Using Humour When Speaking to a Foreign Audience

My last post about delivering a speech or presentation via an interpreter has generated a lot of discussion. One of the tips that I mentioned in that post was the importance of using humour carefully when addressing an audience of non-native speakers. A few people have asked whether I had an example of a situation when humour worked well when speaking to a predominantly foreign audience.

Several years ago, I had the privilege of leading a 15-person United Nations delegation to Iran on an environmental fact-finding mission. The mission was very high level and a matter of importance for the Iranian Government. We met with several Iranian officials in Tehran on the first day and then split into three groups, each of which visited a different area of the country.

That first meeting was attended by 60 to 70 people and had all the trappings of a formal international meeting that one often sees on television. While many of our hosts spoke English, many did not and so we had simultaneous Farsi-English interpretation.

The meeting was opened by a representative of the Iranian government who made some introductory remarks. He then invited me to speak. Now, given the occasion, I had worked on my remarks for some time to make sure that everything went well.

As I have written in the past, I strongly believe that native English speakers who give presentations in another country should be able to say at least a couple of words in the local language as a sign of respect. So, I had worked with an Iranian colleague in Geneva on an introduction in Farsi (which I read) about how pleased we were to be in Iran and how we looked forward to a productive mission. I then switched to English.

The Iranians in the audience very much appreciated the effort. Seeing that I had made a good initial impression, I decided to capitalize on the moment by trying a little humour. When I had been practicing speaking in Farsi in Geneva, I asked my colleague whether my pronunciation was OK. He said that it was fine but that my accent made me sound like I was from Afghanistan (where Farsi is widely spoken in the north).

So, when I switched to English, I began by telling my audience that I hoped that they had been able to understand me and then recounted the comment of my Iranian colleague in Geneva. Well, to my delight (and relief), the audience burst out into laughter. It was a great way to break the ice at the start of an important meeting.

Why did the humour work? I think there are a few reasons:

  • It was simple and did not involve the use of any jargon, expressions or colloquialisms.
  • It was (very) mildly self-deprecating in that it highlighted my struggle with the Farsi language.
  • It was universal, in that most people have had the experience of speaking in their own language to someone with a distinct accent.
  • It was also particular to the audience, given that Iran and Afghanistan are bordering countries.
  • It was clean. There was nothing disrespectful about saying that my accent sounded Afghani. It’s just the way that it sounded, apparently.
  • My Iranian colleague had suggested that I could mention his comment about my accent. Vetting humour with someone from the same culture as the audience is always a good idea.
Photo courtesy of Bram / “brum d” on Flickr

About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
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8 Responses to Using Humour When Speaking to a Foreign Audience

  1. Nuno Faria says:

    Hi John,

    Thanks for your comments. The final 6 bullet points explain the success.

    You forgot to mention you will be fluent one day in Portuguese! You’re fluent in French. After some training in Italian and Spanish, you’ll soon be able to reach the next level :-).

    By the way, humor can be complicated. Yesterday I was at a trade show in Denmark and a nice lady with a scan told me “I have to scan you! What a strange name…” and immediately the guy close to her said, “in fact NO NO it’s a strange name…”.

    Keep on the good work…

    • John Zimmer says:

      Hi Nuno,

      Thank you for the comment. Obrigado! (That’s about as far as my Portuguese goes!) Yes, humour is a complicated subject indeed.



  2. carmen romero says:

    Did I understand you well? You have worked as an interpreter at sometime? Where? What is your language combination?

    Typical questions from one interpreter to a colleague… I live and work in Lima, Peru.

    All the best,

    Carmen Romero

    • John Zimmer says:

      Hi Carmen.

      Thank you for the comment. No, I am not an interpreter but I have worked many times with interpreters. As for languages, I am mother tongue English and fluent French. I am pretty conversant in Arabic and Italian, and can get by in basic German. I don’t really speak Spanish, but because of my French and Italian, I can read it pretty well and understand it if it is spoken slowly.



  3. Christina O'Shaughnessy says:

    Useful information, John.

    Humour is tricky. The Irish, for example, tend to engage in the self-deprecating variety, which comes across as confusing to an international audience.

    Best regards. C

    P.S. Are we likely to see you again at the Canada Club Geneva one of these days?

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks, Christina. Much appreciated.

      I plan to get out to a Canada Club event in the near future if I am in town. My wife and I went to the Canada Day hockey game back in February.



  4. Osmar Jardim says:

    Dear John Zimmer, I just love reading your posts. Thank you very much for your tips. And please keep on. Good luck!

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