Recently, I was typing an email to a potential client, who had expressed an interest in having his staff trained in giving “international style” business presentations. I was just about to hit send, when my eye caught a potentially embarrassing typo.
I meant to write in my email that “Most presentations simply aren’t effective,” but what I saw on the screen was that “Moist presentations simply aren’t effective.” My computer hadn’t caught the error because, of course, grammatically it was still correct.
At first it just made me chuckle, but the more I thought about the idea of moist presentations, the more profound it began to seem.
The Japanese characterize Western, particularly American, business culture as “Dry”. It is based on facts and figures, logic and law. It strives to be impartial and impersonal. Decisions are short-term and often temporary, and based on the return on investment and the bottom line.
Japanese business culture, on the other hand, is considered “Moist”. It is based more on assiduously cultivated personal relationships, tied together with a web of mutual connections, shared history, obligations and favors. Memories are long, as are goals, forecasts and decision timelines.
That’s the fundamental reason so many Japanese and American businessmen have so much difficulty in understanding each other, they tend to have very different views of how business should be conducted, how decisions should be made.
The irony is that Japanese businessmen tend to give the “driest” presentations I have ever seen. It is a “Just the facts, Ma’am” data dump, heavy on charts, spreadsheets and bullet points.
Unlike in American culture, in Japan, the presentation itself is not viewed as a vehicle of persuasion, so much as one for reassurance. It is a pro-forma performance – business kabuki – meant to support decisions that have already been made, procedures already in place and results already forecast. It is meant to provide at least the illusion of control and predictability. Surprises are neither expected nor appreciated.
So the “moist” American presenter, full of emotion, passion and conviction, who strives to blow away the audience with a powerful argument, unassailable logic or a visionary plan, is seen as irrelevant to the business process in Japan. By that point, the decisions have already been made.
By the same token, the Japanese presenter who gives a dry, factual, predictable presentation, one that adds nothing new to the discussion, is seen in America as a waste of everyone’s time. There’s no point in going over what we all already know.
The fact that Japan and America built the two most powerful and dynamic economies of the 20th century points out that neither approach is correct. Both have been shown to be quite effective, yet they both fail completely when used in the wrong cultural context.
Becoming a skilled international business presenter isn’t just about developing your own style or being a good presenter in your own culture. It requires the sensitivity and flexibility to give the type of presentation that is most likely to be effective in the culture of the audience, particularly the decision makers.
Only then can you call yourself an “international style” business presenter.