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.

Do Americans present better than Brits?

October 26, 2010

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 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.


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.


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.


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.


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’.


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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