How to Give a Great Keynote in a Foreign Country: The A-Ha! Approach

Gabe Zichermann
Oct 25, 2019 · 6 min read
Me giving a keynote in Vilnius, Lithuania

So you’ve been asked to give a keynote or other talk in a foreign country. Lucky you!

Even seasoned and experienced speakers have some hesitation when it comes to speaking in another country, even more so when the audience speaks another language.

I’ve done a lot of foreign audience keynoting, and I’m here to tell you — it’s not so bad. In fact, I’m on my way to Thailand right now to deliver a keynote at a major conference. There are some major things you need to be aware of, but if you’re good at public speaking in English, you’ll be just fine abroad. Here are some of my hard-fought lessons, and be sure to follow me for more public speaking tips and advice.

Slow Down!

One of the hardest things for novice speakers to do is to modulate their speaking speed. In English, you want to keep your speed around 150 words a minute so that people can understand you. If you’re really good at enunciating, 175 might work. But when you’re speaking to an audience where English is not their native tongue, you should keep your speaking below 125 words per minute.

Conference organizers often overestimate their audience’s English language skills and they rarely spring for simultaneous translation (see below). Therefore, they will usually not make a big deal out of you changing your talk for their attendees, but the best thing you can do is slow down. It will help a lot.

Don’t Crack Jokes

Humor requires cultural context. If you don’t have the necessary cultural context, you should not try to tell jokes. I’ve delivered some amazing jokes abroad (see my opener in my original TEDx talk on Gamification) and also landed some major duds. Simply put, unless you know what people find funny abroad, don’t try to tell jokes.

Even generally safe topics like self-deprecating humor might work well in most of Western Europe (especially if you’re American) but may be perceived negatively in much of Asia and the Middle East (e.g. why is he saying he’s stupid?). Just don’t do it.

Be Ready for Silence

American speeches often have a carnival air about them. Attendees feel comfortable laughing, clapping at soaring oratory, and sometimes even calling out thoughts, feelings or responses. I chalk it up to the style of American political discourse and church sermons, but suffice it to say — this is incredibly uncommon in most of the world.

I remember doing a speech in Germany and there was absolute silence throughout my talk. People didn’t even cough, and when I’d land on something I thought would be especially amusing or controversial, people did not react. It was unnerving at first, because as a professional speaker you learn to “read the room” as you’re going. But eventually I realized that their culture is one of extreme respect. Once the talk has begun, you stay silent and listen. Afterwards, you clap. That is all. Don’t be put off.

Avoid Extreme Idiomatic and Colloquial Language

This seems obvious but English language education abroad tends to be more formal and less idiomatic. If the audience is a bunch of video game players or TV junkies, they may have absorbed lots of regular American speech. But for most professional audiences, especially in places with deep cultural products of their own (e.g. Brazil, China, Japan) people are most likely to have a conservative, formal understanding of English.

So when you say “That’s awesome,” an audience member might assume you mean “that is awe inspiring.” This isn’t a huge violation, but obviously muddles your message. So try to stick to more clear, slightly more formal, and less colloquial language.

Dress to Their Cultural Norms

I’m not a huge advocate of over dressing for your talks — you should wear whatever makes you comfortable and is on-brand for you. But when you are presenting in cultures where formal dress is an expectation, you will be showing disrespect by not matching their level of formality. Obviously, do not wear their traditional dress, as that may be seen as mocking. But if the standard is suit and tie or dress and high heels, you’d be well served to model it (making sure to observe any expectations of modesty).

Big Titles, Big Bio, Big Thanks

Especially if you are an American speaker being flown in from abroad, you can be sure that the organizers really want you there. After all, in addition to your fees they’ll be paying for international (often business class) travel. Usually they do this because you are an expert in something, and your presence will add a patina of international acclaim or honor to their event. Be sure to reciprocate this by profusely thanking your hosts and the audience, and being sure not to talk your bio down in any way. I’m guilty of feeling uncomfortable when people read my bio (it’s long and sounds very formal), but when I travel abroad I welcome it. Don’t pull any punches and begin and end with a sincere thank you.

Post-Talk Q&A, Meet & Greet

People are usually extra excited to meet you in person, however if they have a fear of their poor English, they may shy away from engaging with you, say, during the cocktail hour after your talk. Don’t be miffed if people don’t want to talk to you, make an effort to engage the attendees and demonstrate that you don’t require perfect English to interact.

On a less pleasant note — Americans tend to be very self-conscious of their breath. When in a public situation like that, Americans will pop some gum or a mint before coming up and having close conversation with someone. Not so much in the rest of the world, and if you do a lot of conferences you’ll often be cheek-to-cheek with someone who’s just smoked a pack of cigarettes and drank a gallon of coffee. Learn to accept this and hide your revulsion. I tend to chew a strong minty piece of gum, as it interrupts my strong sense of smell, making everyone easier to close-talk with.

Notes on Simultaneous Translation

Simultaneous translation is a unique skill, requiring significant training and practice. This is the kind of translation used in places like the UN, and the translators must have a strong grasp of the language and speaker to be able to translate just a few seconds behind them.

If translation is an option, I always choose it. Delivering material in the audience’s native tongue will only help with their understanding. And if you are being simultaneously translated (and you should always inquire in advance), there are a few specific tips I suggest you follow.

  1. Send your script to the translators in advance. They can read and review it and ask you any questions about jargon or terms they may not be familiar with.
  2. Send a video of a talk on the same subject to the translators in advance. This will help them get to know you.
  3. Speak slowly. They have to hustle to keep track of everything you’re saying and speaking at a relatively slow pace will help you. 100 words/minute really helps, so you may need to cut content for time.
  4. Pause after each sentence and wait. Give a beat at the end of your sentence for the translators to catch up. This is especially important in languages (like Japanese) where the sentence structure is different. Once you hear them stop talking, start your next sentence.
  5. Look at the translators. They need to see your lips in order to maximize the quality of their translation, so if you know where they’re sitting, try to focus on them.
  6. Don’t freak out. You will likely hear the translation running just behind your words, and it can be super easy to get distracted or unnerved by it. You can practice developing a tune-out skill by giving your presentation out loud while simultaneously playing a TV show you like in the background — faint enough to just hear. If you’ve never done this before, practice the skill, it’s worth it.

I know this may seem like a lot of stuff to keep track of, but here’s the great part: you’re obviously awesome enough as a speaker to justify the expense of bringing you to a foreign country. You’ve achieved something significant already.

Now, make sure you give the audience the best possible experience.

Be sure to follow me for more public speaking advice and to learn the A-Ha! Method.

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Gabe Zichermann

Written by

Author and Public Speaker on Gamification, The 4th Industrial Revolution, the Future of Work and Failure. More about me: https://gabezichermann.com

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +787K followers.

Gabe Zichermann

Written by

Author and Public Speaker on Gamification, The 4th Industrial Revolution, the Future of Work and Failure. More about me: https://gabezichermann.com

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +787K followers.

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