Giving Speeches in a Global Marketplace

International Presentations

By Terri Morrison
Copyright© 2013 all rights reserved

At a consortium of eminent German venture capitalists, Herr Doktor Gregor Geld introduces the next speaker: an ambitious entrepreneur we’ll call Mr. Driver.  As Mr. Driver strides confidently toward the podium, he smiles broadly, slides his left hand into his pants’ pocket, and says “Thank you, Greg, for that wonderful introduction!”  He’s itching to crack a scintillating joke before dazzling the audience with his brilliant business plan.   Hopefully, Mr. Driver notices the eyebrows shooting up in the front row, and forgoes the joke.

He’s already committed several faux pas in front of his audience.  Business is serious in Berlin, and German executives do not generally bestow “winning” grins upon prospects from the podium.  Neither do they insult the crowd by keeping one hand in a pocket while speaking or greeting someone. (Bill Gates recently did this with the President of South Korea, Park Geun-hye – an image that made headlines throughout Asia.)  And in a public forum, Germans often use formal titles and last names.  Dropping Herr Docktor Geld’s first name in such distinguished company was presumptuous...even if they're friends socially.

Luckily, Mr. Driver skips the quip, and delivers a thoroughly researched business plan.

No Laughing Matter

Many presenters like to open their speeches with a witty line or two.  But clearly, one joke does not fit all.  Why does a funny story fly in Seattle and fester in Singapore or Shanghai?  It’s not just the language barrier.  As White and Jackson described in their article “What’s Funny?” (Psychology Today), joke content can be a reflection of broad cultural norms.  For example, pornography is illegal in Singapore, so comedy with any type of sexual innuendo is not so amusing, but slapstick or violence may get a laugh. 

Besides bad translations and inappropriate topics, the entire concept of humor can differ globally.  Americans often use jokes as a release valve to cope with anxiety and lift spirits.  However, the Chinese don’t traditionally dispel stress with comedy.

They historically use it to make a point, demonstrate a moral, or instruct someone while being entertaining.   It can also be disconcerting for Asians to see a figure in authority – an invited speaker – behaving informally by telling jokes or expecting attendees to laugh out loud!  Instructors and speakers are held in high respect in China, Japan, and much of Asia - and laughter is not expected during the proceedings. It can be a sign of nervousness or embarrassment rather than joy. 

There is not generally a Q&A section at the end of Asian presentations either.  Since class participation is not the norm in China, students (who turn into executives) are used to quietly listening to speeches at work.  It could embarrass an entire room if one attendee grabbed the spotlight away from the speaker, just so he or she could pose a question!  

But without your opening bon mot, or an interactive exercise, how do you grab your audience in the first few moments?

Elementary, My Dear Watson
In his excellent piece “How to Give a Killer Presentation” (Harvard Business Review) Chris Anderson describes coaching the speakers at TED Talks who have 18 minutes to deliver. He believes that “Many of the best talks have a narrative structure that loosely follows a detective story.  It has to be engaging…the quality of the idea, the narrative, and the passion of the speaker is more important than speaking style or multimedia pyrotechnics.

Visual Appeal
Some people despise Powerpoint slides. They correlate them to verbose, boring speakers.  After my seminar at the ACTE (Association of Corporate Travel Executives) convention at the terrific Marriott Marquis in Times Square this year, Jon Purpura, the Director of Global Accounts and Global Agency Sales for United Airlines, came up and stated “Terri, when you said that you had 100 slides, I rolled my eyes and told my associate…This is going to be terrible - no one needs 100 slides!  Well, I just want to tell you, I wish you had more slides, and I want you to come and do this presentation at our global sales meeting!”

Why so many slides?  Because I have hundreds of examples of global negotiating techniques, ethical viewpoints, gestures, gifts, communication styles etc., and all have corresponding slides.  For example, there are countries that impose prohibitions on competitive or manipulative advertising.  There are no Coke and Pepsi wars in much of the EU, and there are no “Call Now!” numbers in French ads.  In Saudi Arabia you should avoid using pigs or dogs (no Porky Pig cartoons!), and never use the flag in any manner (Allah’s name is on it).  

Whether you use 1 or 100 Powerpoint slides, flipcharts, or avatars on a big screen – know your audience!  Be aware of the jobs, languages, business and social practices of the attendees.  It will help you engage with them, and prevent you from delivering an embarrassing faux pas along with your brilliant presentation.

[bf]WIN A FREE BOOK! CONTEST:  What’s your Cultural IQ? [end bf] 

True or False?  Besides How to Win Friends and Influence People Dale Carnegie wrote a classic book called Public Speaking for Success.

[bf] Email your answer [end bf] to 
A free copy of [ital] Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands®: The Bestselling Guide to Doing Business in More Than Sixty Countries [end ital] and [ital] Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands®: Sales & Marketing [end ital] will be awarded to two correct respondents, courtesy of F&W Media and McGraw-Hill.

June’s Answer: True. Observant Muslim men do not generally wear gold jewelry.

[ital] Terri Morrison is a Speaker, Co-author of 9 books, and is working on her 10th.  She is also Editor of Kiss Bow or Shake Hands® Digital - available through McGraw-Hill.  TerriMorrison@kissboworshakehands Twitter @KissBowAuthor.   Tel (610) 725-1040. [end ital]

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