Lost in translation? Sidestep the perils of presenting to a global audience

A well-known American speaker once spoke at a conference in Japan and he opened with a joke. There was an interpreter in the room translating his words into Japanese simultaneously and she quickly realised that his joke wouldn’t translate, either logically or with any kind of humor, so she simply told the audience: “Laugh, laugh now! The speaker just told a joke!”

Lost in translation?

Sidestep the perils of presenting to a global audience

By Maya Hu-Chan

A well-known American speaker once spoke at a conference in Japan and he opened with a joke. There was an interpreter in the room translating his words into Japanese simultaneously and she quickly realised that his joke wouldn’t translate, either logically or with any kind of humor, so she simply told the audience: “Laugh, laugh now! The speaker just told a joke!”

That probably tells you all you need to know about the perils of presenting to a global audience. Every culture is different and so it’s critical to get the content right for the audience in front of you.

It wasn’t so much about the language difference, although the translator was clearly seeking to spare his blushes had his joke been met with stony silence. She was also seeking to help her Japanese audience save face by appearing to understand what their guest was saying.

That’s because Japanese culture is what is known as high context culture, where saving face is paramount. In high context cultures the non-verbal can be more important than the actual message as the context of their communication is packed with layers of hidden meaning. For example, the tone of voice, gestures, social status and setting can all affect the meaning of a message. Information is indirect and implied and the responsibility is on the listener to interpret it accurately. Along with Japan, other Asian and Middle Eastern countries are characterized in this way, although with Japan it is perhaps the most pronounced.

I have a Dutch colleague who is a highly successful trainer. Last year, he was working with a group of Chinese delegates in Shanghai and upset them in the workshop through the simple and common act (in western society at least) of pointing out bluntly that they misunderstood the concept and need to “pay attention” to the process he was teaching. He was unaware that, in China, giving direct feedback in public appears to question the other person’s capability, authority and social status and cause the person to “lose face”. It is a real cultural taboo!

On the other hand, I had an opposite experience in Germany! I was teaching a leadership program to a group of senior executives from Europe, Asia and North America. On the last day of the program, a German senior manager made a request in front of the group, “Maya, you have given us lots of useful information and positive reinforcement. However, I have not heard any ‘negative’ feedback. That’s what we need.”

Most of my clients are successful leaders in their organizations. They have strong technical skills, extensive business experiences, and more often than not, they are good communicators. However, when they have to make a presentation to a global audience they run into all sorts of problems! Why is this?

I often tell the story of an Indian client of mine who works for a major global telecommunications company headquartered in the US. He is a newly promoted director of Technical Support, based in India, and his American boss and other senior leaders were flying in to hear about progress of an important customer initiative. My client explained in some detail what he had achieved, his strategic thinking and the success it had created. Already at risk of losing a western audience (more comfortable with shorter, sharper presentations with less background), he was so keen to impress his seniors and reassure them he was doing a good job for them that he forgot to mention his team.

To an American team-oriented audience his presentation therefore sounded all “me, me, me.” In his efforts to please he had forgotten to incorporate the absolutely pivotal US value of teamwork into his presentation.

This is typical of a high-context style presentation: going at length through the background, the history and the reasoning to eventually arrive at the solution that has been achieved.

Unfortunately this generally loses western audiences who like their presentations to get quickly to the point. But for high context culture-based presenters, such as those in China, India and Japan, they will be left wondering “how do they know how I came to the right conclusion if they don’t know the background?’ They believe the background to be a necessary part of the presentation.

Low context cultures on the other hand provide their information almost entirely through their words, tending to screen out non-verbal cues. The message is direct and explicit and the responsibility for understanding lies firmly with the speaker. Low context countries are typically westernized ones – the UK, Germany and the US – with the Swiss and Dutch perhaps amongst the most extreme nations in this regard.

Sometimes this culture clash can be found working against members of the audience in a presentation. How you respond to speakers from different cultures can be equally as fraught with potential for offense!

Let me give you an example. Another client of mine is VP of Supply Chain at a global IT company from the US. He leads a global team including a high proportion of employees based in China and Latin America. He is an excellent leader; well-liked and well respected by them all.

However when we recently reviewed his 360 feedback it was found that his team find him highly intimidating, impatient and not approachable. I know him well and although he is fast, sharp-witted and often funny, I would never have described him as intimidating. So we decided to delve a little deeper.

It transpired that when his team presented to him he would sit there nodding, saying “Yep…got it…got, got it,” which was his way of actively listening to them and acknowledging each point. However his Chinese team, who speak English as a second language, are from a high context culture, were thinking, “You’ve got it? But I haven’t finished! Do I speak poor English? Do you not need to hear more?” As a consequence they felt uncomfortable and shut down.

Many of you will be working at a very senior level and the global audiences you present to may well include senior executives, even board directors. There is an additional complexity when presenting to senior global leaders; as a group they also have typical traits which will run alongside their country-specific cultural norms.

Of course it’s hard to generalize about global senior executives, given the dramatic differences that we know to exist in high and low context cultures. However, senior executives, of all backgrounds, tend to be assertive. They are also paid to be paranoid – to ask the tricky and tough questions and expect well-thought-through but snappy answers, and they generally don’t like wasting time or effort. They can’t afford to waste time so they’re really only interested in the main points that underpin major decisions.

Given these dramatic differences, when I prepare my clients for presenting to senior leaders or clients from other cultures I take them through a five-step process, to help them adapt their natural style and pitch their presentation effectively to each audience.

Know your audience. Do your homework on them. Find out as much as you can about their business, cultural background, interests, and, if possible, the key individuals in the room. Read up on the cultural norms of the particular country you are visiting and check that your intended content won’t cause an unintended slight with them.

Prepare and practice. This is definitely not a time to ‘wing’ it! Write your presentation or speech well in advance and check or rehearse it with someone familiar with the audience if you can. This would also be a good moment to double check that your content does not include culture-specific references in your humor!

Use more images in your presentation. Always paint pictures of the outcome of a project, not only the process and use visuals to support your ideas. These work in all cultures.

Tell compelling stories. People rarely remember numbers, statistics, and charts, but they often remember a good story. Indeed, if you are making an important point, wrapping that point around a compelling story is far more memorable than just stating the importance of that point.

Project strength, confidence and warmth. This is easiest to do if you’re well prepared and confident in your abilities. However, my advice is: fake it if you have to, by learning techniques to convey these qualities even if you are having an off-day. Being a strong, warm speaker will allow your audience to relax and enjoy your presentation.

For me, this last point is particularly important as an engaged, relaxed audience is more likely to forgive slight cultural errors in your style and content and be carried along with you. As Amy J.C. Cuddy, Matthew Kohut, and John Neffinger suggest in their excellent Harvard Business Review article ‘Connect, then Lead’: “Before people decide what they think of your message, they decide what they think of you.”

If you do your homework on your topic and audience; focus on your personal power and warmth as a presenter and stay clear of cultural ‘cul-de-sacs’ you will find it easy to overcome the common perils of presenting to a global audience and ensure that, no matter what their language or cultural background, your audience believes that you are speaking their language.