Tips for Effective Cross-Cultural Presentations

An article that has been picked up recently by several training and development newsletters is one by Dave Underhill,  founder of Underhill Training and Development, entitled “The Successful Global Presenter: How to Engage Audiences Across Cultures.” No wonder it is getting a good bit of play–it packs a lot of useful advice into a short space. And it’s advice that can serve any cross-cultural business communicator well.

Underhill recommends that presenters develop what he calls “cultural agility”: the ability to adapt to “the mindsets and expectations that people in different cultures have about communication, relationships, conflict, and other aspects of conducting business.”

Here’s a quick summary of his specific advice:

–Tailor the information to the audience. 

  • Use “analogies, metaphors, and themes”  that will resonate with the target audience–for example, instead of using US-based metaphors from sports, use a more broadly appealing theme, such as navigating rough waters.
  • Use inclusive pictures as well.
  • Provide your content to the audience in advance to give them time to process material that may be somewhat foreign to them.

–Adapt how you interact with the audience.

  • Some nonnative speakers may be hesitant to join a live discussion. Increase their comfort level by establishing contact with them before the presentation to make them feel more comfortable with you and your material.
  • In some cultures, it is considered rude to speak during a presentation. Give these participants a way to offer feedback less publicly–for example, by inviting them to email you with their questions and comments after the presentation.

–Modify your nonverbal communication.

  • Be sure you know how your gestures will translate into other cultures’ body-language vocabularies. For example, the “thumbs up” signal is positive in the US but offensive in some other countries.
  • Speak in short statements and pause often to give nonnative speakers a chance to process what you are saying.
  • Adjust your eye contact to your audience’s preferences–more contact with Americans, Germans, and Canadians and less with Japanese, Native American, and Hispanic audiences.
  • Be sensitive to what amount of animation your audience will consider appropriate. Dramatic facial expressions and body movements may undercut your message in some situations.

As Underhill says, “When it comes to presenting on the global stage, cultural agility matters.” You can share his useful little article with students to reinforce this point. Better yet, consider building a cross-cultural component into your presentation assignments to let students practice their cross-cultural presentation skills.

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