“Culture is more often a source of conflict than of synergy. Cultural differences are a nuisance at best and often a disaster.” Prof. Geert Hofstede
Doing business globally often requires us to adapt and adjust our communication styles, and presentations are no exception. Although globalization is causing the lines between cultures to blur, it is still beneficial to understand the background of our audience. We may be required to adjust our message, structure and style according to the culture in which we are presenting. In some cases this can make or break our presentation.
What cultural differences impact presentation skills?
1) Problem analysis versus solution focus
Japanese and Western presentations often differ in structure. An American presentation will usually give recommendations or solutions at the beginning of the presentation, and then go on to justify these recommendations. This is in contrast to the Japanese style in which there is a tendency to give a lot of background data on a topic, slowly leading up to recommendations, which are often presented at the end of the presentation. Have you ever asked yourself why?
The answer is found in the difference of required information in different cultures. In the US, for example, business people prefer to spend more time discussing possible solutions than on problem analysis. Compare this to Japan where often business people want to explore a problem thoroughly before searching for solutions. This is also closely linked to another cultural comparison, “extensive background context versus limited background context.” In extensive background context cultures, such as Japan, a rich background picture needs to be created.
2) Direct (Explicit) versus Indirect (Implicit)
This explicit versus implicit communication style is one of the more common theories on cross-cultural communications and has particular relevance in a Japanese context. Japan is generally considered to be a high-context society, resulting in a very implicit or implied style of communication.
The phrase “reading between the lines” holds particular importance in Japan where conflict, criticism, or negativity is often avoided. In these situations Japanese people, placing high value on relationships, will often give indirect answers. As we all know, here in Japan the phrase “it is difficult to do” often means “it is impossible” whereas in the US “it is difficult to do” means just that – “it is difficult but perhaps we can do it.”
It is useful to consider this when making a presentation. Remember, if you are presenting to a western audience be sure to use logical and direct phrases and don’t be afraid of presenting negative information.
3) Individualism versus collectivism (group)
In presentations this dimension is related to framing benefits: is it a benefit to the individual or to the group? In some cultures, you will need to point out the benefits to the group for them to be convinced of its value. A good example of this is the Sony Walkman. In the West it provided the listener with high-quality listening pleasure. In the East, it allowed you to listen to music without disturbing others.
Geert Hofstede wrote that in some societies individualism is encouraged – everyone is expected to look after him/herself. On the collectivist side he believes that in other societies people are integrated into strong, cohesive groups and encouraged to work together.
The following diagram illustrates the difference between Japan, the US and Denmark:
Fig 1: Individualism tendency of each culture based on Geert Hofstede’s research
4) Risk inclined versus risk avoidance
Some countries or cultures are more comfortable with risk or ambiguity than others. Edward T. Hall, the creator of the “high-context versus low-context” model, suggested that low-context countries such as the US are quite comfortable with risk whereas high-context countries such as Japan are uncomfortable with it. He proposed the 80/20 rule, arguing that low-context countries are happy to accept a certain amount of risk or ambiguity, roughly in line with that ratio. Compare this to Japan where most business people would find 20% uncertainty in any kind of decision making to be unacceptable. How can this affect presentation style?
A culture’s relationship to risk often manifests itself in the amount of information presented. Risk-averse cultures will often require lots of information, details, facts and carefully considered propositions, with all possible downsides, leaving nothing to be assumed by the audience. More risk-inclined cultures want a general picture of the situation and the general steps that will lead to success. They develop a “feel” for the potential success of an idea through first understanding the big picture. If the big picture attracts them then they will enquire further. The key with these cultures is to avoid giving too many details too soon as this audience may grow restless with too much information.
Fig 2. UAI (uncertainty avoidance index) tendency of each culture based on Geert Hofstede’s research.
5) Formal versus Informal
The final cultural difference that may play a part in presentation style is based on the levels of formality appropriate to different cultures. This dimension generally reflects a society’s attitude toward hierarchy or equality. With regard to presentations, more hierarchical cultures (such as Japan) may expect a speaker to take on a certain demeanor according to the situation. This will even affect the way he or she dresses and the presenter should avoid trying to be overly familiar with the audience or risk losing respect. In more equality-oriented societies (e.g. Denmark, US) keeping a distance can be interpreted as arrogance, which may provoke the audience to find a way to bring you “down” to their level.
6) Other issues
Presenters may also wish to consider aspects such as body language, levels of engagement/interaction and timing. In some countries over-running is frowned upon whereas in others it is acceptable to extend to supply additional important information.
To conclude, perhaps the most important part of any presentation is to understand your audience. This includes their needs, motivations, wants and – as highlighted here – their cultural background.
What are your opinions on the issues covered in this article? Do you agree or disagree? What style of presentation do you prefer?
Please feel free to share you experiences or ask any question, we’d love to hear them and will reply to all comments.