Quick Study: Poor Presentation in Japan

A group of Japanese executives asked a salesman to give a one hour “informal” presentation in English for their executives. The salesman went in and spoke almost non-stop for one solid hour, plugging his product. No translator was present; on the Japanese side a younger American fellow was sitting with the Japanese, but he did not speak during the presentation. The group of Japanese executives all nodded politely throughout, although one of them seemed to be sleeping during the presentation. When the salesman received the signal that the time was up, he looked around and smiled. Not one question was asked. The Japanese politely said it was a wonderful product and ushered him to the elevator, bowing and thanking him. Afterwords, the salesman was patting himself on the back. “That was a great presentation,” he thought. “They really liked the product.”

Actually, his complicated presentation had gone almost totally over the heads of his hosts, even though they did speak some English. In addition to speaking too fast and not pausing, this person also had the habit of beginning every other sentence with the word, “Obviously”, which did not add to the understandability of the presentation. When it was suggested to him afterward by an observer that perhaps he should have spoken more slowly for his audience, he huffed that he had only been given an hour, and if the Japanese hadn’t understood him, they should have jumped in with questions. And besides, they had an American fellow in their company, he would just explain it to them later. Right?

Wrong. To think that he merely needed to make sure the American was following the presentation was insulting to the executives and showed not only a lack of sensitivity, but a complete lack of understanding of how Japanese hierarchy works. He was assuming that the American had some status in that company. In fact, this American did not speak Japanese very well, and was much younger than the Japanese were, so most probably he did not have any influence at all. It is far more likely that he was invited to sit in to show off the company’s “internationalism” and there is no way of knowing what his actual influence in the company was. In addition, since the company had asked for an English presentation because their executives spoke English, they would never admit to either the salesman or the American subordinate that they hadn’t understood the presentation fully, because this would cause a loss of face.

Bottom Line: A more successful approach for the salesman would have been to give a shorter presentation in simple, easy English, avoiding idiomatic expressions like “learning curve” and “behind the eight-ball.” When speaking to non-native speakers, using fewer words and increasing pausing allows time to process the information more fully. Also, clear and brief visuals, such as Powerpoint slides, are very helpful in reinforcing your message when speaking to folks in what is a second language for them. This allows them to process the information on several channels.

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