In today's global economy, all companies?from Fortune 100
powerhouses to small businesses?look internationally for
opportunities to grow. With so much at stake, trainers and other
presenters who represent these companies often feel tremendous
pressure to succeed.
Unfortunately, many people use approaches that work in their home
countries but aren't effective when they speak to audiences from
different cultures. Presenters might be experts on their content,
products, or services, but may know little about the audience's
culture. This often leads to cultural miscommunication, which can
cost companies millions of dollars in lost sales, project delays,
and damaged business relationships. Now more than ever, presenters
who operate on the global stage need to understand the impact of
cultural differences on how they communicate.
The power of cultural agility
Successful global presenters demonstrate what I call cultural
agility. They understand the mindsets and expectations that people
in different cultures have about communication, relationships,
conflict, and other aspects of conducting business. And they know
how to use this knowledge to adjust their presentation content and
approach to suit their audience.
You certainly don't have to create a new presentation for every
culture, but you can take specific actions to increase your chances
of communicating successfully.
Tailor your information to the culture of your
audience. It's tempting to use the same content and
talking points in all of your presentations. The problem is that
the impact of your presentation and how your audience responds may
be negatively affected by your seeming lack of understanding of
their cultural norms and expectations. It makes sense to take the
extra time and thought to tailor your content to specific
- Use analogies, metaphors, and themes that are specific to that
culture or that have a broad cultural appeal. If you want to use a
sports analogy in India, cricket is more relevant than baseball. If
you have a mix of cultures in your audience, think of broader
themes that everyone can relate to. I recently worked with a
U.S.-based executive on a speech for his global salesforce. Rather
than using the typical sales themes (American sports, military
battles, climbing mountains), we created a navigation theme to
describe the challenging economic environment. The overall market
conditions were "rough seas." Each sales office was a "ship and
crew" serving different "ports" or customers.
- Use pictures that are representative of the audience's
geographic region or that show a multicultural perspective. It may
seem like a small detail to you, but people appreciate it when the
faces, buildings, landscapes, and other images shown in your
presentation look familiar to them. You can find multicultural
images on websites such as Istockphoto, Flickr, and Getty Images,
and more local images on in-country sites.
- Whenever possible, provide content to the audience in advance.
It gives them time to review your information prior to the
presentation, which is important if there are complex concepts that
are difficult to understand or if translation is needed. People can
also give you feedback on how to communicate your ideas more
effectively, even before your formal presentation.
If you can, contact someone from your audience's culture or someone
who has presented there before. This could be a friend, co-worker,
the person who asked you to present, or even someone who will be in
the audience. Ask them what you need to do to be successful
presenting in their culture.
Adjust how you interact with the
audience. Audiences participate in different ways across
cultures. Some are very engaged and open to participate in
exercises and Q&A sessions, while others are more reserved. A
Japanese audience member may close his eyes while listening; an
Israeli audience might press the presenter with pointed questions,
while a Finnish one may be silent. The key is to provide options
for dialogue and feedback, because speaking up in a public format
might not be the cultural norm.
- Rather than asking individual participants to share their
ideas, you can break the larger audience into smaller discussion
groups first, and then have each group designate a spokesperson to
share their insights.
- Start your dialog with the audience before the presentation.
Have audience members send you questions in advance. Again, when
you provide information and questions to the audience before your
presentation, they will have time to think about important issues
and prepare what they want to say.
- In many cultures, much of the discussion and decision making
occur outside of the formal presentation. Expand your strategy to
address how you are going to engage your audience before, during,
and after the presentation.
I once delivered a web-based seminar on presentation strategy to
two different sales groups - one in Asia and one in Europe. The
executive in charge of these groups wanted the same information
communicated to each group, but when I spoke with the sales manager
in each region it was clear that how I presented the information
would be different.
My company sent materials to both group before the seminars. In
Europe I planned for a high level of interaction, using online
polls and whiteboards and taking questions during the presentation.
We had a lot of interaction during the seminar, but few questions
at the end. In Asia I expected less, if any, interaction from
participants, which turned out to be true. I delivered the
information online to the Asia group without interruption, then
asked people to email me their questions after the seminar so I
could respond to them individually.
Both sessions went very well. I think part of the success was due
to the changes we made in how to present the material. And I did
get interaction from people in both groups when I asked about the
upcoming World Cup football matches - everyone felt passionate
about their country's chances!
Once you know how much interaction to expect from your audience,
you can engage them in ways that fit their culture. This helps
build your credibility and relationship with the audience, which in
turn makes them more open to your ideas.
Modify your nonverbal communication. There are
many stories of presenters making mistakes in their nonverbal
communication with diverse cultural audiences. One of my favorites
describes a keynote speaker at a major conference who received
enthusiastic applause from his audience as he was introduced. He
acknowledged the applause by raising both hands over his head and
in front of his body, then moving both hands up and down slightly.
He thought he was thanking them, but they thought he was
indicating, "You are stupid, be quiet and sit down." After a short,
awkward pause, someone signaled the speaker to put his hands down
and he started his presentation. Later, when local organizers
explained the situation, the presenter was shocked to learn what he
Here are three delivery skills that all global presenters should
pay attention to:
- Pausing. When speaking to people whose first
language is different from yours, it's important to use pauses to
give them time to absorb (and possibly translate) what you've just
said. Pausing also gives you time to think about what you want to
say and to select the right words and pronounce them clearly. Speak
in short sound bites of complete sentences or short statements.
This is especially important when using a translator during your
- Eye contact. The amount of eye contact you make
with audience members can also be a major intercultural difference.
Some cultures, such as American, Canadian, and German, consider
strong eye contact a sign of confidence and sincerity. Others,
including Japanese, Native American, and Hispanic cultures may find
it disrespectful and an invasion of privacy. One tip: Notice how
much eye contact people give you, and then match that level.
- Animation. This includes your movements, gestures,
and facial expressions. Some cultures are quite animated and
appreciate hand gestures and an energetic delivery. Others expect
speakers to remain calm. Check with your local contact to learn
about your audience's expectations. It may take time and effort on
your part to adjust your normal way of speaking, but your audience
will appreciate it. And pay specific attention to the use of
gestures. Using inappropriate gestures is one of the most common
mistakes presenters make with cross-cultural audiences. For
example, the "thumbs up" gesture may have a positive meaning in the
United States, but it's an obscene gesture in Iran.
Always remain aware of your body language in cross-cultural
presentations. This doesn't mean you change who you are because
authenticity is important. But even a small change in how you
deliver your information goes a long way to building your
credibility with multicultural audiences.
When it comes to presenting on the global stage, cultural agility
matters. If you take the time to practice the above suggestions and
tailor your content and approach to the culture of your audience,
you'll reap the rewards of clear communication and positive
business relationships far into the future.
Dave Underhill, president of Underhill Training and Development, is
an industry leader in the field of global presentation training and
coaching. Clients such as Microsoft and Intel call on Underhill to
help executives and their teams deliver compelling presentations on
the global stage. He is a member of national ASTD and the Cascadia
ASTD Field Editor Neal R. Goodman is president of Global Dynamics.
Since 1984, GDI has provided global/cross-cultural and diversity
training and development and coaching to leading global
corporations on a worldwide basis; firstname.lastname@example.org; 1.305.682.7883.
2011 ASTD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.