Last Friday, I attended the Going Solo conference in Lausanne, a one-day conference for freelancers. I was very impressed with the quality of the speakers and of course, I tried and observed the cultural bias/questions/issues that came up. Here is a little rundown of the things I noticed.

I consider myself a pretty good measure of the level of English. As a non-native English speaker having learned English in the US, but in an international setting, I tend to understand many accents and idiomatic expressions. However, when I don't understand, I have found that there is a good chance that other non-native speakers won't understand either. The audience was a very international audience, among which many French speakers. I would say that overall the English in the talks was of a very acceptable level for us foreigners, easy and clear, with maybe just a few lines that you can't pick up. That's for the language. But the interesting part is not so much the level of the language itself, but rather the illustrations used by the speakers, their metaphors and their examples.

The first talk of the day was given by Laura Fitton, and I found it a very inspiring talk [1]. Up to the conclusion, which was supported a slide reading "Surrender Dorothy". Laura used it to illustrate the fact that we should "give up control". However, if slides are a visual support to a presentation, this one failed to talk to some of us. "Surrender Dorothy" comes from The Wizard of Oz, a movie probably all Americans have seen (along with It's a Wonderful Life, I suppose). A movie too few non-Americans or non-English speakers have grown up with for them to understand the image. I asked Laura what the reference was. Which she explained. Thanks.

Later in the questions session, Laura gave another culturally bound example, explaining how she got her father to care about blogs by getting him to read his favorite baseball player's blog. She quickly realized that the example did not carry the weight she had intended at first, as the audience, very mainly European, was trying to get a clue as to who the Redsox were (I personally get confused with American Football and Baseball teams!) and had to walk us through her example again, with explaining who the Redsox were, who the basebal player was, much more than she would have had to do with an American audience. The interesting part being that where in the heat of the presentation Laura did not pick up on people not getting the Wizard of Oz connection, she picked up very quickly on the baseball stuff. Attentive to her audience indeed, I appreciated that.

What I find confirmed by these examples is that as soon as we address an international audience, we probaby should test (as far as it is possible, of course) our illustrations for anything people might simply overlook, or worse, plainly not understand. As soon as we're using references that are strongly tainted culturally, to reinforce a point we're trying to make, it becomes much harder to be sure that they are universal enough for the audience to pick up on them. Laura illustrated that issue with the example of the talk she gave in India, and discovering before her talk that she had to refocus her presentation because her audience in reality was very different from what it was on paper. Too often we forget that things that are very obvious to us might not come across borders and oceans.


[1] read the excellent notes taken by Suw Charman-Anderson