Adapt To Your Audience

Good presenters adapt to their audience. Bad presenters expect their audience to adapt to them.

It’s a simple truth but sadly few presenters truly understand it. A presenter who genuinely takes the time to understand his or her audience, their needs, their expectations, their prejudices, their generalizations, their cultural filters, their language and their knowledge – such a presenter is worth his or her weight in gold.


As I was teaching this principle to a group of executives at HEC Paris this week, I was asked a very good question:

If American and Japanese cultures and expectations are so different, why is it that Americans are so successful at doing business in Japan?

Now I’m not sure I’d agree that American companies have had great success in Japan – having worked at HP and tried to compete with the likes of Canon, Ricoh, Kyocera et al, I know first-hand that Japan is a tough market even for the biggest American companies. But I do remember from living in Tokyo that the large Western expat community there did seem to adapt well to the local culture – better, perhaps, than the equally large expat community I knew in Brussels. Fellow presentation expert Garr Reynolds is a fine example of an American who fully embraces and celebrates Japanese culture.

So it’s a valid question. Here’s the answer I came up with. I believe that expats in Japan adapt well simply because the difference in cultures is so wide, it is obvious that they need to make an effort. Therefore they do make an effort, and they show respect for their hosts’ way of life. Also, their hosts’ expectations are not always very high, so they are pleasantly surprised and indeed honoured when their expat guests do make such an effort.

On the other hand, expats in Western Europe (I speak as a Brit living now in my fourth European country) tend not to make such an effort to adapt, since they don’t notice so much of a culture gap. I do my best – my latest attempt to adapt to France is learning to play ‘belote’, a popular card game here – but I know well that many expats in France make no effort even to learn French, let alone adapt to the way of life.

So to summarize, when the culture gap is wide we realise we need to make an effort to adapt, and that effort is appreciated; whereas when the culture gap is quite small, little or no effort is made, and it is this lack of effort – more than the cultural difference – which is held against us.

Apply this to a presentation. When Steve Jobs goes to Japan, he ditches his familiar jeans and black T-shirt, and wears a suit because that is what is expected there. If you’re going to present to a group of Japanese businessmen, dress smart, be modest, and don’t expect any questions – even if that’s not your usual style.

But more than that, for any presentation at all, think first of your audience. Start not from what you know or what you want to tell them, but from where they are, and what they will benefit most from hearing. Don’t just adopt your usual style, but work out what will be best appreciated by that audience, and adapt your style accordingly. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking there’s not much difference between you and them. That’s exactly the mistake most people make.

Remember, it’s not your presentation: it’s theirs. Give them something that suits them. Not only will they notice and appreciate your effort to adapt, they might also get your message and do something with it.

One Response to Adapt To Your Audience

  1. Lyne Tumlinson says:

    My experiences in Russia would validate your comments about cross-cultural interactions. There, interestingly, many expats do not grasp the cultural gap because of the external similarities with western culture and fall into the category you describe in Western Europe. With this approach, it is easy to miss the cultural nuances, not only in presenting, but to learn from others’ life experience.

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