A Step-by-Step Way to Help ESL Presenters Give Confident Presentations in English

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I received a comment from a website visitor last week thanking me for the blog and asking if I would cover tips for ESL presenters (English as a Second Language). I was actually shocked to realize that in the last four years, we haven’t written anything about this topic. We actually have a step-by-step way to help ESL presenters deliver confident presentations in English. English as a Second Language presentation challenges are very common in today’s business world. In fact, I’m often hired to conduct public speaking classes in Europe and South America, because many business people in countries outside of the US realize that the better that a person can deliver English business presentations, the more doors of opportunity can be opened.

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Way back in 2005, we started offering our Fearless Presentations ® classes in Paris. Our native French speaking instructor showed up to teach the class, and he was shocked when the entire class wanted him to deliver the class in English. One of the class members said, “If we wanted to be better at giving presentations in French, we could go to dozens of places within a few kilometers of this office. We came to you because you work for an American company.” We were pleasantly surprised and realized that there was a real market for helping non-native English speakers become better presenters.

In 2006, one of our big clients, CapitalOne started hiring us to come into their office and deliver the Fearless Presentations ® class as an accent reduction class. Although the class was never designed for this purpose, we got phenomenal results.

So if you are not a native English speaker, and you are required to deliver presentations in English, there is help available. Below are a few tips that can really help.

A Few Simple Things that ESL Presenters Can Do to Deliver Better Presentations in English

If you are a regular follower of our blog and podcasts, you may recognize a few of these tips. However, there are a few minor tweaks that can make all the difference if you are an ESL presenter. In fact, the first four tips will be identical for native English speakers. The remaining tips will help ESL presenters reduce nervousness and deliver better, more professional presentations.

Start with a Clear Title with a Result (Benefit) to the Audience.

Before you even begin designing a presentation, first ask the question, “Why?” Why are you presenting on this topic? What is it that the audience wants or needs to know about what you are presenting? Why should your audience listen to you? When you have clear and easy to understand answers to these questions, you are ready to begin by writing your title. Your title should be a summary of the answers to these questions.

This step is critical for the ESL student or ESL presenter. Most of the time, we start with a vague or general topic. When we do, it is very difficult to make your presentation interesting for your audience. As a result, the delivery will be more difficult. There is also a more practical reason as well. If you have a general or unspecific topic and English is not your first language, when you stand up to present, not only do you have to add that specificity on the fly, but you also have to mentally translate your words at the same time. This adds a lot of complexity.

For example, a student in class started by coming up with the title, Improving the Life Span of Cedar. While that tile is a good start, it doesn’t really answer a lot of the questions I just mentioned. Why do we (the audience) care? Why should they listen to the speech? After we talked about it, the presenter changed the topic to, Simple Things that You Can Do to Make Your Cedar Roof Last Up to 40 Years.

Everything starts with the topic. With a really specific topic that the audience can read and think, “Yeah, I want to hear this,” you will start on the right foot. The presenter can now just read the topic word-for-word and immediately capture the attention of the audience. With the first topic, the presenter would need to read the topic and then spend a minute or two explaining to the audience what the presentation was actually about. (That is much tougher.)

Having a specific, audience focused topic is like putting a specific address into your smartphone map. You will get a very specific, turn-by-turn, efficient set of directions. A more general topic is like using an old-time road map. You might still get to the address, but it will take longer and will be much more difficult.

Identify Three to Five Main Key Points to Cover in Your Presentation. Make Sure the Key Points are Complete Sentences and Complete Statements.

Now that you have a good topic, it should be much easier to narrow down your key points to three, four, or five main ideas. The easiest way to do this is to just ask yourself, “What are the most important things that the audience will want to know about this topic?” Using the same example, if I’m trying to determine the most important ways to improve the life of cedar, there are quite a few things that I could cover. However, with the title about how to make the cedar roof last 40 years, I’d determine what is the number one, most important thing that the roofer or owner could do to make the roof last 40 years. Then, what is the second most important thing. Then the third.

Once you have a good outline of your key points, go back and make complete sentences — complete statements out of them. Since English is not your first language, just like with the title, these complete statements will keep you from having to mentally translate your thoughts into English. The complete statements will already be on your visual aid. It will also make it easier for your audience to understand the concepts that you are trying to get across to them.

Add a Story, Example, or Anecdote for Each Key Point.

One of the things that you will find is that when a non-native English speaker gets nervous, he/she will often resort to what is comfortable. Since English is not comfortable, they will slip back into the cadence or structure of their native language. This will cause their accent to be way more pronounced. One of the biggest complaints that audiences tell us about listening to presentations by ESL students is that they had a tough time understanding the accent of the speaker. The good news is that when you reduce the nervousness, the accent is significantly reduced as well. So, as I mentioned earlier, CapitalOne was the first company to higher our instructors for accent reduction classes. It wasn’t until years afterward when a couple of our instructors who were speech therapists came on board that I understood why the class worked so well for this. Our focus was to reduce public speaking fear. When the class members got less nervous, they also became more understandable.

The absolute best way to reduce public speaking fear is to insert personal stories into your presentation. If you give examples from your own personal experience, all you have to do is play the video in your head of what happened, and then tell the audience what you are seeing. It is easy. And your nervousness will drop significantly. When this happens, your accent will reduce as well. You will also begin to build better rapport with your audience. I’d encourage you to insert at least one example, story, or anecdote as support for each of your key points. It will do wonders for the ESL student.

Add at Least One Additional Piece of Evidence to Reinforce Each Key Point.

Now that you have a good skeleton of a presentation, let’s put a little more meat on the bones. Go back to each main point and identify at least one additional piece of evidence that will help you better explain the concept or prove the point. The analogy that I like to use here is to pretend that you are an attorney, and you are trying to prove your bullet point to the jury. What evidence will help you do this?

A Few Additional Forms of Evidence

  • Analogy – make a fun or interesting comparison.
  • Quote — a good quote from another expert can add credibility.
  • Visual Aid — a prop, sample, poster, photo, chart, handout, or board can add clarity to your ideas.
  • Audience Participation — Ask an open ended question to your audience.
  • Facts/Statistics — Data works well, but I’d suggest that you relate the data in the form of a story. (Tell your audience where you go the data.)

You don’t really need to over do it on evidence. My strategy is to give evidence related to each of my key points until I’m sure the audience is in agreement. Then I move onto the next point. So, if I just tell a good story, and I look around the audience and I see lots of heads nodding, I’ll move onto the next point. If I tell my story, and I see some confusion on the faces on my audience members, I’ll add an additional piece of evidence. The key is to over-prepare.

Look Up any Vocabulary that You May be Having Trouble With.

If English is your first language, then at this point, you can stop. You have a well designed presentation. If you are an ESL presenter, though, a good next step is to look up any vocabulary that you are having trouble with. Keep in mind that you don’t have to be perfect — just understood.

One of the things that ESL presenter will have the most trouble with is idioms. Idioms are phrases that are created through usage that don’t necessarily translate very well. The translations aren’t literal. They are more figurative. A phrase like “It’s raining cats and dogs” don’t have a literal meaning. But figuratively, it means that it is raining really hard.

One of my first instructors grew up in Ottawa, and he learned English as a teenager by watching television. I sent him an email one day relaying some bad news. He replied back with the phrase, “That’s the way the cookie grumbles.” I laughed when I read it. The actual idiom is “That’s the way the cookie crumbles.” I replied back saying, “Why would a cookie grumble?” He responded with, “Why would cats and dogs fall from the sky?” I had to thing of a clever way to respond. Since he was French, I replied back with, “Touché.”

Regardless, spend a little time on vocabulary. You will feel more comfortable when you present.

Use Clear, Simple Language. Avoid Jargon.

This goes for everyone, but even more so if English is your Second Language. Use clear, simple language when you present. Avoid jargon. My first presentation coach told me to design my presentations as if I were delivering it to a fourth grade class. Many presenter feel like if they use simple language they will be talking down to their audience. The opposite is true. If you use what I call “Harvard Words” you will sound arrogant and pretentious. If English is not your first language, you will also sound confusing. Just keep it simple. The goal is for your audience to understand you, not for you to sound like a professor.

A new employee for a government office was approached by one her coworkers who was making a post office run and offered to pick up donuts for the office on the way back. She was looking over his list which included CCRs, GOF’s and POFs. He explained that they stood for Chocolate Covered Raised, Glazed Old-fashioned, and Plain Old-Fashioned. She laughed and said, “You know you work in a government office when event the donuts have acronyms.”

Make you language plain and simple.

Practice Two to Three Times with a Native English Speaker as Your Partner.

If English is your first language, and you design your presentation well, just practice once or twice. You will be great. The more that you practice, the less spontaneity you will have. However, if English is not your first language, you’ll likely want to practice a couple more times. I’m not suggesting that you over-practice. Just make sure that you have a good flow, and that the words come freely when you present.

It is also a good idea to ask a friend or colleague who is fluent in English to be your listener. If, as you present, you are getting good visual feedback (nods of agreement, etc.), you are presenting well.

If You Need Additional Help, A Good Public Speaking Class Can Do Wonders

Fearless Presentations LogoObviously, we are biased, but the Fearless Presentations ® class can really help ESL students and ESL professionals. The link to the class will show you the curriculum as well as a schedule of upcoming classes. Whether you go to our class or not, if you struggle giving presentations, a good class can really help!

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