International travel and communication are so convenient nowadays that it’s easy to forget that people in other cultures think and communicate differently than Americans do. If you make sales presentations in other countries and cultures, you need to adapt your presentations to fit those differences.
I’m working on a project for a multi-national client that involves understanding what works best for presentations in different cultures. While you can find a lot of material about general cultural differences, Presenting Across Cultures: How to Adapt Your Business and Sales Presentations in Key Markets Around the World, by Ruben Hernandez, is the only book I have found that specifically addresses the impact of these differences on presentations.
In general, the book is outstanding. Having taught and made sales presentations in over 20 different countries, I thought I knew a lot about how to adapt my own presentations. Some of what I read in Hernandez’s book validated adjustments I made, but I also learned a lot of new information that makes me wish I could go back and re-do some of them. In particular, I would like to reprise some of the questions I have answered in Asian countries. What I took as straightforward requests for information may have been my questioners’ way of expressing flat-out disagreement.
It also makes the point that some of the things that work best in US presentations, particularly to high level executives, may actually backfire in international settings. For example, I stress the importance of being clear, direct and concise in your presentation. That works in the US because we’re a low-context culture, and most of the meaning in our communications is contained in our words. In high-context cultures such as Asian countries, most of the meaning is contained between the lines, in their mannerisms, tone, and more importantly in what they don’t say. So, being too direct in those cultures will make you seem rude and make the audience uncomfortable.
As another example, it’s usually a good idea for American audiences to clarify and add impact to your points with examples and stories, but Germans interpret these expressions as talking down to them.
The best part of the book is the way Hernandez graphs 13 different dimensions along a line, and presents these visually for each of 16 countries/regions. If you’re planning a presentation overseas, you can turn to each of the countries listed and see differences at a glance, and then read the overall explanations plus a list of dos and don’ts for each.
My main quibble with the book is the small sample size that Hernandez used to calculate each dimension. He tells us that he interviewed 130 internationally-active business people. With 16 countries/regions listed, that works out to eight for each, so don’t get too wrapped up in precise differences between cultures. Still, that’s a bit like a blind man criticizing his guide for only having one eye. Until someone comes along with something that is more extensively researched and validated, this book sets the standard.
The book is arranged by culture, which works well. For my own purposes, I have found it useful to “pivot-table” the material, reorganizing it in a PowerPoint presentation by dimension, with the relevant values for each culture listed beneath.
For starters you will want to read the introductory material, get familiar with your own culture, and compare it to those of others you may present to. But the best use of Presenting across Cultures is as a reference guide that you should pack along with your passport if you have to go overseas to make a business presentation.
By the way, the book is just as valuable if you are a member of the audience. If you’re American, for example, you might judge a presenter harshly for spending too much time on background context, but they may just be doing exactly what seems right to them.
 Some good examples are: Figuring Foreigners Out, by Storti, Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands, by Morrison and Conaway and Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, by Hofstede, Hofstede, and Minkov.