­ you may be invited back
to speak again.

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