Logic, clarity or big picture? A cultural guide to presentations in Europe, the US and Japan
Presentations have always been one of the preferred ways for human beings to communicate information. There have been presentations for as long as there have been groups of people. You could even argue that perhaps the cave paintings at Lascaux were humanity's first attempt at a TED talk.
Given their perennial nature , you'd think leadership gurus and communications experts would have presentations all figured out. Somewhere out there, someone should have written an objective guide on how to make the best presentation ever. Or indeed just made a presentation about it. But as far as I know, nobody has.
So why not?
The tricky thing about presenting is that success or failure depends a lot on the factors of the moment. The expert presenter needs to be adaptable. Of those factors, the ones we hear the most about are the size, age, and prior knowledge of your audience. Different industries also have their own conventions for how to convey information in a way listeners are used to.
A factor that doesn't get talked about enough is culture; especially when presenting across cultures. With more and more companies expanding their global footprint, understanding how to engage with a foreign audience can be key to making a lasting connection.
The problem with culture is that it's quite near infinite. When there's so much to learn, so much to see, where do we even start?
Let's go back to where I started: on the school benches of continental Europe.
Accuracy and nuance: the European way
"Thèse, antithèse, synthèse." Every other week, these three words would ring forth like a mantra through the burly beard of my aging French teacher, as he would pace around the classroom giving haughty looks at us apprehensive schoolchildren.
If you're confused as to what this means or how it would apply to presentations, you can probably imagine the befuddlement of a bunch of teenagers.
I was taught that these three words were the blueprint for the absolutely and indisputably best way to deliver an argument. First your thesis; explain your argument. Then the antithesis; test your argument through vigorous debate and counterargument. Finally, the synthesis; reconcile the various points you raised into a profound and nuanced conclusion.
Nobody told me at the time, but this approach was Hegelian dialectics boiled down to the simplest form our professors thought they could get away with.
Presenting counters to the points you put forward is considered throughout most of Europe as a sign of sophistication. You want to show your audience that you've thought everything through; that your position is completely devoid of personal preference, and is instead being held up by the pure force of reason. It's similar to the scientific method, except instead of physicists using it to dismantle each other's theories about the structure of the universe, we have highschoolers using it to debate politics (the politicians themselves have no time for counterarguments, not even in Europe).
If you embrace this presentation method, keep in mind that other cultures may find your style long-winded. European presenters can sometimes go too deep, spending time on intricate details the audience either already knows or doesn't care about.
Also, venerating nuance tends to breed murky conclusions. Strict adherence to logical precision means nothing is ever clear cut. Recommendations are riddled with caveats, to the point where listeners from more direct cultures will wonder if the presenter even believes in their own conclusion.
With such an adversarial style, it's also not surprising that European cultures tend to make for very critical audiences. If you, the presenter, missed an important counterargument, expect the audience to find it and throw it in your face during Q&A. It's not personal, it's Hegel.
When dealing with a French presenter or a German audience, explore every angle of your argument and come up with ample counterexamples. Do your best to use precise language, and embrace verbosity. Remember that for them, the ability to deliver a clear and simple message is not a virtue. It's the symptom of a simple and uncluttered mind.
All about the listener: the American way
Keep it simple. Show by example. Add a personal touch. The American presentation method doesn't live by a single adage; it has thousands. Yet somehow, they're all catchy! That's because in the US more than anywhere else, the quality of a presentation is measured by how much the audience learns and remembers.
And how do America's greatest presenters figure out the ideal way to deliver a memorable presentation? The same way America's best figure out pretty much everything: data analysis.
Research shows that people remember points more easily when presented in threes. The ideal length of time to spend on each slide is between 30 seconds and a minute. Your audience will lose focus after about twenty minutes. Want to know about ideal room temperature, applause length and font size? There's data on all that and more.
The very objective of an American presentation is different from Europe. No more pursuing rational arguments in their purest form. Here, the presenter is selling an idea, and their client is the audience. There's no point in giving the most logically sound and compelling argument possible if nobody in the audience remembers anything the next day.
Push this way of thinking to its limits and you get the TED talk. Every stylistic detail is engineered to grab your attention and never let go. Slides are kept to a minimum, if used at all. Presenters pursue relatability by weaving in their life story, either in the form of a crucial revelation, or as lots of amusing or endearing personal anecdotes. The timing is rehearsed to perfection, with intense silence to build dramatic tension and witty quips to lift the mood right back up.
It's hard to argue with the results. TED talks rack up views in the millions.
Where this presentation style often gets criticized is for lacking depth or nuance. Part of that can be attributed to the intended audience: You can't go into much detail if your target audience is insomniacs seeking solace on YouTube at three in the morning.
However, I think there's more to it. There are plenty of presentations using a more European style available on YouTube and meant for beginner audiences—they just don't get as many views. TED talks are so popular because rather than seeking to explore an issue, they stop one step earlier: aiming to provoke interest and curiosity in as many people as possible. European presentations don't care as much about audience curiosity, as they presuppose the reason you're listening in the first place is because you're curious.
This rift goes far beyond TED; I've seen similar patterns when Americans give presentations in the workplace, to clients, or even at international seminars and forums. Good means interesting, interesting means clear and concise, therefore clear and concise is the way to go.
If you're an American presenter, keep in mind that European audiences in particular may feel you're dazzling them with style to make up for a lack of substance. In response, they may ask sharp questions and seek to deconstruct your argument. In those cases, the best strategy is to avoid going on the defensive. Criticism from a European is often more a sign of interest than disapproval.
For those presenting to an American audience for the first time, know that they often appreciate demonstration through illustration. Pack your presentation with examples, while keeping key concepts short and memorable. Let your audience come up with counter arguments if they have them; nobody's expecting you to give a Hegelian dissertation. Start and end strong, don't rely too heavily on slides, and just learn the rest through practice. One great thing about presenting to American audiences is that they aren't shy about their opinions, so they'll let you know what to keep and what to improve.
From the whole to the sum of its parts: the Japanese way
"First, let's begin by looking at everything we're going to talk about today." A lot of presenters around the world like to start by giving an overview of their topic. This holds especially true for professors, who know that without signposting, all the knowledge they seek to impart will forever disappear from the short-term memories of their ramen-fueled college students.
However, to the Japanese presenter, beginning with the big picture is not just a recommendation; it's a religion. The emphasis on interconnectedness and favoring broad strokes over fine details is a recurring theme throughout Japanese art and culture.
What this means is that toward the beginning of every Japanese presentation—after the culturally mandated formal self-introduction—you'll be treated to an overview slide.
With good presenters, that slide will be a well-designed graphic representation of the links between the points you're about to hear. With bad presenters, you get a technicolor Rorschach test of interlaced shapes and varying fonts that will assault both the minds and retinas of all who seek to decipher any form of meaning.
To be fair, this slide is not meant to be easily understood. Presenters will return to it at key moments throughout the presentation, and its meaning will slowly unravel over time. Maintaining that holistic view as you go over every detail is a normal way to impart information in Japan, whereas audience members from other cultures get confused when presented with information that isn't immediately useful.
Another cultural element key to understanding Japanese presentations is the role of the audience. For all but the most progressive presenters, the audience is a silent critic. A tough question about something that didn't come up in the presentation can imply a lack of skill or preparation on behalf of the presenter.
Japanese presenters will often go a step further and anticipate questions. Not just in presentations; if you've ever filled out an official document in Japan, you probably know what I'm talking about. To show they've put enough thought into their argument, they will proactively go over every element they believe the audience could potentially find unclear or confusing.
This again is a double-edged sword. When done well, presenters can answer questions that audience members didn't even know they had. When done poorly, you waste time diving in and out of rabbit holes, to the point where nobody can even remember the topic of the presentation.
Overall, to the Japanese presenter, the value of a presentation isn't measured on the validity of the argument, nor on clarity or concision. It's measured on how well they were able to connect the whole to the sum of its parts. They don't espouse the European obsession with counterarguments, but since they want to avoid any question that would make them lose face, they often end up showing both sides of the issue anyway. You're also unlikely to get negative questions or comments from a Japanese audience unless they have experience with overseas presenters.
To a Japanese listener, the European presentation style sounds organized and thorough, the American style feels entertaining and memorable, but both lack that holistic view in which they find comfort. If you're addressing a Japanese audience, make sure to throw back to the bigger picture in between points, and don't drown the essence of your argument in too many examples or stories.
Find the path that works for you
At the end of the day, the golden rule when presenting across cultures is the same as when presenting to people from your own culture: know your audience. Sounds easy enough, until you start asking, "What exactly do I need to know about my audience?"
Culture is so complex, it's impossible to know the background and expectations of everyone you ever present to everywhere in the world. Luckily, and contrary to what too many presenters seem to believe, a presentation is a two-way interaction. The listener should also cut the presenter some slack; a bit of awkwardness is the price to pay for sharing knowledge across cultures.
As a presenter, rather than knowing absolutely everything about your audience, you can usually get ahead by answering a few key questions. First, how do they like to structure their presentations, and how does their argument usually flow? Second, in order to find the right balance between precision and concision, what level of attention to detail do they expect? Third, do they expect counter-arguments to come from the presenter themselves, from the audience, in private, or never? And finally, how much time should you spend on concepts vs. examples?
When mapping out those four points, remember that everything is relative. Look inward and try to compare the expectations of your audience with those of your own culture. For example, I like a European structure with high precision, many counter-arguments, and a balance that slightly favors concepts over examples. When presenting to a Japanese audience, I will need to change my structure by making my presentation less argumentative, but I don't necessarily need to add more examples than usual.
I'd also recommend checking out some of the broader literature about cultural differences and culture mapping. A great place to start is Erin Meyer's "The Culture Map," and my interview with her from a few months ago.
With those few tips, you should already be well on your way to giving engaging, productive presentations across cultures. There's always a period of trial and error, but as long as you're curious and receptive to the needs of your audiences, they can forgive a few mishaps.
That is, as long as you have something to say. The most important lesson I've learned from my nomadic lifestyle is that no audience anywhere in the world—regardless of culture—will ever appreciate someone wasting their time.
Written by Alex Steullet. Edited by Ade Lee and Mina Samejima. Illustration by yummi.
Alex is the editor in chief of Kintopia and part of the corporate branding department at Cybozu. He holds an LLM in Human Rights Law from the University of Nottingham and previously worked for the Swiss government.
After gratuating from the Nihon University College of Art, yummi began working as a freelance artist. In 2015, she received an honorable mention at the 2nd The Gate competition for her work "Sanpei-sensei No Jikan" (In Her Class), as well as an excellence award at the 69th Tetsuya Chiba competition for “Himitsu No Hanazono-san” (“The Secret Girl”).
Mina is a content editor and part of the corporate branding department at Cybozu. She is in charge of brand promotion and content creation, including for Kintopia and its Japanese twin website CybozuShiki.