With cross-cultural engagement, token adjustments are not an option.
If the world were a village of 100 people …
50 would be female
50 would be male
There would be:
14 people from the Americas
Their first language may not be English
12 would speak Chinese
6 would speak Spanish
5 would speak English
4 would speak Hindi
3 would speak Arabic
3 would speak Bengali
3 would speak Portuguese
2 would speak Russian
2 would speak Japanese
60 would speak other languages
Presentations can be tricky, cross-cultural communication can be a minefield, but a mix of the two – giving presentations to a cross-cultural audience can be very difficult.
Here are twelve tips with some of the major pitfalls to avoid when delivering cross-cultural presentations.
Cross-cultural communication is to do with dealing with people from other cultures in a way that minimizes misunderstandings and conflictual situations, whilst maximising your potential to create strong relationships across cultures.
- What works here, may not work there
Most of us know how an audience in our own country prefer to receive information. For example in the UK, the US and Canada, the accent is on action and the bottom line. In mainland Europe, audiences prefer detail and supporting documentation. Just remember that some audiences will require a hybrid of styles – this we need to learn about in advance or be able to think on your feet to adapt to the audience preferences.
- Slow it down
Even if you feel that your audience has a good grasp of English, you should slow down, clearly articulate and at times check for understanding of the important points in your presentation and summarise to ensure eveyone is on the same page.
Use simple, neutral language, avoiding, slang, idioms and acronyms.
- Body language and eye-contact
UK and US (and many other cultures) present in a dynamic way, using the platform as a space to accentuate the message of a presentation. Latin cultures tend to use many gestures and arm movements, whereas a Chinese presenter will remain almost static. A gesture may mean something completely different in another culture; in the UK and US, a ‘thumbs up’ is a positive gesture, but in Iran it means something completely different! The same can be said for the ‘OK’ sign, similar to the one that divers use, in Brazil it means something different, as does the ‘V’ sign with the back of the hand towards the listener, to indicate ‘two’ in many cultures – in Britain, Australia and New Zeland it is an offensive gesture.
In many cultures, eye-contact equals sincereity, whereas in some cultures it can be overbearing and almost a threat.
The key is to check your body language, eye-contact and gestures and if in doubt, don’t use them, but try doing some homework before delivering a presentation.
- Time differences
Some cultures prefer a structured, punctual approach to business – including the time you start and finish your presentation, whilst others use start and finish time as more of a guide rather than a definite time.
In the latter cultures, people arrive more-or-less at the announced start time, will take a coffee, chat and network, whilst in a more punctual culture, this can be met with negativity and frustration.
Equally, when it comes to action points and deadlines, some cultures appear to not take this seriously – of course they do, but the impression given is one of a laid-back, relaxed approach, but don’t be fooled by this, it is usually due to the fact that the culture is more consensus orientated.
- One question at a time
Where English is not the first language, ensure that any questionns that are asked, are just one question, don’t attempt to ask double questions as it will confuse your audience members.
Questions such as “Shall we stop here?”
are much clearer and simpler to understand and thus to react to, than :
“Shall we stop here, or shall we continue?”
Some cultures, UK, USA etc., will ask many questions during and after a presentation, whereas, some Asian audiences will ask very few, and may need to be encouraged to ask any questions.
Remember, if you do not get any questions during or after your presentation, it does not necessarily mean that your audience agrees or undertsand what you have presented and at times, the reverse is often true.
It is also of little or no use to ask closed questions, those questions that require a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer as they tell you very little. Try to construct ‘How?’, ‘What?’, ‘Why?’ etc., questions.
As a general rule of thumb, avoid negative questions, which require an affirmative response, such as; ‘Do you mind if I just go through this part quickly?’
- Mind your language
If you can, try to learn the way of saying hello, goodbye, thank you and welcome in the language(s) of your hosts, this is often a nice touch that not only pleases people in the audience, but also helps break the ice at the beginning of your presentation.
Just ensure that you are able to pronounce the language you choose and that it has the desired effect with the audience.
Be very careful with humour, as it can have the effect of shooting oneself in the foot if not handled carefully and is usually not recommended, especially for an audience of diverse cultures.
Humour is sometimes difficult to understand and is often misinterpreted and can sometimes be taken as offensive – my advice would be, don’t risk it, unless you know your audience well and the subject of your presentation fits in with any humour you want to deliver.
Humour can also be viewed negatively in some cultures as it may detract from the expected professional nature of a presentation, additionally, sarcasm or irony are often largely misunderstood, so steer clear of that too.
- What is the opposite of listening?
The knee-jerk answer given to this question is, ‘Speaking.’
In fact the opposite to listening is ‘turn-taking’, that is waiting for one’s turn to speak – which means that in many conversations, one of the parties is not fully listening.
In a cross-cultural setting, turn taking is of the utmost importance, making a point, or asking a question, then leaving the other party the time to understand, digest and formulate a response.
It is often a given that a presentation will be delivered via Powerpoint or Keynote, some of us have access to projecters that display our images on a screen via WiFi. Some will use tools such as Prezzi, endless canvas etc.
When presenting in another culture, it is possible that the tools we are used to using, are just not going to work abroad, but the audience may not even like the visual elements that these tools offer, preferring whiteboards or even overhead projecters, and at times just the spoken input from the presenter.
Video rarely works well as it is often difficult for the presenter to transition effectively in and out of video whilst retaining a dynamic flow to the presentations, not to mention the technical pitfalls that video presents such as no sound or no image, or the video not being linked to the presentation.
Some good preparation beforehand will help overcome these potential issues that could, effectively, block any attempt at communication.
- What to expect from your audience
Some audiences are very engaged and willing to participate, to answer questions etc., and some just do not do this.
Asian audiences will often nod their heads and look concentrated during the presentation, Indians will sometimes waggle their heads, Saudis will often show no reaction and do nothing.
Applause is generally a universal manisfestation of approval, but in Australia and the UK, audiences rarely clap at the end of a presentation. In Germany, people will knowk on the table as a sign of approval, whilst in the USA, approval can be shown by whistles. In some cultures, whistles can signal a completely opposite effect, of disapproval.
It is hugely important to keep one’s emotions in check during a presentation, especially during the Q & A sesion, where some cultures will almost cross-examine a presenter about their presentation. This is not always a negative thing, just keep in mind the positive intentions behind close questioning and never take it as a threat or attempt to bring your presentation down.
Never lose patience, nor show frustration or anger – most questions are being asked to establish facts or to iron-out any doubts the audience may have, reacting negatively will lead to a loss of credibility.
Just bear in mind that if you have a lot of questions at the end of your presentation, this is a very good thing, as the audience are participating actively and will remember a lot more of your presentation than if they remained passive.
The audience is clearly interested in your presentation.
If there are a lot of questions from the audience, we could also question the clarity of our presentation for the given audience.
- Get some training
If you are working in an international, cross-cultural environment, undertake traing in “Intercultural Awareness” and Cross-Cultural Presentation Skills”
The investment in time and money will pay off a hundred fold and will help you approach cross-cultural communication with serenity, professionalism and confidence, which will ultimately help you do more and better business in the future.