I started out thinking I could help this young business man from China with his speaking. It turned out the other way around…
The man from China looked remarkably like Jackie Chan—maybe not quite as strong in the shoulders—but his hair, smile, and sparkle in his eyes made you do a double take. I was listening to his presentation on the new entrepreneurial energy inChina, along with half dozen other business faculty members. The speech was given late in the day but we were genuinely interested and very supportive. We nodded and smiled a lot.
As Jackie started speaking it was clear that his accent was going to be a problem. He was fumbling trying to choose the right word or phrase, and he was struggling with pronunciation. You could see he was working very hard to get his point across. His eyes revealed that he was nervous and frustrated with the obvious communication barrier.
After a few minutes I glanced around the table. A couple of people were drinking water. Two others were staring back at Jackie, wide eyed. The other two seemed as tense as he was. But our hero pressed on. Another few minutes passed and there was a silent feeling among the audience members that this speech was a bust.
Then Jackie did something remarkable. He said, “Please struggle with me for a moment more and I show now the key to international consumer product market.” Then, he waited. We looked at one another, and nodded to him. It was like we were mute.
Then something else remarkable happened. His analysis was great. He made sense—he described a simple strategy for creating an information chain between customized/cultural/local vendors and multinational suppliers. I started to jot down the diagram that was on the slide he was discussing. Others were nodding. Suddenly, Jackie was on a roll.
After another minute or two I was struck by how easy it was to understand him. His accent was still very strong, but I understood everything. The hesitations and mispronunciations didn’t bug me at all. After the presentation he was applauded and everyone commented on how well he spoke English. We made the essential comment that his English was “a whole lot better than our Chinese”. I am sure he had never heard that one before. Later, at a reception, Jackie told me, “I think my English not too good, but you don’t need your ears when you see my idea is good. You can listen after you see.”
Wow. Boom. Zap. He nailed us. Here is some wisdom from this experience.
- Audiences mirror the emotions of speakers. When the speaker is nervous, the audience becomes nervous. When the speaker sees the audience is nervous, the speaker gets more nervous. Of course as speakers get more confident, audiences relax.
- When speaking to people from other languages or cultural backgrounds, you need to follow some advice Jackie gave me, “I always expect American to look at me like I am crazy for start, then it gets OK.” It is important to struggle forward in these situations—and not pay attention to the normal “emotion mirroring” effect described above.
- Great ideas always save the day. More to the point, when you deliver ideas that are immediately and personally relevant—your listeners will do what it takes to figure out what you are trying to say. (You tech people need to hear this one…)
- Though we are loathe admitting it, some part of our collective brains made the leap that Jackie’s struggle in his speech meant that his ideas would not be worth much. As we listened in the beginning we were patronizing him. We needed to learn to listen to Jackie. We just didn’t want to put out the effort necessary until it was clear there was something in it for us.
- As soon as we found value—eccentricities and differences (Jackie’s accent and struggles in the speech) became a source of credibility. This shift happens a lot with artists, hair stylists, and writers; their oddness becomes an attractive feature—after they are successful.
Oh, here is one more quote from Jackie; “I think American speakers are very, very good but seems like they do too many pictures on the PowerPoint all the time.”