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Cultural and language differences in presentations

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I'm John Clare and I've been coaching people all over the world to make scientific presentations from more than 20 years.

The world of science and medicine is a global one, so there will be times when you need to present to audiences from different countries, where their language and culture are different from your own.  The most challenging occasions are when you give a talk in their country.  In these situations it is important to remember that they have invited you because of who you are, your knowledge, achievements and experience. So you need to be yourself. However, you also need to take into account some important  differences. Here are the key considerations:

Slow down.

Speak slightly more deliberately than normal. En-un-ci-ate! When you arrive in an unfamiliar country you may find it takes you a minute or two to tune in to their accents, and the cadences of their speech. The same applies to them when they listen to you.

Avoid slang

Don’t use expressions that are difficult for others to understand.  In particular, be careful with sporting metaphors which may not translate. American presenters (especially men) tend to use baseball or American football analogies which are not understood outside the US.

Use familiar scientific expressions

They may not understand your colloquialisms, but if they are specialists in your field, they do understand your medical or scientific terms…so don’t be afraid to use them.  Many attendees will speak or understand excellent ‘scientific English’, but struggle with social or dinner table conversations.  If you are talking about prescription medicines, remember they have different brand names around the world, so check which to use.

They speak American, not British English

I am British, and am often complimented on my accent.  I’m flattered.   However, the English spoken in many countries is heavily influenced by American TV and movies. This means that in some countries (eg the Asia Pacific region) people speak English with a slight American accent, and understand American words and phrases. So despite my own heritage, if I am speaking in China or Malaysia I say ‘sidewalk, elevator, and line’ instead of ‘pavement, lift and queue’. In India, Hong Kong and some Gulf States, I stick to British English because of the historical links between those countries and Britain. Be aware.

Be a polite guest

Some countries are much more formal than the US or parts of Europe (though within Europe there are differences). You are a guest in their country, so observe the courtesies. In recent times I have spoken to large audiences in China, Japan and Oman. On each occasion I started with an elaborate thank you, to show my appreciation of being invited. It was appreciated. When I spoke to a group of Australians in Melbourne, however, just after the Australians had beaten England at cricket, I started with a reference to the game. It’s horses for courses (to use an expression which I recommend you avoid in international meetings).

Try a few words

I only speak English fluently, but I have said ‘Hello and good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen’ in many languages including Russian, Chinese, Japanese and Arabic. It is always appreciated by the audience. Especially when I shrug apologetically and say, ‘I think it will be better for all of us if I continue in English…’ Try it!

Be careful with humour

The problem with humour is that it is often culturally specific, or depends a level of cultural understanding which many in the audience may not possess. Different nationalities find different things funny. So tread carefully. If you’re in doubt, try out your humour on the organisers in advance. Humour is not the same as a joke.  Avoid jokes unless you are really sure they will be understood, and won’t offend anyone.

Be aware of body language

My mother always told me it was rude to point, yet I often do it in the Q&A session to indicate who should ask the next question. In some countries they would agree with Mum…so don’t point at them. Eye contact in some countries (eg Japan) is seen as a challenge to the speaker. There are great resources on this on the internet. If it’s important to you, check them out.

Remember the translators

If your talk is going to be simultaneously translated, bring an extra copy of your notes and/or slides for the translators. I promise you, you will have made a friend for life!  Take a few minutes to talk to them in their translation booth. Nodody else does, and a quick chat can really help them in their difficult job. Then when you are on your feet, remember they are trying to keep up, and help them. I often repeat key words or phrases to ensure the translators convey exactly what I mean to the audience.


There is much more on this and similar topics in my book Communicating Clearly about Science and Medicine:


Over the last 20 years I have helped to prepare thousands of scientists, physicians and pharmaceutical executives for major presentations, media interviews and regulatory hearings.

Find out more here: http://www.lionsdencommunications.com

If you have a particular question or a topic you would like me to address, please email me: John.clare@lionsdencommunications.com

If you have colleagues who would benefit from these tips, please send them the link to my free e-book, The 7 Deadly Sins of Scientific Presentations (and how to avoid them).


Thanks for dropping in.

If you have colleagues who would benefit from these tips, please send them the link to my free e-book, The 7 Deadly Sins of Scientific Presentations (and how to avoid them).