How To Make A Great TED Talk

March 12, 2012

Recently my company Ideas on Stage was privileged to coach the speakers for TEDxESCP, a fantastic TEDx event at the ESCP business school in Paris. Working with an amazingly diverse group of fine speakers, we produced a show of which I am particularly proud, and with which the students and speakers should also be extremely pleased.

Following this, I have been asked for the recipe for a great TED talk, or indeed, the magic ingredients for any conference speech.

This is not an easy question, since with the ten speakers I coached, we produced some very different talks.

We had Emmy-winning film director Anne Aghion who spoke movingly about her experiences making films in Rwanda and Antarctica, with no slides but a couple of short video clips.

We had Alexandre Marchac who gave a brilliant talk about the advances in reconstructive surgery, illustrated with many photos and a couple of videos and a ‘TED moment’ in that one of his team’s face transplant patients was actually in the room.

We had Martin Kupp, who explained how students should take control of their education using three examples, illustrated by works of art.

We had Olivier Oullier, who used few slides, but did make good use of some amusing photos which completely contradicted what he was saying, and thus making his point about how our brains think one thing while our mouths say another.

We had Laszlo Laufer, who talked about the power of zoom using a Prezi illustration (and for once, one which I actually quite liked).

And we had Isaac Getz, with whom I performed a small sketch during his talk (is that a TED first?), and who ended up by throwing toy monkeys into the audience.

I’ve not even mentioned them all, but that’s already a lot of very different talks. In fact, the event would be rather boring if we used exactly the same formula for each talk. With any presentation, you have to consider the objectives, the context and the audience, and then choose some key messages, a suitable structure and a strategy to communicate each key message.

However, there are some characteristics which these different talks all share, and after much thought I realised that they are exactly the same ones I use to teach what makes a great slide. So here are the five characteristics of a great TED talk.

SCORE - Simple, Clear, Original, Relevant, Enjoyable (©2011 Ideas on Stage)

Simple

The first is that the message needs to be simple. In 18 minutes (or less) you don’t have time to deliver anything complex, and your audience wouldn’t get it anyway. Your presentation should not be like a crossword clue, where the audience needs to spend time working out what the answer is and what they should do with it. You should be giving them the answer so the audience can use their brain-time to think about what to do with your message.

In order to be simple, you have to be very clear in your objectives and your messages. First, set your objectives by completing this simple sentence:

“After my presentation, my audience will…”

(Of course the rest of the sentence should not read “…wake up”!)

So for Isaac Getz’s talk about how to liberate your company, the objective may have read:

“After my talk, my audience will want to liberate the power of their companies and their people, and will know the three key steps to implement.”

A last point about simplicity: one thing many of the talks had in common was the number three. Three keys, three steps, three examples… three is a very good number, since we can usually remember three points but rarely many more than three. I could write a whole article about the power of three, and perhaps one day I will.

So keep your message simple.

Clear

The next characteristic is clarity. Having a simple message is not enough: it also has to be clear to the audience.

In a slide, clarity is about using text which is big enough to read, about adding text to images so their context and meaning are clear, and about removing unnecessary noise and visual pollution. In the context of the talk, clarity is about giving your talk a clear structure so it is easy for the audience to remember what you said, realise where you are, and have an idea where you are going.

It is also about repetition, because as Lewis Carroll wrote, “What I say three times is the truth”. If you say a key message once, it will be forgotten. Twice is good; three times is better (yes, the number three again). If the audience can remember your key messages and the structure of your talk, then it was clear enough. Even a simple message like “Eat more vegetables” can get lost in a mire of graphs, statistics and boring facts. Don’t let that happen.

If you’re not sure your messages are clear enough, they’re not. Don’t compromise on clarity. Your audience is not psychic, and they are not detectives. They might be smart, but even if they are as clever and perspicacious as Hercule Poirot, your talk should not be an Agatha Christie whodunnit. If the butler did it, say so clearly – ideally three times.

Original

Here is where many TED talks distinguish themselves. We can all remember Bill Gates releasing mosquitoes and Jamie Oliver tipping a wheelbarrow of sugar cubes onto the stage. Those are things that we hadn’t seen before, and they were memorable. So you should try to make your talk original in terms of the way you deliver your messages. There is no rule that says you can’t open a jar of mosquitoes to make people feel the immediacy of malaria. There is no rule that says you can’t use props. There is no rule that says you can’t bring someone else on stage to help you. In fact other than common sense and decency, there’s only one rule: don’t show the audience something they’ve seen before.

Originality is therefore partly in terms of your strategies to communicate your messages memorably, but it is also about the messages themselves. Al Gore gave fine TED talks about global warming, but that’s been done – a TED audience doesn’t want to see yet another talk about global warming, unless there’s some completely new angle to it. So if you want to talk about the reproductive habits of Andean llamas, first search on ted.com to see whether somebody’s already done that – and if so, find something different to say.

Relevant

TED audiences expect new and interesting ideas – “Ideas Worth Spreading”. Audiences at other conferences may have different expectations. A good talk is one which meets or exceeds its audience’s expectations. So for a TED or TEDx event, the message not only needs to be original and simple: it also has to be relevant to the TED audience.

A simple test for this is as follows: at the end of the talk, will anyone in the audience shrug their shoulders and say “So what?” If so, that’s not a good sign.

What you want is that your TED audience thinks at the end “I didn’t know that, and I’m glad I do now” or “I must change how I act” for example.

So your original talk about the reproductive habits of Andean llamas might in fact not be a good subject for a TED talk. If nobody yet talked about your pet subject at TED, perhaps there’s a good reason for it. If the reason is that nobody else yet knows the results of your ground-breaking research, then perhaps you’re on to a winner. If not, ask yourself whether the world really needs to know more about the mating habits of llamas.

A word here to TEDx curators: don’t choose speakers based on how good they are. Choose speakers who have something original and worthwhile to share. Coaches like me can help average speakers to formulate and deliver their great messages memorably. But the greatest coach can’t do much even with the greatest speaker if their story just isn’t worth telling.

Enjoyable

The final part is perhaps the most difficult but the most important. People do not pay good money to go to TED to be bored. They want to be entertained, and TED audiences know that if you enjoy something, then you are more attentive; and if you are more attentive, you take more in and remember more.

So you need to entertain your audience. This is partly in what you say and do, and partly in how you say and do it. This is where it is very important to ensure you have a good coach to help with both aspects.

You need to capture their attention at the beginning, and make them want to listen (for more, read my earlier post First Impressions Last). You need to keep their attention by being interesting and passionate, and by saying things in a clear and memorable way. Try to deliver at least one clearly tweetable statement every minute or two.

Use humour whenever you can (and assuming you are good at using humour – make sure it is properly rehearsed). Remember that humour is a high-risk strategy – see more here – but at TED, being humourless is also a high-risk strategy.

Be extremely careful with your slides, if you choose to use any. A long set of bullet-points in the middle of a TED event will stand out like a sore thumb, and simply signal to the audience that they can take their comfort break right away without missing anything worthwhile. SCORE applies just as much to your slides. They need to be simple and clear; original (no over-used clip-art please); relevant to what you are saying; and enjoyable, i.e. well-designed and pleasant to look at. There’s more to say about TED slides but that deserves another post – watch this space.

There’s a way to make anything interesting and enjoyable, if you look hard enough. For example, Isaac Getz’s three steps to liberate your company (1. create an environment for intrinsic equality; 2. create an environment for personal growth; 3. create an environment for self-direction) could have been delivered in an extremely boring business-school-101 manner, with a monotonous voice and no passion. But we found ways to make his talk enjoyable with stories, examples, amusing metaphors, a sketch, toy monkeys and some playing with the audience, and Isaac did a fantastic job in delivering it. I’ll use this an example in an upcoming post once the video is available.

So that’s the last part: make your talk enjoyable.

Simple, Clear, Original, Relevant, Enjoyable. If you can take a simple, original and relevant message, and deliver it in a clear, original and enjoyable way, then you will certainly SCORE with your audience.

With that, you should be well on your way to producing a fantastic TED talk. And if you happen to be speaking at any other conference, putting this into practice will make your talk stand out. And your audience will certainly thank you.


Presentation Flow: Link Or Break

November 23, 2011

I am often asked about the flow of ideas in a presentation, and indeed it can be very hard to follow a presentation where the speaker moves from one idea to another without any transition, like a scatter-brained mother-in-law.

It is vital to ensure your presentation has a natural flow. That doesn’t mean that everything has to be completely linked, as if it were all one chain of ideas. But you should not just jump around without making that clear. Your audience shouldn’t have to play catch-up to work out what you’re talking about.

My advice is to use one of two simple devices between items. (You could interpret this as being ‘between slides’ although I prefer to talk about the parts of your presentation, because you might not be using slides at all, or perhaps not all the time.)

This is simply ‘Link or Break’.

1. Link.

This means that you need to link the new idea to the previous one. You can do this in a number of ways. You could use the list approach, as used by Steve Jobs when launching the iPhone 4. He said he would talk about 8 different features of his new phone, and then proceeded to go through them all from #1 to #8. That provides an obvious link and structure to the eight points.

You could use an acronym, and then go through the different letters – for example, at Ideas on Stage we talk about IMPACT in slide design: Image, Message, Positioning, Animation, Colour and Typography. This is another kind of list approach.

Alternatively, you can have each idea build on the previous one, as you develop your arguments. Sometimes it is useful to make this very clear: “So now we’ve seen that there’s a clear market for a new kind of widget, let’s take a look at our new iWidget.” Never assume that the flow is as obvious for your audience as it is for you. That link sentence can be all-important.

2. Break.

Sometimes, however, you’ll need to move from one point to something completely different, and there isn’t any obvious link even to you. Once again, the late Steve Jobs was a master of this.

One of his undercelebrated skills was turning the page in his presentations. He knew that it isn’t enough just to start talking about a new topic: first you have to close the previous topic properly so the audience is satisfied and ready for something new. His method was simple:

a) A one-line conclusion

b) A pause

For example, in his iPhone 4 launch in 2010, he first talked about the first three months of the iPad, with sales figures etc. Before moving on to the next part (iOS 4), he closed the chapter with a line something like:

“So that is my update for the iPad.”

His subsequent pause gave the audience time to applaud. They won’t always do that for you, but at least it will give them time to close the chapter on that part of your talk, and prepare for what you’re going to say next.

You can see the video here (this part is at around 10:20).

I personally hate watching US TV because most of the time there is no clear break before the commercials kick in, and I find myself thinking “is this part of the show?” whereas in France and the UK, there is always a clear pause with the channel’s logo and a statement that the commercials are about to begin.

Likewise, your audience will appreciate that clean break. Close the box on the last point with a simple concluding statement, pause, and then begin the next topic.

Conclusion

With these two simple techniques of ‘link or break’, you should ensure your presentation flows naturally, and your structure helps your audience to enjoy and appreciate your messages, and hopefully ‘get’ them, instead of leaving them perplexed and wondering what you’re talking about.

One more thing…

If you are always very clear about your links, then it will have a very strong impact when you suddenly show or say something completely unexpected.

You can use this to your advantage by showing something surprising or provocative, making people wonder why, making them listen attentively to find out why, and then explaining why it is linked.

This is a great way to get people’s attention levels up again when they might have been starting to wane. But it is only when your audience fully expects your ideas to be properly linked that you can have a positive impact with this kind of device.

Make your ideas flow properly with good links, making clean breaks when necessary, and your messages will have more impact – and your audience will thank you.


Animate Your Audience – Not Your Slides

September 6, 2011

Last week’s post about why I don’t recommend Prezi got a lot of people talking, and the consensus seems to be that even if you do find some uses for Prezi, the use of excessive animation is at best distracting and counterproductive, and at worst actually nauseating for the audience.

Animation should only be used when it helps the audience to understand a point – i.e. the movement or effect should be meaningful. Text does not need to fly in from all parts of the screen – it can just appear, or fade in, at the right time. Building up a slide point by point is fine and in fact often highly recommended – just don’t have things moving around for no reason.

‘Animation’, of course, means different things. It doesn’t just mean moving things around on the projector screen. While that kind of animation should be strictly rationed, another kind should be strongly encouraged. That’s the animation of people: specifically, you and your audience.

As you communicate with your audience, you need to be animated. I don’t mean that you should be jumping all over the place like Steve Ballmer on hot coals. But in your movement, your body language and your intonation, you need to be animated in order to keep people awake, and more than that, to animate your audience.

Move around the stage (if possible) with clear, deliberate movements, stopping in certain places, speaking for a while, then moving to another part of the stage. This has the effect of breaking up what you are saying into ‘verses’, each of which is easily digested. Make sure, therefore, that you are moving at logical break-points in your speech, and not in the middle of a paragraph. Each movement then awakens the audience to the beginning of a new ‘verse’, so it does not seem like one long monologue.

It also won’t seem like a monologue if you animate your voice. There so many ways you can modulate your voice – faster vs slower, higher vs lower, louder vs softer, excited vs dead-pan, one accent vs another, etc. – that there is no reason at all for you to use exactly the same voice (speed, pitch, volume etc.) throughout. That’s called monotony, and there’s a good reason why it is synonymous with boredom.

At the end of the day, your aim is to animate your audience. The more awake they are, the more interested they are, the more likely they are to listen to your message and do something with it afterwards. So get them involved. Get them to think. Ask them questions. Ask them to do little exercises in pairs. Ask for a show of hands on a particular point. Ask them all to stand up, and then sit down if they meet a particular condition, e.g. “you may sit down if you have never seen a boring presentation” (continue with additional conditions until only a few are left standing).

If you and your audience are more animated than your slides, then you’re doing something right. If however you spend all your time worrying about animating your slides, then you’re barking up the wrong tree.

Animate your audience – not your slides.


First Impressions Last

May 3, 2011

My wife has an amazing ability to read people and judge them within seconds of meeting them. Over the years I have challenged her many times, telling her not to judge a book by its cover but to get to know someone properly first. Time has shown that her first impressions were always right.

We don’t all have that ability – I know I don’t – but we do tend to remember our first impressions of people most. Right or wrong, first impressions certainly do last – and sometimes, they are the only impressions you’ll have the chance to give. Your first impression is your business card, in effect, and it will determine whether a person calls you back, uses your services, or stays to listen to you.

This is just as important when you are presenting, even if your audience doesn’t have the ability to get up and leave before you have finished. There are two key reasons for this.

The first is that you need to give people a reason to want to listen to you. If you don’t make them want to listen right at the start, they probably won’t. If their first impression is that you are going to bore them senseless, their survival instinct will kick in and they will decide to do something less boring instead. Like doodling. Or email. Or tweeting. Or checking the cricket score. Or examining the inside of their eyelids.

The second is what’s known as the ‘primacy principle’. This states that people remember most what you say first. So if you have a particularly important message, you might want to say it right at the start, and then use the rest of the talk to explain why, rather than build up to it logically and methodically and then reveal your moment of wisdom at the end. A presentation is not a whodunnit. If the butler did it, say so at the start, then explain your reasoning.

So your introduction is extremely important. Here are five things you need to achieve in your first minute or so:

1. Connect with your audience. The best presentations are more about two-way communication than about simply broadcasting a message as if the audience were not there. Even if you as the presenter are doing almost all the talking, it is important to make the audience feel a part of what you are doing. For example, if you are going to present in a different country, pick up a local newspaper and find something interesting which you can mention at the start, or tell a story about what happened to you in the taxi from the airport, or last time you were there. Something like that will tell the audience that you’re not just going to give them exactly the same talk you have given ten times before to ten different audiences. It’s personal. It’s a talk specially created for them.

A few words in the local language can be powerful as well, as Presidents Kennedy and Reagan both memorably used in their Berlin speeches.

2. Establish your credibility. If your audience doesn’t respect you as an authority on your subject, they won’t listen properly. Being respected is one of the four aims of presentation, and it is one you need to achieve right at the start. Imagine an unknown presenter talks for an hour about how to become a great tennis player. Why would you listen? Then at the end, he reveals that he’s Roger Federer‘s coach. Suddenly he has immense credibility, but you can’t go back and be more attentive – it’s too late. Establish your credibility at the start (or even before you take the stage).

3. Explain the purpose. After your introduction, it should be clear to the audience what you are going to talk about, and why it is important for them. (Not for you – for them.)

4. Set expectations. This is where you make sure the audience knows what they can expect, and what they should not expect. If you’re going to talk about mobile app development but you are not going to cover Android, make that clear at the start – otherwise some people might wait and wait for you to cover Android, and then get disappointed when you don’t. You should set positive expectations – and then make sure you meet or exceed them.

5. Make them want to listen. Your introduction has to give the audience a reason to listen more. This could be because you are amazingly engaging or funny, or it could be because the problem you are talking about is relevant to them. If you are going to talk to a group of German engineers about the reproductive difficulties of Andean llamas, that could be tough, so choose your subject well, but if in fact there is a relevant engineering challenge in solving Andean llama reproduction problems, make sure that’s clear at the beginning.

CONCLUSION

First impressions aren’t always fair. If you walk into the room wet through because somebody took your umbrella, your first impression won’t be a good one. If you spend ten minutes trying to make your slides appear on the wall, that doesn’t look too good either. It’s not just about what you say.

So do everything you can to ensure that your first impressions are positive, in how you appear, what you do and what you say, and that will end up being a lasting positive impression.

Otherwise, you’ll just have to pray that my wife isn’t in the audience.


Show And Feel

March 28, 2011

American kids have a huge advantage in public speaking because from a young age, they have to “show and tell” – that is, they bring something to school, stand up in front of their class, show the object, and tell the class all about it. This should be mandatory in all schools, including high schools where many teenagers sadly unlearn the creativity and fearlessness of their childhood.

There’s another thing that presenters need to know, and that’s what I’m going to call “show and feel”. No, I am not suggesting you get tactile with your audience.

It’s quite simply that audiences will naturally tend to copy the presenter’s emotions. This is mainly down to the recently-discovered mirror neurons, which produce the same feeling when we see someone else experience something as we feel when we experience it ourselves.

I was reminded of this recently when I was at the Comédie Française watching Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. At one point Falstaff was about to take a swig of wine which he had previously found very unpleasant, and which he had doubtless forgotten. As he raised the bottle to his lips, I found that I was screwing up my eyes and nose, just like the lady in the picture above. I was feeling the disgust which Falstaff was feeling. My mirror neurons were in action.

Apply this to presenting. If you appear bored, your audience will feel bored. If you look like you really don’t want to be there, your audience won’t want to be there either.

If when you say “I’m excited about this” you sound more like Marvin the Paranoid Android than Steve Jobs, nobody will believe you are excited, and they won’t be excited either.

On the other hand, if you appear passionate about your idea, if you look like you are enjoying yourself and feeling comfortable, if you smile at appropriate times, then your audience will most likely mirror those positive emotions.

Yesterday a student in one of my classes gave a presentation where he was smiling almost all the time, laughing from time to time, and was clearly very enthusiastic about his subject. I just couldn’t help enjoying it. On the other hand, at one of the TEDx events I worked at last year, one presenter took the stage in a very bad mood, and hated his talk as much as the audience did.

If you want your audience to enjoy your talk, enjoy it yourself  – visibly. Show positive emotions, and your audience will mirror them.


Perfecting Your Pitch

March 11, 2011

Most campers pitch tents. These pitch start-ups. They are the entrepreneurs at Le Camping, the latest start-up accelerator in Paris, and my role (together with Pierre Morsa) is to help them to make a fantastic pitch on Investor Day, when they will compete for attention from various investors, and hopefully attract funding to develop their businesses.

After our latest coaching session yesterday, I’m pleased to say they have made great strides in terms of using attractive, simple and relevant slides, with few words (in most cases) and some good use of graphics. They have also mostly worked on their introductions, although some can (and must) still make them more memorable and catchy.

Some are still looking back at their slides too often, and there are still plenty of ‘ums’ and ‘ers’ to iron out. That will improve with more practice.

Four things in particular are missing though from most of the pitches, and I’d encourage everyone to think about these points in terms of your own presentations (pitches or otherwise), because they are the difference between a good performance and a great one.

Four Steps From Good To Great

1. Adapt your content to meet your audience’s objectives. They are still spending too much time talking about their products or ideas. This isn’t a sales pitch. Investors want to know you have a product that can make money, of course, but it’s the money that’s the key point there, not the product. Your product is not your business plan – it is just a way of giving investors confidence that you can achieve your business plan.

While for you it might be your big idea, for an investor it is only your first idea – and hopefully not your last. It might turn out not to work, or a major competitor with a huge cashpile might choose to enter the same market and squash you. What investors need to know is that you are smart enough to come up with other ideas and make them work if the first one doesn’t. They are investing, above all, in a team, not in a product. Better a great team with an average idea than an average team with a great idea, as investors often say. So tell them why they should trust you with their cash.

2. Vision. If I’m investing in you and your company, I want to know it’s a good bet not just now, but for the future. I want to bet on someone who’s going to make it big, or who at least will give it a damn good try. If your vision is limited to “we’re going to launch this product”, that doesn’t give me much long-term confidence. Aim high. Investors don’t want small wins – their choices fail so often that it’s only big wins that make up for the losses. Better to have a 1% chance of being a $billion company than a 20% chance of being a $10million company.

So docTrackr, for example, should not just aim to sell a great document security solution. Yawn, so what? But if they stated a vision to be the world leader in document security within 3 years, and to be bought out by Microsoft, Adobe or Google within 5 years, then as an investor, that would make me sit up and take interest.

3. Passion. If you’re trying to make me enthusiastic about your investment opportunity, I need to know and feel that you are enthusiastic about it. If you present as if you either don’t believe in it, don’t care about it, or don’t want it, then I’m not going to want it either.

Don’t be quiet. Don’t be monotonous. Don’t be boring. Enthusiasm is contagious, so if you present like you really believe this is an exciting investment opportunity and you have a fantastic team, your audience might start to believe it too. Boredom, on the other hand, is even more contagious. So if you sound flat and boring, the audience will just use your talk as an opportunity to check their email.

Be passionate. Don’t be afraid to show that you care and that you believe.

4. A great conclusion. Too many of the pitches are currently just dying, as if the speaker has run out of things to say, or run out of time. Yet the conclusion will determine whether people remember something, or nothing. So it absolutely has to be brilliant.

“OK, so that’s it. Er, any questions?”

“And that was my last slide.”

These do not make good conclusions.

“That was our introduction to Perspecteev. We make money by helping people take care of their money. Now we’d like to take care of yours. Thankyou.”

This was one of the better conclusions. It was a clear end-point, it reminded the audience of the company name and its tag-line, and it used a neat play on words to remind investors that they’re looking for funding (which was explained earlier in the pitch).

The conclusion is an opportunity to remind people of your key points. In an investor pitch, particularly in a context where there are 11 other pitches happening in the same session, your key points are:

  • who you are
  • what you do
  • what you need
  • why they should give it to you

If any of those questions remains unanswered at the end, or the audience forgets the answers, you have failed. Your conclusion should remind people of these points. Remember Lewis Carroll: “What I say three times is the truth.” Say something three times, and you significantly increase the chances of it being remembered. Say something once, however, and expect it to be forgotten. So use the conclusion to state your key points for the third time – or at least for the second time.

Think of your talk as a matchstick. When you light a match, it sparks brightly, and then starts burning slowly along the stick. That’s your high-impact introduction and the middle part of your talk. But a typical match will then just burn out. So your talk has to be like a double-headed match, with a bright, high-impact conclusion to match the introduction.

Lastly, in a context like this where the pitches will happen in front of a large audience, with no Q&A session, the intention is not to finish presenting and start discussing: each presenter should aim to leave the stage to a large round of applause. I’d therefore point you to this article where I talk about the importance of applause and how to make sure you get the audience to clap.

Adapting to your audience’s objectives, communicating vision, presenting with passion, and nailing a great conclusion: if the Campers can get these four points right in the next few weeks, they’ll be ready for Investor Day. If you can get them right for your next talk – whatever it is – you’ll turn a good presentation into a great one.


Adapt To Your Audience

March 4, 2011

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.


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