Presenting Ideas Across Cultures

4/6/2016

When it comes to addressing cultural gaps in the workplace, many people focus on communication. After all, the way people communicate is often the most obvious characteristic in a workplace’s cultural dynamics. But there are other dimensions of culture that influence how people work together. Individuals’ and groups’ thinking styles also shape interactions among colleagues, thus impacting the organization’s outcomes.

When it comes to presenting ideas to a group, the audience members’ thinking styles matter very much to how they understand the content of the presentation and what they gain from it. Thus, the speaker must take the audience’s thinking style preferences into account when formulating an idea or putting together a presentation. 

Take this scenario as an example of how thinking style influences the success of a presentation:

Mona, a marketing manager originally from Tunisia, met with her French company’s R&D team to review the results of a recent marketing initiative and identify next steps in the project plan. She prepared a lively, yet structured presentation to guide the discussion. After the first 10 minutes, the team started vigorously and vehemently debating points that Mona felt were irrelevant to the subject at hand.

Mona, who had a linear thinking style, had been careful to cover all the necessary points and to present them in a structured, instrumental way. She felt the R&D team had not been paying attention to her points and was not taking the project seriously, as they kept moving the topic to more abstract, “big picture” issues.

This scenario demonstrates a gap between linear and systemic thinking-style orientations. There is a strong tendency among the French for systemic thinking as well as expressive communication. Vehement debates about the “big picture” are expressions of these cultural orientations. In many French workplaces, in order to persuade others, establish trust and maintain professional credibility, people must display emotional engagement and present ideas systemically. Mona felt the French R&D team was not paying attention during the meeting, when in fact they were processing the issues at hand through a systemic thinking style.

While both linear and systemic thinking styles are effective, getting an idea across is easier if the speaker understands the audience’s preferences and can thus express their ideas in a more conducive way. Presenting to a group with the listeners’ thinking styles in mind helps the speaker convey the message they want to.