As I spend more and more time with internationally-based clients, I've noticed some communication issues coming up that are specific to the cultural differences. In a recent conversation, I was speaking with a German executive about the structure of his latest presentation. It went over well, in truth, but there were a few improvements typical to this type of marketing presentation that might have increased the presentation's effectiveness that I was surprised hadn't been suggested. When I made the suggestions, his response was that he'd heard those suggestions, but the Europeans loved this type of presentation, and if they made those changes, it would be "dumbing down" the presentation too much!
Ah, yes! Half of me wanted to entitle this article "We Dumb Americans," or "Dumbing Down Your Talk for Americans," mostly because having a sense of humor about your communication style usually gets a chuckle from those not from this country.
The simple truth is that there is a way that Americans in general (and please forgive the HUGE cultural stereotyping) prefer to be communicated with. Here is what I tell those from Europe and Asia about Americans. This is the big secret to effective communication with us: treat us like we are dumb. Treat us like we have the attention span of a gnat.
Now, no, we're not really stupid, and most of us have a reasonable attention span. Some of us are darn bright. However, universally, when I explain to a European or native of India how to communicate with Americans, the response is, "but that would be treating them like they're so stupid!"
No, it would be treating us like we want to be treated by respecting what we value and expect from a conversation or presentation. Let me explain. The tips I usually give for conversing with or presenting to Americans are these:
Get to the point quickly. Whether you are in conversation or giving a marketing presentation, within the first 30 seconds, you must tell us why we are communicating and what the ultimate goal of it is. If you do not share this information within 30 seconds, we will pull out our Blackberries or iPhones and get some work done. We are the kings and queens of Getting Things Done, and if you don't tell us outright how you are going to make our lives easier with this conversation or presentation, we're going to get back to work. We consider our time precious above all other things, so if it seems like you're wasting it, we'll find a way to end the conversation or ignore the rest of your presentation. Keep in mind that we don't mind long conversations or presentations--as long as we know the point and have its potential value to us stated up front. We'll get into it and talk for hours, but you need to let us know up front what you want from us and what we'll get from listening to you.
Stick to the point--one main point. Yes, our attention spans are shorter than for most people you know, so the conversation or presentation needs to be about one main topic. Again, we are busy; we value productivity. Don't throw five other issues or benefits of your product into the conversation; some personality types can handle that, but keep in mind that most of us are insanely busy and won't have time to explore five topics at length. We value brevity and clarity. Don't ramble on and throw out jargon to look smart or show off your degree; we don't care. Give us topics/questions/issues one at a time and keep the conversation or presentation on that topic.
Provide concise supporting evidence for your one main point. Keep in mind that in grammar school, Americans all learn to construct the perfect Five-Sentence Paragraph. For those who didn't grow up in the States, this is the ubiquitous structure:
- First sentence: Introduction. State your thesis. (Tell us what you are going to tell us.)
- Sentences 2-4: Supporting evidence. Each sentence supplies one piece of evidence to support the main thesis. (Tell us why.)
- Sentence 5: Conclusion. Sum up the thesis and supporting evidence. (Tell us what you told us.)
Introduction: Today, I will show you how to increase production line efficiency and decrease waste in your process, saving you time, money and your reputation with a product called WonderWidget.
1. WonderWidget has been around for over eight years, and our customers report an average savings in production line waste of 22%.
2. It's easy to learn how to use; even beginning engineers become proficient after just one week of training.
3. Most of all, companies using WonderWidget report an increase in sales when competing against companies who aren't using this technology.
Conclusion: WonderWidget is the trusted tool for increasing production line efficiency and can save you time, money and your reputation with your customers.
If you want to have a successful conversation or marketing presentation with or for Americans, try following this structure. Yes, it can seem idiotic to those who didn't grow up with the perfect five-sentence paragraph mentality. You might feel that you are dumbing down your content or treating us like we're stupid. You're not. You're adapting to our communication style, which values brevity and clarity. What you are doing for us is summarizing out of respect for our busy, hectic schedules. You are summarizing your main point and presenting it to us in a nice, compact, concise package that we are familiar with.
Allow one-third of your planned or allotted time for questions. Keep in mind that AFTER you present us with the nice, concise package, we will then most likely begin to ask questions--and that is where you can go into more detail and expand on the five or six benefits that you didn't get a chance to mention in your summary. If you're giving a presentation, allow one-third of your allotted speaking time for questions. If you've done a good job of summarizing and supporting your main point clearly, we'll have lots of questions that allow you to delve into more detail. If you're in a conversation, the same thing is true--after you've made your case concisely, we'll probably want to ask questions and talk more.
Tip: You might be tempted to anticipate our questions and address them in your main presentation or conversation--don't. We also value engagement, and if you answer all of our questions up front, we'll see no need to continue the conversation. We'll just walk away, figuring we know everything we need to know. And you'll lose a valuable opportunity to communicate with us because you haven't given us a reason to engage with you. We want to be engaged; you need to provide us with a reason to continue conversation with you. Leave us wanting more! Give us the basics first, and then engage us by giving us space for two-way communication about your topic or product. We are a curious lot, and we'll learn more about your product or topic if we are asking the questions and engaged in two-way communication about it.
So while it may seem that you are "dumbing down" your conversation or presentation when you follow these tips, in truth, most Americans will respond well because you are valuing their time and giving them a chance to engage with you. You are respecting our desire for brevity and clarity and giving us a chance to direct follow-up questions about your product or service so that we can continue to engage in the conversation.
Plus, once you get the hang of this structure, presentations are dead easy to write. ;-)