Making your case overseas


Collating feedback after an international conference in Jakarta, it amazes me as always the continuing polarity in presentation styles and how these impact across the cultural spectrum. From speakers singing and dancing among the participants to others standing rigidly behind rostrums, we had it all. Indeed, it became quite a topic in its own right around the sides of the event as speakers compared notes with each other. And the verdict? Cold, hard facts are still king in Southeast Asia.

At one extreme, the high energy, questioning, and very mobile US speakers – who also used lots of humour and self-deprecation, as well as potentially risqué subject matter – sometimes left our hosts less than impressed. The general drift seemed to be: “Why are they getting us to do all this standing up and splitting into pairs stuff? Why aren’t they taking the subject seriously? And why can’t they just tell us what we need to know?”

And then at the other extreme, a large number of the Southeast Asian speakers took the sage on the stage approach. Great for some, but the Americans in the audience would lament, “Where was the interaction? He just talked and talked. It was like being spoon-fed. He lost me at hello.”

The visuals reflected this spread – from dense and text heavy through to whole PowerPoints of just images or even no slides at all.

Command of language, specifically English, no doubt played its part – even if we were all united in struggling with the Scandinavians – but there was more involved than just this. Beyond our personal experience of education systems and learning preferences, cultural values were also at play.

In an ascriptive, hierarchical Southeast Asian context, it seems COOs are not supposed to play the fool. And grey-haired experts asking their younger and less experienced audiences to voice their opinions might well be greeted by nervous silence. Humour is to be used sparingly and carefully – Jakarta’s notorious traffic was a safe theme. Everything else often didn’t translate. And then message-wise, an exhortation to go out and personally change the world does not have the same ring to a community-oriented and externally minded audience as it might in London or New York.

I’m playing up the stereotypes of course, and as everywhere, our international audience was largely tolerant of the varying cultural approaches. But behind this superficial recognition, some of the speakers’ messages were undoubtedly lost, however much the audiences were motivated to accommodate.

Times they are a-changing. With education system designers around the world bringing skills such as critical thinking into the mainstream curriculum, younger audiences globally are more comfortable with what we might previously have characterized as a Western approach to participation and interaction. The Googlisation of information means that we are typically also better prepared and more aware of potential cultural surprises.

Yet in times of stress – which presenting can be for many – we often fall back into our comfort zone behavior. So, as part of that fundamental building block of presentation preparation – know your audience –remember too the tenets of cultural intelligence (Drive – Knowledge – Strategy – Action) (see earlier blogs) so that the message you wish to convey is the message you convey in its fullest. And do whatever you can to avoid Jakarta’s traffic….

About Julian King

Julian King is an international HR consultant and certified executive coach with a keen interest in intercultural matters.