Speak to a Diverse Audience

Speak to a Diverse Audience

Effective communication requires thinking about what you are saying, as well as how you say it.

Humans are social beings. We constantly find new and improved ways to communicate with each other. It’s a wonder we don’t understand one another better. Even family members suffer communication breakdowns, though, so imagine the chances for miscommunication among a group of strangers. At HEALTHCON, for example, attendees hale from across the country, as well as other countries. With so many regional dialects and social mores in one room, will everyone get your jokes? Will they even understand what you’re saying?
To ensure you come across as intended while speaking to a diverse audience, Toastmasters International — a communication and leadership development organization — offers these six tips.

  1. Enunciate Clearly

“If possible, try to speak with a neutral accent to better include all audience members,” Toastmasters says.

How do you “neutralize” an accent? In simple terms: Speak plain English and enunciate your words clearly. This may sound hard, but many of us do it without even thinking: We speak one way to our friends and family, and another way to strangers, teachers, coworkers, etc. No matter how comfortable you are with an audience, speak to them like you would the latter.

  1. Don’t Speak Too Fast

“Remember that the normal pace of speech in one language might become incomprehensible for people relatively new to that language,” Toastmaster says.

I have that problem with my teenage daughter. I have no idea what she’s saying half the time because she talks so fast. And we speak the same language, sort of.
Enunciating your words will automatically help you to slow down your speech. This will also give you more time to think before you speak, and we all need to do more of that.

  1. Be Careful with Metaphors

“Some metaphors that are appropriate in one culture can be offensive to another. A good example is references to sports not popular or practiced in a certain country, or phrases that are comical in one culture yet offensive in another,” Toastmaster says.

A metaphor is a figure of speech. Americans use them a lot, but not consistently from one region to another. Here are some well-known metaphors (to me, at least):

  • Albatross – a burden
  • Blank check – terms without limitations
  • Cold feet – nervousness
  • Fork in the road – ultimatum
  • Greek to me – not understood
  • Late bloomer – slow to develop
  • Nutshell – in essence
  • Rolling in dough – have a lot of money
  • White elephant – an object with obscure value

Here are some lesser-known metaphors (to me, at least):

  • Belling the cat – to perform a dangerous task
  • Big red button – to aggravate someone
  • Green shoots – good economy
  • Her hair was bone white – a wise or old person
  • Iron – someone heartless or unkind
  • The price of milk – something that is cheap

To be on the safe side, avoid using metaphors. Most tend to be overused, and you run the risk of sounding like a cliché.

  1. Know the Meanings of Words Outside Your Native Language

“Unless you are absolutely sure of the meaning and pronunciation of a word you are using in a given language, do not use it. In some languages, slight variations of a vowel will completely alter the meaning of a word,” Toastmaster says.

In other words, “When in doubt, leave it out.”

  1. Avoid Slang, Jargon, and Idiomatic Expressions

“Diverse audiences may not understand slang from a given country. English phrases such as ‘that dog don’t hunt’ or ‘cool as a cucumber’ might be colorful, but the meaning could be lost on a large part of the audience,” Toastmaster says.

This applies to audiences from the same country, too. For example, most Americans don’t know what the colloquialism “that dog don’t hunt” means, aside from Texans. (According to the Urban Dictionary, it means, “An obviously faulty endeavor.”)
Colloquialisms are informal words, phrases, or aphorisms that are part of a regional dialect:

  • Words:
    • Soda (West Coast and Northeast), pop (North-Northwest), coke (South)
    • Hoagie (Philadelphia), sub (New London, Conn.), grinder (New England), po’boy (Louisiana), hero (New York City) — and the list goes on.
    • Pizza (most of the United States); pie, pizza pie, or tomato pie (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania)
  • Phrases:
    • Old as the hills
    • Eat my dust
  • Aphorisms:
    • I wasn’t born yesterday.
    • Put your money where your mouth is.

Americans also have a habit of using words that have more than one meaning in some regions. For example:

  • Fixing – to mend / to get ready to do something
  • Hip – anatomy / to have knowledge
  • Online – waiting or standing in line / on the internet
  • Wicked – evil / awesome
  1. Be Mindful of Body Language, Eye Contact, and Personal Space

“Posture, mannerisms and eye contact speak volumes and what is taken for granted in one culture might be considered offensive in another,” Toastmaster says.

Avoid using distracting mannerisms, such as pacing, fidgeting, etc., while you’re speaking. To engage the audience, avoid crossing your arms in front of your body (defense mechanism) and face the audience, not the projector screen.
In removing all of the white noise, you will be better able to speak to what the audience understands and wants to hear: the business of healthcare.

Get Off Your Soapbox

There’s another idiom for you! According to the Urban Dictionary, it originated in the days when street preachers would stand on a soap box and give a sermon. Speaking at conference or any other work-related event is not the time to assault others with your personal opinions about matters unrelated to the presentation. Always remember to:

  • Choose your words carefully. Vocabulary should be professional: That means no swearing, off color remarks, or sexually explicit connotations.
  • Set the tone. Be formal but friendly. If you’re too informal, you’ll come off as unprofessional; and if you’re too formal, you’ll come off as arrogant and unapproachable.
  • Show respect. These are your peers; do not talk down to them or insult their intelligence.



Toastmasters International, “Speaking to Diverse Audiences:” www.toastmasters.org/resources/public-speaking-tips/speaking-to-diverse-audiences
A Big List of Metaphors: www.metaphors.com
Hunt, Kristen, “The Best Regional Slang Words from Around the Country,” Thrillest, July 2, 2015: www.thrillist.com/entertainment/nation/regional-american-slang-yinz-jawn-whoopensocker
Literary Devices, www.literarydevices.com/colloquialism/
“Soda vs. Pop vs. Coke: Who Says What, and Where?” www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/12/soda-vs-pop_n_2103764.html
Pop vs Soda survey: http://popvssoda.com/

Renee Dustman
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Renee Dustman, BS, AAPC MACRA Proficient, is managing editor - content & editorial at AAPC. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Media Communications - Journalism. Renee has more than 30 years' experience in journalistic reporting, print production, graphic design, and content management. Follow her on Twitter @dustman_aapc.

No Responses to “Speak to a Diverse Audience”

  1. maxine dorsey says:

    This article is very informative and an excellent resource! I work in an intake customer service environment and this helps a lot when dealing with various calls from across the states. I am now speaking slower to be better understood by all my callers because I have noticed after reading this that I do speak fast and am often told to repeat! Thanks for bringing this to my attention and helping me overcome it!

  2. Renee Dustman says:

    Good to hear! Thank you for the feedback.