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Lost in Translation? Sidestep the Perils of Presenting to a Global Audience

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Fri Dec 19 2014

Lost in Translation? Sidestep the Perils of Presenting to a Global Audience
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A well-known American speaker once spoke at a conference in Japan and he opened with a joke. There was an interpreter in the room translating his words into Japanese simultaneously and she quickly realized that his joke wouldn’t translate, either logically or with any kind of humor, so she simply told the audience: “Laugh, laugh now! The speaker just told a joke!” 

That probably tells you all you need to know about the perils of presenting to a global audience. Every culture is different, so it’s critical to get the content right for the audience in front of you. 

It wasn’t so much about the language difference, although the translator was clearly seeking to spare his blushes had his joke been met with stony silence. She was also seeking to help her Japanese audience save face by appearing to understand what their guest was saying. 

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High-Context Culture 

That’s because Japanese culture is what is known as “high-context culture,” in which saving face is paramount. In high-context cultures, nonverbal cues and communication can be more important than the actual message—as the context of their communication is packed with layers of hidden meaning. 

For example, the tone of voice, gestures, social status, and setting can affect the meaning of a message. Information is indirect and implied, and the responsibility is on the listener to interpret it accurately. Along with Japan, other Asian and Middle Eastern countries are characterized in this way, although it is perhaps the most pronounced in Japan.          

I have a Dutch colleague who is a highly successful trainer. Last year, he was working with a group of Chinese delegates in Shanghai. He upset the delegates during a workshop with the simple and common act (in Western society, at least) of pointing out that they had misunderstood the concept and needed to “pay attention” to the process he was teaching. He was unaware that, in China, giving direct feedback in public appears to question the other person’s capability, authority, and social status and causes the person to “lose face.” It is a real cultural taboo. 

On the other hand, I had an opposite experience in Germany. I was teaching a leadership program to a group of senior executives from Europe, Asia, and North America.  On the last day of the program, a German senior manager made a request in front of the group, “Maya, you have given us lots of useful information and positive reinforcement. However, I have not heard any ‘negative’ feedback. That’s what we need.”   

The Challenge of Presenting to Global Audiences  

Most of my clients are successful leaders in their organizations. They have strong technical skills, extensive business experiences, and more often than not, they are good communicators. However, when they have to make a presentation to a global audience they run into all sorts of problems! Why is this?  

I often tell the story of an Indian client of mine who works for a major global telecommunications company headquartered in the United States.  He is a newly promoted director of technical support, based in India, and his American boss and other senior leaders were flying in to hear about progress of an important customer initiative.   

My client explained in some detail what he had achieved, his strategic thinking, and the success it had created. Already at risk of losing a Western audience (more comfortable with shorter, sharper presentations with less background), he was so keen to impress his senior leaders and reassure them he was doing a good job for them that he forgot to mention his team. 

To an American team-oriented audience his presentation, therefore, sounded all “me, me, me.” In his efforts to please, he had forgotten to incorporate the absolutely pivotal U.S. value of teamwork into his presentation. This is typical of a high-context style presentation: going at length through the background, the history, and the reasoning to eventually arrive at the solution that has been achieved. 

Unfortunately, this generally loses Western audiences, who like their presentations to get quickly to the point. But high-context culture presenters—such as those in China, India, and Japan—will be left wondering: “How do they know how I came to the right conclusion if they don’t know the background?” They believe the background to be a necessary part of the presentation. 

Low-Context Cultures 

Low-context cultures provide their information almost entirely through their words, tending to screen out nonverbal cues. The message is direct and explicit, and the responsibility for understanding lies firmly with the speaker. Low-context countries are typically Western, such as the United Kingdom, Germany, and the United States, with the Swiss and Dutch perhaps among the most extreme nations in this regard. 

Sometimes this culture clash can be found working against members of the audience in a presentation. How you respond to speakers from different cultures can be equally as fraught with potential for offense!  

Let me give you an example. Another client of mine is VP of supply chain at a global IT company from the United States.  He leads a global team, including a high proportion of employees based in China and Latin America. He is an excellent leader; well-liked and well-respected by all. However, in his 360 feedback, his team found him highly intimidating, impatient, and not approachable. I know him well, and although he is fast, sharp-witted, and often funny, I would never have described him as intimidating. So, we decided to delve a little deeper. 

We discovered that when his team presented to him, he would sit there nodding, saying “Yep…got it, got, got it,” which was his way of actively listening to them and acknowledging each point. However, his Chinese team, who speak English as a second language and are from a high context culture, were thinking, “You've got it? But I haven't finished!  Do I speak poor English?  Do you not need to hear more?” As a consequence, they felt uncomfortable and shut down. 

Presenting to Senior Executives 

Many of you will be working at a very senior level and your global audiences will likely include senior executives and even board directors. There is an additional complexity when presenting to senior global leader: As a group, they have typical traits that will run alongside their country-specific cultural norms. 

Of course, it’s hard to generalize about global senior executives, given the dramatic differences we know to exist in high- and low-context cultures. However, senior executives, of all backgrounds, tend to be assertive. They are also paid to ask the tricky and tough questions and expect thoughtful but quick answers, and they generally don't like wasting time or effort. Indeed, they can’t afford to waste time, so they're really only interested in the main points that underpin major decisions. 

Given these dramatic differences, when I prepare my clients for presenting to senior leaders or clients from other cultures, I take them through a five-step process—to help them adapt their natural style and pitch their presentation effectively to each audience. 

  1. Know your audience.  Do your homework on them. Find out as much as you can about their business, cultural background, interests, and, if possible, the key individuals in the room. Read up on the cultural norms of the particular country you are visiting and check that your intended content won’t cause an unintended slight with them.

     

  2. Prepare and practice. This is definitely not a time to ‘wing’ it! Write your presentation or speech well in advance and check or rehearse it with someone familiar with the audience if you can. This would also be a good moment to double check that your content does not include culture-specific references in your humor!

     

  3. Use more images in your presentation. Always paint pictures of the outcome of a project, not only the process and use visuals to support your ideas. These work in all cultures.

     

  4. Tell compelling stories.  People rarely remember numbers, statistics, and charts, but they often remember a good story. Indeed, if you are making an important point, wrapping that point around a compelling story is far more memorable than just stating the importance of that point.

     

  5. Project strength, confidence and warmth. This is easiest to do if you’re well prepared and confident in your abilities. However, my advice is: fake it if you have to, by learning techniques to convey these qualities even if you are having an off-day. Being a strong, warm speaker will allow your audience to relax and enjoy your presentation. 

For me, this last point is particularly important as an engaged, relaxed audience is more likely to forgive slight cultural errors in your style and content and be carried along with you. Consider the reminder Amy J.C. Cuddy, Matthew Kohut, and John Neffinger offer in their article, “Connect, then Lead” (Harvard Business Review, 2013), “Before people decide what they think of your message, they decide what they think of you.” 

If you do your homework on your topic and audience, focus on your personal power and warmth as a presenter, and stay clear of cultural cul-de-sacs, you will find it easy to overcome the common perils of presenting to a global audience. More important, you will ensure that, no matter what their language or cultural background, your audience will believe that you are speaking their language.

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