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.
There is no “best” book on persuasive visuals—it all depends on what you’re presenting, to whom, and how many are in the audience. I’ve selected a few of my favorites that cover the range of possible presentation scenarios. To make sense of the order in which these titles are presented, think of a continuum: at the left side is a page densely packed with information, a la Tufte, and at the right side is a ballroom presentation, such as Steve Jobs introducing the iPhone. (Hyperlinks will take you to my more detailed book review.)
Speaking PowerPoint, by Bruce Gabrielle. This excellent book shows that Tufte is wrong when he says that PowerPoint causes poor thinking. Gabrielle shows how to first organize your thoughts for credibility and clarity, and then put them on slides.
As the title of the book indicates, the authors urge salespeople to can their slides and conduct their presentations interactively using a whiteboard.
There are some strong arguments for getting away from slide decks:
- As I’ve written before, senior level executives (and probably everyone else) often dread having to sit through the standard sales deck, with its reams of slides displaying the “company history” and walls of words. If you show up and do something different, they will definitely pay attention.
- Some salespeople are just projector operators. They show up, connect the laptop, and read off the screen a presentation that someone else put together. If you could train a monkey to operate the projector, or better yet, just email the slides in advance, you would deliver equal credibility and value at a much lower cost.
- Sustainable agreements are much more likely when the customer is actively engaged in telling you their story and building the solution with you. The design of most presentations fosters a transmit-only approach and discourages questions and interactivity.
Whiteboard Selling shows how to encapsulate a large slide deck into a single whiteboard that builds the story you need for particular stages in the sales cycle, including qualification and discovery, why change, competitive comparison, making the business case, and closing. That’s a particular strength of the book—it’s as much about effective sales process as it is about presentations.
In their words, “it should be a cohesive visual that tells a singular story within a defined space”. This phrase neatly captures the two principal advantages of the whiteboard approach. It allows you to build a story with your customer while also harnessing the power of visuals. You’ll know you succeeded when the customer insists on saving what’s on the board so they can sell the idea internally.
Even if you don’t want to take the drastic step of getting rid of your slides entirely, the discipline of going through the whiteboarding process would definitely sharpen your thinking and your delivery.
Some people reading this review might shudder at the thought of unleashing your sales force onto the world armed with nothing but colored markers. How do you ensure quality and consistency? Have no fear; the book is actually written with sales and marketing managers as its audience, and devotes substantial space to the process of designing, training and implementing a whiteboard approach in your sales organization. As such, it’s not really a “how-to” for individual sales professionals, although any reasonably intelligent and experienced salesperson could probably design their own.
While the general approach outlined in the book makes excellent sense, I would guess that the challenge—and effectiveness—of rolling out the process to the entire sales force is not as straightforward as the book makes it appear. In fact, the close scripting required to ensure a consistent message would seem to detract from the flexibility and natural flow that effective sales conversations require, possibly defeating the purpose.
Maybe the ideal approach combines the best of both approaches. Ironically, the authors advocate using PowerPoint to design the whiteboard templates to begin with. That got me thinking: why not combine both approaches? Tablets running MS Office could be used to project slides, and the presenter could write and draw on the slides just as with a whiteboard. It’s worth finding out, and I plan to experiment with the approach and write about it in upcoming posts.