I was sitting in a relatively small conference room with all the people speaking beautiful French & neat English, obviously enjoying exchanging opinions and ideas. I was enjoying the very moment of sharing. I sat quietly trying hard to listen and making notes for later investigation. But I could not get rid of the subtle nervousness that made it hard to concentrate. I had to make an effort to listen since my internal voice was speaking much louder. I was to run a workshop next day. I did it before, but this time it was different. The setting was completely new to me: I was at an international tech conference with quite varied audience.
I was aware that various cultures perceive and process the world around us differently, and I was afraid my previous approach might not work. I was worried that the cultural and individual differences can create certain barriers, raising up like giant barriers towards perceiving my message and the knowledge I wanted to share. To add up, I knew little about the background and professional profiles of my potential audience. Nor was I sure about their working context.
To my great relief the workshop went fine. It was quite smooth thanks to my awareness and staying alert but I knew it could have been better. This feeling made me spend three hours of my flight home in trying to reverse engineer it and fill in the blackouts with the details I missed.
Some of the things I managed to identify, I would like to share in this post.
In the first place, being aware that people in front of you are all way too different, is an extreme advantage. The fact itself speaks so loudly that it helps you to set your mind on the right route.
The second thing you need before you start delivering your workshop is to learn how to listen when your audience speaks. It will help you get the info you’re missing right on the spot. Make sure you hear what they’re saying. I know how stressful it is to deliver a speech without people having to respond. And it is even more stressful to deliver a workshop where unexpected questions and remarks, or sometimes subtle facial expressions and looks can be quite unsettling.
Having to run a workshop for the audience with a highly varied profile, apart from the topic, you need to do some research regarding the target audience. Try to get as much info about the people you’ll interact with as you can.
What I had to grasp frantically on the spot, like a Sherlock Holmes trying to watch people carefully, catching info and possible hints about their profiles, you might cover by some prior research, and enjoy small talk and networking during coffee breaks instead. Among the useful things to know about your target audience in advance are:
- professional occupation and general background,
- if someone is connected to the topic,
- if there is anyone working in the same field or representing the same area of expertise.
In case you get the agenda and the list of participants in advance, you can do some research in the social media, at least to get the titles or the occupational field. This info can help you evaluate the relevance of your topic, as well as how much context you share. It can also be helpful in structuring your workshop and will shed some light on whether it is necessary to cover the basics or you can safely move to a more advanced level.
If you don’t have an option to peek at the list of participants beforehand, you still have a chance to make a quick on-the-spot research before actually jumping to the topic. Make sure to plan some slack time to ask a few questions such as “How many of you work directly with… or engaged in the topic at hand? Have you heard of it previously? Who had some previous experience with the topic I am going to cover (other workshops, books, certifications etc)?”. Those simple questions may at least give you a brief and high-level idea of how well your group is informed about the subject and if you are on the same page.
Be prepared to adjust following the feedback. You might figure out that you need to include some more elaboration. Or, on the opposite, you can see that skipping the detailed theory will be fine and you can move on to practice or case studies instead. In some cases you might have to spare more time for Q&A section or even have more of an open discussion that might be useful for more advanced groups.
Another trick that helped my group to feel the topic better was a made-up case. After my workshop, as I was gathering the feedback, some participants shared that when working in small groups having a particular situation in mind helped them bring their context closer together. Having a made-up situation creates a shared setting where all the real contexts and roles temporarily step aside giving way to better focus and collaboration.
Some of the general background such as hobbies and interests can help to build a better rapport with the group and relate the topic to their experience. Metaphors can be generated from general experience and can help your ideas to get through. Orchestra conducting can be used to convey some leadership ideas whereas hiking and mountains climbing can be used for describing some challenges and going up to success. The more you know about the group, the more common ground you can find, the more appeal you can hold for them.
If you have a chance to learn more about the companies being represented by the participants, at least at the level of their mission, you could also be able to build a connection to a broader professional community.
The first time I held my workshop it was a culturally homogeneous group which made it smooth and easy since we shared most cultural perspectives. It was all about the individual rather than cultural differences. This time was more complex. Differences in cultural perspectives added up their colours to the learning kaleidoscope. I was lucky enough my major in intercultural communication helped me to keep some of my worries at bay. But in case cultural dimensions are not something you had a chance to dig into before, you might want to start with a wonderful book by Erin Meyer – “The Cultural Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business”. The book provides you with a brilliant overview and precious insights about where cultural differences reside. It is a great start towards cross-cultural communication research. Erin keeps saying: “You have two eyes, two ears, and one mouth. Use them accordingly”. Be a good observer and conscious listener especially when it comes to multiple cultures around. Be prepared to adjust.
To help you build a better connection with the group, regardless how culturally and professionally varied your public is, make sure to do some ice breaking. Sharing and asking about some interesting personal facts, such as the favourite time of the year or the worst dish one has ever tried, as well as a good joke, will make people talk and laugh, getting them more engaged, relaxed and open. Although make sure your jokes stay on the safe side and are correct from all the perspectives.
And the most important thing you should keep in mind is that by sharing your knowledge and positive energy you create joy. Your audience will always be thankful for you sincere desire to make them better. They say “Sharing is caring”. Guided by a sincere desire to share and empower you will definitely hit the target. Share with joy and you will be rewarded with mutual positive energy and also a good round of applause. 😉