The Perils of Presenting Abroad

Many C-Suite executives in the U.S. have developed solid presentation and public speaking skills over the course of their career.

But all bets are off once we cross the border and have to address a foreign audience. I learned this early on when working abroad, as an American consultant on international accounting teams in Germany.

One memorable day, following my presentation to the board, I was taken on, in a no-holds-barred debate, by an audience member. More about that sparring match and its outcome below.

Today, in my role as CFO of a U.S.-based multinational capital equipment manufacturer, I still draw on such experiences on occasion.

How can we ensure that we get the message across abroad? How do we set the tone for a productive dialogue?

Having given and observed my share of presentations in international settings for decades, here are three general pointers that I hope prove helpful.

Prepare to take the plunge

Finance and accounting professionals present to the board as a matter of routine. On their home turf, most can be counted on to do reasonably well when addressing larger groups, too, such as annual shareholder meetings.

After all, if you’ve got your numbers straight, what could go wrong? The SEC doesn’t take kindly to rhetorical flourish, and nobody expects the chief number cruncher to bring down the house with a TED Talk-level performance.

On the international stage, language doesn’t pose a significant challenge anymore. The language barrier has been lowered, with English being the lingua franca in many countries and real-time translation services readily available.

Speaking to groups abroad still requires extra preparation, though because we cannot simply assume that our listeners will be able to follow us as easily in English as an American audience would. At the same time, their facial expressions or body language often won’t tell us if we are about to lose them.

That said, avoid to over-prepare. It can backfire, as consultant Elena Groznaya is pointing out in this article.

To improve our presentations abroad, there’s still no real alternative to what Dale Carnegie recommended in <a href="http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/16317" target=_blank" title="The Art of Public Speaking">The Art of Public Speaking: “To plunge is the only way.”

With that in mind, let’s start by setting the tone in the host’s language at the outset. This small gesture can go a long way. Take it from <a href="http://www.worldlycfo.com/trust-in-small-matters-it-rocks/" target=_blank" title="Trust in Small Matters: It Rocks. (Worldly CFO Blog)">Sir Paul.

Count to 3. Don’t try to be clever. Slow down.

As for launching into the main part of the presentation, it pays to remember a time-tested “rule of three”:

“If you have an important point to make, don't try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time - a tremendous whack.” -
Winston S. Churchill

Now you may want to soften the “tremendous whack” step a bit in countries whose cultures require more indirect verbal communication and hitting the more harmonious notes, like in most countries in Asia.

Still, Churchill’s advice comes in handy when speaking to foreign business groups. His rhetorical recipe is one of the many permutations - perhaps the most colorful - of a famous “rule of three” of rhetorics (there are more than one).

Its origins have been - wrongly - ascribed to Aristotle on occasion. You may be familiar with this version:

“Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em; then tell ’em; then tell ’em what you told ’em.”

Why is this rule helpful when addressing foreign audiences in particular?

In my experience, in cross-border business presentations, it comes down to mainly three reasons.

  • It requires the speaker to slow down, thus reducing the risk of listeners suffering from information overload. Having to keep up with a steady, linear stream of facts, data or interpretations can be a challenge to follow even in the local language.
    Instead, we let them catch their breath. This way, audience members with less-than-perfect command of business English have ample opportunity to connect and reconnect with the core points we want them to remember.

  • The “rule of three” helps avoid misunderstandings, because three opportunities to make our core point are better than one. It also leaves little space for subtleties that might get lost in translation.

  • In countries with indirect communication styles, it provides the presenter with three opportunities to get the same message across with a different, indirect slant - no “tremendous whack” required.

Germany, I think it’s fair to say, is not one of those countries. This brings me back to that experience there early in my career, when I was asked to present to the executive board of a world-famous German corporation.

Know how to handle follow-ups in foreign lands

“Veni, vidi, vici” - well prepared to lay out a set of financial publishing recommendations,
“I came, I saw, I conquered” - or so I thought.

That was, until the junior lieutenant of the board’s chairman lifted his finger. “Herr Schult,” he started courteously enough in German, “ich hätte da noch ein paar Fragen...” (allow me a few questions).

Source: Aperian Global

Then he launched into an all-out assault, debating my recommendations one by one, not wasting any time or breath with niceties like “in my opinion,” “I think” or “may I suggest.”

He jabbed and stabbed and threw logical hooks, with his boss and peers nodding approvingly at each punch and then intently eyeing me, gauging my ability and appetite to throw a counter-punch.

I had come prepared to discuss the finer points in friendly one-on-ones, not hammering them out over several rounds in a prolonged prize fight.

Today, I know that by German standards, this was just the kind of friendly sparring match that’s perfectly normal and expected - all in a day’s work in the Vorstandsetage.

German business culture is based on thinking (and yes, talking) things through at length, in a frank and factual manner that can be perceived as combative or even rude by Americans.

Of course, it would have helped that day if I had known that my publishing recommendations ran contrary to another proposal which the chairman preferred - it had been presented at an earlier meeting that I wasn’t aware of.

What’s the takeaway? In countries with a more direct, straight-forward and no-nonsense communication style, we better prepare for the possibility - depending on the topic - of being on the receiving end of a “tremendous whack” from the audience, and to counter it, sensibly and forcefully at the same time.

It happens, and when it does, don’t take it personally. By the standards of your foreign audience, it may well be business as usual.

Over the course of my career, I have been involved with more than 40 company acquisitions in the U.S., Europe, Asia and Latin America. Adjusting speed and format of my (or my teams’) delivery for foreign audiences is as much key to connecting with them as is going into it having your numbers straight.

That’s the part we can control. The other valuable lesson I learned is that foreign audiences have their own distinctive styles. When presenting abroad, we better not only polish our own, but be prepared for theirs, too.

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Useful resources on how to present internationally

9 Tips for High-Impact Presentations Across Cultures (AperianGlobal.com)

Stuart Friedman: What You Need to Know Before Giving a Presentation in Another Country (Fortune)

Rebecca Ezekiel: Step-by-Step – Presenting Internationally. Do’s and Don’ts when presenting to cross-border audiences (PresentationPrep.com)