Lost in translation?
International Business Issues
In our article on Cross-Cultural Training for Business Purposes, we described how Caitlin, a successful sales executive from the United States, fared in a global context. She was faced with one of the most obvious international business issues, giving a presentation to an international audience, but she didn’t do very well.
On the following two pages, we will find out why – and help you succeed in an international setting.
Seasoned presenters always ask themselves the right questions when preparing their presentation.
- Why am I giving this presentation? What do I want to achieve?
- Where will I be delivering it? What are the facilities like? What technology is available?
- When is the presentation scheduled for? How long should it take?
- What should I include? How should the content be structured?
- Who is my audience?
However, in the light of international business issues, you should pay extra attention to the last question. Always analyze your audience according to the following three factors:
- level of skill and expertise
- function and position within their company
- goals and expectations
An awareness of international business issues should tell you that a fourth aspect becomes indispensable:
- language and cultural awareness
You ought to keep the following advice in mind when preparing a presentation that confronts you with international business issues, such as an audience from a foreign country, with different cultural mindsets, other attitudes towards management, and varying linguistic skills.
Language is a common international issue. Always speak slowly and clearly. The language of your presentation may not be the listeners’ mother tongue, or you may be talking in a foreign language yourself. A slow tempo and a careful pronunciation help avoid misunderstandings.
Pay attention to regional varieties and so-called “false friends”. For example, a billion means a thousand million in American and contemporary British English. Non-native speakers of English, though, may use it according to the meaning of “billion” in other European languages – it refers to a 1 with twelve zeros.
Don’t use too much jargon, slang, or idioms. Proverbs and figures of speech are often not understood by non-native speakers. Actually, it doesn’t hurt to acknowledge the fact that foreign languages may present a considerable obstacle in the context of international business issues. Distribute written handouts with a summary of your key points in simple language. You can even include a glossary of important terms.
“Back home” is a phrase you should delete from your personal vocabulary when you address international business issues. In the best case, your audience simply doesn’t care what you do “back home”. You must convince them that your proposal applies to them, not to the market in your home country.
In a worst-case scenario, you may come across as condescending, especially as a speaker from an industrial nation in an emerging market. This is one of the essential international business issues, as your audience could be actively offended. Adapt a generally respectful attitude.
Religion and politics are often sensitive topics, and as such they are taboo in international presentations. Don’t use them to illustrate a point or make a joke.
Pop Culture and Humor
Culture-bound references may fly over your audience’s heads. In our example featuring Caitlin, the US sales manager, she used a lot of baseball allusions in a presentation. Her Japanese listeners really liked it since baseball is a pretty popular sport there. On the other hand, some Norwegians and Germans in the same audience didn’t care: Baseball isn’t a big part of either national culture, and they were either bored or confused.
Jokes can be controversial, too. Avoid jokes about a certain nationality, ethnicity, or religion. Black humor or sarcasm may be seen as hilarious in one culture, but strange or off-putting in another. If you’d like to use humor as an ice-breaker, check with a member of the culture you want to address. If you are still unsure, you’re better off dropping it rather than committing a huge faux pas with regard to international business issues.