I have colleagues who specialize in helping people communicate in languages other than their own. I know experts in this field, and I can say without equivocation that I am not one of them. I am pretty good at using words like equivocation in my native tongue, but when it comes to the finer points of communication across cultural divides, well…my daughters would tell you I don’t even know how to speak to millennials.

Leading a workshop before a group of native
French speakers was entirely out of my comfort zone.

For these reasons, I approached my workshop in early April with trepidation. It was held in Boulogne, a suburb outside of Paris, and attended by 12 French professionals. Arranged by my friends at DavyTopiol, a thriving presentation design agency, the dozen attendees knew that I would be speaking English. They all understood the language well enough to be comfortable in the room. But did I? Would I be? How would I be perceived or regarded? What if I used jargon or stilted language like equivocate? What if I came across as an ugly American?

I asked my hosts Guy and Jean-Gabriel the night prior if I should do anything in particular to avoid cultural misunderstandings. They each waved off the notion with a dismissive hand gesture and told me not to worry. But I was clearly not in my comfort zone — this was evident that night by the fact that we were sitting down to dinner at 10:30p. On a weeknight. Who does that? Oh, right…Europeans do.

I only knew one thing for sure: I would speak more slowly and deliberately. Any strategies more nuanced than that were lost on me.

Let me not draw this out: the day was an enlightening experience — hopefully for my audience and certainly for me. Speaking slowly was a very good lesson for me to learn for perhaps the 700th time in my career. I liken it to watching the ball in tennis — how is it that the No. 1 fundamental is also the thing most easily forgotten and ignored? Commanding your pace is one of the most important qualities you can bring to your spoken word and reminding myself of that was significant. Conscious of my pace, I became confident that I could say pretty much anything to this ESL group and they would understand me or I would be able to adjust on the fly. Being that deliberate with my speech pattern, it was as if I could see the words forming in my head before speaking them, and that enabled me to monitor them in the moment. That was a powerful sensation, one that I will surely have to rediscover for the 701st time before long.

There was one moment that stood out, as I was sharing with the group first something unpleasant (they need to create separate handouts and that would be extra work) and then something comforting (you can do it all in one PowerPoint file). “I would like to assuage your pain a little bit,” I said…before stopping. “Do you know that word, assuage?” All heads shook. “Ah. Diminish. Make less so. Make a bad thing less bad.” I was pleased that I recognized the likelihood that I had used an obscure word and they appreciated that I realized it.

That became the moment in which I became truly comfortable in front of them. The cultural exchange that began to take place became the undercurrent of the entire day. This was no longer just about teaching presentation skills; it was about sharing ideas common to our cultures and discovering the ideas not common. We spoke about “Death by PowerPoint,” and what it means in French parlance, what the word design actually means (as opposed to the trite and unhelpful notion of just making something look pretty), and we even discussed how each country perceived our current president and his administration. This came about when I credited President Trump with being able to speak to very large audiences and still give individual people the impression that he is speaking directly to them. And everyone laughed when I then said, “Okay, I’m done paying him a compliment.”

Was it appropriate to share a political bias? That’s a legitimate question, but it was after 3p by then and we had rapport. I had also dropped a few expletives on them and taught them a few salty American expressions. Well into our sixth hour, we were practically intimate by now.

In other words, I had gotten to a place where I could be completely authentic and genuine with my audience. That seems to be another fundamental that we need to keep learning over and over again, because is that not really the best approach to take under any circumstance? Did I really have to travel 5,500 miles from home to remind myself that, in times of stress, authenticity is our best friend? Apparently yes, and it was time and effort well spent.

One Response

  1. This is another great story. I especially like your advice to slow down your speech. I am going to be addressing new trainers next month, who may be nervous about speaking in public. I think slowing down is excellent advice, since nervousness sometimes causes us to race quickly through our points.

    I also like your way of picturing words lining up in your head so you could monitor them. This is important to us, too, since we will be discussing the delicate questions surrounding harassment prevention.

    I appreciate your dedication to the cause of improving public presentations, and I’m grateful you share with us. I look forward to your next post.

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