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Presenting to a Diverse Audience? Some tips and considerations

by | Jul 24, 2020 | Collaborations Across Cultures

Imagine…

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 that is of a different cultural background can be daunting. Limited knowledge about the audience as well as 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 as well as reflect upon the experience for continuous learning and improvement. 

You might wonder, what kind of information might be useful in preparing for a presentation? For the rest of this article, we are going to reflect upon a few considerations as well as tips on what to include (or not) in your presentation. 

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A Few Things To Consider

There are many things to consider when preparing for a presentation, such as language, age, cultural background, etc. It’s good to get as much information as possible about the audience and the context of the presentation. While not an exhaustive list, here are some places where you can start. 

What is the audience size?

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 activity 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? 

The location has an influence in setting the tone of the presentation. Will the presentation be in an office, hall, cafe, in your living room or on a video conference? If the presentation is in a hall 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 the putting a presentation deck together, it’s beneficial to find out the needs of the audience. Even if the audience might be from diverse background, 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 from 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 towards this purpose rather than focus on their cultural difference in your presentation.

Attitude is a little things that makes a big difference.

Winston Churchill

What are 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, etc. 

While your audience can be diverse in its demographics, they may hold similar opinions and beliefs about your presentation topic. For example, if you’re presenting on the science of climate change to university students, they may hold more progressive and supportive attitudes towards greater climate action as compared to presenting to a 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 views, beliefs or values to align with your audience. Rather by understanding the psychographics of your audience, you can adjust the way you convey your message, by being selective of words, anecdotes or stories to deliver the same message that can be better understood by your audience.

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Three Tips in Presenting to a Diverse Audience

While we can prepare as much as possible, there are certain things that are beyond our control and that we are blind to. 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 into 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 offended the audience.

There was a leader from an American company hired an interpreter whenever he is 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. 

When personal feedback was sought about the leader’s presentation style, the interpreter said the audience do not understand his jokes. 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 it can be very different from your usual audience. Your audience might be chattier or less responsive, more formal or laid back, more than what you are used to.

When you receive different reactions from the audience, it is best to suspend your judgement and remove any assumptions you may have. 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 compared to 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 who is willing to provide you with constructive feedback. Ask them you and your presentation is being perceived, whether your speaking points are received and understood accurately as well as 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 somethings 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.

Just because you made a good plan, doesn’t mean that’s what’s gonna happen.

Taylor Swift

Despite the unexpected, we need to be open to adjust, improvise and learn 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 Bonhoeffer, an anti-nazi dissident and Lutheran pastor is known to have experimented and adjusted his communication style every time he was interrogated by the Gestapo. 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 around the world.

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 make the necessary preparations prior to 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 certain 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.

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Ling Ling, Tai

Ling Ling is a seasoned Learning and Development Professional with a passion for supporting leaders and teams in leveraging diversity, increasing intercultural awareness, and cultivating inclusive workplaces. Her lifelong work spans across 21 countries and across various industries such as manufacturing, technology, travel and non-profit. Having lived and worked in 6 countries, she believes that openness, compassion and inclusion creates  thriving and engaging workplaces.

Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.

Stephen Hawking