If the world were a village

If the world were a village” is a children’s book that maps the world’s population onto a village of just 100 people, and explores the lives of the villagers… to discover that life in other countries is often very different from our own.

I have traveled this global village and presented to groups of many nationalities. And I have learned by experience that –although people are people wherever you go– audiences may have divergent habits and react differently to what you say and what you do.

  • Don’t assume everyone can understand you. Although English is the official business language in many companies and countries, don’t assume everyone is a native speaker. Check frequently with the audience if they still follow. Encourage them to interrupt you if they don’t. Identify the people in the room that understand you and may help you better connect with the rest.
  • But also don’t assume they can’t. Particularly when talking about expert matters, the people in the room may very well understand your ‘technical’ language. Even better than you assume. Read my blog post “Lost in translation” about what happened to me once.
  • Always speak slowly and articulate well. To enhance the audience’s ability to understand you, speak slowly and clearly, and articulate carefully. The faster you talk, the more difficult you are to understand. If you are being simultaneously translated, speaking too rapidly also makes it more difficult for the translator.
  • Be cautious with metaphors, humor and cultural references. Figures of speech are often very difficult to translate, and when they translate they may not resonate with the audience. Humor from your culture can even be offensive in other cultures. Also avoid references to local TV shows, celebrities or ‘institutions’, such as the IRS, Galeries Lafayette or The Fat Duck, as they may have no meaning to your audience.
  • Adapt your wording and visuals. Words, images and colors may have different meanings in different countries. My favorite anecdote is about the financial presenter who talked about “blood red stock markets”… to a Japanese audience (he did not know that on the Tokyo stock exchange, upward trends are marked in red and downward trends in green.)


  • Watch your body language. Gestures (e.g. pointing) or unconscious habits (e.g. maintaining direct eye contact) could be offensive in certain cultures. Do your research to determine what’s appropriate and what’s not where you’re speaking. For example, take the “OK” sign – making a circle with the thumb and forefinger. To an American this can only mean that everything is good. But in Japan it is a gesture for money, in France it means worthless, and in Greece it’s an insult!
  • KISS your language. In a multi-cultural context, one really needs to Keep It Short and Simple. No slang, no idioms, no jargon, no acronyms, no complex vocabulary. And when dealing with simultaneous translation, make sure you divide the length of your phrases as well as the anticipated duration of your talk by two.
  • Learn how to interpret audience attitudes, behaviors and feedback. The more you understand the links between your listeners’ attitudes and behaviors, the more confidence you can have in your delivery. Western audiences tend to pay attention to focus points, while Eastern people consider the background. Also non-verbal feedback may differ from culture to culture, as e.g. Koreans and Japanese are not comfortable with showing emotion in public.

If you keep these few simple (and most of them, obvious) rules in mind, speaking in another country and meeting people from another culture is an enriching experience. Do your homework, tune your presentation and adapt your style. Show respect, celebrate diversity, and embrace any opportunity that comes your way.