Going Blank Again

25 October, 2007

Last week I attended a company seminar for IT journalists here in Ho Chi Minh City. One of our guest speakers was a British retailer who has been in Vietnam for a couple of years, but who hadn’t actually presented to a Vietnamese audience before. 

After his talk, he said to me “I don’t think they liked it – I got no reaction from them at all.” On the contrary – our feedback forms indicated that his talk was very well-received. His inexperience at presenting to a local audience meant he mistook their natural lack of expressiveness for boredom or disinterest. 

Don’t expect a moshpit

Presenting or teaching (or indeed any other kind of performance) in Asia can be a real challenge, as the people are generally a lot less expressive than Westerners. Look at footage of a music performance in Vietnam or China, and see how the audience sit in their seats and politely applaud – then look at a Western rock crowd and see the difference! I showed my wife (who is Vietnamese) Rage Against the Machine’s thrilling live DVD The Battle of Mexico City, where the real stars are not the band but their fans, a huge seething, moshing, leaping mass of hysteria – and she found it equally hilarious and terrifying; she’d never seen anything like it. 

To the speaker, delivering your presentation or lecture to a room of expressionless, unresponsive faces can be disheartening – teachers and speakers like to see nodding heads, smiles, laughs or other signs that their message is getting through and being appreciated, and when this doesn’t happen, some of them visibly wilt, whilst others over-compensate and begin exaggerating their gestures and vocal inflections in a desperate attempt to provoke a reaction. I know, I’ve done it myself! 

Local knowledge

A little bit of local knowledge is needed when delivering a presentation or talk of any kind. Just because those five or six Vietnamese in the audience are sitting stony-faced doesn’t mean they’re not interested, just as the dozen Italians who nod and smile at everything you say aren’t necessarily going to come up to you and buy your product when you’ve finished. And the couple of Egyptians who walked in half an hour late and chatted to each other through your entire presentation may well have found it fascinating and could turn out to be your best customers. 

So when presenting across cultures, do a little bit of research first and find out how different cultures take in information and react to being presented to. This will ensure you don’t misread the signs and make the wrong assumptions about the success (or lack thereof) of your talk.

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