Presenting to a Different Culture

Presenting to a Different Culture

We may be small, but Chainsaw Communications is global. We have offices in Atlanta, Liverpool, and Berlin, and train in even farther-flung locals, from Mexico to Singapore. 

This isn’t unusual anymore. Despite the recent, globalized backlash to globalization, you are still more likely to work around people from different continents and cultures than any generation in history. That goes not only for folks at big, blue-chip corporations, most of them multinationals by default, but for entrepreneurs, startups, and freelancers.

Where there’s work, there are opportunities to speak. 

Presenting to people from different cultures invites unique challenges, and a little insight may help you navigate your next event more gracefully. Our team has experience in front of all sorts of crowds, so we’ve interviewed three of our own. Interestingly, they all agreed in separate interviews that paying attention to workplace—not national—culture was more important for planning your presentation.

Consultant Beth Penland is from Tennessee, and lives in Atlanta, Georgia, in the USA. Lead trainer Alasdair Farrar is based at our Liverpool, England, office and commutes from neighboring Manchester. Trainer Catarina Specht lives in Berlin, Germany, and hails from Konstanz, right on the Swiss border. But we first met her in Costa Rica.  

Here are some of their thoughts.

Are there benefits to presenting in a foreign culture, as well as drawbacks?

Did they understand my Game of Thrones reference or are they just humoring me?

Beth Penland: Yes, there are huge benefits. First and foremost is the gift of humility. Even the best presenters, with the best presentations, can go sideways when the audience has a different worldview. It’s harder to connect, but when you do the audience typically rewards you with sudden warmth and openness to your message. 

The drawbacks? Well, it requires more research. You need to think beyond the trusty one-liners that work with the audience at home. 

Catarina Specht: Presenting to a foreign culture, in a foreign language, is demanding. Maybe more so for the audience. They need to be focused, listen, and sometimes interpret what you are saying. Precise messaging, preparation, and practice are key. 

When it comes to accents and grammar, as well as complex physical forms of politeness (such as bowing in Asia) the audience will be forgiving. But you should learn local rules of politeness. For example, how should your host be addressed? In Germany, you would say, “I’d like to thank Ambassador Miller for the opportunity to speak here tonight.” But in a Scandinavian monarchy, you need to say—at least—“Your Excellence, Ambassador Marcus Miller.” Otherwise, you’ll sound rude.

Alasdair Farrar: The English accent always seems to go down well with American groups, and you can break the ice with some light-hearted banter about who uses the language correctly. 

You do need to make the audience feel comfortable, so they can point out anything they don’t understand. This is particularly important with people whose first language is not English. 

Presenting to a different culture also forces you to put yourself into the mindset of the audience. Try to make sure that everything you are saying is structured the best way possible. This is a great application of a key component of our value proposition, “flipping the focus.” You should always take the audience into account to make your message accessible.

CS: I once presented to a Chinese military delegation on the German Army’s use of social media. Our team thought of social media as a means to improve participation, transparency, interaction, and feedback culture. The Chinese military was discussing social media as a way to push state news onto citizens’ smartphones.

The challenge was to present an opposition view without disrespecting the audience. So, I tried to relate my concerns back to topics they had discussed, and not judge an action or intent as good or bad. I deliberately picked up on the phrases and expressions they had used.

Apparently it worked. I got a silk tie as a gift, because they hadn’t considered that a woman might be speaking. I quickly made up a husband and everyone was happy. 

What is your favorite thing about presenting within your own culture?

Presenting in familiar territory isn't always easier,
Presenting to your own crew can be easier—except when it’s not.

AF: Being able to say, “A to zed” rather than “A to zee.” In all seriousness, I sometimes find working with British groups harder. I don’t know why. Having said that, once, as a Brit, you do connect with a UK group, things become easier in terms of humour and casual conversation.

BP:I love talking to other Southerners. We typically share a cultural identity. Unfortunately, when someone unfamiliar with the South hears a slight accent, it often seems to trigger a negative Duck Dynasty-style stereotype. 

This can be annoying but can also be a business advantage. A wise client from Tennessee once said, “Let them think you’re slow and Southern, until you get to the negotiation. Then show them what you’re made of.”

Do you prepare differently for US, UK, German, or other audiences?

"dress to impress" means different things to different clients
An ounce of preparation is worth a kilogram of self-deprecating humor when your off-the-cuff presentation goes sideways.

BP:Coming from the USA, I cut way back on my caffeine intake before presenting. British and German audiences think we’re a too energetic. They also believe we abuse the word “awesome.” We do. I do. 

You really have to do your homework. Especially in Europe, there are stereotypes about American culture and politics that are liberally applied to anyone with US citizenship. Learn as much as possible about your audience. Once you can get them to shift from being talked at to engaging with you, you can tear down the cultural barriers and make the experience more fun for everyone.

CS:Checking rules of politeness, dress codes, and memorizing complicated phrases or introductions. Watching YouTube videos. 

AF:The majority of my preparation involves researching the organisation and the individuals, rather than the nationality. A company’s culture is far more relevant than the audience’s nationality. As an example, we work with a materials testing company where everyone is a scientist, very analytical and very literal. This affects how you position things. If you can’t prove it with data, don’t say it.W

What are some things about presenting that are surprisingly universal? 

There is no country where this stock photo depicts anything close to normality.
We may be different on the outside, but no matter our race, religion, culture or creed, we can all tell when the speaker didn’t practice their presentation.

AF:Everyone agrees that a typical business presentation is pretty bad. Presenter nerves are also universal. 

BP:Everybody dreads going into a presentation. Everyone is prepared to lose an hour (or more) of their lives to someone rambling about things they could have read about much more quickly. Because this is a universal belief, most people dread presenting as well. 

CS: Foreign cultures are among us, and these differences matter more than nationality. Presenting to engineers or lawyers is different than presenting to marketeers or sales people, no matter what country you’re in.

What was the biggest mistake you’ve made when presenting to a foreign culture?

BP: It was a board meeting of executives for a massive company—not an international crowd, but we did not fully understand their culture. We relied on coaching we’d received from inside the organization and naively thought we were set up for success. When I realized that we were out of our depth, I choked. It was bad, but the lessons were invaluable. Never walk into a room to pitch without doing exhaustive research, and always have a great way to wrap up your presentation if things aren’t going well.

Do you design slides differently for each culture? What about other props, including clothing?

CS:You want to be on the safe side. The bigger the cultural difference, the more carefully and conservatively you should act, speak and dress. 

BP:We always ask in advance about clothing. You tend to do business attire more in the UK than in Europe or the US. 

When you work with a client’s presentation, how do concerns differ from culture to culture?  

AF:Concerns usually derive from personal preference and comfort level, not culture. Resistance in any country tends to be driven by fear of change, practice avoidance, and the loudest voice in the group. Our job is to manage dissenting voices and push each group to deliver the best presentation they can. That doesn’t seem to change across cultures.

BP: Our job is to get people to think first about the audience and then what they want to present. This is the hardest transition for some clients to make, especially if they’ve been in the corporate world a long time. But it doesn’t seem to vary from culture to culture. No matter where we are, most of our work is helping people slog through the awkwardness and get to a place where they feel confident and excited about their next presentation. No matter what your nationality, becoming a better public speaker is a challenge and an accomplishment.

Anything to add?

BP:Everyone would be better off if they said “awesome” more often.