Igniting Workplace Enthusiasm

Well Japan, I’m Sorry


Well educated from two top ranked Universities. Undergraduate in Japan and an MBA from the USA. He had a very capable command of English and our presenter did a very good job of conveying the business structure, strategy and results of his publicly listed enterprise. Yet, that presentation could have been so much better with attention to a few simple basics. This difference in polish is both cultural and attitudinal.

Beginning your talk in Japan with a series of apologies is standard practice. First apology for speaking while standing, because you are towering above your audience implying superiority. Next, tell us how nervous you are about speaking to such a distinguished audience. Don't forget to mention you had no time to prepare the talk properly because you have been so busy. If you are sick, it is always good to get that in there too. If you are speaking in English, then an apology for your poor English is mandatory. At the end, make sure you apologise for giving such a poor presentation.
Why do Japanese speakers go through all of this apologizing? Japanese humility demands a public display of rectitude. Appearing too confident in front of others is not appreciated. Being seen to be a bit of a smarty pants never goes down well. Especially when most Japanese public speakers are untrained, dreadful, boring and killing us with their monotone delivery, it is always good to fit in, rather than stand out.
Public speaking has only a relatively recent history in Japan dating back to early Meiji when Fukuzawa Yukichi established the practice of the public speech. Daimyo or Provincial Lords, were not giving stentorian addresses to the struggling masses or the latter’s samurai betters. Public notice boards were erected to inform everyone of what they needed to know. Western civilization on the other hand has been talking up a storm since ancient times and has embraced the idea as a mark of skill and intelligence. Japan has still not fully embraced the power of the spoken word and so it is not as valued here as in the West. Lack of value translates into lack of attention to being excellent as a public speaker. Especially so, when everyone around you is equally hopeless, so why bother?
So what should Japanese speakers do when they are addressing an audience in English made up of foreigners? What do we foreigners do when we are speaking to a Japanese audience in either Japanese or English?
Most talks are not recalled in much detail. What we do remember though is the speaker. We come away with either a positive or negative impression. Linguistic purity is not required in either case. Foreigners are used to non-native speakers giving presentations with accents, grammatical mistakes and unusual or exotic vocabulary choices.
It seems that there are still some Japanese who are basically convinced, that non-Japanese can't speak Japanese, so any attempt to do so is greeted with approval, as long as it isn't too perfect. Foreigners speaking absolutely fluent Japanese worries some older Japanese people who seem to think their protective language barrier has been breeched and maybe this foreigner knows a bit too much. Better be careful of this foreigner. A certain degree of ignorance is somehow more comfortable, although the younger generation are not so much confronted by the concept of fluent foreigners. They have grown up watching them on television, working as commentators or variety show performers.
For Japanese speakers, when it is your turn to speak to a foreign audience, find out who is in your audience. The chances are if it is a business audience, then you are speaking to a good proportion of Japan fans, boosters and supporters. Many will be fluent Japanese speakers or possibly speak one or more additional languages, so they understand all the intricacies of presenting in a foreign argot.
They will also have been weaned on a diet of presentations throughout their education and thereafter will have an admiration for good speakers. For this audience, then follow western tradition and ditch all the cultural paraphernalia around apologies at the start. Instead open with a blockbuster that grabs everyone's attention and cuts through all the competition for the attention of your audience. Even the most riveting speaker today cannot stay the hands of some in the audience as they surreptitiously sneak a peak at their hand held device, while the presentation is underway. In fact, we are becoming bolder and bolder. We are even doing it in full view of the speaker, while they are mid peroration.
Rehearse the presentation and show command of the material. If there is a slide advancer involved, practice with it before the start, so you can show mastery over the technology. Have some rhetorical questions at hand to maintain the attention of your listeners. The audience should not know initially if they are going to be required to actually answer this question or not, in order to keep them locked into the details of the speech.
Have a proper close designed, in fact, have two ready to go. One for before we get into Q&A and one for after questions. Don't just let the speech fade out, as our speaker did, by saying "well time is up and I will finish here". No, we need to leave our audience with a call to action to get them supporting whatever it is we are promulgating. The final close is to take back control of the speech, because questions from the audience are random and often can be completely unrelated to what it is we have been talking about. We need to restate our main message, so that this is what is ringing in the ears of our audience, as they file from the room at the end.
For foreigners, don't copy the Japanese model because you are not Japanese, never will be considered Japanese no matter how long you live here and are not expected to be Japanese. Give the most professional presentation you can and be another speaker who the Japanese look at and wonder why they don't have those sorts of presentation skills. It doesn't matter which language your are speaking in, always make it the most powerful piece of communication you can muster. You represent your personal brand and the brand of your organisation whenever you speak publically, so how you handle yourself is important. Also, let’s help create role models of excellence to better internationalise Japan and help it to do a better job of selling itself to the wider world. They need the help, because based on Japan’s current presentation skills level, there is still a long way to go.



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