Presenting in a foreign language

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I’ve been involved in business English training since I left university, and over the years I’ve helped hundreds of executives, managers and experts improve their presentations in English. I’ve worked with confident presenters, nervous presenters, boring presenters and inspiring presenters. Some of them have struggled with their presentations skills, others with their content and many with their English skills. All of these people came to mind when I was preparing a presentation in German. It was a sure case of the shoe being on the other foot for once and I was quickly reminded that knowing what to do and doing it aren’t the same!

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The challenges

The presentation I needed to make was  part of a kick-off event for an exciting new Blended Learning project with Global English at one of our clients. I was going to be one of three presenters, speaking to a group of around fifty German HR specialists and managers. As this was a high profile flag ship project, the kick-off needed to build interest and motivation. Doing it in German didn’t worry me too much – but I knew it was going to be functional rather than elegant. Having learnt most of my German by “doing” rather than “studying”, I sacrifice accuracy for communication. (My German trainer tells me my German is CEFR B2. I think she’s just being nice – my grammar ist nicht gut.)
So the first thing I did was sit down to consider the advice I’d give a client faced with the same situation in reverse:

  • Identify my key messages before I do anything else – and make sure I can phrase and rephrase these
  • Keep it relevant by using examples and stories
  • Don’t try to learn the presentation word for word – it will make me nervous and inflexible
  • But do think through and practice my introduction in advance – by getting off on the right foot I knew I’d relax
  • Never rely on prompt cards – they’ll just get in my way and stop me building rapport with audience – and for the same reasons don’t read from my slides
  • And most importantly – don’t get hung up on the language – they are there to hear what I’m saying – not how I’m saying it

The presentation

After some preparation and practice I drove to Bonn to make the presentation. I felt that my message was clear and the audience seemed interested and convinced. There’d been some nodding heads, some laughter in the right places, and a few questions. Job well done, I thought.

The feedback

Reflecting and debriefing is always important if you want to get better, and there were a couple of people in the audience who I knew and respected. With this in mind, I asked them how they felt I had done, and what I could do better next time. Their answer was clear and consistent – “Sometimes you spoke a bit too fast” and “It was hard to hear you in some places”. Ouch! I thought about the feedback – and then replayed my presentation in my mind.

Upon further reflection, I realised that when I began to struggle with my German I unconsciously began to speak a little quieter. Although I knew what I wanted to say I wasn’t sure about how I was saying it – and without realizing it I turned the power down. I also realised that when I began to struggle with my German I unintentionally spoke faster to hide my mistakes.

Because I’d forgotten to remind myself about a common problem that many people face when presenting in a foreign language – nerves mean they forget the 4Ps.

The 4Ps

  • Power – speaking audibly and clearly
  • Pitch – using the stress and tone of your voice to emphasize key points
  • Pace – matching the speed at which you speak to the message and the audience
  • Pause – playing with silence and breaks to draw attention to build suspense, interest, draw attention to key points and signal thematic changes

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