Killing It on Stage in Your Non-Native Language


A while back I attended a breakfast at which a brilliant economist was slated to share insights on a growing industry segment. The topic was compelling and drew a large and captive audience. Unfortunately, our speaker was only half way through his remarks when eye lids began to droop and heads started to nod. The audience was trying hard to stay tuned in. But our speaker's weighty material, sing-song cadence and thick accent could have lulled the fussiest baby to sleep.

As consultants who assist leaders and subject matter experts at global companies, we frequently work with professionals who are presenting in their second or even third languages. I am always in awe of these brave souls. 

Absolutely, there are many examples of speakers who have delivered gripping remarks in languages other than their first. But, for them, the hurdles are higher. 

So today we offer six tips to improve the odds of success for anyone presenting or speaking publicly in a foreign tongue.

1) Above all else, be sure your material is compelling. Understanding an unfamiliar accent requires work on the part of audience members. Reward their effort with well-considered, meaningful content.  Cut unnecessary detail, while adding elements that make your content more human and relevant like stories, examples and analogies. And in these cases especially, it pays to keep things short.

2) Smile. Smiling translates instantly across all languages as “I’m confident, I believe in what I’m saying and I’m excited to share my material with you.” It also re-engages an audience whose attention may be wandering. So in all but the most serious or grave circumstances, smile as you open, smile often throughout, and smile as you close your remarks.

3) In general, speak more slowly. Comprehending a speaker with a foreign accent requires active listening. Make it easier for your audience, by speaking a little more slowly than you would normally.

4) Having said that, vary your pace, volume and gestures throughout. In everyday conversations, we constantly switch things up to help indicate when something is profound, funny, serious, urgent, etc. So when speakers do this on stage, they seem natural and relaxed and they’re suddenly much easier to understand. Don’t allow yourself to fall into a predictable vocal pattern. Instead, continually re-engage your audience by varying your pace, volume and movement—just as you would in a conversation.

5) Identify and practice the key words most vital to your presentation. I recently coached an executive for whom the words “technology” and “innovative” were critical. But her mispronunciation of each was so far off, her audience would have missed the message completely if she hadn’t adopted---and practiced---a more conventional pronunciation of those key words.

6) Rehearse in front of an unbiased audience. Find someone who natively speaks the language in which you’ll be presenting and ask that person to listen to your presentation and give you an honest opinion, particularly scrutinizing your pronunciation of your key words. Take to heart any feedback offered. 

Finally, rest assured that if your audience has invited you to speak, they’re interested in your material. Public speaking, in any language, is a wonderful opportunity to expand the impact of your work and build a professional legacy. So relax, rehearse and follow these tips to ensure your audience stays engaged till the very end.

Christina McKenna