Canadian Consulting Engineer

On with the show

June 1, 1999
By Lionel Laroche, Ph.D., P.Eng

Once upon a time, four journalists from different countries -- the U.S., Germany, France, and Canada -- were asked to write a story on the mating of elephants. The U.S. journalist wrote "How to Make a...

Once upon a time, four journalists from different countries — the U.S., Germany, France, and Canada — were asked to write a story on the mating of elephants. The U.S. journalist wrote “How to Make a Million Dollars by Raising Elephants.” The French journalist wrote “The Courting Rituals of Elephants.” The German journalist wrote “The Socio-Dynamic Nature and Fundamental Psychological Constitution of the Elephant: the Burmese Ceremonial Elephant, from Karl the Great to the Present.” The Canadian journalist wrote “Elephant Mating: a Federal or Provincial Responsibility?”

This joke is adapted from Understanding Cultural Differences, a book written by E. T. Hall and M. Reed Hall. As it indicates, people of different cultural backgrounds tend to be interested in different aspects of the same subject. Engineers should keep that point in mind when making presentations to culturally different audiences.

Most consulting engineers make presentations to a variety of audiences, including clients, managers, colleagues and the public. If you perform poorly in front of your manager or clients it can do lasting harm to your career. Making a good presentation requires knowing the audience. How technically knowledgeable are they? How much detail do they want or need to know?

Finding the right way to reach out to your audience becomes even more difficult if they are from a different country. Cultural differences have a very large impact on presentation styles and on how they are received.

Should you make a presentation?

Situations that call for a presentation in North America may be handled in a totally different manner in other countries. In North America, engineers will shake hands with prospective clients, introduce themselves, and get to business shortly after that. Time is money, so you are doing your prospective clients a favour by giving them a well rehearsed presentation that addresses the key technical issues at hand.

In South America, this approach is often unsuccessful. Because business is conducted by people who trust one another, the first step in any business interaction consists in getting to know the people one is dealing with. Sales meetings in these countries usually consist of bringing written information that prospective clients can read at their leisure, taking them to lunch or dinner, and talking about something other than work. Business discussions will not start until some level of trust has been established.

Tongue twisters

Which language you use for a presentation to non-native English speakers has important implications that need to be carefully weighed. While English is generally considered as the international language of business, not all foreign business people speak it, as shown below:

Percentage of adults that speak English (Eurodata, 1991):

Germany 44%

Italy 16%

France 31%

Spain 12%

Belgium 34%

Furthermore, the ability to speak English is not uniform across generations. The acceptance of English as the international language of business is relatively recent. As a result, you may find that young engineers in your audience speak and understand English much better than their older counterparts. This difference can create tension, particularly when your audience belongs to a country where seniority is important. In some cases, solid proposals have been turned down because the senior decision makers did not understand them and did not want to lose face in front of their younger colleagues.

In countries such as France, Russia and China, people may resent having to speak a foreign language. Not being able to fully express their ideas and thoughts often makes them feel inferior and “intellectually disabled.”

So, what should you do? First, find out how fluently your audience in general, and the decision makers in particular, speak English. Keep in mind that, even if they have studied English in class, understanding a presentation in that language may be a challenge, particularly if it is delivered at a fast pace and contains much technical vocabulary. To increase their understanding of your presentation, you should:

Speak (slightly) more slowly than usual.

Enunciate clearly, particularly technical words and numbers.

Define all acronyms and abbreviations.

Limit your range of vocabulary: always use the same words to mean the same thing and eliminate synonyms.

Make sure that your voice is clearly audible to your audience. Project your voice in their direction.

Don’t speak much louder than usual (this is usually interpreted as being talked down to).

If your audience’s ability to understand English is too limited, the best option is having someone from your company who speaks the audience’s native language make the presentation. If the person is fluent in that language and can present credibly, their participation on your team might be invaluable.

The next best option is to use interpreters or translators. Here are some suggestions for making the best possible use of them:

Select your own translators so that you have time to prepare them for the work and to develop confidence in their abilities.

Because translation is fairly strenuous, non-stop negotiations often require the presence of two translators, so that one rests when the other one translates.

Brief them ahead of time so that they can research the necessary technical vocabulary.

Explain to them your objectives.

Speak slowly, carefully. Explain one idea or concept completely, then let the interpreter translate.

Speak to the group, not to the interpreter.

Degrees of detail

The amount of detail you give in a presentation obviously depends on the duration of the presentation and the type of audience. Canadian and U.S. audiences, for example, tend to focus on the bottom line and the answer to the question “What is in it for us?” As a result, presentations focus on the implications of the work, rather than the details of it.

German and Japanese audiences are more detail oriented. When making presentations to them, it is critical to use the exact technical term since the use of the wrong terms denotes insufficient technical expertise. Senior German or Japanese managers often hold technical degrees, so they expect and are able to absorb more technical information than their North American counterparts.

The amount of background information you should give varies with the length of the presentation and the familiarity of the audience with the topic. But remember, people of different nationalities approach the concept of time differently:

People from Canada and the U.S. have a short time horizon. “Long term” means three to five years from now, and events that took place more than five years ago are usually considered irrelevant. As a result, a presenter limits the background information to the latest developments.

“Long term” in western Europe is closer to 10 years from now, while Japanese companies plan for the next 30 years. Events that have taken place centuries ago continue to shape peoples’ lives. As a result, French or German presenters tend to go much further back in time than their North American counterparts. A French professor describing his university to a Canadian colleague, for example, started by talking about the creation of French engineering schools during the 18th century!

How much evidence should you give? Most presentations are meant to deliver a message supported by logical reasoning based on data. Canadian and U.S. audiences assume that a presenter’s ideas and conclusions have been thoroughly verified before the presentation takes place. In addition, audiences here tend to concentrate on the implications of someone’s work rather than on the reasoning behind it. But because the French educational system focuses on deductive reasoning, French audiences would suspect that a presentation that omits the logic behind it is likely to be hiding flaws.

Questions, anyone?

The dynamics of a presentation depend on the relationship between the presenter and the audience. In North America students are encouraged
to ask their teachers questions. As a result, presenters are likely to be asked questions after and even during their presentations.

In many Asian cultures, however, students are expected to listen to their teachers or professors and not ask questions during presentations. Similarly, business presentations made to Japanese audiences are often greeted with silence, and very few or no questions are asked.

European (particularly Latin European) and South American cultures usually occupy the middle ground. Questions are invited at the end of presentations, but generally it would be considered offensive to interrupt the speaker during the talk.

The way questions are formulated also differs from country to country. North American audiences are reluctant to ask questions that may embarrass the presenter. Questions aiming at pointing out flaws in the arguments or evidence presented are often phrased in a non-committal manner: “Don’t you think that the theory you presented may not take into account the following facts?”

French audiences are much tougher. Most questions, even questions aimed at obtaining additional information, are phrased negatively (by North American standards). You may, for example, have to handle a question such as: “These facts seem to contradict your theory. Have you thought about that?”

Humour and special effects

Introducing jokes and cartoons, or special effects such as videos, is often the mark of a good presentation in the U.S. and Canada. Bookstores sell compendiums of jokes for presenters, and audiences admire the presenter who can master complex presentation equipment. But be careful when using them in presentations elsewhere.

Humour is very specific to each culture. Many jokes do not translate well; for example, puns, which are based on the fact that one word has two different meanings, usually fall flat.

While cartoons are ubiquitous in the North American workplace and easily make their way into presentations, they are considered as children’s literature in many other countries. As a result, their use may be perceived as belittling the presentation or the audience.

While multi-media or video presentations can convey messages in a very powerful way, they may also be perceived by audiences abroad as an unnecessary display of North American technology. The “wow” factor is not always positive. French audiences, for example, might think the presenter is trying to “snow” them with technology to distract from the lack of substance. In addition, the fast pace of prepared North American video presentations is likely to confuse other audiences, particularly if English is not their mother tongue.

An effective presentation requires knowledge of the audience, particularly if its cultural background is different from yours. Since what makes a presentation reach an audience varies from country to country, find out what your audience is likely to expect ahead of time. Knowing, for example, that you will be met with stony silence in China, or peppered with sharp questions in France, will help you present confidently and win over your audience. And remember, whatever happens, try to smile — it’s a universal language. CCE

Lionel Laroche, Ph.D., P.Eng., is president of ITAP Canada, a cross-cultural training and consulting organization located in Thornhill, Ontario (Tel: (905) 771-6656; e-mail:


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