Cross-Cultural Differences in Business Presentations

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“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.



An Introduction to “Cross-Cultural Challenges” in Global Organizations

Welcome to the first chapter of our “Cross-Cultural Challenges in Global Organizations” blog series. Over the next few months we plan to discuss some of the challenges faced by business people when communicating with colleagues from different cultures, with a particular focus on Japan.  We’d also like to generate some discussion on these issues and would welcome your observations, comments and insights.

Professor Geert Hofstede wrote that  “Culture is more often a source of conflict than of synergy. Cultural differences are a nuisance at best and often a disaster.”

Whilst there is some truth in this, we prefer to look at this area in a more positive light.  Culture can indeed be a cause of conflict or misunderstandings but it can also be a chance for organizational and personal development. New opportunities can arise if we can first understand, adjust to and eventually embrace cultural differences – an international organization that effectively tackles these issues gives itself a significant competitive advantage over rivals. This sounds good in theory, but how can we do this in practice?  Even the first step, “understanding” seems an impossible task given the complexity of human societies.

One approach is to examine specific areas of difference and to consider how they affect interactions in a society.  Edward Hall provided a perfect starting point for this kind of analysis with his “High and Low Context” model in which he categorized countries and their behaviors into distinct contextual groups.

In this model “context” refers to the amount of knowledge required before effective communication can occur. In some cultures a lot of background information is required to communicate effectively but in other cultures the opposite is true.  Hall places Japan among the highest context cultures, whereas some European countries are at the other end of the scale.  This can affect all aspects of our communication and may be one of the reasons why some global business people struggle to adapt to Japan’s business and communication style – and vice versa.

How do these differences affect business relationships?  Of course this varies greatly depending on the countries and individuals concerned, but in general we can observe the following broad tendencies:

High Context Low Context
Relationships are important and take time to build.

How things get done depends on relationships with others and the precedent that has been set (Think about meetings and time management)

Message often delivered nonverbally: (expressions & gestures)

Disagreement is avoided. Issues are often solved without either side “losing face”

Criticising an idea attacks the person who suggested it, and is avoided. “More emotional attachment to ideas.”

Accuracy is valued and how well something can be delivered is important (100% accuracy)

Written and spoken communications try to provide all the background information the receiver or listener needs for an overall understanding of the situation. (Emails, presentations)

Rationale can often be emotionally based (Gut feelings, attachment to ideas)

Relationships can begin and end, based on situations.

Things get done by following procedures, paying attention to agendas, objectives and outcomes (Think about meetings and time management)

Message is delivered by words rather than nonverbal means.

Disagreement is accepted and often seen as an opportunity. “positive-engagement”

Criticising an idea is not personal. Challenging is expected and seen as a way to improve ideas.

Speed is valued and how efficiently something can be done is important. (80/20 rule)

Written and spoken communications focus on the specific points the receiver or listener needs to know to understand the specifici situation, (e,g, executive summary, clear & concise)

Logical rational and discussion is vital (Facts, figures and statistics, less attachement to ideas,)


We feel that this model is a good starting point on the road to cross-cultural understanding.  What do you think? Is the theory sound?  Where does your country fit in Hall’s model? Have you experienced any of the difficulties outlined above? How did you overcome them?  How did your organization deal with them?

We’ll be replying to all comments and questions directly so don’t be shy, share your experiences!