July 2015
By Elena Groznaya

Image: © kasto/123rf.com

Elena Groznaya is a researcher, trainer and consultant, specializing on the impact of national cultures on international business, and on the mechanisms of dealing effectively with the global diversity on the organizational and interorganizational levels. She has broad experience living and working in a number of countries in Europe and Asia.




Creating effective presentations for a global audience

Who wouldn’t enjoy a joke at the beginning of a presentation to ease you into the topic – however complex it might be? Well, there are actually a few cultures that would prefer to stick to facts and figures. So, how can you adjust your presentation to appeal to an international audience?

The speaker is moving to yet another densely-packed presentation slide. At this point, it seems that your biggest challenge is to keep your mind focused or at least your eyes opened. Sounds familiar? Another common scenario is a speaker who starts off with a few strong statements, then rushes through a brightly colored slide set, and finishes with another strong statement leaving you wondering what point he or she was trying to make.

And, the situation is even worse when you find yourself in the speaker’s shoes. Imagine going through your powerful presentation just to find puzzled looks on the faces of your audience? If you know the feeling, then you have probably already faced the challenge of presenting to a global audience.

Despite the fact that multiple – often very complex – issues of doing business around the globe are gaining attention in practice-oriented and academic literature, there is an underestimated aspect of global business that deserves more consideration: the way we present information, how we convey our thoughts and make other people understand our ideas and intentions.

Applying general presentation best practices

Practically every person involved in cross-national business will eventually face the challenge of sharing information with an audience that dramatically differs from the one at home. The most common approach is derived from the assumption that our target audience abroad possesses and applies the same principles of dealing with information as our home audience: if the presentation worked well at home, it will work well anywhere else. This is exactly where major problems start.

General best practices for creating a clear, effective and convincing presentation are well known. The most crucial point is to tailor the content to the expectations of your audience. The importance of this customization seems to be so obvious at home, yet is often neglected in an international setting. This underestimation of cultural differences can lead to a great deal of frustration, wasted time and higher costs.

Basically, each step of a successful presentation has to be thoroughly planned. An experienced speaker will think through every detail of his talk, starting from the first impression right through to the ending with a powerful conclusion. This strategy works well as long as the presenter is dealing with a familiar audience. However, things can go seriously wrong when presenting to people from a different cultural background with a diverse set of values and differing expectations.

Culture-specific expectations

For a US speaker, it is a tradition to start a presentation with a joke. It helps the audience relax and creates a friendly, informal atmosphere that is a crucial element for an open, direct discussion. Can anything be wrong with that? – Yes, it can, if you are presenting, for example, in Japan or to a highly task-oriented German audience, who might perceive the lack of formality as a lack of professionalism and reliability. These audiences might find the easygoing approach to be inappropriate for a business situation and would generally prefer to stick to a formal, strictly task-oriented style. They might even find it difficult to take the ideas of a non-serious person seriously. Besides, translating humor is a big challenge in international communication. A good joke that always works at home might easily miss the target abroad, be misinterpreted or even backfire.

Probably the most crucial issue to getting the message across is the logic of a presentation. For instance, many European cultures prefer to stick to facts: They calculate and analyze all possible risks, and often present a very detailed picture. A good presentation here normally starts with short background information, then gradually and logically moves through relevant facts and data, and eventually ends with main points, suggestions and conclusions. People in the US, on the other hand, who value their time and don’t mind a certain degree of risk, would find this long, data-heavy sequence style rather wearisome. In most cases, a powerful presentation in the US is expected to start with the major statement and the solution, followed by rationales. A presenter usually avoids an overuse of facts and figures. If additional clarification is required, it can be obtained during the Q&A session after the presentation. Then again, this approach might be perceived as too straightforward by an Asian audience that expects the speaker to follow a chronological order, covering origin and a brief history of the company, project or product with an emphasis on solid background facts and technical data.

Designing global presentation slides

The influence of how information is perceived within a culture must also be considered when designing presentation slides. Research shows that the way a presenter builds his or her slides varies dramatically among cultures. The requirements for the inherent logic and content of each slide are as important as the logic of the presentation itself. Bullet points, detailed graphs and data tables will be of great help in Europe. An Asian audience might feel very comfortable with a lot of text on each slide. In addition, story-loving Asian listeners will expect each and every slide to include a systematically arranged, informative, well-supported, independent narrative with an introduction, a body of facts and a clear conclusion.

In South and North America, where the audience is flexible and more open to a certain degree of uncertainty, images, an intuitive, inductive atmosphere as well as short and clear messages that leave a good deal of room for interpretation and make the audience ask for more, will do a much better job.

Q&A sessions, feedback and open discussions

Another aspect that makes the whole procedure even more complex is the desire (or the lack thereof) of the presenter to involve the audience and to receive direct feedback or questions during or at the end of the presentation. Most English-speaking and European cultures believe that Q&A sessions as well as successive discussions are natural components of any presentation. A presenter from these cultures will schedule time for this procedure, anticipate forthcoming arguments and often build the presentation in a way that induces certain questions from the audience. Both, questions and feedback can be very direct in these parts of the world.

An enthusiastic Western speaker, however, might feel pretty awkward when facing a very quiet, or even worse, seemingly sleeping audience in some Asian countries. In this situation, the silence can be misinterpreted as a lack of interest and a pretty bad sign in general, which might dramatically decrease the speaker’s enthusiasm. The face-saving, relations- and group-oriented Asian cultures, however, would find open discussions, expressions of strong individual opinions and straightforward feedback to be overly direct, too insensitive and even offensive.

In these restrained cultures silence is a sign of concentration. Closed eyes do not always imply that your talk made your audience drift off into slumberland. Asian listeners are used to mono-tasking and to control their emotions. They might find that the only way to minimize unnecessary distractions from the over-active mimic or body language of an energetic and enthusiastic North or South American speaker, combined with the necessity of comprehending information in a foreign language, is to literally keep their eyes closed. Feedback would mostly be offered in a non-direct way, often long after the actual presentation, in a face-to-face individual conversation.

Another extreme is constant interruptions that can be found in multitasking South American, South Asian and Arabian countries. For a person who is used to a linear, well-planned and systematic approach to presenting ideas, it might be a challenge to stay calm when the doors are constantly opened and shut, calls received, remarks exchanged, snacks offered, etc. These relations-oriented, multitasking cultures expect a certain degree of flexibility and patience. The Q&A session might take place directly after the presentation or, more commonly, be shifted to a less formal venue, where all the details and doubts can be discussed personally without the danger of offending or challenging a speaker publicly. This attitude might in turn be quite discouraging for a speaker constrained by a strict schedule from the direct, business and time-oriented cultures of Northern Europe or North America.

Tips for approaching an international audience

It is generally a challenge to stay calm and keep a positive attitude when expectations are not met, and when the target audience does not quite react to your well-planned, powerful talk the way you had envisioned or hoped for. The only way to avoid such a frustrating outcome, wasted time as well as unnecessary expenses is to strictly follow the rule of tailoring your talk to your listeners.

So, how do you achieve the goal of bringing your ideas to people from another cultural background?

First, customize. It is crucial to remember that a great variety of cultures also implies a great variety of dealing with information, of learning, analyzing, and presenting. This is why any idea has to be delivered in an empathic manner. It is advisable to step out of your own world and try to think the way your audience does, to see the world through their eyes, and try to re-create their system and hierarchy of values. This strategy might sound more complex than it is. Do some research on your target culture, its worldview, value system, behavioral norms, ways of learning and understanding.

Second, stay natural. If you like engaging your audience and prefer to share your ideas in a friendly and open manner, supported by powerful images, try to combine your style with the strict logic, data-intense, story-telling approach that is preferred by your reserved, fact-oriented listeners. In your slides, combine intuitive images with solid data, context, evidence and clear conclusions. If you insist on adding humor, test your jokes on a native person or, better yet, a few representatives of the host culture, before you include them in your talk.

If you belong to a more reserved culture and are more accustomed to a structured, data-intense style, you could touch up your talk by shifting most of the data to the end of the presentation. Try adding a few professional pictures and restructure your presentation based on the logic of your host culture. Also, try to engage your audience by asking questions rather than offering answers during your talk.

Third, prepare handouts. In many cases, it is wise to prepare detailed, informative, data-based handouts and distribute them before your talk. This also helps when you and your listeners are either divided by a language barrier and you have to rely on the help of an interpreter, or when your audience might find it difficult to understand you. When you are planning your talk in a very structured, data-oriented country, it usually makes sense to send your presentation and handouts in advance, so that your audience has time to get to know your ideas and prepare questions.

Fourth, consult with representatives of the host country. Probably the most effective way to customize your presentation is to ask a person or a number of people from your target culture to check your presentation and suggest questions that might arise. It might take a few tweaks before your presentation is properly tailored to your host culture. But this is definitely worth it.

Mark Twain once said: “It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.” Double this time when preparing a presentation for a foreign audience, customize your talk based on the target culture, ask for assistance, and be flexible and ready for surprises. These four simple points plus some experience will help you to deliver powerful and effective presentations in a globalized world.