Scoring with Overseas Audiences

How to “Speak Their Language” Even When It Isn’t English

Now I finally know why my friends are so interested in speaking abroad. It is a wonderful, rewarding, exhilarating, ego-building experience, even when the audience doesn’t speak your language.

Why forego local engagements to fly half-way around the world, suffer terrible jet lag, and put your reputation on the line when you don’t know how a non-English-speaking audience will accept your message? You’d have to be crazy.

That’s what I used to think, so I usually turned down overseas work. But in November of 1998, I spoke for three public seminars and four in-house meetings in Taiwan, a total of seven Chinese-speaking audiences. It was such a triumph that I can’t wait to go back. Here is what you can do to have a similar success.

1. Get advice. Ask your speaker friends to share their own experiences and offer their suggestions. Learn from other’s mistakes!

2. Familiarize your translator with your material. Send your overseas translator a tape of your material well in advance so he or she can become familiar with your phrases and personality.

3. Learn the language. Find a coach to teach you a few important phrases in the local language. It shows you care. A young woman from Taiwan helped me acquire eighteen Chinese phrases. Although my pronunciation wasn’t great, I got an A for effort.

4. Send your handouts to the client in plenty of time so they can be translated, and be sure your English version is perfect. Any mistakes may be translated and confuse the audience.

5. Arrive early. Get there enough in advance to adjust to any time change, rehearse with your translator, and preview your material with a test audience.

6. Preview your material. Get your client to provide a test audience of the kind of people you will be addressing (salespeople, executives, etc.) Explain that their feedback is essential so you can provide maximum value to your audiences. Deliver your presentation to this test group, using your translator. Then ask for their specific evaluations of how relevant and appropriate your information is for the intended audience. What might you add or omit?

7. Use your translator effectively. First of all, avoid simultaneous translation during your speech. Brian Tracy gave me this great advice, and he was right. Deliver a sentence, then have the translator repeat it in the local language. This one-sentence method helps the audience enjoy your body language and emphasis.

I arrived several days early and rehearsed my programs with my translator, Paul, so that we worked the platform like dancers, alternating sentences in English and Chinese. The audience responded positively to our Fred and Ginger interaction, and all eyes were on me when I spoke, not on my translator, awaiting the next words the audience could understand.

It is the speaker’s job, not the translator’s, to make sure the audience gets value. One internationally known speaker recently had seventy percent of an overseas audience ask for their money back. He was working with a translator who couldn’t communicate his message effectively. Many American speakers think it’s the translator’s job to get the speaker’s message across. Wrong! It’s your job to work with the translator so the audience and promoter get their money’s worth.

For one in-house meeting, I tied the organization’s advertising slogans into my message and personalized each one for the company’s needs. My translator, Paul, had learned what I was looking for, and he pointed out and translated the signs on the meeting room walls. I wrote them down in English and used them in my opening remarks. As I pointed to each sign, I said, “I see that you are committed to excellent customer service, to teamwork, to excellence–” I built my remarks around their core values as if I were reading them on the signs.

(You should be able to count on your client getting you the best translator possible, but don’t be reluctant to discuss a change if you feel the two of you are not a good match.)

8. Check out your introductions in advance. I was incredibly fortunate, rehearsing my introduction with my promoter and his staff. I’ve never had a client warm up the crowd so well. The Taiwanese are traditionally “traditional,” rarely effusive. Before my first presentation, the audience was really warmed up. Then I came on stage to lively rock music, with fifteen staff members clapping and dancing behind me. The 1500-member audience rose to their feet to join in. Elton John has rarely gotten a more energetic reception.

9. Cut your jokes. I did not try to be funny because I knew I would be able to give only half my material, due to the time needed for translation. You owe it to your audience to give them information, not jokes. Of course, most of my stories have built-in humor and entertainment value, but the biggest laugh I got came from my Chinese — which had to be translated along with my English.

10. Work the audience off the platform, with your translator at your elbow. For American audiences, I always interact before I start, what I call my “schmooze factor.” I did the same thing in Taiwan, and it was very successful.

After each public seminar I delivered in Taiwan, I was presented with six bouquets of flowers. The audience raced up to the stage for autographs and videos, and at least fifty people asked to have their photos taken with me. This scene was repeated on a slightly smaller scale at the more intimate in- house meetings.

Speaking to an audience that didn’t speak my language was an exhilarating experience and a great education. I recommend it heartily to anyone willing to do their homework and customize their message. If you are, the rewards are enormous.