The Successful Global Presenter: How to Engage Audiences Across Cultures

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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 audiences:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 groupsâ€"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 matchesâ€"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 had done. 

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 presentation.
  • 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.

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