Presenting in different languages, places

tl;dr: Speaking in public can be daunting for most people. In this post, I will share some tips on how to give effective presentations/speeches in various languages around the world.

Anyone who has delivered a public presentation will know that it can be a nerve-wracking experience. It requires content knowledge, audience understanding, and above all, confidence to convey your message effectively. These can be gained via practice, and lots and lots of it.

I have been very lucky to have had many chances to give talks these past 10 years, so I would like to share some insights with you, as to how I do it.

Examples: (links to external sites where available)

  • Open source development (Mozilla/Firefox):
    • University (NUS) classrooms (2008-2011)
    • Open source meetups, Seoul (2012)
      • In South Korea (English with an interpreter to Korean)
    • HKOSCON (20162017), open source meetups (2013, 2014 [via here], 2017)
      • In Hong Kong (English or Cantonese)
    • JavaScript work week, Toronto (2014)
      • In Canada (English)
    • Open source meetups, Tokyo (2015)
      • In Japan (English with an interpreter to Japanese)
    • COSCUP (Unconference 2016, 2017) Taipei, open source meetups
      • In Taiwan (Mandarin)
  • Recently, Eastern/Western cultural differences at various conferences:
    • HKOSCON 2017 in Hong Kong (English)
    • COSCUP 2017 in Taipei (Mandarin)
    • SITCON 2017 in Hong Kong (Cantonese)

(You can view some of the videos below)

It is clear that I steer towards speaking in Asia, and that is precisely my motive. I use the knowledge that I have gained in the Western world (North America, with a little bit of Western Europe) and attempt to help bridge the Eastern/Western gap. Generally, I find that the Eastern world (northeast Asia, some southeast Asia) seems much more enthusiastic to know more about the Western side, rather than the other way around.

Here’s what I would like to share not just on how to deliver a talk, but also how to deliver an effective one:

  • Understand yourself first
    • Gain domain knowledge. Not knowing the content of your talk inside-out will usually contribute to a nervous experience and impact confidence
      • Before some of my Asian conference talks, I had also attended some in Europe and North America to have a feel on what it’s like on the “other” side
    • Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. If you are not a seasoned presentation speaker, you will inevitably stumble on some phrase that you should not have spoke about, or some topic that not all in the audience can comprehend
      • A student once commented, because most of them (students) did not have the chance to go overseas before, most of what I say would just be a “story”, they do not necessarily “feel” the impact
  • Language fluency
    • It helps a huge amount to be able to speak your audience’s native language fluently. No, I do not just mean speaking the standard form well, but to be able to spike your talk with interesting anecdotes, you must first understand their local cultural insights, which requires time to get used to.
      • i.e. tidbits between Canada & US will generally only work with North American audiences, Belgium/Netherlands generally European, Taiwanese cities (Taipei/Tainan/Kaohsiung) generally Taiwan-only
    • When one is multilingual, an average person must understand that it can be difficult (but not impossible) to attain perfect 100% fluency in each language, up to the level of local great speech talkers. Find some local examples that suit your style, i.e. I try to adopt a style that combines attributes of comedy, humour, personal experiences, etc, yet with a desire to push a message across.
    • You may find that certain (usually slang) phrases that are standard form in one part of the world can be highly offensive in another
      • I won’t list examples here, though
      • As a foreigner, you might or might not get a free pass. Make sure you ask someone trusted, why people seem to be laughing at a phrase you said that was not intended to be a joke
  • Local geography/customs
    • As an example, folks in US tend to mostly be monolingual, with the exception of folks who have friends or relatives from a foreign culture, or grew up among foreign immigrants, or people who study languages for fun, or for academic or other reasons.
      • No matter how hard you try, if someone has never tried speaking another language, they will rarely be able to understand how hard it can be. Folks for whom English is not their first language, will understand how difficult English can be
      • I’ve had some tell me they know everything about a particular language/culture just by virtue of having some parts of the family from those places, but they live across the world and have never flown across the oceans.
        • Honestly, I beg to differ. Even if I have been exposed to the culture overseas and speak the language fluently, whenever I head across the world to Hong Kong/Taiwan/Korea/Singapore, there are still many new phrases I have yet to learn, or some actions I am used to that can be awkward in those places. (e.g. giving hugs to friends of the opposite gender)
        • It is always good to learn from others
    • On the other hand, folks from US/North America/Western Europe are very much more direct than their Asian peers. If there is something going wrong, or a niggling question on their minds, they will usually never hesitate to point it out, or even just to ask a question in the middle of a lecture.
      • In Asia, people usually keep quiet when the presenter asks “Any questions?”. You often see a long queue of people asking questions after that though
        • Nobody wants to sound stupid if their question turns out to be a dumb one
        • Nobody wants to sound like a know-it-all if their question turns out to be a good one
        • Nobody wants to waste others’ time
      • The desire for conformity (groupthink) is intensely strong in Asian cultures which contrasts with individualism in Western ones
        • If things are going wrong in a company, people who are used to a Western culture are more likely to point them out sooner than those from a Eastern one. In the latter, folks do not want to be seen as “rocking the boat”, no matter whether it is sailing smoothly or about to sink
        • On the other hand, it can be difficult to make many differing opinions in a Western world agree to a compromise, whereas in the Eastern context, people agree on things usually in a hierarchical manner. Deciding on where to go to a meal together as a large group can occasionally get tricky in the former
      • People in parts of Asia are very polite (e.g. Japan), so if you inadvertently say something that is a local joke, they will just laugh behind your back, unlike Western folks generally, who might laugh right in front of you
      • Thus, Asian audiences may need more encouragement when waiting for questions. The period of time that I spend waiting after asking “Any questions?” can be arguably longer in some places than others
    • Local sensitivities
      • Don’t speak in Mandarin in Hong Kong if you know how to speak Cantonese (both with the same level of fluency and confidence)
      • Try not to unnecessarily stir up rivalries between territories unless you absolutely know what you are doing (China/Taiwan, China/Hong Kong, China/Japan, Belgium/Netherlands, US/Russia)
    • I’ve found that I cannot merely translate cultural references into another language or bring them across oceans. Examples:
      • Taipei (台北, in the north of Taiwan) folks might make fun of some of the perceptions of folks from Taichung (台中, central)/Tainan/Kaohsiung (台南/高雄 in the south), and vice versa
      • Likewise in US, in social conversations, the plural of “you” on the west coast is “you”, in Texas it’s probably “y’all”, and there are other variants in the east coast and maybe even Pittsburgh
      • Or in Canada, where the word “about” can have a different pronunciation than in the US in general
      • However, nobody in Sheung Shui (上水 in north Hong Kong/NT) will laugh at the Cantonese phrases used exclusively by people in Wong Chuk Hang (黄竹坑 in southern part of Hong Kong island) – there isn’t any difference in Cantonese because Hong Kong is smaller
        • Perhaps these folks might differ in English capabilities, but I digress
      • Likewise nobody in the east of Singapore (Tampines/Changi) will laugh at the Singaporean English (Singlish) used in the west (Jurong) or north (Woodlands) – there just isn’t any difference as Singapore is a small country
  • Appearance
    • If people don’t know you well, they are superficial and will judge you by your appearance or title
      • Of course, one’s hairstyle/dress style should not determine the content of the talk
      • And of course, one’s skin colour should not guarantee audience attention
      • If you’re listed as a “Doctor”, i.e. have a PhD, people are way more inclined to listen to what you have to say
        • Likewise if you are the head of a business or are a celebrity
      • Unfortunately, these might be what people in general, first look out for
    • Asian audiences may be more interested in a Western-looking/-sounding speaker
      • There is a tendency to worship anything/anybody foreign (崇洋)
        • Possible left-over remnants of colonialist influence
      • They are even more impressed when the foreigner speaks their native language fluently
        • So are Europeans (UK folks probably excluded)
        • In US and UK, very few people are often impressed when a foreigner speaks English on a level close to that of a native speaker
          • People always assume you speak English by default in those places
          • Thus, when someone does not understand English well, some folks try to speak slower and louder.
            • (A slower speed probably helps, but I’m not sure about increased loudness)
    • Westerners in Asia, on the other hand, almost always get charged “tourist prices”, automatic markups on costs of goods that the locals get
      • No matter how long they have been in that country, even decades
      • It can be difficult for them to fully assimilate
      • Likewise, it can be tough for them to learn local slang/creole language, e.g. Singlish – when Singaporeans have a foreigner in their group, they “automatically” switch to proper English. When he/she leaves, they context-switch back to Singlish.
  • Delivery method
    • Again, find a delivery style that suits you. Do you want to be stern or serious? Comical, able to solicit laughter yet still able to get your point across? Monotonous but concise?
      • Practice often, try different styles, and you will know which style you want to adopt
    • Presentation slides – to use or not to use?
      • Slides are very common. I’ve seen examples where they are concise (few words), lengthy (too wordy), full of pictures, comical. Adopt a style which suits you, but I’d say that having a wordy slide will result in audience attention being diverted to that of “reading the slide” instead of “listening to you”
      • Without slides, it is much more daunting and difficult. It is a little like giving a political speech, or stand-up comedy. The audience focuses on you. This is still something I’m trying to get used to, but it seems that:
        • Have some points written down or on a prompter/phone
          • You won’t have time reading entirely off it, your eyes should be focused on different parts of the audience alternately
            • A school teacher of mine used to advise staring at the clock “or an imaginary one” at the top of a lecture theatre if your nerves get in the way
        • Audience attention is entirely on you. They will be focused on your every word, every bit of silence. Thus, the pace of your speech should be suited to their level of listening speed
          • I find myself speaking English faster to Western (US/UK) folks than to people whose English is not their first language
  • And some other pointers…
    • Body/hand movements
      • Some of us, when we get nervous, we have little body motions that repeat, i.e. shifting weights constantly, or some of us don’t, i.e. stay completely motionless (except the mouth).
        • Know what you yourself are prone to doing under pressure (e.g. fidgeting), and try to avoid it on the spot. Again, knowing your content will immensely help your confidence which should minimise these movements.
      • There are times where suitable hand/body motions are necessary to convey your message, though these depend on whether you are stationary (i.e. at a podium) or whether you can walk around on a stage, with a microphone. Unfortunately, I don’t have much to advise on how to learn when to use what motions, yet.
    • Personal experiences
      • I’ve found personal anecdotes to be really useful. The audience treats anecdotes as something unique and authentic to you as a speaker. Ultimately, this something that AI cannot easily replicate yet, so if robots start teaching classes in the future, human teachers will likely still be around
    • Put yourself in the context of the audience
      • Praise their questions (no question is a bad question!), even if they sound too simple or dumb. Understand that it takes courage to ask questions in public for people who are not speaking up in their native language, or even just for people who are shy speaking up in general
    • The audience is a “mirror” for you, i.e. they can be an instant reflection of your engagement rating
      • If some are yawning/poking at a computer or phone, your topic might just be too boring, so move on! Or you might want to try another delivery style if you so desire
        • Or they just might be tired/running out of time/sitting in for the air-conditioning, so there’s nothing you can do about it
    • Wrap it up!
      • Think about your audience’s perspective as you wrap up your talk. Most of them will ask in their minds, “What’s in it for me as a _____?”
        • If it is a conference for students, then wrap up your talk explaining how this can help them in their school presentation, interviews, or even interaction with their foreign classmates
        • If it is a conference targeted at general software engineers, you could talk about how they can leverage your knowledge in their work or projects/hobbies, or open source
    • Feedback
      • I listen to recordings of myself speaking. Even as I cringe at the sound of my voice, when I realise I sound draggy on certain topics, I try to note when audiences laugh at certain successful topic deliveries, and use them again
      • Don’t be discouraged by people around you who tease. These people most likely have never given public talks, much less in multiple languages
        • They don’t know how daunting or uncomfortable it can be
        • They are likely to make up some reason for them not to do it. “Not for me/Not my cup of tea”

How about you? Do you have anything you would like to share?

Note: A big thank you to those who have supported the open source community and my interactions with them, especially Mozilla.

Note 2: Unfortunately, I don’t have much experience in South Asia (India)/Central Asia/Eastern Europe/Russia/Middle East/Africa/South America/Oceania/Antarctica, so I can’t speak for those places. It’ll be great to visit, though!

Note 3: This which started as an inside joke, I am actually thinking about whether I will eventually have enough content here to give a talk on a 3rd topic: “How to deliver an effective public speech, across languages and cultures”.

Note 4: While I’m always striving to improve, I also know that I may be not the best speaker of these topics. Please be understanding and let me know if there are parts that are just generally not good enough. English is not my first language, after all.

Note 5: You might have realised that I was trained in British English (hence the widespread use of “-ise” and “queue” vs “line”), but my speech/tone/choice of spoken words have started to shift to that of the American form. Ditto being trained in Simplified Chinese vs Traditional Chinese, which I can read.

Note 6: If you have read this far, you may have noticed that I have striven to be careful to avoid mentioning *all* people of a certain territory having a certain behaviour, but rather using words like “generally”, “might”, “probably”. Please feel free to mention if there are some pointers above that might be inaccurate.

Note 7: Don’t use it.

And on to the videos themselves:

HKOSCON 2017 – Eastern/Western cultural differences (English) Hong Kong

HKOSCON 2017 – JavaScript fuzzing in Mozilla, 2017 (English) Hong Kong

COSCUP 2017 – JavaScript Fuzzing in Mozilla, 2017 (Mandarin) Taipei, Taiwan

SITCON 2017 – Discussion on cultural differences between Easterners & Westerners (Cantonese) Hong Kong

HKOSCON 2016 – Fuzzing and Mozilla: 2015 (English) Hong Kong

 

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