Culture impacts everything we do, from thinking to speaking to learning to driving. It determines the language we speak, the food we eat, the materials we use to construct our homes, to the clothing we wear. Culture has been described as the water we swim in, and until we have an experience that takes us out of that aquarium, we literally don’t know that our way of living or thinking or speaking is different from anyone else’s.
How are cultures formed? A culture is formed by a particular group of people living in a particular place at a particular point in time. Some of the key drivers of the formation of culture are demography (who is there), geography (environment, climate and resources), and history (what happened to that group of people at that time).
The culture we grow up in influences what we believe about what is true and false, what is right and wrong, and how the world works. One of my favorite definitions of culture comes from Ouchi & Johnson who said, “Culture is how things are done around here.”(1)
Language and the way people communicate is a key component of culture. Given that making a presentation involves language and is communication, it makes perfect sense that what makes a good presentation, what an audience expects, and how or if we are taught to present are all culturally bound.
For example, in the U.S., we start learning to make simple presentations in front of the class from about the third grade. We learn how to structure information (back in the day, we learned how to make note cards!) and how to stand in front of the room to deliver our content. When I was teaching in Switzerland, I learned that this is not true in all cultures. I once had a Hungarian student who had never had to make a presentation in school until he had to defend his master’s thesis. For him, standing in front of the room and making a presentation was a skill he simply didn’t have.
Virtually all aspects of presenting are impacted by culture, from the way someone introduces themselves to the way they end the presentation, from the way content is organized and even if content is organized. How much detail should you go into? What kind of slides are acceptable? How long should a presentation be, and should you indicate this at the beginning or not?
Whether you are a non-native speaker of English presenting to a native English-speaking audience or a native English speaker presenting to an international audience, there are many factors to consider as you prepare your presentation. In subsequent blogs we will be exploring these factors and guiding you in making the most impactful presentation possible.
(1) Ouchi, W.G. & Johnson, J.B., Types of Organizational Control and Their Relationship to Emotional Well Being. Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol.23. No.2. pp 293-317.