One of the business leadership skills that is most difficult for Western executives to master in Asia is the art of cross-cultural communication.
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.
It is true that the business lingua franca of Asia is English, and much of the internet and even cross-cultural e-mail communication is based on English. But a one-size-fits-all English presentation for Asia is unlikely to succeed.
So here are five tips for winning over Asian audiences.
Tip One: Every presentation must be coloured by local references. 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.
A Westerner speaking in Hong Kong should be aware of the importance of Chinese New Year or of the colour red for prosperity or the lucky number eight, which the Chinese try to include in their phone numbers, passports and addresses.
These are simple examples. 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.
Tip Two: Show some awareness of the local language. 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.
Tip Three: Keep it simple. 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.
Unless you are a polymath, it is not necessary to learn Thai or Japanese or Chinese in any depth. Your representative or members of your team can communicate for you when fluency is required.
Indeed, the complex tonal nature of several Asian languages means that it is better not to attempt too much to offend giving unintentional offence!
But an occasional phrase (perhaps just two words) or knowledge of 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.
Tip Four: Think how you are perceived. 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.
If on the other hand you show awareness of the cultural diversity or ethnic backgrounds of your audience, you will gain respect and support for the message you are aiming to convey.
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.
All cultures are slightly different, and Asian cultures perhaps even more so. So try to allow a moment for your message or your joke to be mentally translated and digested, even when it’s accompanied (as it should be) with the occasional local reference to make it more palatable.
Tip Five: Remember that Asians have their own first languages. They will need clarity of enunciation, as well as clear, simple and brief messages in English to absorb whatever you want to say.
Asians are great storytellers, so go ahead and tell a good story with the time-hallowed ‘Beginning, Middle and End’ structure. Announce what you want to say (a clear and unique message), develop that message with any qualifications and challenges and cross-currents you consider necessary, return to the main message.
Or to put it another way: announce what you’re going to say, say it, and tell them that you’ve said it. Finish off with some memorable uplift or phrase.
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.