A Toastmaster Speaks in China (Part 2)

Continuing Interview of Darren LaCroix about his speaking trip to China.

How did you prepare for your China programs?
I bought books and when I hit the ground in China I spent a lot of time asking questions and talking to as many people as I could.  The best advice I received, which was brilliant, came from  Keith Ostergard, a native Virginian who is now the District 85P Governor in Beijing,  and he is married to a woman from China.  Keith said “Darren, don’t try to change your presentation.  The problem is if you’re trying to edit as you go, you’re not going to be present in the moment.  All I want you to do is slow down.”  Which makes all the sense in the world.  Because when I studied the other World Champions, in their contest speeches, they took their time, they went slower and they took longer pauses, but it’s dawning on me that this is even more crucial to the international people in the audience.  In any audience some may not be native-English speaking.  And they’re having to translate what you say in their heads.  And in China almost 100 percent has to translate.  I think it was brilliant advice.  And as a presenter, I would give that advice to everyone, who is American or a native-English speaker, because we can’t get too caught up in editing.  They want to hear your presentation the way you usually give it.

So my pacing was to do my rants just like I’d normally do, but then I’d pause longer before I’d go to the next segment, wait for them to catch up.  It’s like doing a race and pulling something behind you with a bungee cord.  I didn’t slow the whole thing down, but I would stop once in awhile to let them catch up.  One of the most difficult things for us to do as speakers is to stand there and say nothing.  But we have to give them time to reflect and we, as speakers, need to be comfortable with the silence. 

Did you try to learn some Chinese?
I took a couple of years of Spanish in Junior High School, and I’ll always remember those encouraging words of my teacher Leopold Williams, “LaCroix you bloody idiot!”  So I wasn’t very good in foreign languages.  In China, I learned a greeting, walked on stage and opened with Ni Hao, which is welcome in Chinese. I wanted them to know that I cared enough to learn how to say hello.  And I had one line which I’ll probably blog about, I said “looking around here I have never felt so (and I used the Chinese word for foreigner).”  It got an OK laugh.  I really thought it would have been funnier.  But it’s a risk. It’s about them.  It’s a calculated risk.  If it’s about the audience, it’s OK to take risks.  And it’s OK not to get great laughs.  The purpose of it isn’t the laugh as much as it is to connect.  So I’ll always take a little bit of a risk so long as it’s about them.  One of the first things you should do is learn some slang.  They loved it when I said bullshit in Chinese.

How was it doing humor in China?  How was humor perceived differently?  And how was it the same?
Well, first, I had my celebrity status working for me.  I advertise in Toastmaster Magazine.  And they had shown my Ouch! speech at a meeting before my arrival.  It makes your first five to seven minutes easier, but after that if you’re not funny it doesn’t matter who you are.

I found that sarcasm was perceived very differently, and I think it’s cultural.  I know many people who are Asian-American who love sarcasm and laugh at it, but that’s part of our society.  In China, my perception is that sarcasm is perceived more directly and it’s perceived as mean or negative when that’s not where my heart is.  I love sarcasm and I enjoy it, but I can see where if it’s not a culture you’ve grown up in, it could seem really negative or caustic.  And I’m not referring to really negative humor, but rather something that we as a culture just think of as normal teasing of someone or even teasing of ourselves. 

Here’s something that really worked.  I asked them:  If you wanted to learn to be a comedian, who would you go to for advice?  To a comedian, right?  That’s great.  So what did I do?  I went to my family.  It was the biggest response I got in the whole hour and a half.  The response was huge. The size of the laughter shocked me.  And it turned into applause.  When laughing turns into applause, it’s like they’re saying “Amen brother.  You’re preaching to the choir.”  When you think about it logically, their culture is so much more traditional, I know my parents were traditional and set in their ways, and in China it’s even a bigger taboo to go against your parents.  So I think that’s why that line really resonated there.

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