9 Tips for High-Impact Presentations Across Cultures

Categories: Global Leadership, Global Mindset, GlobeSmart




Samuel had done it quite a few times before. He boarded a plane, headed halfway across the world from his corporation’s headquarters in New York City to deliver yet another presentation to a foreign audience. His expertise in his decade-long role as a business analyst at a large, worldwide corporation made him the perfect candidate to present sales leaders with the latest information on increasing sales efforts across cultures. As usual, Samuel used his long flight to reminisce about his past successes and shortcomings as a foreign presenter.

He remembered his first presentation in Hong Kong. Cross-cultural communication went well because of his meticulous planning, but he failed to send written copies of the sales tactics he would be presenting, which would have helped prepare his audience for the upcoming presentation and give them more time to prepare questions beforehand.

In Hong Kong, business people typically prefer presentations and proposals to begin in general terms before transitioning into the narrow details. Samuel’s presentation, although applicable for the audience, would have been more effective if he would have begun with more general terms, especially because once again he didn’t send his audience a formal or informal outline of his presentation beforehand.

Different Countries, Different Approaches

Samuel also reflected on his recent trip to Iraq. Before the trip, he spent weeks planning an in-depth sales-tactics presentation geared to sales leaders. Samuel’s company had recently purchased the latest video software, so he planned a cutting-edge interactive presentation for his audience in Baghdad. The audience appreciated his personal anecdotes and personable introduction, but he seemed to lose them at the end when he distributed a folder full of statistics, graphs and sales figures.

Studies have shown that people in present-day Iraq tend to appreciate more listening than reading when viewing a presentation. Strong images and relevant stories will resonate with them more than reading the latest statistics. Samuel’s interactive presentation went over well, but his conclusion, which involved the audience reviewing statistics placed before them on a handout, didn’t hold their attention as well as it could have. He watched his audience lose interest before his eyes, and he made a note to avoid handouts in any future presentation in Baghdad.

different countries different approaches

Samuel also remembered how the same handouts were highly effective in Japan, where he did a very similar presentation on the same sales tactics a month earlier. In Japanese culture, detailed written materials are appreciated, and audience members typically enjoy any kind of supporting documentation to supplement a presentation.

Gauging How to Speak to a Foreign Audience

Even the most experienced presenters face unique challenges when presenting information to audiences across cultures. It’s been said that great international speakers aren’t born. They’re made through:

  • Practice and a desire to fine-tune their public-speaking skills.
  • Culturally appropriate levels of confidence and passion
  • Introspection, self-awareness and sincerity.

In short, they know how to properly engage with their foreign audience.

Much can go awry during a cross-cultural presentation if you fail to plan appropriately. You must tailor your presentation to your audience, and, in order to do so, it takes a great deal of prep work. You can’t simply work with a translator or neglect meticulous research and planning before your presentation.

Avoiding Problematic Barriers

If your goal is to deliver impactful cross-cultural presentations, it’s best to consider your presentations from all angles and learn from the advice of past successful presenters. Part of your success will depend on your ability to recognize and avoid barriers to effective intercultural communication, such as:

  • Language differences. Language barriers will likely play a role in your execution of a successful presentation to a foreign audience. You may work with an interpreter, but confusion may arise due to slang, dialects, or accents. Furthermore, words don’t always translate perfectly from one language to the other. The same word in one language may have different meanings when translated to different languages.
  • Level of context. Low-context cultures, such as Germany, Switzerland and the United States, expect verbal messages to be explicit and direct.

High-context cultures, such as Japan and Brazil, expect less emphasis on words themselves. A “maybe” or even a “yes” may actually mean no, especially in Japan, where an outright “no” or refusal can seem rude and too blunt. People in high-context cultures place more importance on nonverbal elements of communication, such as tone of voice, eye movements and facial expressions.

  • Body language. People in one culture may take offense if you stand too close to them or too far away. For example, a Norwegian executive may feel uncomfortable and crowded if someone invades their personal space, which in their culture is a distance of up to three meters. In Saudi Arabia, the personal space requirement is much lower, and even complete strangers typically stand very close to one another to speak.

Eye contact is also a potential barrier. Those from Continental Europe, for example, are known to make more eye contact than those from Britain and the United States. Another consideration is facial expressions, such as smiling. French and Russians tend to smile less than other cultures, which can make them appear cold or unfriendly.

  • Value of time. People from different cultures place different values on time. In some cultures, such as Latin America, for example, there’s less emphasis on punctuality than there is in Switzerland. In Mexico, you’d be expected to finish a conversation with a colleague, even if it made you late to a business meeting.
  • Control of feelings and emotions. Certain cultures are more comfortable showing their emotions. In France and Italy, most people are fine with displaying their emotions outwardly, while people in Japan and the United Kingdom tend to keep a tight control of their emotions in public. An excited speaker in Italy may speak loudly and emphatically, while those tactics may embarrass a Japanese listener.

Once you consider the possible barriers to effective communication, you should consider the best strategies for learning how to speak in front of a foreign audience.

Tips for Cross-Cultural Presentations

Presenting across cultures always requires adequate planning. Years of experience presenting to audiences in the Middle East won’t prepare you to deliver an effective presentation in China. If you’re communicating your tenth presentation on the latest sales software, but it’s your first time speaking to diverse audiences, it’s imperative that you tailor your approach to best suit your new audience.

The following tips for presenting cross-culturally will help you deliver a seamless, effective exposition.

1. Step Outside of Your Comfort Zone

You know that what is effective in one culture may not be effective in another, which is why it’s important to consider intercultural awareness as you prepare for your foreign presentation. Intercultural awareness is two-fold. It involves standing back from your own viewpoint and acknowledging your own cultural beliefs, as well as considering those of the other culture.

intercultural awareness

There are many factors that contribute to an effective presentation across cultures, but it’s important to begin by understanding your own cultural beliefs and recognizing you may need to step outside of your comfort zone as you prepare for your presentation. Once you’re aware of the similarities and differences, it becomes easier to plan an effective presentation across cultures.

For example, if you’re Japanese and preparing to present to a Portuguese audience, you may want to consider adding more personality to your presentation. It may be out of your comfort zone to show some emotion during your presentation or share a very personal story, but it will likely go over well in front of your Portuguese audience because they tend to appreciate creative, highly engaging presentations.

2. Decide If You’re Going to Use a Script

Using a script may be helpful when presenting to an international audience because it can direct you to stay focused on the precise language of your foreign presentation, especially if you’re presenting in a language other than your first.

If you’re not completely comfortable in the language, consider distributing a handout so readers can understand your message with certainty. Usually, speakers are advised to avoid reading from a script or from a screen, but in some cases — especially where a possible language barrier exists — it may be effective to offer your audience another way to comprehend the material.

There are many ways to use a script without boring your audience, such as:

  • Knowing the material well. If you decide to read from a script or allow the audience to follow along using a handout or screen, don’t neglect skimming over the material as you prepare. You’re the expert, and you should exude an appropriate level of confidence as well as have the knowledge to answer possible questions about the material.

You may work with a professional writer or translator as you prepare for your presentation, but that doesn’t mean you can skip any steps in the research and preparation phase. Simply reading from your script won’t be effective. You must know the material, maintain eye contact and intonation that’s appropriate for your audience, and be prepared to answer questions.

  • Personalizing your message. Using a script doesn’t have to equate to a boring, dry presentation. Eliminate any words that don’t sound like you. Inject personal stories where it makes sense to do so. Many speakers have no trouble injecting a personal touch to the beginning of their scripted speech, but then they fail to maintain their personality throughout it. Instead of sliding into a script after the introduction, aim to add your personality from the beginning to the end.
  • Learning to emphasize appropriately. A monotone presentation read from a script is a sure way to bore your audience, regardless of their cultural backgrounds. Vocal variety will add dimension to your speech, especially if you’re following a script.

If you’re reading in a language other than your native language, be sure to study proper pronunciation and listen to other speakers enunciate in that language. Become aware of your own vocal patterns, so you can vary your volume, pitch and tone in a way that’s appropriate for your target audience.

It may be beneficial to label your script, so you know when to effectively take a breath, pause to allow your audience time to process information, or stop to ask a question. You can also underline words you should emphasize as you’re reading. You can appropriately emphasize by changing your pitch or inflection, varying your pace, increasing your volume or altering your rhythm.

  • Treating your script as an extended conversation. Instead of talking to your audience, aim to talk with them. When you’re reading from a script, it can seem like your presentation is forced, rigid, and lacking any personality. Using culturally-appropriate gestures, eye contact, and language, you can take your audience on a journey with you through your script, instead of simply reading to them.

3. Know What to Expect from Your Audience

Regardless of where you’re presenting, you will feed off of your audience’s energy or how you’re perceiving their reactions to your presentation. If they’re frowning back at you or don’t participate when you ask a question, it can negatively affect your confidence, and your entire presentation could suffer. It’s important to know what to expect from your audience in the context of the given culture. Audiences around the world outwardly respond to presentations in different ways, so it’s helpful if you’re aware of what to expect before you begin.

For example, if you’re presenting in Japan, the audience will likely nod their heads slightly up and down to show concentration and approval — and they may even slightly close their eyes. Rest assured you aren’t putting them to sleep; they’re showing you that they’re with you. At the same time, a Japanese audience will not likely interrupt you to ask questions or provide comments, even if you prompt them to do so.

As a general rule, applause is a universal sign of approval after you finish a presentation. However, there are other signs to look for as well, depending on where you are. In parts of Austria and Germany, if you’re presenting around a table, your audience may knock on the table to show their approval when you’ve finished. You may hear whistles of approval if you’ve done especially well in the United States, but whistling signifies disapproval in some European countries. It’s also wise to be aware that no one receives standing ovations in Australia.

4. Learn About the Local Culture

cultural norms resources

If you’re presenting to a homogenous foreign audience — meaning everyone is from the same cultural background — you should consider studying the local culture before your presentation. The following are excellent resources for discovering cultural norms and important local information:

  • Recent books and travel guides. Without a clear understanding of the audience’s culture, you’re taking a risk that your presentation won’t be effective. Access resources available to you, such as recently published literature about the culture, travel guides, and websites directed to foreign travelers.
  • Local news. Be aware of news and current events. You should also be able to access local news by finding the most popular domains online for the geographic region or speaking with someone who can direct you to a trustworthy local news source. Connect with someone in your organization who is familiar with the culture in which you’ll be presenting and ask for their input. Beyond the local culture, consider hot topics within the organization itself, as company culture can be equally as important as local culture.
  • The CIA Factbook. While not specifically about culture, the Factbook provides information about 267 world entities, touching on topics of people, history, government, communications, transportation, and more.
  • Aperian Global’s GlobeSmart®. An industry-leading cultural intelligence resource, GlobeSmart offers in-depth information on more than 95 nations around the world. It provides a section on how to give a presentation in each of the 95 nations. The resource offers extensive research, interviews with experts, and guidance for conducting business successfully across cultural boundaries. The GlobeSmart Profile℠ helps bridge the gaps with other cultures and colleagues.

5. Pace Yourself Appropriately

You should tailor your pace and progression to your audience’s expectations to experience positive results when delivering an intercultural presentation. Never rush through a presentation, but be aware different cultures have different preferences for receiving information.

Be mindful of language barriers as you’re presenting as well. If you’re speaking in a non-native language, slower speech will help your audience better comprehend your words. If you’re speaking in your native language, but your audience is listening in their non-native language, it’s also wise to speak slower to increase comprehension. Always give your audience time to process information that may be new to them.

Expectations are always changing, but historically there are guidelines to follow when it comes to how certain cultures prefer to process information. Although this may be changing over time, it’s safe to assume Asians prefer to more details when compared to Americans and Canadians, where audiences tend to appreciate a faster pace.

6. Modify Your Nonverbal Communication

global nonverbal communication

The way you communicate nonverbally to a foreign audience is equally as important as the words you choose to use. Here are a few tips for appropriately modifying your nonverbal communication during a cross-cultural presentation:

  • Be conscious of your hand gestures. A “thumbs up” is a positive signal in the United States, but it has negative connotations in the Middle East, Australia, and Greece. Similarly, gesticulating doesn’t always translate across cultures. It can add personality to a presentation in the United States, but it can be seen as rude and distracting in Japan.
  • Be aware of eye contact expectations. A certain level of eye contact is important in all presentations, but the expectation is different depending on the audience’s culture. For example, Canadians, Germans, and Americans expect more eye contact than Hispanic and Japanese audiences do.
  • Use an appropriate level of animation. Your body movements and facial expressions can either emphasize your presentation or undercut it. Perceptions of facial expressions vary across cultures, so a basic understanding of what’s considered appropriate in a specific setting will help you adequately prepare for your presentation. For instance, East Asians and Western Caucasians perceive happy and angry expressions differently, so it’s important to be aware of your own facial expressions.

7. Be Careful When Selecting Visuals

Your graphics should be free of any culturally inappropriate images. It’s also important to consider color because it can carry different symbolic meanings from culture to culture. For example, red is a high-energy color used as a warning or to elicit feelings of excitement, passion, or even anger in Western cultures, but it’s used as color of mourning in South Africa. Similarly, red represents good fortune in China but can mean anger in Japan. Another example is yellow, which is the color of mourning in Myanmar (Burma), but it signifies happiness and prosperity in the Middle East.

Besides color, be sure your visual aids make appropriate use of words and symbols for the culture in which you’re presenting. For example, Asian cultures tend to prefer pictures, numbers and symbols whereas Europeans typically favor text with logical bullet points.


8. Be Cautious in Your Use of Humor

Only use humor when you’re certain it’s appropriate. Jokes will not likely translate well between cultures. If you’re not sure if a joke will go over well, avoid it. In many cases, your attempt at humor will be lost in translation, or worse. It could be taken offensively.

Here are a few reminders when it comes to humor in a cross-cultural presentation:

  • Be aware that technology can pose challenges in relation to humor. Using humor across cultures is difficult, but using humor virtually and cross culturally is even more problematic. If you’re using cameras in a face-to-face situation, you can immediately see your audience’s reaction to your attempt at humor. If you’re giving a virtual presentation and can’t see your audience, your feedback will be limited, so it’s important to know beforehand whether your attempt at humor will be well received.
  • Carefully review all graphics and texts. If you’re utilizing handouts, slides, or any media that contains written text, be sure it’s carefully reviewed for cultural appropriateness. There should be no culturally offensive reference, nor should there be any words or phrases that are lost — or become offensive — in translation. For example, the word “fanny” means different things in the United States — one’s rear end — and Britain — a female’s private parts.
  • Consider the style of humor. The capacity to laugh at things is universal, but everyone is different when it comes to what they think is actually funny. There are more gray areas where culture is involved, as well. For example, irony is usually well understood in British culture, but it’s not as understood in direct-speaking cultures such as Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland.

Sarcasm typically goes over well in Israel and India, but it can be offensive in Latin America. Making fun of oneself is often considered humorous in the West, but may cause Asians to feel uncomfortable and empathetic. Similarly, physical humor — like slipping on a banana peel — will likely go over well in Italy or France, but not in Malaysia.


9. Utilize the Best Resources

The easy part of preparing a presentation across cultures is gathering content for the topic itself. After all, you’re the expert and you were chosen to deliver a presentation based on your knowledge and experiences. The difficult part of preparing a cross-cultural presentation is ensuring you convey that content in a culturally appropriate manner that will resonate with your audience. Aperian Global’s GlobeSmart®, an industry-leading online cultural intelligence resource, offers advice on giving presentations for over 95 countries – among 50 other business topics. Click on the button below to try GlobeSmart for free.