These Tips Will Improve Your Presentations as a Non-Native English Speaker
During the majority of my career, I have worked for companies related to the United States. I’ve worked for startups, life insurance, and software companies. All with a different degree of English speaking and writing necessities. At the same time, I was not able to afford the typical 1-year exchange with the US when I was 18 years old, which meant I had to study English in a local academy, in a very small city in the middle of the Andes, called Cuenca, in Ecuador.
Studying a second language is both challenging and rewarding. In the case of English, given that we in the Western world are so tightly permeated with the English language, it has immediate application whether it is for going to the cinema, meeting new friends, or reading literature not always translated to our first language. The benefits are clearly bigger than the costs, and it is something we should push ourselves and our children to do, as it opens so many doors and positions us as individuals with potential and commitment.
With that said, I will go on with the main idea of this article, which is to share with you a series of tips for doing presentations for two different types of people:
1. An audience whose first language is English
2. An audience whose first language is NOT English
One might think different principles apply to each but I have the idea that even with that consideration, there are “universal” recommendations, which I will include here:
1. Use text aids. You might find yourself watching Apple’s or Google’s product presentations. They have 4 or 5 slides, with each one having 3 to 5 minutes of explanation, and no text aids. Why am I saying use text aids? Because English is not your first language. I am not saying, in any way, that you need to write down the complete presentation in 20 lines per slide, but a line or two with the pulling-thread ideas could be of good use. Pulling-thread ideas are beneficial mostly because added to the normal stress to speak to a bunch of strangers, you need to do an extra effort by talking in a language that is not your mother tongue.
2. Learn how to describe graphics. Graphics should be read in a logical order and explained clearly. Add legends, axes and a title and subtitle to the graphic with as much information as possible so the person who reads it finds the information quickly. Also, if somebody sends the graphic as a screenshot, anyone else could read it and understand it. My recommendation is to start with the title and subtitle, emphasize the time range of the data, explain the series, and finally describe the main insights. Some people like to emphasize the main discoveries first, but I will leave it to you.
3. Use simple and direct sentences. This might sound logical, but very few people actually apply it and more if English is not your main language. Make an exercise of trying to cut at least a third of your words once you finish. That will take you to eliminate the unnecessary sentences and context that we might think is important. Also, a good practice is to use simple tenses when doing your presentation.
4. Rehearse and know your content. As many times as possible. Make the presentation yours, learn how to speed up if people are starting to watch their phones or slow down if you have questions. Also, know which portions of your presentation can be discarded during the presentation and which can be sent later for review. Knowing the content from A to Z is crucial.
5. Know your audience. As important as it is to know the content of the presentation, you have to know your audience. First of all, where are you? Is this London, Miami, or Sydney? Or is this a country where people don’t speak English as their mother tongue? It is very important to know local slang such as “mate”, “lift”, “chap”, “guy”, “folks”, etc. As the message will be conveyed in a much simpler way.
7. Improvise, but just a little. It is always good to improvise on a presentation but try not to ramble around or add a slide last minute unless it is very important. Normally when we're nervous, we start to translate the things that appear in our mind in our native tongue to English, which is not a good idea, as there are so many differences and one might start deviating from the main idea of the presentation.
8. Humor is greatly appreciated. Good, healthy humor is always a good way to start and end presentations. I always use it as a way to relax people and also to relax. Nothing better than a smile to lower the barriers and convey the message. But humor should not be improvised, it should be rehearsed, even more than the main presentation. Remember that humor is immediate, it is funny, it involves context and situations that everybody should understand, and also should be smart, funny, and not aimed at any particular group of people. Your audience will greatly appreciate this.
9. Tell a story. Tell a story, make people connect the dots, and relate it directly with your presentation. For example, if you are talking about a new quantification methodology, instead of saying “this is my method X and it will improve your quantification efforts by 27%”, you can say “imagine we owe company X, and our company’s revenue is XYZ dollars. We have 300 people and our cost of quantification is $250K USD per quarter. The method we created revolutionizes this and…”. See the difference? We relate and put more attention to something we can “grab” inside our brains.
In conclusion, all these tips and advice aim to lower the barriers that are naturally created by having a different native language and close the language gap as much as possible. It is very important to recognize that English might become our first language but after several years, but in the meantime, we need to improve our skills, ask for advice, and improve our presentations.
One last piece of advice, listen to people you admire, people with great presentation skills, whether they are politicians, CEOs, spiritual, or even family. It is never too late for learning new tricks.
Gustavo Vinueza is a Systems Engineer located in Cuenca, Ecuador. He is the current Head of Analytics at Betterfly, a disruptive Insurtech company expanding through Latin America and Europe.
Previous to Betterfly, he worked in the consulting, training, and custom development area of Palisade Corporation for eleven years, scoping and producing customized software solutions for Fortune 500 companies around the world. During his tenure, Gustavo has leveraged his technical and financial background to understand the varied and unique needs of customers in many different industries to better formulate solutions tailored for each client. Prior to Palisade, Gustavo was a technology project manager at CorpBanca Inversiones, and a technology infrastructure manager at the Principal Financial Group, both in Santiago, Chile.
In addition, Gustavo has a range of experience in other technology and programming roles in the financial sector. Gustavo holds an MBA from the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella in Buenos Aires, and a masters in finance from Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez in Santiago. He has published several articles in the Project Management Institute (PMI) and the Association for the Advancement of Cost Engineering (AACE) forums.