One of the business leadership skills that is most difficult for Western executives to master in Asia is the art of cross-cultural communication.

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In Asia’s high context cultures, where mutual trust and understanding are the essential pre-requisites to building successful partnerships, much emphasis is placed on correct behaviour, body language, awareness of position and knowledge of local customs.

For the Western businessman used to selling products and services through tightly focused presentations or in direct negotiations that have clear goals and outcomes, communication is based largely on the lingua franca of English.

The message in English is usually expressed in bullet points, Powerpoint slides, videos and factual material provided by sales and marketing, finance or other relevant departments.

In larger companies, a Western CEO or Chairman may give the occasional speech in English at prestigious local seminars, openings and launches, as well as at international conferences in order to maintain and develop the company’s reputation and brand.

However, in Asia the cultural context of the speech or presentation is just as important as is knowledge of local etiquette and customs when attending a business dinner. A one-size-fits-all English presentation for Asia is unlikely to succeed.

So here are five tips for winning over Asian audiences.


This means knowledge of national or religious customs, and sensitivity to the business culture of the country in question.

As a speechwriter, I learned never to write exactly the same speech or presentation to be given in Tokyo or Kuala Lumpur, Seoul or Singapore. The local context not only adds flavour to a speech but it also determines whether the speech is successful or not.

A Westerner giving a presentation in Malaysia should be reasonably informed about Islam, have some knowledge of the ethnic mix of Malays and Chinese in Malaysia, and might be aware that Shariah law has influenced the marketing of certain products in the Malaysian market.

In many ways it doesn’t matter so much what Westerners know about local culture. It is important that they show they know something.  For that something will give them an entrée to the business circles they are attempting to penetrate.


In an era of 24/7 global communications, of texting and social media, it would be easy to assume that the English language united the people of the world and that is all that a Western business executive needs.

However, in almost every Asian country outside Australia and New Zealand, the opposite is true: English is the second language, a language used in business only when interfacing with foreigners, while the national language and a host of accompanying dialects are the predominant means of communication.

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It is remarkable when travelling in Asian countries how readily smiles appear and doors open when a Westerner speaks a phrase in Thai or Korean, Chinese or Japanese.

Often it is enough to know the words for ‘good morning’ and ‘good evening’ or ‘how are you/fine thank you’ in the local language for an extra level of respect and warmth to be added to the relationship.

If this is true while travelling, imagine how much more valuable those few words are in the context of a business dinner, a home invitation or when added to speeches, presentations and internal communications.

An occasional phrase or a local expression dropped into a text can generate that essential rapport between audience and speaker that make a sales presentation or a keynote speech equally memorable.


In high context cultures, perception is as important, perhaps even more important than what is said.

If the way you communicate comes over as lecturing or careless of where you are or whom you are talking to (the one-size-fits-all syndrome), your audience will not warm to you.

Remember that your Asian audience may well be formulating responses to you or your message in the silences and pauses in your presentation, even when being asked a question, rather than in the more obviously amusing or applause-worthy sections.

So be prepared to be scrutinized and adapt your words, your timing, and your body language accordingly. Don’t run around the stage or over-compensate with lots of gestures. Be cool, take stock, and allow a pause for a ‘foreign’ or unusual thought to be registered.


They will need clarity of enunciation, as well as clear, simple and brief messages in English to absorb whatever you want to say.

That way you will increase your chances of winning your Asia business audiences over. Make sure you leave them with a strong mental impression, both of your business and of you as a confident and trustworthy leader.

Having difficulties preparing your speeches or presentations for audiences in Asian countries, or with writing the speeches themselves? If so I’m here to help you.

I’m opening up some spaces on my calendar to discuss your specific challenges so if you’re ready to take action now, complete your details on the pop-up Contact form and we’ll be in touch.


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