How Intercultural Awareness Can Enhance Your Business Presentations

crossculture2go Coach Kevin Corrigan takes a look at some of the main considerations when preparing business presentations for global audiences.
business presentations intercultural competence
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No matter where your business takes you globally, eventually you may find yourself presenting your product, service, or idea to a target audience that is culturally very different. If these differences are not taken into account, the best laid plans, as well as time and money invested, may be squandered.

Effective business presentations are difficult enough even when we’re on our own cultural home turf, interacting with people who likely share our same cultural biases, perceptions, and values. But with global audiences and partners from very different cultural backgrounds, the difficulties can ramp up considerably. And they can cost you time and money.

Let’s take a look at some of the main considerations when preparing your presentation for different cultural settings.

1 – Structure/Organization Of Your Business Presentations

Overall structure and organization are key to the success of any presentation, and if things go wrong here, you might sacrifice the many valuable hours you and your team spent putting together the data and material. If the audience’s cultural expectations around how information is organized aren’t met, the brilliance of the solutions and services you’re offering could easily be missed. I have seen many carefully-prepared presentation decks lost on an audience because the basic principles of organization were ignored. You don’t want them spending cognitive energy just trying to figure out what your point is or getting frustrated with your logic!

What’s tricky is that organizational principles vary throughout the world and are often culturally-determined. In some cultures, for example, the context and background information (data, working assumptions, etc) are supposed to come first, and the main point later after the audience has been carefully guided through the process. This journey may contain deviations and side trips into other background topics along the way, all of which make sense in the original cultural context, but can be baffling or frustrating to an audience that’s been conditioned differently. In some cultures, such as in the US, audiences expect to hear the main idea (executive summary) first and then the context and supporting data or information afterwards in a relatively straightforward manner. They might also expect to be reminded from time to time of the main point as the presentation reveals deeper levels of insight and analysis.

Always make sure that your business presentation takes into account local ways of organizing and conveying messaging and ideas. Don’t assume that your own organizational approach is going to work in every cultural setting.

2 – Themes And Narratives Within Your Business Presentations

Obviously “know thy audience” is a fundamental precept in business communication. Fail to relate to your audience deeply and on their level, and you won’t be able to persuade or motivate them to follow your lead.

An important consideration here is how your audience might perceive the cultural themes and topics within your presentation. You don’t want to alienate them here.

Does your narrative allow them to enter your concepts and ideas easily and comfortably, or are you using a cultural viewpoint that’s alien and incomprehensible to them?

Understanding your audience’s cultural values, lenses, and ways of seeing things is critical to helping you contextualize your message so that it resonates beyond the surface level and guides them to your desired outcome.

Look for ways your presentation expresses storylines and themes, even if they’re implied. Make sure these align with your target audience’s cultural viewpoints and values. Potentially problematic themes could include: authority, courtesy, ambition, cooperation, age, social behavior, time, conflict-resolution, ambition, etc.

Try to frame and localize your communication strategies around how your audience thinks. If you’re from a culture that values individualism for example, you might try to re-frame the benefits of your business idea around group or family identity. If one of your selling points focuses on a linear monochronic paradigm and your audience is more polychronic, make adjustments accordingly.

Remember the cultural iceberg metaphor.

You want to connect with your audience below the water line. That’s where the deeper impacts and motivations lie. Without tapping into these, or even worse, by violating or offending them, your presentation will be far from optimal.

Examine your own assumptions and do your due diligence in research to make sure that information, assertions, and implications within your presentation don’t unwittingly trip the wrong cultural wires but trigger the correct ones. Consult with a certified intercultural advisor to make sure you’re on track with your messaging and narratives.

3 – Emotional Expression When Presenting

While as human beings we all experience similar emotions – anger, sadness, frustration, joy, satisfaction – the manner and degree to which we express these feelings can vary radically from one culture to another. In Japan, subtle indicators of emotion and mood are highly valued while overt, loud displays of feeling are considered rude or insincere. In Spain or Italy however, this approach would not be understood and might be viewed as cold or unfeeling.

Since a target audience “shops” based on logic but “buys” based on feeling, it’s very important that our presentation engages on this fundamental emotional level. However, we need to be aware of how our own culturally-appropriate expression of feeling might look to a different audience. Is it going to make sense and resonate with them or will it put them off or offend them? And just as importantly, we need to consider how we might evoke desired emotions in the most effective and appropriate manner – be it for persuasion, information, a progress report, or influencing a decision.

If your culture encourages open and flamboyant expression, but your audience is from one that appreciates and engages in more subtle and low-key expressions of emotion, look for ways to adjust your own emotional cues. As always, consult an inter-cultural expert for advice and input before proceeding.

Kevin Corrigan

Picture of Kevin Corrigan

Kevin Corrigan

I’ve always been fascinated with other cultures and languages since I was a child and have traveled on many continents. I have close friendships around the world. My coaching helps international professionals overcome culture and language barriers in the US workplace. If you want to improve your English business communication, job interview, sales, networking, or confidence-building skills, I’d love to help. I believe language skills improve with consistency and that cultural success is based in curiosity, empathy, self-awareness, and a growth mindset.

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