you are asked to deliver a presentation to an audience of a different background from you. Are you nervous? Are you well prepared? Will you deliver your presentation as you normally would? Or will you adjust?
Presenting to a diverse audience, especially an audience of different cultural backgrounds, can be daunting. Limited knowledge about the audience and the high expectation can be nerve-wracking, leading to stress and poor performance. The best way to present to a diverse audience is to make ample preparations, be ready to adjust and improvise, and reflect upon the experience for continuous learning and improvement.
You might wonder what kind of information might be helpful in preparing for a presentation?
A Few Things To Consider
When preparing for a presentation, there are many things to consider, such as language, age, cultural background, and other vital factors. It's good to get as much information as possible about the audience and the presentation context. While not an exhaustive list, here are some places where you can start.
What is the audience size?
Determine the size of your audience, whether you are presenting to an audience of 5 or 1000. The audience size will help to determine your style of presentation and the kinds of activities to include. An ice breaker that requires everyone to introduce themselves one by one in an audience of 1000 is unrealistic, whereas the same exercise for an audience of 5 might seem too superficial. With this information in mind, you can adjust and balance the levels of engagement and interactivity in your presentation.
Where will the presentation be held?
Will the presentation be in an office, hall, cafe, in your living room or at a video conference? The location influences the tone of the presentation. If it is held in a theatre or an office, you can anticipate that the audience requires a certain level of formality. Whereas, if the presentation is in a cafe, in your living room, or online, a casual and laid back feeling might be anticipated by the audience.
What is the common purpose for the audience to be there?
Before jumping into putting a presentation deck together, it's beneficial to find out the audience's needs. Even if the audience might be from diverse backgrounds, they will share a common purpose for setting aside their time to listen to your presentation. Find out from the event organiser, contact person or a trusted source by starting with these questions.
- Why would the audience want to listen to your presentation?
- What do they wish to gain from it?
By understanding the common purpose, you can bring the audience together rather than focus on their cultural difference in your presentation.
What is the psychographics of the audience?
Psychographics refers to the values, beliefs, interests, lifestyles of the audience. Psychographics differ from demographics as such that demographics focuses solely on facts and statistics. Some examples are age, gender, ethnicity, occupation and many others.
While your audience can be diverse in demographics, they may hold similar opinions and beliefs about your presentation topic. For example, suppose you're presenting on the science of climate change to university students. In that case, they may have a more progressive attitude towards climate action than conservative boomer-aged capitalists who are more concerned about economic growth.
To understand the psychographics of your audience, it is worth the time to interview the event organiser, contact person, or even some members of the audience to get a sense of their point of view on the topic. It is not to say that you are required to change your personal opinions, beliefs or values to align with your audience. Instead, by understanding the psychographics of your audience, you can adjust the way you convey your message. Make adjustments by being selective of words, anecdotes, or stories to deliver the same message that your audience can better understand.
Three Tips in Presenting to a Diverse Audience
While we can prepare as much as possible, certain things we are unaware of are beyond our control. Here are some tips to ensure a delightful presentation experience.
Tip 1: If you are not sure, don't use jokes
Jokes are highly contextual. If your diverse audience doesn't come from your background, including jokes in your presentation may elicit silence and blank stares. At the very least, you'll receive a few chuckles. At the very worst, your joke will confirm your ignorance and unintentionally offend the audience.
There was a leader from an American company who hired an interpreter whenever he was in China. He enjoys starting his presentations with a joke, and the audience in China seemed to enjoy the joke as they responded with laughter.
The interpreter said the audience did not understand his jokes when seeking personal feedback about the leader's presentation style. To save face and minimise awkwardness, the interpreter would say to the audience: "The speaker is now telling a joke. Please laugh out of politeness."
Tip 2: Suspend Judgement
If you're presenting to a diverse audience for the first time, their reactions may puzzle you as they can be very different from your usual audience. Your audience might be chattier or less responsive, more formal or laid back.
When you receive different reactions from the audience, it is best to suspend your judgement and remove any assumptions. We need to suspend our judgment because our conclusion of the audience's reaction might be inaccurate. For example, based on your cultural lens, a silent audience might mean boredom or disinterest, while a vocal audience might mean engagement. Through the cultural lens of another, silence is a form of showing respect, while a chatty audience might be seen as arrogant.
Another example could be that a Japanese audience may respond differently from a French audience or an audience from New York. An audience's laughter may not mean happiness but nervousness in the presence of a foreigner. Or an audience's interjections may not mean engagement but the avoidance of awkward silence.
Before coming to any conclusion, check in with a trusted contact willing to provide you with constructive feedback. Ask them about how you and your presentation are perceived, whether your speaking points are received and understood accurately, and how you can better connect with your diverse audience.
Tip 3: Be flexible and document
Even if you have ample preparation and rehearsal for your presentation, quite often, it may not happen as planned. There might be some things that are out of our control. Perhaps a sudden change in venue or the audience size might increase or decrease.
Or we might discover that a planned presentation style does not work with your audience. For example, a Russian salesperson may use an interrogative sales presentation to pitch to his Thai clients. The Russian found out afterwards that the Thai clients were offended by the questioning style, which nearly ruined the relationship and potential sale.
Despite the unexpected, we need to be open to adjusting, improvising and learning to manage these changes. After every presentation opportunity, be sure to take the time to reflect on your experience and document your lessons. Be as specific as possible so that you can refer to them for continuous personal development.
For example, Dietrich Bonhoeffer1, an anti-nazi dissident and Lutheran pastor, is known to have experimented and adjusted his communication style every time the Gestapo interrogated him. After each interrogation, he made extensive notes about the way he sat, his tone of voice and the words he used. While such writings didn't help him escape his eventual demise, his writings continue to inspire many worldwide.
The Good News
There are plenty of opportunities to present to a diverse audience as the world becomes increasingly interconnected and globalised. The ability to present to a diverse audience will be a valuable and transferable skill of the future.
Use this opportunity to practice and hone your presentation skills. Be sure to prepare before the presentation by considering the audience size, psychographics, venue and purpose. Suspend your judgement, be flexible and don't use jokes if you're not confident it will work. Most importantly, learn, reflect and document your discoveries. So the next time you are required to present a diverse audience, you are better prepared and more confident.
- Marty, M. E. (2011). Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s letters and papers from prison: A biography. Princeton University Press.