Article Category: Delivery Techniques

Culture Clash: 5 Tips for Cross-Cultural Communication

Cross-Culture CommunicationsAs presenters, we know the importance of focusing on the information and emotional needs of our audience:

What is relevant to them?
What do they already know?
How do they feel about our topic?

When I recently spoke at two conferences in Africa, I discovered that there is another, more fundamental layer of audience needs to consider as well.

In this article, I will share the lessons I learned about basic communication issues when speaking to a culturally distinct audience.

  1. Don’t assume they can understand you
  2. Be cautious of cultural jargon
  3. Be adaptable to local style
  4. Slow down
  5. Watch your body language

Tip 1: Don’t Assume They Can Understand You

Although English is the official language of business in both places I spoke (Nigeria and Kenya), their English is more formal, flowery, and structured than casual, American English where we regularly use contractions (e.g. can’t, mustn’t, would’ve) and drop the endings on words (e.g. are you comin’ to the party?).

To enhance the audience’s ability to understand you, speak clearly and articulate carefully. Minimize your use of contractions. Check with the audience to see if they understand; encourage them to interrupt you if they do not.

Tip 2: Be Cautious of Cultural Jargon

Local terminology, popular culture references, and humor likely will not translate. If they don’t, the point you’re trying to make is lost on the audience. Humor from your culture may even be offensive in other cultures. Things you are very familiar with (e.g. Starbucks, Seinfeld, online banking) may not have any meaning to your audience.

For example, in part of my presentation in Nigeria, I was talking about various social media tools and quickly found that, although Facebook is popular, LinkedIn is not widely recognized there.

If you want to use a cultural reference in your presentation, do some research and find a local one that will resonate with the audience. If you must use one local to your culture, explain it. Avoid jargon and slang. If you use acronyms, spell them out.

Tip 3: Be Adaptable to Local Style

Speaking in another country to people from another culture is an amazing experience. Do your homework, incorporate a few modifications into your presentation, and eagerly embrace any opportunity that comes your way.

In my presentation skills training classes I teach people not to open their presentation with the standard “I’m so happy to be here”, but instead use those precious first moments to grab the audience’s attention with a powerful, on-message opening. When I speak, I follow my own advice. However, in both Nigeria and Kenya, openings were uniformly formal and almost ceremonial.

In Nigeria, as the only Western, white person in a room of 350 people, I felt it was much more appropriate to abandon my normal style and open my remarks by telling the audience that it was my first visit to Africa and how honored I was, and grateful to the Board of Trustees, to be a part of their conference. My comments were completely sincere, but style-wise, a little over the top for me. In this case, however, it was the right decision: the audience responded with a huge, welcoming round of applause.

Tip 4: Slow Down

This is actually good advice for most presentations, but it’s particularly important in a cross-cultural context. If you have some difficulty understanding your audience speak, because of accents or cadence, they probably have the same difficulty understanding you. The faster you talk, the more difficult you are to understand. If you are being simultaneously translated, speaking quickly also makes it more difficult for the translator.

Tip 5: Watch Your Body Language

Gestures (e.g. pointing) or unconscious habits (e.g. maintaining direct eye contact) may be offensive in other cultures. Do your research to determine what’s appropriate and what’s not where you’re speaking.

A resource to check is Gestures: The Dos and Taboos of Body Language Around the World by Roger Axtell. It is available from for just $11.53.

The Bottom Line

Speaking in another country to people from another culture is an amazing experience. Do your homework, incorporate a few modifications into your presentation, and eagerly embrace any opportunity that comes your way.

Learning More

You can research the cultural characteristics of your audience with these resources:

Have you ever spoken to an audience from a culture different than yours? What tips can you share?

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Comments icon5 Comments

  1. Joy Wilson says:

    Wonderful words Kathy, I am often amazed at the complete lack of contural sensitivity demonstrated in both the design and delivery of training. Research is essential and rewarding for facilitators and learners.

  2. Allyncia says:

    Fantastic read! I would love to hear many of the commenter’s stories about communication blunders. Our mistakes teach others. For example, I was in Italy recently. I wanted to nudgingly ask if it might be possible to take photos and since the receptionist seemed to speak English, I made the mistake of asking her a negative question: ie “So you can’t take photos in the theater?” She got extremely insulted and and said with a bitter disgusted look, “Excuse me???” I would think given my gentle intonation and curious demeanor, she would have read that right but she heard the phrase and took it literally to mean that I as telling her that she could not take photos! Oh my gosh! Yes, this is English but its nuance based so it does not necessarily translate for even perceived intermediate to advanced level speakers.

  3. Pablo G says:

    I have to write an essay about a business conflict generated by a clash between different cultures (different ways of communicate….)
    Someone have any suggestion?

  4. Jim Harvey says:

    Great article Kathy !

    And only one thing to add. A key tip from me as a multilingual, English speaker who often presents to international audiences with as many as 40-50 different languages ‘in the room’-

    You can forget everything except the end consonant, when speaking in English, and stil be understood.

    The hard T’s, d’s, g’s, f’s, p’s etc. are the key sounds that break up the words for the audience, and make it easy for them to ‘get’ the 30% of those words from which they can work out the meaning of the whole thing.

    If you’re articulating those end sounds, then speed, accent and understandability look after themselves.

    Hope that helps.


  5. David says:

    The phrase ‘cross cultural’ pays reference to a divide and implies a deficit model. ‘inter cultural’ pays reference to diversity and commonality.

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