How to prepare a presentation that doesn’t offend other cultures?



Giving persuasive presentations to people from other cultures is not easy, as the world of international politics shows us every day. Less than two weeks ago government leaders held an EU Top in Brussels to set up a Eurozone banking monitoring system.

Angela Merkel felt it necessary to step on the breaks by stating ‘Quality before speed’ in response to François Hollande’s wish to start monitoring as soon as possible. Did we hear Ms. Merkel’s personal preference to set up a thoroughly designed monitoring system, in reaction to Mr. Hollande’s perceived individual hastiness?

As an interculturalist it is my opinion this is not just an example of two different personal preferences. I believe the situation above is an encounter of two contrasting cultures. Around the globe the Germans are righteously acclaimed for their love for “grűndlichkeit” (thoroughness). This thoroughness nevertheless leads to a certain level of conservativeness.

The French Republic on the other hand exists because of a revolution taking place late 18th century. A revolution can be seen as an outburst of a hasty, powerful force which is the complete opposite from change taking place through carefully weighed steps. Historic events of the magnitude like the French revolution leave a distinct imprint on a nation’s cultural heritage. (Although we can of course also debate such like events happen because of its nation’s culture).

As an entrepreneur going abroad you will easily find yourself confronted with cultures as contrasting as the German and the French in this situation.

Taking your business abroad…great…now what?

Taking your business abroad means presenting your business to clients that live in a society with very different traditions, cultural ”do’s” and “don’ts” and taboos from your own.  If you want to take your business abroad you have no choice but to align your efforts with the cultural dynamics in your market. Looking at the situation above this means you need to take a different approach pitching your business in Germany as opposed to France. Therefore, you will have to adjust, what is in essence, the same presentation according to what border you cross.

As with preparing any presentation you need to understand your audience in order to properly relate to them. If you have a clear picture of your audience, you create a much bigger chance to get your message across. Getting your message across as it was intended is of course one of the most important steps to start doing business. Presenting to an audience from a cultural background that differs from your own requires cultural sensitivity. It may sound harsh (and very Dutch-direct for that matter), but if you fail to be culturally sensitive you will sooner or later loose valuable business opportunities or experience doing business abroad as an uphill struggle. What an unnecessary shame that would be.

How to prepare a “culture-proof” presentation?

There is a wide variety of aspects you need to take into consideration when pitching to a customer abroad. Looking at the aspects below is a good start to tailor-make your presentation to fit your audience.

1. Cultures value time differently

Be aware of the fact that diverse cultures value time in contrasting ways. Find out whether with this specific prospect meetings tend to start right on time or the start time is rather seen as a guideline. If the latter is the case; plan for some extra time. If the customer usually starts on the dot make sure you arrive in a timely manner, giving yourself plenty of time setting up and testing the equipment. In some countries starting even one minute too late will be frowned upon. It would be a shame to start off with an irritated audience with whom it is much more difficult to build a relationship.

2. Stick to simple language!

Avoid colloquial phrases often incomprehensible to non-native speakers. For instance if you speak in “rough figures” then use that exact phrase instead of “ballpark figures”. The latter may leave you with a puzzled audience possibly not getting your message.

Also bear in mind that the US and the UK are two nations divided by the same language; exact same words may express something completely different in each country. A good example is the expression “to table a subject”. In the U.S. this means not to discuss anything further, whereas in the U.K. it means bringing a new subject up for discussion.

3. Get a good understanding of the kind of information your audience needs

Get a good understanding of exactly the kind of information your audience needs to decide to do business with your company. Are you dealing with people who have a long term orientation? They may get excited from future projections and figures.

On the other hand there are people who need to get a clear idea of your credentials, accomplishments and experiences. Always ask yourself if your audience wishes factual, statistical information presented in a flashy visual power point presentation, or if a more personal oratory approach will be more appropriate.

4. Style: fast paced or lots of background information?

Style of Presentation: what style of approach would suit your audience best? A fast paced bottom-line oriented presentation, typically desired in the US? Or should there be plenty of time and attention for repeated background information, like in general a German audience will appreciate? Will you speak from a point or towards a point?

When presenting to a UK audience, make sure you support your message with lots of anecdotes; in general the British love a good story.

5. Avoid obscene gestures!

And of course there also is body-language to think of. Some pitfalls can be avoided by simply checking which gestures are seen as offensive. For instance: the finger sign that signifies “ok” amongst divers is seen as obscene in Latin-America. The gesture I personally use here in The Netherlands to support a verbally expressed “two”, is interpreted as an abusive sign in the U.K., so I need to be aware of this whenever I cross The Channel.

The best advice I can give you regarding presenting your business across your own nation’s borders is to liaise with someone who truly knows the cultural background of your audience. They will be able to see the pitfalls and possible sensitivities in your presentation that you will be unaware of. Therefore give yourself more than enough time thoroughly prepare and do not be afraid to invest in proper research. After all, you do not want to be remembered for a blunder like Schweppes made in Italy translating Schweppes Tonic Water into “Schweppes Toilet Water”, do you?

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About the author

Marianne Mol

Marianne Mol is the founder of Munro Coaching & Training. She delivers leadership and team development tracks that improve effective co-operation throughout the organisation. Marianne lived and worked in the U.K. for a number of years, where she gained a wealth of cross cultural experience through coaching team leaders from various cultural backgrounds with NCR Ltd. a global American corporation. Marianne is a Licensed Partner with Richard Lewis Communications, a leading organisation in the field of cross cultural awareness, knowledge and skills. Find Marianne Mol on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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