Making a presentation is a nervewracking experience for most of us. When you are presenting in English to an international audience, there are even more potential traps. Just one flat joke or misunderstood slide and you can have lost your audience’s attention for good - and perhaps missed that sale or promotion.
“There are few people who like standing up and being the centre of attention, but for most of us the need arises at some point to stand up in front of other people and present something,” says Marilyn Ford-Bartfay, an Australian who holds two-day courses in effective presentations at Företagsuniversitetet in Stockholm.
The course gives practical help and advice on giving both informational presentations, where accurate and specific information needs to be imparted, and persuasive talks, where the audience needs to be motivated or their opinions need to be changed.
Those attending include both Swedes and foreigners who have to make presentations in English. Indeed, plenty of those on the course are native English speakers. But Ford-Bartfay says native speakers are not necessarily at an advantage when presenting in English outside their home countries:
“We English speakers have a lot to learn about communicating internationally.
“A lot of Swedes think ‘If only I could speak better English’. But actually, some of the worst presentations I have heard are from native English speakers.”
Native English speakers often forget that their although audience is competent in English, they won’t always get Anglo-Saxon cultural references or understand idioms:
“There’s no point going to a meeting with lots of Swedes and chucking out expressions like ‘Teaching a grandmother to suck eggs,’” Ford-Bartfay points out.
“It’s not a question of dumbing-down; it’s a question of weeding out culturally-rooted references. You can’t speak to an international audience and start using cricketing terms, for instance.”
Your language is just one of many areas you may need to adapt when making a presentation. When presenting to Swedes is that you may also need to adapt your tone. It is particularly important to come across as modest, says Ford-Bartfay:
“Swedish audiences tend not to appreciate a hard sell,” she says. Other things to think about are that visual aids are particularly important in presentations in Sweden, and that you need to provide ample opportunities for your audience to ask questions.
Nationality is just one factor that you need to think about when making a presentation. You need to analyze all aspects of your audience’s background.
“You might need to consider their professional culture, for instance. If you’re talking to an audience of engineers you need to be particularly analytical and detailed.”
Humour, while a vital ingredient for many presentations, is also full of pitfalls - particularly in an international setting. Brits, for instance, can have a tendency to tell a joke to lighten the mood in a serious situation. But this can lead to other nationalities mistakenly believing that the Brit isn’t taking the situation seriously:
“Humour is a double-edged sword. It can work really well, but only if everyone can laugh at the same thing. The best kind of joke is a joke made about yourself.”
Other potential traps include bad use of Powerpoint slides, so the course gives pointers on how to use these effectively. It also examines how to find your personal style and how to overcome nerves.
Of course, a key to self-improvement is to understand where you’re going wrong, so Ford-Bartfay videos participants and plays their presentations back to them:
“The video helps people focus on things like the key message. People generally hate seeing themselves on video, but most find it very useful.”
“The point is that giving effective presentations is something that everyone can learn.”
The ‘Effective Presentations’ course will run at Företagsuniversitetet in Stockholm on 12-13 May 2011.
Article sponsored by Företagsuniversitetet.