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Understand your Audience

Why It’s Important to Do Your Homework Before You Present Overseas

Ethnically diverse crowd
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I once presented a video of Sir Ken Robinson who was sharing a personal story of his son’s school play, in which the kids were dressed up as shepherds with tea towels on their heads. Now I grew up in the UK, and wearing tea towels in the school nativity play is literally what happens in every school every year. However, this was taken as a religious insult to members of my audience in Singapore, and I had no idea!

So now I’m extra passionate about doing my best to understand the local culture prior to a trip where I’ll be presenting, so I can still be my authentic, open self without alienating my audience or upsetting them (or me).

Presenting to our colleagues and clients in our own offices and home towns is challenging enough. But when we fly, arrive jetlagged, and then have to deliver information and ideas to people with completely different cultural backgrounds and business ethics then it becomes even harder.

I frequently present and travel through APAC. But this year, in particular, I’ve presented and facilitated workshops throughout India, Singapore and Australia and, as a result, I’ve learned a lot about things I was totally unaware of before.

With Technavio’s analysts forecasting the global cross-cultural training market to grow 14.57% during the period 2017 to 2021, these are things that we just can’t afford to get wrong.


Research as much as possible

Find out everything you can about the country, culture and people you are presenting to

We’re talking simple things like which hand to use, how to exchange business cards, when to (or not to) nod, smile, point or pause. These gestures can all mean something different to different people across the world.

For example, in Japan it’s common practice to close your eyes to better focus on what someone is saying – it means they are listening intently (not going to sleep because they are bored).

When you’re talking, learn to expect longer silences and pauses to give your words time to be digested or understood

Sweep your gaze across the audience and try not to focus on any one person in case it is unnerving or taken as being rude.

Don’t expect questions

There may be a hierarchy system meaning it might be interpreted as being a mark of respect to keep quiet and just thank you instead.

Consider your metaphors and analogies carefully

We need a new level of understanding before we rampage around like a bull in a china shop – see, right there, that metaphor could be a major mistake. While it may make sense to most of us in the western world, and we might find this amusing, it might be lost or even downright insulting to our audience somewhere else. In general, I think it best to avoid politics and religious topics, wherever you are.

Sports talk can be a good way to engage and connect with your audience (cricket in India; soccer in England), but you really need to do your research to make sure you’re not going to overstep the mark or confuse even more. Will that baseball/homerun analogy mean anything to anyone outside the US?


Apply the same content rules

If you are not aware of your audience’s cultural differences, then even well-prepared presentation slides will not be able to help you, no matter how skilled a presenter you are!

Generally speaking, the rules for your presentation content should be the same throughout the world, no matter who you are presenting to.

We need content that is supportive on our slides. Lots of visuals, images, infographics, data insights and keywords that support what you are saying, not dictate it.

If English is your audience’s second language then using more visuals is even more important. You don’t want people to feel frustrated that they can’t understand what’s written on the slides. Make sure you speak slower to give your audience time to understand what you’re saying (the likelihood is that if they don’t then they won’t tell you!)

It’s highly likely that you are not speaking in your audience’s primary language, so using more visuals is even more important. You don’t want people to feel frustrated that they can’t understand what’s written on the slides. Make sure you speak slower to give your audience time to understand what you’re saying (the likelihood is that if they don’t, then they won’t tell you!)

Likewise, the visuals need to be representative of what you are talking about or representative of the people you are talking to. I always show photos of typical audiences in my slides, so when I was in India, I adapted my photos to show an Indian audience. If I had presented a typical Anglo-Australian audience then it would have been much harder for my Indian audience to connect with the visual.

Change from this:

To this, if it is more representative of your audience:


You may need to send presentation information to read before and or follow up afterwards. But, again, be conscious of any language barriers or difficulties.

Global diversity is here to stay and cross-cultural training is a growing market, so it’s really important we learn to form relationships built on mutual trust, and engage people with passion and respect. This will enable us to collaborate more, wherever in the world we are. 


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Emma Bannister
Emma Bannister is passionate about presenting big, bold and beautiful ideas. She is the founder and CEO of Presentation Studio, APAC's largest presentation communication agency, and author of the book Visual Thinking: How to transform the way you think, communicate and influence with presentations.
Emma Bannister
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