Communicating with the "Salad Bowl": Some guidelines for speaking and presentations with a diverse audience

Gary S. Downing, P.E.
Engineering Section Supervisor
Sarasota County, Florida
Member, APWA Diversity Committee

The concept of the salad bowl is gradually replacing the concept of the melting pot in describing the social setting of America. In a "melting pot," all cultures and peoples blend together to become similar; in a "salad bowl," cultures and peoples are combined in one place, but retain their individuality. Therefore, it is important to tailor your message to appeal to the shared cultural norms, values, traditions, and beliefs of the group that you seek to reach.

By learning to speak to a diverse audience, you can transfer the learning to more people. We need to be aware of who is in our audience and understand how to make people feel included. The more people feel included, the more they will listen, use your information and come back for more. If you offend people they will shut down and you will lose them.

How can we communicate with the audience? How can we share our experiences and ensure the interpretation of the message is clearly delivered without excessive noise and confusion? What are acceptable humorous topics and gestures? Here are a few tips and guidelines for your next presentation.

Set-up: What's wrong with this picture?
When considering a diverse group, provide aisles wide enough for wheelchair users in the audience. They should not be restricted to the very back or very front of the room.

If you are using written materials, consider a standard 24-point size. This is a standard large print text size and enables most people with low vision to access your content.

Another concern is attendees that may be hearing impaired or deaf. To accommodate these individuals allow for seats near the front. This works well by placing them near a speaker if they are impaired, allows individuals to be able to read lips and, if a sign language interpreter at the front is provided, they will have an unobstructed view.

Delivery: Verbal & Physical Language
Verbal communication has been studied by several experts and accounts for only 7% of the learning experience. Most of us remember the witty stories, the demonstrations and energy of the speakers. However, to ensure the message is not lost it is best to speak slowly, explain fully and repeat important information several times if needed. Use common words and maintain a constant volume and avoid technical terms. This will assist people who have recently learned the language. Also be sure your presentation is "jargon free" since it can have many different meanings. Demonstrate while you speak using pictures, diagrams and props to supplement your words. Use words that include rather than exclude. While some women don't mind being called ladies, in a professional setting the word women is more appropriate. Be aware of stereotyping when illustrating and discussing hypothetical cases. Not all managers are "he" and all administrative support "she."

Remember that terminology is different in most areas of the world even if the country is English-based. For example, in Australia, public speaking breakout sessions are called "syndicates." If you were discussing the formation of a company or group venture then you may totally confuse the audience. When you are taking questions, if someone has an accent and you can't understand them, ask them to repeat what they said slowly, because what they are saying is important to you. Be comfortable with silence; in some cultures that can mean respect and attention. Be comfortable with direct interaction; in some cultures that can mean respect and attention. Be comfortable with saying, "I don't know."

Physical Body Language: Limit body motion if the audience is highly diverse
Don't use "signs" with your hands—you may have no idea what your commonly-used symbol means in other countries. Here are some examples: The "OK" sign so commonly seen in the U.S. means worthless or zero in France; worse yet, in Brazil it is considered vulgar, so you might get slapped if you flash it to a woman from that country. The thumbs-up symbol that is widely recognized in the western world as a positive sign has a derogatory meaning in Bangladesh. At best your audience may have no clue what your gesture means; at worst it may be offensive. Don't wave your arms: Talking with your hands is common and nearly expected in Italy, but in many Asian cultures it is considered distracting, a sort of meaningless chatter. Your best chance of having your speech or presentation have worldwide appeal is to keep your arm movements to a minimum.

When you are interacting with the audience remain in an open and friendly posture. Look at everyone in the audience and smile at them. Speakers have a tendency to relate to people who look more like them and ignore others. You must assume everyone wants to be valued by maintaining eye contact, not ignoring any of the attendees.

There are cultural guidelines based on personal space. In Latin America and the Middle East people stand much closer while conversing. If you were interacting with a person from one of these cultures during a public speaking engagement and you backed away to keep a normal U.S. personal space, you would be sending a very unfriendly message. Asians, however, typically stand farther apart. Your understanding of this will keep you from chasing them all over the stage. Keep this in mind too if you go into the audience to interact with them. Since they are seated, you control the interpersonal space.

Humor: If in doubt, leave it out
When using humor in your presentation, think very carefully about the jokes you select. Too many times audiences are subjected to the witty snipes at others which exclude some of the attendees. A common practice is personal stories about the presenter. This self-depreciating humor can sometimes build relationships with the audience and should be restricted to bizarre policies, equipment malfunctions, or humorous storytelling with a point and punch line. If mentioning coworkers or executives in your speech be sure they are aware and ask their permission. Once embarrassed could easily be once removed from employment.

Regardless of one's nationality and culture, cartoons and comic strips are the most universally accepted format for humor. If you want to use the cartoon or comic strip in a visual, you may need permission from the copyright holder. Cartoons and comic strips are seen in newspapers and magazines in most areas of the world. Newsstands in large cities usually have foreign periodicals, or you may find them in large libraries. It might be fun to collect cartoons and comic strips when you travel so you have a ready supply when you need one for a speech.

Conclusion: It is unwise to make assumptions regarding audiences in today's culture. By following guidelines, the attendees will understand your message and share it with others. Let's be careful to ensure no one is excluded from the learning process as we start to understand we have a "salad bowl" rather than a melting pot.

Gary S. Downing can be reached at (941) 861-0878 or