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How not to blow it when presenting to an international audience

You’re most likely used to giving a pitch and giving presentations about your business idea or product. And maybe you tend to think, “if the product is sensible and I talk through the presentation, it’ll all be fine.” And usually it is, but when pitching in front of an international audience, there are some other aspects to consider, for there’s more to it than just content. Not only should you think about your presentation, but also the way in which you present yourself.

Say what you mean and mean what you say

So what should you focus on in your presentation? This depends on where your audience comes from. A French audience, for instance, values understanding the principle or the philosophy behind your idea. The Germans and Japanese are generally fascinated by test results, figures, and facts. It may be beneficial to bring along some physical evidence or the book that you refer to. Are you presenting to a British audience? Tell them about the benefits and make clear what is in it for them.

If you are pitching to Dutch or Scandinavians you should also make clear what the environmental impact of your business is. When pitching for a group of people coming from Asia, it’s important to address them, make contact with them. Don’t worry if they don’t ask any questions, they’re likely digesting your presentation. If they don’t say anything, it doesn’t automatically mean that they agree with everything. Approach them individually in the break to get questions or feedback – or simply make yourself available for them to approach you.

Are you pitching to a mixed audience? Keep in mind that it’s important to use a clear structure in your pitch. You can increase your impact when the pitch is logically structured, for example by using oral bullet points. Using repeated phrases (“another way to,” “moving on to”) or signal words (first, next, then, also, however etc.) lets the listener know you’ve moved on to a next point. Make use of graphics where possible, especially if Asians are in the audience, they understand pictures better than our letters.

One more tip: when pitching to a mixed audience you should be careful with humor. Something that is funny in one culture can be confusing—or even worse, offending,—in another culture. If your audience doesn’t understand the humor, everyone feels awkward and disconnected, which isn’t what you want when presenting. So save your jokes for after, when drinking beer in a pub with your friends, celebrating a successful pitch.

How to present your pitch

Content is one thing, but the way you are presenting is just as important. These examples will help you leave a great impression with your audience. When presenting for the French and Germans, dress formally.  In order for them to listen to you, they have to take you seriously at first sight. British, Dutch and Scandinavians are a bit more easy-going, and you don’t have to dress too formally. Practical experience is more appreciated than formal titles or sleek looks.

Besides your appearance, think about your body language. Are you a person who uses hand gestures a lot when presenting? Some cultures will appreciate it to see the expression of emotion through body language. Other cultures might expect the speaker to remain calm and would find such behavior irritating. In addition, think about what kind of gestures you use. A thumbs-up may in general be a sign of approval or agreement, while it is considered an insult in some countries.  

As you can see, there are many things to think about when pitching to an international group. While challenging, it’s also fun and a great opportunity to learn and grow as an entrepreneur. In any case, be aware of your audience and what you expect from them. Be prepared to switch presentation styles if you feel that you’re losing your audience. Good luck pitching!


Brigitte Opel has been trainer for cross-cultural management since 2013. She has lived and worked in Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, USA, Australia and Russia and visited many more. After her studies at Thunderbird School of International Management and a career as international project manager at IBM, she decided to use her experience in combination with the Hofstede model on National Cultures to consult multinational teams to improve their communication and results.


10 NO-GO’s  when Presenting in front of an International Audience–Courtesy of Rockstart interns

1. England & Australia: Peace Sign–In 1992, During George Bush’s visit to Australia, he held up his index and middle fingers from the window of his limousine, creating a “V” shape. In England or North America, with the palm facing outward, this gesture  is commonly known to mean “victory” in England, or “peace” in North America. However, Bush gestured with his palm facing inward, which is the equivalent of “up yours.” 

2. A-OK in France–Making a circle with your thumb and forefinger is commonly known to be synonymous for “ok” or “fine” in North America and other parts of the world. In France, this gesture means “zero.” If you make this gesture in front of  a French audience you are communicating that someone/something is worthless. This might be a bad idea when trying to convince them of your argument. 

3. Eat with your hand–In Muslim countries like BangladeshIndonesia, and Malaysia, it’s polite and customary to eat with your hands. However, make sure to only eat with your right hand, never with your left! In those countries, food is eaten with the right hand and the left hand is reserved for certain sanitary activities like entering the toilet, blowing one’s nose, cleaning oneself, etc. So, when dining with people practicing Islam, best to use your right hand! 

4.  Thumbs up in Thailand–This gesture is generally viewed as a symbol of agreement or approval, and many believe this gesture to have the same meaning globally.  However, in Thailand, this gesture is a sign of condemnation. It’s usually a child’s gesture (the Thai equivalent of sticking out your tongue). Although people will probably be more amused than upset, you might want to steer clear from this one.

5.  Bull Horns in Italy–For most of us, raising the index and pinkie fingers like bull horns is a symbol of rock n’ roll. In Italy, this motion is a “cuckold” gesture, which means that a man’s wife is being unfaithful, and he is a fool because of it. Funnily enough, this gesture is quite common at Italian sports matches, though it’s usually used after a referee’s bad call. Be sure to avoid this gesture in front of Italians!

6.  Reverse it for Greece and Bulgaria!–For many people, the universal sign for ‘yes’ is a simple nod of the head, while ‘no’ requires shaking the head right to left (or vice-versa). As it turns out, the reverse is true in Greece and Bulgaria! This may incite come confusion when making business deals, so make sure to be aware of which way your head moves.

7. Crossing fingers in Vietnam–We all need a little luck sometimes, and in the western world, we often wish for it by crossing our fingers. In Vietnam, however, crossing your fingers signifies a woman’s genitalia–an incredibly offensive gesture. Wishing for luck in the wrong environment can cause quite a bit of controversy. You may want to try finding a lucky charm instead of crossing your fingers next time you need some good fortune!

8.  Crossing arms in Finland–Though crossing your arms is commonly viewed as a sign of closed-off and disengaged body language, the implications in Finland are far worse than this. Typically, someone who is crossing their arms in Finland is projecting the utmost arrogance, which is not interpreted too kindly by locals. It’s said that standing in a bar with your arms crossed can lead you straight into a bar fight. 

9.  Pointing the finger, basically everywhere–It may not be a hugely offensive gesture, but it’s best to avoid the single-finger point altogether. In Japan, China, Indonesia, Latin America, Europe, Africa… the list goes on, this is seen as overtly rude and generally quite impolite. If you need to point at something, try to do it with an open hand to avoid any inadvertent contention. 

10. Keep feet out of it in India… and everywhere else, too–Lastly, it’s not only hand gestures that can land you in hot water! In India, feet are seen as unclean and the lowest point of the human body. To show the soles of your feet is a sign of great disrespect. The likelihood of landing in a situation where this could occur is quite limited, but be warned just in case! Besides, showing your feet in any business situation should be the last thing you do.


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