When COVID-19 hit, many professional speakers saw their work dry up overnight. Conferences were canceled, budgets were cut, and travel came to a halt. But within a matter of weeks, live events were replaced with virtual ones, often filled with people from all over the world.
At first, I loathed speaking at virtual events. I felt like my wings had been clipped. I draw energy from speaking to a live audience where I can read the room, interact with other speakers, and react to what’s happening in the moment. With time, however, I began to think about how the very body of work I’ve devoted myself to for the last 20 years—cultural intelligence—is ideally suited to speaking in today’s digital and diverse context.
Cultural intelligence (CQ) is the ability to work and relate effectively with people from different backgrounds. It enables you to take a clear, dynamic presentation and adapt it for a diversity of audiences, some of whom may be in person, others who may be joining remotely. And it prepares you to navigate potentially polarizing topics that may pop up when you least expect it.
Here are a few ways to think about a culturally intelligent approach to giving a presentation in today’s new normal—even when it’s from the comfort of your own home:
Culturally Intelligent Presenters:
… but also revise the “why” and the “logical” order of the presentation
… but also adjust the level of charisma and enthusiasm
Invite questions and comments
… but also offer multiple ways for audience participation
… but also vet it with a trusted “cultural advisor” ahead of time
… but also don’t overdo it
1 Prepare content … but revise the “why” and the
“logical” order of the presentation.
When preparing a presentation, I spend the most time thinking about the “so what?” for the audience. Most audiences decide whether a presentation is relevant within the first five minutes. So I obsess over my introductions. I practice the intro out loud on my morning runs and I keep revising it until I’ve mastered the “why should I care?” question. The more diverse the audience, the more time I spend thinking about how to answer that question.
The other key difference in preparing culturally intelligent content is to think about how to structure the presentation. Many public speaking courses present formulaic outlines for how all good presentations should be organized, (e.g., “why, what, how”). But reasoning and logic are significantly shaped by culture, so you need to adjust how you present an argument based on the reasoning approach preferred by the audience.
When I’m presenting to most North American groups, I get to practical solutions as quickly as possible. A long explanation about the theoretical process of how we conceptualized and researched CQ, for example, is sure to be met with impatience. Just get to the bottom line!
Culturally intelligent presenters spend as much time considering how to get audience participation as they do developing the content.
However, if I’m making a presentation about cultural intelligence to a European audience, I’ll methodically walk through the process of how we conceptualized cultural intelligence, the design behind the CQ assessment, and eventually the conclusions reached. If I move too quickly to practical solutions, I’ll be met with skepticism. How did you arrive at this conclusion? What were the questions you started with? It’s not adequate to say, “We used sound research methodology.”
These differences exist in other groups as well. Many academics prefer a more “principles-first” approach and many North American corporate groups prefer an “applications-first” one. Keep in mind that many virtual events have audience members with opposite preferences so you may have to address multiple forms of reasoning in a presentation.
There are many other considerations for how to prepare a presentation for a diverse audience—including selecting relevant examples, anticipating how much content to share, and the powerful use of stories. But the fundamentals to preparing your content begin with figuring out the right “why” and logical order based on what makes sense to them, not you.
2 Demonstrate passion … but adjust the level of charisma and enthusiasm.
Repeated studies have found that the top two factors in the most highly rated professors are interesting content and passion. Students want to know professors believe in what they’re talking about, and the same is true for any audience.
Diverse audiences, however, have different preferences for how they want presenters to demonstrate passion. One time I was asked to observe a group of high-potential leaders in the Czech Republic. I was concerned by the limited enthusiasm and charisma most of them demonstrated when they were making presentations. But my Central European counterpart told me that speakers with a lot of visible enthusiasm actually create a barrier for themselves when speaking in places like Prague or Bucharest. This is because many of their followers believe that a lot of emotion and excitement from a leader may make them seem too much like leaders from an era gone by, when leaders manipulated people with emotional presentations.
If I’m presenting something I’m passionate about, my default is to be gregarious and visibly expressive. Over the years, I’ve learned that I’m a better communicator when I regulate my level of enthusiasm based on the audience and context. When I speak to audiences in places like Japan or to a group of engineers, I turn it down a bit, speak a little more slowly, and consider how to moderate my expressiveness based on what will translate best for the audience involved. When presenting over Zoom, I find that a more conversational style with a little less charisma works better so that it feels more intimate and less like I’m pretending I’m on a stage when it’s clear I’m sitting at home.
3 Invite questions and comments … but offer multiple ways for audience participation.
I loathe tacking on a Q&A at the end of a presentation as an afterthought. The same people speak up, often thinking more about how their question makes them look to the rest of the group. I prefer finding ways to get feedback and interaction throughout the presentation.
Culturally intelligent presenters spend as much time considering how to get audience participation as they do developing the content. If you’re presenting to a smaller group, let them know ahead of time that you want them to respond to a particular question at some point in the presentation. This allows the introverts more time to prepare, and it enables those from more hierarchical or collectivist cultures to understand that you’re explicitly wanting them to be prepared to say something. Alternatively, have audience members pair up with a couple other people for three minutes during the presentation to come up with a question or comment they would like to raise as a group.
Humor in a presentation is never just about the literal words spoken.
Virtual platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams allow ways to engage an audience that are harder to do in live presentations. Polls, chat boxes, and breakout rooms create ideal environments for everyone to engage. The more unfamiliar the context (culturally or technologically), the more you have to think proactively about the best way to facilitate participation.
4 Inject humor … but vet it with a trusted “cultural advisor” ahead of time.
Most people are aware that humor does not translate very well from one culture to the next, and it runs the risk of being offensive. But humor is such a powerful way to make you seem more human, and there are many studies supporting the psychological benefits of humor.
Laughter is proven to release endorphins and it’s something experienced across every age and culture. I avoid any humor that makes fun of people other than myself. But I do try to inject “bonding” humor with an audience—something that the group understands that outsiders may not. American comedian Ellen DeGeneres uses bonding humor extremely well. She portrays a friendly, easygoing personality and puts people at ease with her jovial banter, never really making anyone in the room the butt of her jokes. This is particularly useful if your topic veers toward a polarizing topic like politics, immigration, or vaccine mandates. Find a way to bond with the audience so you can challenge their thinking and be seen as an “insider” with them.
Ironically, bonding humor is hardest for outsiders to understand. So it takes careful preparation and cultural intelligence to figure out humor that will bond rather than isolate or simply fall flat. Humor in a presentation is never just about the literal words spoken. What makes it funny is as much about the one who is saying it and the context where it’s said. There are funny things a Black leader could say that I should never say. This is, of course, why many experts advocate avoiding humor altogether. A more culturally intelligent approach is to inject humor—but vet it ahead of time very carefully with some individuals who understand the context where you’ll be using it.
5 Be authentic … but don’t overdo it.
Ultimately, we want to hear from presenters who are authentic and real. This is consistent among followers across all cultures. People almost everywhere want to hear from speakers who are genuine.
Coming across as authentic often means starting a presentation with a brief, personal story. For me, that’s a more interesting way to introduce myself than using a scripted, robotic bio. Previously, I wrote about a time I spoke in China and my interpreter didn’t translate my opening anecdote. She said something like, “Our speaker is doing what a lot of North American speakers do. He’s telling a story he thinks is funny.” I continued, assuming she was sharing a story that had consistently worked so well for me elsewhere. She assured the audience she would translate as soon as the story was done. She even asked the audience to laugh on cue so I wouldn’t feel bad. Sure enough, just as I got to the funny part of the story, the crowd erupted with laughter. I read this as, Wow! This is going great. Even my humor is translating well. Only later did someone fill me in on what happened.
The more unfamiliar the context (culturally or technologically), the more you have to think proactively about the best way to facilitate participation.
It turns out that my translator and the organizers who brought me to China felt that starting with a self-effacing story was embarrassing to them and the audience. People came expecting to hear from an expert, but to them, my opening illustration presented me as someone who didn’t know what he was talking about. But neither was the answer for me to fully adapt and lose my personal style. A better approach would have been for me to figure out another way to make a personal connection (e.g., sharing a little bit about my family) or waiting until later in the presentation to share the story about my failure. A culturally intelligent presenter needs to ask: What is the best way to communicate who I really am and what I care about in light of the audience?
The last couple of years have opened new platforms for Toastmasters around the world. With cultural intelligence, you not only present more effectively to a broader range of audiences, but you also have the skills to adapt to different platforms and navigate difficult questions—even if you’re doing it from home in your sweatpants.
Editor’s Note: Portions of this article are adapted from David Livermore’s new book, Digital, Diverse & Divided: How to Talk to Racists, Compete with Robots, and Overcome Polarization.
David Livermore, Ph.D. is a thought leader in cultural intelligence and global leadership. He is the founder of the Cultural Intelligence Center in East Lansing, Michigan. Learn more at davidlivermore.com.