Public Speaking Course:
International Colors of Humor
My public speaking course teaches you that the American audiences are constantly becoming more culturally diverse. It is therefore your responsibility to acknowledge parts of the audience that come from different cultures and backgrounds. If you are speaking in a different country it is especially important for you to find out about the local customs and what kind of humor is accepted in that country.
The response to humor can very greatly for most cultures; for instance some cultures like purple, some like red, others blue or green. Pay close attention to this fact of differing mindsets and differing sets of humor triggers, will give you a greater chance of connecting with international audiences in and out of the U.S. You will also be more aware of etiquette and customs that will make you a welcome presenter anywhere you go.
During your preprogram research on a specific audience you could ask, 'How diverse is your group? Or do you have members from other countries?' The answers to these questions will help you plan your strategy for connecting with a particular audience.
I once planned a speech in Baltimore, Maryland and found out that twenty-five percent of the audience was Asian Indian. I didn't know anything about the Indian culture and didn't have long to plan for it. Lucky for me I did know of a Dunkin' Donut store near my home that was owned and operated by Indians. That was a good excuse to stop by, down a few eclairs, and do some research. I told the owner what I was trying to accomplish and he was glad to help me out. He gave me plenty of infomration about humor in India, but it I only used one line. That was all it took to connect to the Indians in my audience. The line was, 'I want to tell all my new Indian friends I'm sorry Johnny Lever couldn't make it.' Johnny Lever was one of the top comedians in India. They lit up and I went on with the program. Connection is an important skill learned in my public speaking course, and that means a human connection, not an internet connection.
Don't worry if your local donut shop isn't run by the appropriate nationality for your next presentation. There are plenty of other methods to get the information you need. If you are speaking outside the US, get the opinion of local people before you attempt to use humor.
If you are speaking in America, seek out members of the nationality to whom you are going to be presenting. If you don't know anyone from that ethnicity, you can always call their embassy. I've called our State Department, The World Bank, Voice of America and many other public agencies for information during my preprogram research. Just tell the receptionist you want to speak to someone from the country of interest and remember to tell them you want to converse in English.
When speaking to foreign audiences you must check your normal humorous material carefully during your research so you don't accidentally offend someone. In some countries you may hear people openly joking on television or in public about subjects that would be taboo in the U.S. In my public speaking course you learn more ways to connect with your foreign audience.
Even if your funny material is okay you still need to become familiar with other customs in the country in which you are going o speak. Customs are very different around the world. It is easy to make mistakes when you are in a totally new environment. You'll never get the audience to laugh if you accidentally do something offensive. A good resource to find out about customs in other countries is the book 'Gestures: The Do's and Taboos of Body Language Around the World' by Roger Axtell. This book gives lots of information on things to do and not to do in public when in a foreign country. Here's just a few serious mistakes that could easily be made during a speaking engagement that would offend your audience:
The book I mentioned earlier has tons of tips that will help keep the audience on your side when you present outside the U. S. Another good and inexpensive source of international background information is the 'Culturgram' published by the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies, which is part of Brigham Young University, located in Provo, Utah.
Each of these 'Culturgram's is a four page newsletter that gives you an uncomplicated overview of the country of your choice. It includes the country's customs and common courtesies, along with information about the people and how they live. They also have references that point you toward additional study resources. Currently 'Culturgrams' are available for 118 countries, so there is a valuable resource to add to what you learn from my public speaking course.
In my public speaking course you learn that cartoons and comic strips are the most universally accepted format for humor, regardless of one's nationality and culture. A good resource is Witty World International Cartoon Magazine by Creators Syndicate Phone: (310) 337-7003. If you are speaking to a smaller group you can simply hold up the magazine or pass it around. If you want to use the cartoon or comic strip in a visual way like in an overhead or in your handouts, you may need permission from the copyright holder. Always read the caption for a foreign audience and give them time to mentally translate what you say. It may take what seems to be forever (4-6 seconds) for the idea to sink in, but even in your home country, you want to pause so to allow the audience time to laugh and enjoy your humor.
Cartoons and comic strips are seen in newspapers and magazines in most areas of the world. Newsstands in large metro cities usually have foreign periodicals, or you may find them in large libraries. In my public speaking course I teach you that it is a good idea to create a file to keep these cartoons and material for later use in a presentation.
Be careful about what you select for your cartoons. Many American cartoons would totally bomb if used outside the U.S. Much of American humor is sarcasm, or otherwise based on making fun of someone else. This type of humor is not readily understood in most cultures and is considered disrespectful. This is an important lesson to remember from your public speaking course.
Other forms of visual humor that cross cultural barriers are juggling and magic. Speaking With Magic is a book by Michael Jeffreys that not only teaches you simple magic tricks, but gives you points to make that relate to the trick. I got my copy from Royal Publishing, Box 1120, Glendora, CA 91740 Phone (626) 335-8069. For juggling and other magic books call or write for Morris Costume's Catalog, 3108 Monroe Road, Charlotte, NC 28205 Phone (704) 332-3304. There is a charge for the catalog, but it's worth it.
Terminology tends to be different in most areas of the world even if the country
speaks English. Highly tested humor that would work anywhere in the
U.S. may bomb in another country simply because the audience doesn't
understand one of the words.
When using translators, humor is much harder because timing and word play don't always translate well. Usually you will need to slow down your speaking considerably when having someone interpret. Some speakers use half sentences to keep up the pace. This is very difficult and requires practice, but is worth it in the end to have the audience understand you.
Some public speakers have been known to have fun with interpreters (of course, I would never do this). A speaker I know purposely mumbled to his interpreter to see what would happen. The interpreter mumbled back. Then the speaker mumbled again. The audience thought it was completely hilarious.
Even when the audience speaks "English" they may not be able to understand your accent. A bit tongue in cheek, the Brits say Americans speak American, not English. And Americans say folks talk "Southern" or New Yorkers talk "Street Talk", or "Boys from the 'hood" talk "Jive", so as a function of your pre-speech preparation, check with locals to see if you can be easily understood. You may have to adjust your normal delivery and rate of pitch slightly.
Art Gliner, a long- time humor trainer, gave me this tip: He learned how to say Happy New Year in the different languages represented in his audience. This always gets a laugh and the further away it is from New Years, the better. He also tells me a word of welcome, learning how to say "good day" in the native language works well too.
A few additional tips on different cultures:
My public speaking course teaches that the point in becoming a master, is that every culture has its likes and dislikes when it comes to humor. They also have customs that can be very different from our own. Your knowledge in this area will help you create a connection with your international audience to convey your message. As you have seen over and over again, it is worth it because a laugh sounds the same and produces the same good feelings in any language. You know well that humor revealed by a laugh or a smile are truly shared by people of all colors, are truly the international language.
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