International Cultural Factors when Presenting

July 3, 2018

Presenting to international audiences can be tricky. People from different cultural backgrounds with varying language skills are more challenging than a homogenous local audience. Many factors influence audience behaviour: 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. Be careful with national stereotypes.

The language barrier poses a big challenge, both for the speaker and the listeners. Many people in your international audience actually have made huge leaps in your direction in terms of language and cultural sensitivity – just by being there and agreeing to listen to you. They will be asking themselves, "Will I understand everything? The presentations will be in English and my English is very bad …" or "What if someone asks me a question and I can't answer it in French at this seminar held in Grenoble?" Typical fears that many delegates have had to overcome before they arrived at an international event.

In mixed cultural audiences there will always be someone there who is going to find the language a ‘foreign tongue’. If someone is struggling with the language this will limit their ability to grasp the presentation and will cause personal frustration. The fear of losing face in front of other people is very common, more so in Asian cultures. Many ideas are very challenging to be put into another language. This means that the task of the presenter is to make sure that key ideas are expressed simply and can be understood - even by 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, for example. Typically, English speaking cultures like presentations to be lively and interactive. On the other hand, Far Eastern, Slavic and some Northern European cultures like Germany and Finland prefer presentations to be 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, British 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. 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 misunderstanding.

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 trouble understanding this.

Presenters can use humour skilfully to relax the atmosphere. Telling personal anecdotes is a good way of connecting the speaker to members of the audience. (There must be a relevance to the topic or theme, as speakers who talk too much about themselves tend to be seen as self-centred and boring.)

The response to humour varies greatly across cultures. For example, humour based on making fun of someone else can be considered disrespectful. In some cultures, like Japan, laughing aloud is a sign of nervousness and is not appreciated.

Audiences’ response to presentations varies, too. 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. In Germany and Austria 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 some parts of Europe, though, 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 can be different. 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 organisation or industry. If you can't summarise your message, how can you expect your audience to do so? When the audience is international, you'll need to step out of your own frame of reference and focus on making the communication relevant for your target group. The aim is to "localise." By focussing on the audiences' own frames of reference, you will be acknowledging their importance and encouraging 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!

Need inspiration? Visit our International Presentation Skills section, to find out how we can help you get the delivery right for your international audience.


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