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Cross-Cultural Communication: Be Empathetic, Be Effective - 5 Top Tips

by The PowerSpeaking Team     Nov 1, 2022 11:04:41 AM

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You’ve been asked to make a sales presentation to a potential international customer located in a country you’ve never visited. 

Or maybe you’re giving a talk to coworkers in a facility across the globe.

Or perhaps your idea for a TEDx talk in your very urban, diverse region has been accepted.

In any of these scenarios, your best chance for success is to be a culture-literate communicator.  Here are our 5 top tips for best-practice cross-cultural presenting and speaking . . .

ross-Cultural Communication

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1  Know Your Audience (and yourself)

Understanding the makeup of your audience is the first step in preparing for any speech or presentation. But there’s an added dimension when you know the audience is culturally diverse.

Do some research.  As much as possible, find out what languages, cultural norms, or sensitivities you need to consider. Also, take the time to learn why they’ve come, what they’re likely to care about relative to your talk, and what common ground you share. 

Check your assumptions.  It’s true that we all form assumptions about people based on our own experiences (or lack thereof). Unfortunately, our assumptions are sometimes based on stereotypes.

During a recent PowerSpeaking Live! conversation about cross-cultural communication, panelist Rajani Shailender, VP of Sales, Tech Mahindra, shared some valuable insights about avoiding cultural stereotypes . . .

Presenting to and communicating with a culturally diverse audience can feel daunting. But if you prepare for it with an open mind and respect for different perspectives and norms, you’re more likely to succeed.

2  Build a Bridge With Language

Giving a presentation or a talk isn’t just about delivering information. It’s also about making connections with people, building trust and credibility, being persuasive, and inspiring action. So, make sure what you say and how you say it honors your diverse audience. 

Avoid culture-specific idioms or references. If you want to illustrate a point with a metaphor or saying, select something that’s more universal. In the same PowerSpeaking Live! mentioned earlier, panelist Elizabeth Bachman, Principal, Strategic Speaking for Results, suggests that a well-known food, like pizza, is a better reference than a show on your streaming network.

Elizabeth and PowerSpeaking, Inc. CEO Carrie Beckstrom also touched on the importance of using universally understood metaphors and stories . . .

Enunciate and use pauses.
  Please don’t s-p-e-a-k  s-o  s-l-o-w-l-y that you sound condescending or comical, but do enunciate clearly and pause between key points or sections of your talk.

According to their research in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience,” cites a Harvard Business Review article, “ authors Kristin J. Van Engen and Jonathan E. Peelle say that audiences who are listening to accented speech  of  any  kind  experience ‘reductions  in intelligibility, comprehensibility, and processing speed—the same effects caused by hearing loss or background noise.’ By slowing down your speaking pace, you help your audience to better manage the barriers to really hearing and understanding you.”

Elizabeth shared some tips regarding pacing and pauses during the PowerSpeaking Live!. . .

Acknowledge different languages.
  Imagine opening your talk with, for example, “Hello, hola, bonjour, namaste.” Making such a clearly personal connection with a wide-ranging audience will do wonders for creating a sense of connection. “People love to hear their own language,” Rajani says.

Acknowledge time zones.  Instead of just “Good morning” (your time zone), open with “Good morning, afternoon, and evening.” The simple act of recognizing where people are in the world is an act of goodwill, and people will take note.

3 Mind Your Nonverbal Communication

Whether we realize it or not, people everywhere read a lot into nonverbal communication. But depending on the group or culture, the interpretations can vary widely.

What might your dress, stance, hand gestures, facial expressions, eye contact, and emotiveness connote to another culture? Here are several key things to keep in mind . . .

Eye contact. In the U.S. we stress the importance of eye contact in engaging your audience. But in some cultures, frequent and sustained eye contact from a speaker is not only not expected, it can be intimidating.

Hand gestures. You really need to be careful here. There are many hand gestures that mean one thing in one culture, and a completely different thing in another. For example, the thumbs-up and “okay” gestures in the U.S. have positive connotations; but in other countries, those same gestures have very negative meanings.

Expressiveness. Movement, facial expressions, and tone of voice can all help you make your message clear, tell a story well, and engage people. But they can also result in unintended effects on an audience. Bold, commanding body language and tone of voice can convey confidence and credibility in one culture, but arrogance and indelicacy in another.

Again, this is where preparation is key. Consult people who have some knowledge of your audience beforehand so your nonverbal communication supports, rather than detracts, from your message.

4  Be Careful With Visuals and Humor

Be aware of how certain images, symbols, props, or videos might be offensive to certain groups. Even colors have varied meanings globally. As one example, Globesmart® notes that . . .

It’s also important to consider color because it can carry different symbolic meanings from culture to culture. For example, red is a high-energy color used as a warning or to elicit feelings of excitement, passion, or even anger in Western cultures, but it’s used as a color of mourning in South Africa.”

So, make visuals a part of your early research.

And as for humor—especially jokes—unless you’re certain about how it will land with your audience, it’s probably wise to avoid it. 

5  Recovering from a Cultural Misstep

The world is a big, complex, ever-changing place, where we’re all human and make mistakes. It’s no wonder a presenter might feel fearful about saying or doing something that insults someone in a culturally diverse audience.

So, what do you do when you inadvertently blow it? We love this advice from a Harvard Business Review article, “How to Recover From a Cultural Faux Pas

Ditch your obsession with performance. To start, reframe how you approach making mistakes, and accept them as inevitable side effects of working across cultures. This is admittedly difficult — especially for perfectionists and those who have a lot on the line, like a member of a global sales team trying to close a deal … The problem is that when we obsess over the possibility of making mistakes, or panic about how to recover, our thinking constricts. This psychological tightening makes it harder to be loose, spontaneous, and authentic, which is critical for building relationships in the first place.”

Elizabeth offers this simple advice for dealing with a cultural misstep in the moment . . .

Final Thoughts

We all want to be understood and respected by others. And it’s largely communication that either builds or breaks down understanding and respect.

When we take the time to become culture-literate presenters and communicators, we create more opportunities to win that new client, build relationships with coworkers, and inspire people from a TEDx or any other stage.

Join Us in Conversation . . .


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Matt Abrahams

Matt Abrahams

Author and Lecturer at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business

About the Author

The PowerSpeaking Team

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