I recently traveled to Pakistan after being invited to speak about personal branding with a group of entrepreneurs and business owners in Lahore and Karachi. I’d never been to that part of the world before, and I wasn’t at all familiar with the business, professional, or cultural scene there.
Delivering a workshop on the other side of the world where you’re unfamiliar with the language, culture, and local dynamics presents unique challenges for speakers whose job is to hold the attention of an audience for several hours. As someone who regularly gives talks to international audiences, I was confident I could host a valuable workshop, but acutely aware this specific assignment would be challenging due to my extremely limited knowledge of the region.
My days in Pakistan were eye-opening to say the least, both personally and professionally. Presenting in a completely different region illuminated some of my blind spots, and hosting these workshops there showed me I can always improve as a speaker. However, I was also reminded that sticking to seven presentation fundamentals can serve you well as a public speaker no matter where you are in the world.
1. Know Your Audience
The first, most critical step you must take as a speaker is to understand exactly who will be in the audience. For these workshops in Pakistan, based on my initial briefing with the client, I had originally understood most audience members were small family business owners focused on serving local communities there. I included specific case studies throughout my presentation of what I felt would be relevant, relatable, and regional examples for this specific audience.
However, as I went through my workshop, it became apparent to me that many attendees were owners of larger-scale companies with larger footprints. In fact, during one of the breaks, one of the attendees said the examples I included were not “high profile” or international enough. Due to my misunderstanding of the audience, I’d intentionally taken out examples that more closely aligned with what he described.
Your audience profile should drive your presentation’s structure, content, and design. In this case, I misunderstood the dynamics and profile of the group and should have clarified this before it was too late to change my slides. I was reminded that you must ensure you’re crystal clear on the profile, attitudes, and ambitions of your attendees so your content is on point.
Tip: After an initial briefing and before you craft your content, re-articulate the target audience’s profile in writing with your client to double-check that your understanding’s 100% accurate.
2. Arrive As Early As Possible
If you’re speaking at an event, you can never get to the venue too early, especially if you’ve never been before. Although most audio/visual (A/V) equipment is fairly standard, when presenting in a foreign country, you should be prepared to deal with slightly different setups, unfamiliar equipment, and of course language barriers. To further complicate things, these days you may be delivering a hybrid session, where you must consider how you and your presentation come across to both the in-person and remote audience.
A couple of hours before I was set to host my workshop in Lahore, I received a message from the organizers informing me some attendees now wanted to join the session virtually via Zoom. As someone who’s hosted many hybrid sessions before, I knew shifting to a hybrid setup could introduce additional complexities in both the setup and delivery throughout, highly dependent on the room’s technical capabilities.
Typically, I try to arrive at least 1 hour prior to hosting a workshop at venues where I’ve never presented before. Unfortunately, in this instance, due to traffic and other causes beyond my control, I had only 30 mins to set up. A half-hour is typically more than enough time if things go smoothly, and the room is set up the way you want. However, if things don’t go smoothly, it’s not.
With some A/V setups, I can get all equipment up and running in under five minutes, even for some hybrid sessions. However, in this case, the setup with the hotel venue’s staff took longer, due in part to some language barriers, hybrid A/V limitations, and equipment I was less familiar with.
While I did manage to get everything up and running, I was not completely happy with the final setup. The room setup certainly did the job, and the issues were likely only noticeable to me. However, I would have ideally preferred a few optimizations, but no additional time was available for further tinkering. Because I’m very particular about these things, I do feel it affected me during my delivery.
When you’re in front of an audience, your room’s setup becomes part of your own personal brand, so the onus is on you as the speaker to ensure you have ample time to set up in a way you find works for you. You can never give yourself too much time buffer.
Tip: When presenting in an unfamiliar location, arrive on-site at least one hour in advance of your start time. If setting up only ends up taking a few minutes, simply use that extra time to connect with audience members who arrive early.
3. Do Your Best To Adapt
If you’re a regular public speaker, you know that creating presentations specifically tailored for each individual audience is critical. Although inevitably more time-consuming than simply reusing existing slides, making even a little bit of effort to customize your presentation can go a long way.
In Lahore, I spent some time before my session with the local individual who invited me. He was kind enough to have me over to his family’s house and even give me a tour of the city. I noted a few songs he chose to play on the car radio, and I also asked around to discover some popular music in Pakistan, which I eventually embedded into my final closing slide as exit music. The morning of my presentation, I also spent a bit of time with the hotel’s front lobby staff to learn a few basic phrases in Urdu.
Your effort to just go with the flow and adapt the best you can, especially when you’re not used to local customs, can go a long way with a foreign audience. If you’re presenting in a region where drinking alcohol is forbidden, don’t feature images of people drinking wine in your slides. If men and women there don’t typically shake hands during greetings, don’t feature those types of images in your presentation. Again, your content should relate to those in your audience.
Tip: Ask your client which common missteps foreigners make during presentations, and do your best to avoid those same pitfalls. Just asking the question alone can demonstrate your willingness to consider inevitable cultural differences.
4. Take Feedback On Board
Audiences can be scathingly critical. In a world of Google reviews, TripAdvisor comments, and app ratings, we’re practically programmed to share our subjective opinions about everything these days.
When you’re not the one actually delivering a presentation, it’s all too easy to call out what’s missing, critique any oversight, and suggest improvements. As someone who’s regularly invited to speak at over 100 events each year, I’m used to receiving audience feedback, and I not only welcome it but actively solicit it.
During one of the breaks in the middle of my workshop in Lahore, an attendee came up to me, initially complimenting me on the session, only to then share some suggestions for improvement on the spot. After my workshop, during the car ride back to my hotel with the person who originally invited me, he immediately shared mostly negative feedback and had almost nothing positive to say.
After investing many hours into crafting the content, flying across the world to deliver the session, and feeling quite confident in my abilities as a speaker, my initial reaction when hearing this negative feedback was confusion and disappointment. Did I miss something? Did I read the room incorrectly? Was I really not energetic enough?
I thought I’d precisely followed the content outline we agreed on that laid out the exact sequence of interactive elements. I thought I was reasonably energetic (although I intentionally pulled back a bit to avoid coming across as an overly extroverted American). I thought I did go above and beyond what most speakers would do to customize the presentation content to their regional market. Turns out, I was off in my assessment.
Scheduled to deliver the same session to another group of entrepreneurs in Karachi 48 hours later, a part of my jet-lagged self just wanted to just stick with the existing presentation I’d already invested a lot of time into and not make any last-minute changes. However, upon further reflection, I felt these critiques were fair. I did notice the audience’s energy drop midway through my session. The content could have been more focused. The session could benefit from more interactive exercises.
So late into the night and throughout the following day during my journey to Karachi, I overhauled my presentation. When I arrived in Karachi, I had dinner with a few people planning to attend my talk there the next day and asked them for their thoughts on what would make my session work best. Afterward, I made even more changes. When I delivered the revised session, I got a completely different response from the audience, and my session seemed to land better.
Receiving negative feedback is never fun, but in nearly every case when someone shared some tough feedback with me, my presentations got better as a result. Feedback is especially valuable when speaking with foreign audiences because you may simply be unaware of some important cultural considerations or blind spots you have.
Tip: Before swatting it aside, take a moment to consider all negative feedback, recognize its constructive merit, then optimize your presentation accordingly to make it more bulletproof.
5. Stand Your Ground
The counterpoint to taking on feedback is that you don’t always have to take it on board, even if coming from someone more knowledgeable about a region than you. As a speaker, I pride myself on being able to consider every single piece of feedback, even when feedback feels unfair, misplaced, or flat-out inaccurate. At least reflecting on all feedback helps me refine my content and make myself more resilient as a speaker in front of especially critical audiences. At the same time, you don’t have to make every single change people suggest.
For example, that same person who shared some feedback with me during the break also told me I “shouldn’t walk toward the audience” beyond the front lectern because it resulted in my back periodically facing toward those seated toward the front of the U-shaped seating arrangement of the room.
While I did nod and simply say, “Okay” when he shared this with me, I immediately questioned his own level of experience hosting multi-hour workshops himself. In the hundreds of talks I’ve given to audiences from all over the world in a wide variety of seating arrangements, I’ve never had a single person comment that my walking pattern was “incorrect.”
On this point, I decided to stick with the advice from every single public speaking coach and presentation skills training I’ve attended over the past 20 years where the consistent guidance has always been to step away from a lectern, eliminate barriers, and reduce large physical distances between you and a listener where possible. The overwhelming consensus is that stepping beyond a lectern is one of the most effective ways of breaking the monotony of a long workshop to make more people feel engaged and included, especially those seated toward the back. Making use of the entire space within the center of a U-shaped seating arrangement is another way to more effectively connect with each audience member.
Not all feedback you receive will be grounded in real-world experience or come from someone who is necessarily credible in that arena. When you feel your way of doing something as a speaker has generally worked well for your audiences, stick with it. While there could always be cultural and situational exceptions that result in you tweaking your approach accordingly, some universal speaking principles will still hold true. Remember that when you’re the one on stage, you decide on the rules of engagement. The stage is yours.
Tip: Consider all subjective feedback, but use your professional judgment to decide which points are valid and which you can safely disregard.
6. Always Be Gracious
When you’re invited to be a guest speaker, remember that you are there to deliver a service. Someone is paying you. Someone invited you. Someone is the client. You are the supplier. This principle is especially true for international talks where your host has likely managed a lot of logistics and stakeholders to get you there.
While I’m not one to stick my tail between my legs and just roll over when someone tells me something I don’t want to hear, I’ve found the best course of action in the spirit of collaboration is to always remember to be gracious and professional across every single presentation you have the privilege of delivering.
After my first workshop in Pakistan, a couple of attendees mentioned to me that they felt the content could have been covered in three hours rather than four hours. Ironically and frustratingly, my original recommendation to the hosts was to proceed with a shorter 3-hour workshop instead of their desired four hours. Regardless, the onus was on me to find ways to better manage the presentation flow so that the last hour could be more engaging for the workshop I was scheduled to deliver later in Karachi.
Sometimes, you have to just take it on the chin as a public speaker and demonstrate that in the face of critique or additional requests, you can take a professional approach that reminds people why they chose you as a speaker in the first place. Being invited to speak with a group in a part of the world you would otherwise not have the chance to see is a true honor and privilege. Remember to always thank your hosts afterward and treat everyone with appreciation and kindness.
I’m certainly grateful to have had this opportunity to visit Pakistan, and I can’t thank the organizers enough for the time and belief they invested in me along with their incredibly kind hospitality throughout my first visit to their country. Giving 110% to deliver the best workshop possible is the standard I try to maintain with any speaking engagement, but especially those that require international coordination with the client.
Tip: Remember you’re the service provider as a speaker, especially when international travel is involved. While the client isn’t always right (as the saying goes), always act professionally and respect your client’s preferences, efforts, and opinions.
7. Believe In Yourself
Having confidence-both the confidence you feel internally and the confidence you project externally-is critical when you’re speaking on stage in front of an audience. That confidence can easily get shaken when you’re presenting in a region where you don’t speak the local language, know regional customs, or understand cultural nuances.
If you’re passionate about public speaking like I am, you’re probably never 100% happy with your performance because you always feel it could have been better in some way. Striving to be better is how you get better–by embracing an attitude of continual improvement. Across the hundreds of talks and workshops I’ve delivered over the years, I can’t remember ever feeling like one went exactly as I’d hoped or planned.
However, having a relentlessly perfectionistic attitude can result in you never feeling quite good enough. If you’re like me, you can also be a bit hard on yourself when a presentation you worked so hard to develop doesn’t land as well as you had hoped, which is more likely to occur when you’re speaking to an unfamiliar audience in an unfamiliar part of the world you’ve never visited before. I’m human, and a bumpy presentation can sometimes deal a blow to my own confidence, at least temporarily.
At the end of the day, no matter how unfamiliar your surroundings are, you have to just remind yourself that you were invited to speak for a reason. And that reason was likely something to do with your talents, skills, and capabilities as a speaker. Don’t ever forget that.
Tip: Even when speaking in a different region where you’re far outside your comfort zone, you must first trust yourself so others can also trust you too.
Embrace Your Opportunity To Have A Unique Impact
When speaking to an audience in a foreign country, your job as a speaker will be exponentially more complicated. There’s no way around it. On top of delivering an engaging talk, which is no small feat, you’ll need to navigate different cultural norms, expectations, and dynamics.
However, presenting to a completely different audience also gives you the opportunity to stress test the quality of your content and ability to effectively connect with a wide range of audiences. Just as you’ll learn and grow as a speaker when working outside of your usual environment, you also can share a unique perspective your audience may never get a chance to hear otherwise.
Being able to have a positive impact on someone’s life is the reason why I enjoy public speaking so much. Having wrapped up this engagement in Pakistan, I now know that presenting abroad, although challenging, is also an enormous privilege, especially when you couple your work with the unique opportunity to temporarily immerse yourself in an entirely different culture to yours.
Speaking with an overseas audience ultimately helps you hone your skills in ways you simply cannot unless you push yourself to present in different environments. If you can embrace the challenge of speaking with an international audience, the experience will be unforgettable. More importantly, you’ll have the opportunity to make your own unique mark with a whole new audience and give a talk they’ll hopefully never forget.
Originally published at Forbes.
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