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  • Writer's pictureShelley Purchon

How to make a speech to a foreign audience

What if your audience speak English as a Foreign Language? These tips will help you give a presentation that is easy to understand so that your whole audience is engaged.


An international audience listening to a speech

It can feel intimidating enough to give a talk to a room full of strangers, but what if you are travelling to another country to do this or delivering a speech remotely to international colleagues? Then you may have the added problem that English is not their mother tongue. Follow these eleven steps by English Unlocked - we are experts on how to make your language more accessible.


1. Find out about your audience in advance.

Do they know much about your subject or should you give some background? Are they coming to see you out of choice or obligation? How well do people in their country speak English? Which accents are they familiar with and is yours different?

2. Create a bespoke version of your talk.

Once you know more about your audience, look with fresh eyes at your PowerPoint or prompt cards. Will they get your cultural references? Is your language too complex or idiomatic for an overseas audience? An overseas colleague or cultural expert can help with this, and we can help too. It can still be possible to express complex ideas if you know how to use accessible language.

3. Create a well-informed audience.

If your audience speak English less well than you do, make an extra effort to let them know in advance what you will talk about. The less contextual knowledge they have, the harder it will be for them to understand you. You can do this by carefully considering the wording of-

  • your bio

  • the title of your talk

  • its description

  • the words used by the person who welcomes you onto the stage.

Don’t offer vague descriptions or ones that don’t exactly fit the thing you are here today to talk about, and don’t rely on your fame or reputation.

4. Speak to people before you get on stage.

When you’re up there on that podium looking out at a sea of blank faces, you’re going to want to reduce your speed of delivery to keep them on board but may feel unsure how much to do so. What is the right speed? (If you slow down more than is necessary you may seem patronising.)

Speak to foreign delegates at a conference

If you have spoken in advance to individuals from your audience it will be much easier for you to gauge this. Use those conversations to find a cadence which works then replicate that during your talk. If the talk is online you could seek out connections via social media or ask to be introduced. It will reassure you to see the familiar face in the audience of that person you connected with beforehand.

5. Your favourite jokes might fall flat.

Humour can enable you to create an instant connection with your audience, but what if your audience doesn’t ‘get’ your joke? I recommend that you stick with visual jokes -it's the only type of humour that's universally understood. Sarcastic jokes (especially with deadpan delivery) are likely to be taken literally or misunderstood.

6. Finish off each word carefully.

This helps your audience identify word boundaries and it is the KEY to 'unlocking your English' for that audience. (If you attend an English Unlocked workshop you'll practice this, and much more.)

7. Use visuals, especially pictures.

Allow your audience a moment to look at the picture before you make your point. Under no circumstances should you show them text and read it aloud while they are trying to read it. (No audience enjoys this style of presenting but it's especially annoying for speakers of English as a Foreign Language.)

8. Check your speech for idioms.

If you do use idioms, acknowledge and explain them. What do I mean by idioms? Things like 'Without further ado' or 'in a nutshell.' Idioms seldom make sense when translated literally, so you can easily lose an interested audience if your speech is idiomatic.

9. Don’t read from a script.
An audience that doesn't understand the keynote speaker

Your audience will be more engaged if you make eye contact with them and use expressive facial expressions and gestures. You will be able to tell from their body language whether they are ‘with you’ or not and you can adjust your speed or wording accordingly – you’re less likely to notice these cues if your eyes are on your script.

10. Slow down.

Unconfident people race through their talk wishing for it to be over. This never looks good but is especially problematic if your audience speaks English with less ease than you do. Take a breath. Remind yourself that when we listen to a foreign language we require extra time to process what’s being said. It requires nerves of steel to give a talk slowly but if you can hold the silence you look like a powerful orator.

11. Invite questions early on.

So long as everyone heard the question properly, a Q&A is an easier format to listen to than a monologue. This interactive part of your talk might be the moment when you really start to connect with your audience and you could wish you had invited questions earlier.


We can help

Our experts here at English Unlocked have decades of experience producing content which is accessible for speakers of English as a Foreign Language. Why not request an audit of your PowerPoint or 'script'? You will receive a list of suggested changes which you can then implement yourself or ask us to do it for you.

Get in touch

Send us an email to find out about costs. Your initial consultation lasts 30 minutes and is free. Giving a speech to an overseas audience can feel scary but you don't have to prepare for it alone - we are here to help.

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