Do Americans present better than Brits?

I should declare right at the start: I’m British, so of course I’d love to say the Brits are the best presenters. Contrary to what much of the non-Anglo-Saxon world thinks, Brits and Yanks love little more than showing off their superiority over their transatlantic cousins. We’re very competitive. And in this unequal friendly combat, it’s rather lucky that Brits are good losers.

(Americans would say it’s because we have so much practice. Although they’d spell it ‘practise’.)

I am often struck in France about how people talk about “the Anglo-Saxon world” assuming that we’re all the same, particularly between America and Britain – and there are significant minorities in both America and Britain who would dispute whether either country could fairly be described nowadays as Anglo-Saxon at all.

For example, I was recently asked in an interview on French national TV: “Do you think presentations are better in the Anglo-Saxon world?” Yet we’re not the same at all. As Shaw pointed out, we are “separated by a common language”, but there are far more differences between Britain and America than between Britain and France in my view.

Perhaps at one point I will go into that on another blog, but this one is focused on presentation skills, and I’d like to talk about a recent speech by fellow speaking coach Phillip Khan-Panni at the UK Speechwriters’ Guild conference, about how Brits and Americans present differently. Here it is.

I found his speech was well-constructed and contained a number of very good points, which I’ll summarise below. Phillip has a delightfully clear and crisp voice. It is a pity the lighting was so poor and the unused screens were not switched off for the duration of his talk. The speaker was the dark shadow between the two distracting sources of light. That’s not the speaker’s fault, but if I were him, I would have been rather angry (although, as a Brit, it would have been a very polite and reserved form of anger).

So what are the differences? Here are some that Phillip found:

Body language

Americans perceive that British speakers often have their hands behind their backs. This isn’t a very good way of speaking, but indeed it is common. Many young Brits learn as Scouts to stand with their hands behind their backs, and it is a natural choice for a formal pose – because speaking in public is considered a formal activity. You would rarely see an American speaking with their hands behind their backs. How can you convey passion like that?

Passion

Passion is perhaps the key difference between the nations. American audiences expect their speakers to care, to be passionate about their subject. In Britain, a speaker can be criticised for appearing to care too much. Brits tend to be more reserved, certainly more modest, and audiences tend to expect that. It is hardly surprising that passionate American speakers make a better connection with their audiences, yet an animated, passionate American speaker might fail to make a connection with a British audience which may consider him brash, self-important and conceited.

Objectives

Typically, Brits see presentations and speeches as an opportunity to communicate information, whereas Americans aim to change people, to inspire them, to motivate them. This works much better, since presentations are usually very poor forums for communicating information: most of it is forgotten within days if not hours. A feeling can persist, however; an emotion can help you to recall what was said; and a change of mindset could be permanent.

Interaction

American presenters tend to interact with their audiences far more than British presenters. Perhaps again it is part of the British reserve. I always ensure my audience participates somehow, even with a very large group, but I know that I am the exception and not the rule. Connection is key to the success of your presentation, and if you can get your audience to participate, they are far more likely to listen, learn and care about you and your message.

Storytelling

This is an area where Americans are years ahead of the rest of the world in presentation terms. Great American presenters use personal stories to drive home their messages. These work far better than theory, and also better than the second-person or generic stories occasionally told by Brits.

Language

Here is a major difference: while British speakers and audiences appear to care about the beauty of the language, Americans want a simple message in everyday language. Are you aiming to impress or to communicate? Brits in America therefore need to tone down their long words and obscure idioms, and use clear and simple language. American audiences aren’t dumb – they are just more interested in your message than your vocabulary. Equally, Americans in Britain may want to engage a British speechwriter to ‘tone up’ their speeches a little, otherwise British audiences may feel they are being talked to as if they are children.

Variation of tone

I found this point particularly interesting. British speakers vary their tone of voice very little, usually using only three notes of the musical scale. A passionate and energetic American presenter, in contrast, will use far more. Variation of tone, volume and speed are key tools to convey emotion and keep the audience interested. It is no coincidence that ‘monotonous’ has come to be synonymous with ‘boring’.

Conclusion

All these points are of course generalisations, and naturally there will be many exceptions. Phillip is one, and I like to consider myself another, just as there are many boring passionless American presenters out there. There are, however, enough differences between British and American audiences and speakers to demonstrate that when it comes to presenting, there is no single uniform “Anglo-Saxon world”.

I wouldn’t say that Americans present better than Brits because it’s all about adapting to your audience. However, it would be no bad thing if the rest of the world learnt more about passion and storytelling, and found ways to adapt those techniques to their audiences. What do you think?

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7 Responses to Do Americans present better than Brits?

  1. Anita James says:

    I must say that I believe the Americans are far better at presenting than we Brits as they welcome change, whereas we like to stay in our comfort zone.
    You mention that we Brits don’t vary our tone very much – I agree. However, I was taught at one of GBs universities that “tone signifies meaning”, therefore if we don’t practice what we preach, our message won’t be heard. So, I firmly believe that we can take a leaf out of the American presenters’ book and follow suit when it comes to varying our tone.

    • Phil Waknell says:

      Thanks Anita – I appreciate your comments.

      Tone is a difficult one for some Brits though, because of all the English-speaking nations, the English tend to vary their tone the least when speaking. This is also true with parts of Scotland, Ireland and Wales – think of Gordon Brown’s monotonous delivery for example – although there are more parts of these countries which have far more variety of tone. Tyneside would be the English exception to this rule.

      On the other hand, many parts of the US, not least California, have a way of speaking which naturally varies more in tone, and this naturally translates into their presentations. Most Brits therefore need to make more of an effort to hit higher and lower notes where appropriate. It can make a significant difference. Variety is always better than monotony!

      Phil

  2. Full disclosure: I’m American.

    I think in the US “entertainment” is more deeply ingrained in our culture. Not only *should* you entertain before you can hope to inform, inspire, or motivate — you are *expected* to. To bore people is to waste their time. Not good if you want to get your audience on board.

    The risk of this is having presentations that are perceived as more snazz than substance. So Americans, of course, need to be cautious when presenting to European audiences. Turn the entertainment knob down a few notches and up the facts and information (or be ready to provide if asked). Also, a physical presentation style with a lot of walking around and audience interaction might be perceived as over the top…so that could be toned down a bit, too, depending on the audience.

    • Phil Waknell says:

      Thanks Sara, great comments. How many presentations in corporate Europe actually entertain? Erm, not many. Yet people are far more suggestible when they are happy than when they are bored, and far more likely to remember your message if they are listening than if they have switched off. So entertainment, while a good objective in itself, is also a very important catalyst for communication.

      You’re right about the walking around as well. That’s another great technique used more in America than in Britain. The best rock singers use all parts of the stage to get close to as much of the audience as possible, and make a connection. I even once saw Michael Hutchence of INXS climb a bank of speakers and jump onto the balcony! Likewise, good speakers will try to break down barriers and get close to their audience. In Britain, we tend to feel rather self-conscious about doing that. Freddie Mercury was English, but we don’t all have his stage presence.

      You also reminded me about another point: dress code. In most parts of the US you could get away with dressing down to present, whereas in the UK, you’re more likely to be wearing a suit and tie than a pair of jeans. Once again, when crossing the Atlantic to present, you should bear those different expectations in mind.

      Phil

  3. Thanks for sharing. I wonder why the screens behind Phillip are on? When you are able to make real contact with your audience, your a good speaker. I think Phillip will.

  4. Boris says:

    Full disclosure: I’m neither british nor american.

    Hi Phil,

    thank you for this article.

    As I’ve been working in London and Chicago, I had my fair share of speakers of both nations. And in both nations, they ranged from poor to great. I think, you’re comparing top American speakers to the average British speaker.

    There are definitely more top American speakers than top British speakers. But actually, america is five times bigger than the UK and teaching speaking (and acting) is way more common in the US.

    The people I got to know in London were brilliant speakers – at least some of them. They might not have been typical British. They were very open and connecting. And I think, you are another example for a brilliant speaker from the UK.

    On the other hand, the guys in Chicago were overall more open and more connecting – that’s absolutely right. And some of them were actually great, but others got carried away and communicated no message or content with a lot of passion. They left their audience with a lot of enthusiasm, but parts of the audience didn’t know, what they were enthusiastic about. Ok, these speakers were not even close to Phil Davison, but they headed that way.

    I just wanted to say: If you’re British, you don’t have to be a poor speaker, just like you don’t have to be a poor dancer if you’re German (I am German, but don’t want to get deeper into that).

    • Phil Waknell says:

      Thanks Boris for sharing your experience, and for your kind compliment.

      I guess if we take a step back, there is the stereotype of the American who presents passionately with no clear message, and the Brit who presents drily with a clear message (and indeed, let’s not get into stereotypes of German dancers).

      I don’t believe either stereotype is fair, but it is true in my experience that Americans come across in general as more passionate about their subject than Brits. It is also true that a great talk contains a clear message delivered with an appropriate level of passion for that particular audience. And it is true that audiences on each side of the Atlantic expect and appreciate different levels of passion and different styles of presentation.

      Whoever you are, wherever you’re from, if you can learn the basics of communication and presentation, understand your audience, tailor your talk to them, and remember that it’s all about getting your message across clearly, then you’ll be a successful communicator.

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