In an increasingly global business environment, where colleagues, suppliers and clients are from different countries with varying cultures and value systems, it’s essential to be able to adapt your communication style and delivery. Doing so effectively could mean the difference between being highly respected and regarded to being greatly misunderstood.

Here are ten common mistakes leaders make when addressing a cross-cultural audience:

  • It’s not the listener, it’s the communicator

How your audience interpret your message is down to you (the speaker) not the listener. Too many leaders make the mistake of leaving interpretation down to the audience, but the opposite is true.  How you avoid this is quite simple. You have a message, you make it as simple as possible and you tell a story around it so that your audience can visualize and relate by seeing themselves in your story.

  • Over communication will get your message understood

It’s very common for leaders to fall into the trap of over communicating what should be a simple message. Shorter, simple words and message are the best way to go when addressing a multi-cultural audience.

  • Speaking too quickly

Native English speakers (and some non-native speakers) are notorious for speaking too quickly in cross-cultural discussions. Whatever speed you think feels right, slow right down to get your message understood.

  • Not getting feedback

In Boardroom situations or when addressing a smaller group of people, be sure to ask for feedback. However, don’t just ask questions like: ‘Is this clear?’, ‘Do you see where I’m coming from?’ that require a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.  Ask them to repeat back to you THEIR understanding of what you have just said.

The answers you get could be quite an eye opener!

  • Using humor to get your audience to like you

Humor is a great icebreaker but be careful using it with a cross-cultural audience. What is considered funny in one part of the world may be considered private and taboo in another.

  • Saying numbers too quickly

If you’re using numbers in your presentation, slow them down and look at different ways of saying them.

$1500 can be expressed as fifteen hundred or one thousand five hundred.

Use slides to reinforce numbers so they can be universally understood.

  • Using sarcasm and irony

Similar to humor, sarcasm and irony can work great for an audience of your own culture and language, but it can lead to gross misinterpretation. Look at other ways to get your message across in more direct terms.

  • Not listening or reading your audience

When communicating with a cross-cultural audience, it is incredibly important to actively pay attention and listen to what people are telling you. This might be through getting active feedback (if in a smaller setting), or reading non-verbal cues such as body language, attentiveness, and facial expressions.

  • Assuming familiar behaviors have the same meanings

In the US, we think it’s universally known that shaking your head from side to side clearly means “No,” while nodding the head up and down means “Yes.” The same goes for China, Canada, Mexico, and most parts of Western Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

However, in Bulgaria and Albania, a head shake means “Yes” while nodding means “No.” Residents of Saudi Arabia shake the head to say “Yes” and tip the head back to say “No.” And in Iran, dipping the head down indicates “Yes” while jerking the chin upward means “No.”

  • Never stop learning

There’s no magic bullet to cracking the code of effective cross-cultural communication.  Every time you address a global audience you’ll be learning new things that you can draw upon in the future.

My online course “The Art of Persuasive Communication in Global Business” will help you adapt your communication style and narrative content to fit your audience. It’s an essential tool for any leader today who wants their message to be heard and acted upon by a global audience. 


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