With so many international engineering conferences, coupled with the huge wireless markets in Asia, it is not uncommon to find engineers making trips to the Far East that involve public speaking about research and technology. Besides making good research or business sense, such visits to Asia are interesting and fun.
One of the greatest thrills I had as a graduate student was traveling around on a 3-week tour of Asia with my advisor visiting universities, conferences, and companies. We went to Hong Kong, Beijing, Osaka, and Yokohama. I was often asked to make a technical presentation on my research or some wireless technology.
I had lots of practice giving talks back in America, but this was a whole different ballgame. Some of the audiences I encountered had enough English proficiency to understand my talks directly. Others required an English-to-Chinese or English-to-Japanese translator.
Through trial-and-error, I learned some basic rules for making technical presentations in front of an Asian audience. Here are 10 of them:
- Slow Speed and Steady Volume: Whether speaking through a translator or directly to an audience, always speak at a measured pace, making sure to enunciate every syllable of every word. A rookie mistake is to try and speak louder to get your point across – as if volume will span the language barrier. This seems out-of-place in a talk and can be downright embarrassing in personal conversation.
- Remove Colloquial Expressions: If you’re like me, I enjoy coloring my speech with many colloquial expressions. Unfortunately, these sayings are either perplexing or silly when spoken to a non-American crowd. Make sure you remove colloquialisms as well as culture-specific references and slang.
- Raise the Technical Level: When I give a talk to an American wireless company, I usually have to remind myself to avoid excessive technical details and speak in broader terms. Americans tend to be more business oriented, desiring to see the “big picture” of a concept. An audience in Asia, on the other hand, often has more technical education than an average American audience. The Asian audience is more interested in details and even some theory. I was often surprised by an Asian audience member asking very lucid questions about something I originally thought was minutia.
- Stay Excited: This is hard to do with any presentation, but it is particularly difficult for a slower, translated technical talk. And, according to my Asian friends, many people expect Americans to be excitable and entertaining people. So put on a good show and don’t disappoint.
- Use the Language: Sprinkle a few native-language words into your presentation. You may have a very poor grasp of the overall language, but making an honest attempt at a few words can really “break the ice” with your audience. Remember, comparatively few Americans have studied Asian languages, so even a foreigner that can open a talk with a konnichiwa (“hello” in Japanese) will instantly connect with the audience.
- Visual Aids. Take special care to make your visual aids as graphical as possible (which is good advice for any talk). If possible, get the audience handouts ahead of time so they have something to read as you are talking. Also, I find it useful during a slide presentation to insert an outline slide every 5 or 6 frames that shows what I have discussed and what is coming up next.
- Contextualize Technology: Do your homework and make the issues, applications, and examples in your presentation germane to the technology in Asia. For example, if you are talking about wireless internet, mention i-mode (a Japanese technology) as an example instead of a vague reference to handset microbrowsers. Failure to contextualize can make your talk seem irrelevant. Even worse, you could contextualize your presentation using strictly American terminology and technology – and come across as arrogant and self-absorbed.
- Find a Good Translator: While the audience often has some proficiency in English, it is sometimes necessary to use a translator. Keep this in mind: a poor translator is worse than no translator. Find someone who understands your technical field and has fluency in English. Asian professors make the best translator candidates since you can usually find one or two that have studied abroad in an English-speaking country.
- Study the Audience, Not the Translator: I find myself too often looking at my relay translator instead of my audience. If you have a translator, make sure you don’t fall into this habit.
- Courtesy and Humility: An orator-teacher is a highly respected position in Asian culture. Such a person is expected to be courteous and grateful for the opportunity to speak. I always make sure to start and end my talks by thanking my audience and hosts for their time and hospitality. Avoid self-promotion during your talk, as well.
Of course, there are probably dozens of other pitfalls in overseas speaking, but these are the big ones. If anything, the eleventh tip should be don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Your audience will be very gracious to you, especially if you bring lots of business cards.