Intercultural Factors When Making International Presentations
Making a presentation in front of international audiences is not for the fainthearted. People from different cultural backgrounds with varying language skills are definitely more challenging than a homogenous local audience. Are international audiences any different from local audiences? From a biological point of view, there are almost no differences as all humans behave similarly in response to basic stimuli like hunger and heat. The differences become crucial when one considers cultural conditioning.
Let us take the classical example quoted in many places. If the world were a village of 1,000 people, it would include: 584 Asians, 124 Africans, 95 Europeans, 84 Latin Americans, 52 North Americans, six Australians and New Zealanders, and 55 people from the former Soviet republics. They would speak more than 200 languages and reflect an astounding mix of different cultures. Fortunately, you would most likely never get such a mixed audience. Remember, what works in one culture doesn't always work in another. How can you make your presentation a success among people from different parts of the world?
Many factors influence audience behaviour e.g., culture, profession, gender, age, reason for being in the audience, state of mind, time of day and year and general mood. In fact every audience is unique. An audience of insurance salesmen in Germany is very different from an audience of German chemical engineers. So whenever a typical behaviour is associated with certain nation states, you have to be extremely careful with these stereotypes.
The language barrier plays a very important role, both for the speaker and the listeners. Many people in your international audience actually have jumped over large chasms of language and cultural divides in order to be there in that very audience listening to you. "Can I understand everything that is spoken there as they are speaking in English and my English is very bad?" or "What if someone asks me a question and I can't answer it in French in this seminar held in France?" These are typical fears that many people have overcome before they turned up in the international gathering.
In mixed audiences the language used is bound to be a foreign tongue for someone, if not for the speaker. Deficient language skills might considerably limit their ability to grasp much of the presentation and they have no way of dealing with that frustration with themselves. The fear of losing face in front of other people is very common, more so in Asian cultures. Many people think in their mother tongue and speak with the help of simultaneous translation. Many ideas are very challenging to be put into another language. So the task of the presenter is to make sure that central ideas come across easily and even to people who are not natives to the language of presentation.
Culture influences how people in different countries prefer to receive information. How interactive a presentation is, depends much on the culture. Typically English speaking cultures like presentations to be lively and interactive. Paradoxically there are similarities among Far Eastern, Slavic and protestant cultures like Germany and Finland. There presentations are formal and there are few interruptions. Questions are answered either when the presentation ends or quickly as they arise.
Many Europeans, particularly Scandinavians and Germans prefer to receive information in detail, with lots of supporting documentation. They want their presenters to be systematic and build to a clear point within their presentation. The Japanese business audiences, where senior managers are more likely to hold technical or management degrees are very similar. American and Canadian audiences, on the other hand, like a faster pace. Many Asian and Latin cultures prefer presentations with emotional appeal.
Different cultures gather and process information differently, in a way that is unique to that culture. We assume that speaking Spanish is a safe option in all countries where Spanish is spoken, but Hispanic employees from different countries even have different words for the same thing, and this can create conflict. Sometimes logic or reason can evade us. For example, there is no concept of guilt in some Eastern cultures. There is no Heaven or Hell, but there may be karma and shame. The Chinese are very strict about Mianxi, not losing face. When a Chinese person doesn't understand something due to language problems, she still says, "Yes, yes it is clear." People from a western background often have difficulties understanding this.
Presenters use humour skilfully to relax the atmosphere. Another very powerful tool is telling personal anecdotes which reveal humaneness connecting the speaker with members of the audience. There must be a relevance to the topic or theme, as speakers who talk very much about themselves are often considered self-centred and even tiresome.
The response to humour varies greatly across different cultures. Humour based on making fun of someone else is not understood in many areas of the world and is considered disrespectful. In some cultures like Japan, laughing aloud is a sign of nervousness and is not appreciated.
How audiences respond to presentations varies across cultures. In Japan, for example, it's common to show concentration and attentiveness by nodding the head up and down slightly-and even closing the eyes occasionally. Don't think that they are falling asleep. In Germany and Austria, for example, listeners seated around a table may show their approval by knocking on the table instead of applauding. Applause is accepted as a form of approval in most areas of the world but in the U.S, you might even get a few whistles if you have really made a great impression. If you hear whistles in many parts of Europe, you had better run because someone might start throwing tomatoes and eggs next. If you were finishing a speaking engagement in a Latin American country like Argentina and you waved goodbye, the audience might all turn around and come back to sit down. For them the waving gesture means, "Come back! Don't go away."
Ways of handling questions are very different across cultures. Brits or Americans almost always ask challenging questions. In Finland or in some Asian cultures, audiences are more likely to greet a presentation with silence or just a few polite questions. This is not always indifference but a show of respect.
As a presenter, you should have a clear goal of what you want to accomplish and how you will accomplish it. The goal should be easy to understand - even to someone outside of your organization or industry. If you can't summarize your message, how can the listeners? When the audience is international, you'll need to step out of your own frame of reference and focus on making communication relevant for your target group. The aim is to "localize." By focussing on the audiences' own frames of reference, you acknowledge their importance and pave the way for them to come closer to you. If for example, you are using a metaphor about snow blizzards and sleet to sub-Saharan people, they might not get your point, as they have no experience of snow blizzards. The most vital thing to remember is that each and every member in your international audience is a fellow human being. If they feel treated well and get something for being there, they will appreciate your efforts. Good luck!
Intercultural Articles for HR by N. Payne
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