What I wish I knew when I first started speaking internationally
Tailor your talk according to your audience
I gave one of my first serious international talks in London, when I still worked at Esri. I was used to competing for attention with busy audiences on phones and laptops; I would consider a talk successful if I got just a few people to look up from their screens. I tried the same thing in the UK. I peppered the talk with short jokes and asides. Afterwards, I was pulled aside by one of the attendees: “Your talk was too flashy,” he told me, “and you spoke way too quickly. We’re not here to be distracted by phones and work like a lot of Americans. We’re here to learn and take notes.” Embarrassed, I quickly changed my slides and tried to provide an informative, in-depth presentation for the next speech. He was right. The audience took notes, and they asked many more questions at the end.
This wasn’t just good advice for London. It was good advice for every speech I gave after that point. Every crowd is different. No matter what country you’re speaking in, you’ll have an audience from a specific industry or a mixed group of people flying in from different countries. I’ve learned to use the night before the speech to get a sense of the overall crowd. I’ll rebalance the tone and pace of my speech accordingly.
I’ve found that many of my global audiences have excellent conversational English, and I’ve given many talks without too many modifications. But there have been other countries where part of the audience desires translation. In these situations, the audience wears wireless, in-ear translators powered by human translators. I’m always astounded by how quickly translators can operate, but highly technical talks can cause translator fatigue. When a conference speaker in Medellín, Colombia rambled for an extra 45 minutes over his time limit, the translator literally stopped mid-sentence to tell us, “I give up. He is going too fast, and he is not making any sense.”
I always try to make it easy for translators to parse what I’m saying in their native language. It’s helpful to remove culturally-specific slang, language-specific cliches, and add space between sentences. It’s taken a while to learn how to do this well, but every once in a while I’ve had an exhausted translator thank me at the end of the day!
Slide decks & speeches: keep track of time — and condense your material!
Too many speakers start by saying, “We have a lot of material to cover, so let’s get started,” before delivering a talk a messy talk that is unmemorable, unstructured and far too long. To have so much material means you have not condensed your ideas, or made them clear.
People remember better when there is less material .If I’m given a 45 minute time slot, I try to finish in 35 minutes. Sometimes a shorter speech can help the conference get back on schedule when time is running low. You can watch the tension fall away when you give people more time to think.
I try to break my talk up into no more than three main pieces, sandwiched by a compelling and memorable introduction and conclusion. My earliest talks always followed the same format: starting idea, present, past, future and ending idea. One trick I’ve learned is to just take half of my slides out. It might feel uncomfortable, but you’re doing your audience a favor. You’re telling a story, so create your slides to fit a classic narrative structure. For instance: Introduce the problem; solve the problem; explain how you solved the problem, and how others can too. Classic books on speeches are a really big help here. Some of them might seem outdated, but you can always uncover some solid pieces of advice if you look more closely.
Free international travel is great — if you carefully prepare
You’re not always going to get paid, but at least try to get your flight and hotel covered. But one of the things I quickly learned is that, when you don’t take care of yourself and plan out your time accordingly, international travel can be exhausting, distracting, and unhealthy.
Wifi can be notoriously spotty when you’re running into unfamiliar neighborhoods. When I land, I like to find a third wave coffeeshop. These shops are known for a commitment to high quality coffee and atmosphere — and they’re usually filled with good wifi and friendly, fellow travelers that are also looking to get some work done.
Get an international data plan
Next to your passport, your phone will be the most important thing you bring while abroad. Make sure your phone can support you. After a miserable string of trips without a good data plan, I switched to T-mobile’s International text and data plan — it’s how I wrote much of this post while on the way to Amsterdam.
Respect the audience — and the conference
If you encounter a nearly empty room with people sitting in random rows and aisles, encourage people to move to the front, so it feels more intimate. Your attention will go further, and the audience will feel like they’re experiencing something as a cohesive whole. This tip is from Scott Berkun’s amazing book Confessions of a Public Speaker!
I’ve flown all the way to Dubai to give a half hour talk to a room of twenty people scattered among a cavern of empty seats, and I gave that audience the same excitement and enthusiasm that I’d give to any other. Every person counts; ensure you are kind to everyone. Sparsely attended talks have been some of my favorite experiences. They present opportunities to connect with audiences in a way that’s not possible with larger crowds.
When speaking to a large audiences, try to distribute your eye contact and attention around the room — especially with those who seem the least interested. I’ve noticed that sometimes this can bring distracted people back into a talk. Detractors can turn into your greatest fans if you pay attention to their feedback and their concerns.
Tardiness panics organizers, and is seen as extremely rude. (It’s the only time I’ve seen organizers voice complaints.) Remember that your host is under a lot of stress and has far more to deal with than your need for coffee. Arrive early, earlier than you said you would, and don’t complain about your jetlag (more on jetlag below).
Prepare like a traveling stage actor
Know the wardrobe that you’ll wear while speaking. Outfits that work well on the street don’t always work as well onstage. Choose outfits that are sharp, but not uncomfortable. Do not wear anything short, as these outfits do not work well on stage. No one wants to accidentally see up baggy cargo pants or skirts, stages are raised surfaces, and stage height is something that you can’t control. Looking clean and polished is about respecting the audience. They’re going to have to look at you for a long time! Your appearance should not distract them.
You should understand and know where you want your mic placed, no matter the clothing. Consider bringing your own adhesives if you have an article of clothing that may not work with a standard mic attachment. While mic technology for actors and musicians may be more advanced and less clunky, most conferences aren’t running on million dollar budgets. Wireless mics are still expensive and bulky. If I’m wearing a dress, I’ll tell the techs to clip the mic pac to the fabric touching the back of my neck. Most mic packs are the same. Once you learn what works for you, stick to it! And stick to the same outfit that works with the mic pack!
Devote the same care to maintaining your wardrobe on tour as choosing it: Bring a swap of shoes if you plan on wearing towering heels. Stages don’t have handrails on the way up, so make sure you’re not putting yourself in danger with your footwear of choice. Keep your shoes in good shape by carrying them shoe bags when you pack them in luggage. Bring a cozy travel outfit for the plane and a professional one safely stowed for the stage. Bring a portable garment steamer for quick fixes; ironing boards are not always included with hotels, and steamers are far easier to use and set up.
Update your passport, keep your itinerary handy, and get Global Entry
Some countries will stop you from entering if your passport expires in less than six months from the date of your travel. I almost let this happen during a three country, two week long trip. It would’ve been a disaster.
I’ve learned to keep my itinerary saved to my phone in offline mode, and everything is planned out far in advance. Before I leave the country, I know where I’ll be staying, and what time I’ll be getting to the airport. Sometimes border control will require addresses and reasons for travel. I always respond “I’m a researcher and I’m here for a conference on interfaces”. If they ask what that means, I tell them I try to put buttons in better places on products. Regardless of how many borders I cross, I’m always prepared for the worst, and I always fly in at least a day before my talk in case something happens (like a cancelled flight or a border delay).
Get good luggage — and a regular packing routine
For international travellers, luggage is your mobile home. Omni-directional wheels and tough construction is crucial. After flying too many times with a duffel bag and hurting my shoulders, I invested in a fantastic four-wheeled Tumi International carry-on bag, toiletry bag and a simple Hershel backpack for my computer. I made everything modular. Cloth zip pouches are my friend, and every pouch is a different color for a different kind of item. When I get home from a trip, I empty the pouches and launder them. Then when I’m ready to go again I fill them and pack them. Once all of the pouches are packed, I know I’m ready to go. No more hunting for a specific item. This fractal approach has saved me a cumulative month of anxiety. Another good idea is to bring a multi-country power adapter. I have one from Brookstone that includes 2 USB ports and an outlet convertor. All I have to do is pack one converter, and I’m set.
Travel like an athlete
Olympians often fly 12–18 hours, and must do everything in their power to preserve their strength and energy so they can put every resource at their body’s disposal into a race that may last less than ten seconds. Traveling speakers need a similar mindset. Keep your health up. I used to get miserable sinus infections when I flew, until I started bringing hand sanitizer. I sanitize every surface the moment I strap into my seat; I don’t care how ridiculous it looks. Planes are not sanitary, and sanitizer is crucial for survival. There’s nothing worse than jetlag and a cold. If I’m really concerned, I wear a facemask. That way, I don’t have to panic every time someone sneezes on a 10 hour flight in December.
Coping with jetlag: Regular meals, melatonin, mindset
I started giving my first international talks in 2011, and I felt like I was dead. It took me 3–4 days to get on the right time zone. I remember asking a Dutch conference to put me up in a hotel for five days just so I could get accustomed to the jetlag, and I still couldn’t get over it. Meanwhile, I had friends who routinely traveled the world and it didn’t seem to phase them.
Now it takes me around half a day to get comfortable. Having a schedule made the biggest difference for me. I struggle and force myself to stay awake until 9 or 10pm on the first day of travel. Then I take a melatonin and sleep for 8-12 hours. When I wake up, I drink a latte. I then make sure to eat three healthy, evenly spaced meals, each at the exact time I would at home. Jetlag aside, I still haven’t figured out how to sleep on planes.
The best advice on jet lag came from my cousin Russ, when he was working a particularly grueling job as a global executive at a Danish windmill company. He told me that he simply decided he didn’t have time for jet lag anymore. When he gets on the plane, he mentally switches to the new time zone. The old time zone no longer exists, and he never considers it.
Schedule is helpful for work, too. I try to work a single project while I’m traveling, and I work in shifts of 3–4 hours at the same cafe every day of my trip. It’s fun to get to know the baristas, and they’re usually excited to provide tips for things to do and places to go. After my shift, I’m free to go exploring, if I have a day where I’m not giving a talk or workshop.
It’s taken me seven years to figure out what it probably completely normal to lots of other people, and I can’t wait to learn more! What are your tricks for constant travel? I’d love to know.