I’ve worked with foreign born presenters frequently. They are people trying to do business in the western world. From a presentation standpoint, each one is most concerned about their use of English: “Are my pronunciations correct?” “Am I using the right grammar?” These are all justifiable and understandable concerns.
When a non-western person is presenting, I am not put off by the accent, or an odd pronunciation. I’ll excuse minor grammatical mistakes (English grammar can be tricky). The part of the presentation that throws me are all of the non-verbal things that a foreign born speaker does or doesn’t do.
I’ve noticed in my workshops, for example, that some Asian-born speakers tend to not use their hands as much when they present. They speak in a soft voice. They avoid eye contact. Although the content of their pitch was potentially persuasive, these body language issues were more disruptive to good communications than an accent. And, while I appreciate that some of this is cultural, if the speaker is training for making presentations to western audiences, then these cultural issues should be addressed.
Some studies have indicated that body language often carries the weight of strong communications. For example, the speaker might be impassioned about an issue but a passive body language says the opposite. I need the body language as a physical cue to reinforce and underscore that which the speaker is saying, especially if accents get in the way. When the words and body language conflict, I don’t always get the message.
It’s not unlike standing in front of an audience, and in a monotone and soft voice, with arms unmoving and eyes cast down to the floor proclaim that “I’m very excited to be here.” People who are excited show it with their body language. Their face lights up, their hands become animated. And, because I can’t always understand each word they speak, I need the body language to fill in the meaning of what they are saying.
There are remedies for these issues. If the accent is so thick that it’s difficult to understand the words they are speaking, a speech therapist would be very helpful. There are speech therapists who specialize in working with people from specific regions of the world. It may even be a case of requiring a small fix. For example, Indian-born presenters sometimes have difficulty with the “t-h” sound. When saying “theme” it comes out “team”. “Thanks” becomes “tanks”. Things like that are easily addressed in a session or two (followed by lots of practice). Heavier accents might require specialized help to address the basics of speech.
Body language issues require a trainer to point out what they are doing and to demonstrate more acceptable ways of expressing themselves. This may require a single session, but the student then needs to practice those new moves in front of a floor length mirror.
International business people understand that they need to become more proficient at English. They often seem less concerned with their body language affectations. But, they should focus on body language just as much as spoken language and pronunciation. We get so much of our understanding of a message from body language that international presenters need to work equally hard on that aspect of their delivery, as well.