In search for a universal language

Business presentations have become a major communication medium. Meetings without slides are virtually unthinkable. Often an intercultural element comes into play, unnoticed by the presenter and the listeners. International teams in big corporations are common today. And English is being used worldwide as a corporate language even in non-american businesses. What advise can be given to business people who face the challenge of making a presentation in front of listeners of sometimes very different cultural backgrounds?

Of course, we have a good idea what listeners of a certain nationality expect from a presentation. We know why presenters are perceived by some as too superficial and gung-ho whereas others feel motivated and inspired by them. But often, business presentations fail to properly inform, persuade, motivate or whatever the presenter tries to achieve. Time, resources and good will can be squandered away in a few moments — with harmful consequences.

Over the last decade we developed a method of preparing, designing, and delivering presentations with impact. Of course, we didn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel. We just joined a movement that started about 10 years ago with the goal of inspiring new and better ways to present in the media age. The main role in our approach centers on the audience — without an audience, no presentation, without an enthusiastic audience, no successful presentation. That’s it. Everything else follows down this lane.

In our presentation seminars we incorporate all the principles we teach. The participants can see right away if they do or do not work.

This is not possible without intercultural awareness. Our main lesson is: Know your listeners! When you have a mixed audience of Americans, Chinese, and Germans, you need to know their expectations if you want to get your point across. This can get tricky; cultural backgrounds can differ so much that it seems almost impossible to tailor a presentation to that audience. There we reach the limits of intercultural awareness and realize the necessity of a universal language that promotes mutual understanding in different ways.

For centuries there has been a search for a universal language beyond words in the Western culture. In the late 17th century, English philosopher John Locke proclaimed, “As the main objective of language in communication is to be understood, words are not suitable for this purpose.” It soon became clear that this new language can only be a visual, pictorial system. In 1936, Austrian sociologist, Otto Neurath, wrote in his famous book, International Picture Language. The First Rules Of ISOTYPE, “words separate, pictures unite”. In the 1960s, American media guru Herbert Marshall McLuhan said, “We return to the inclusive form of the icon.” In the mid 1990s the term Iconic Turn was coined for a conversation about the power of images and their impact on our culture that has been going on ever since.

Setting up key concepts in sequences makes it easy to follow and remember. A major German corporation holds an annual Leadership Day for the management at their headquarter in Mainz. The keynote speaker wanted to make his talk as personal as possible. He compares a leader with a conductor who doesn’t have to play the trombone but to stay focused on his task. Afterwards people started using his metaphors — that’s when you know you have won.

We live in a visual age. Our culture is brimming with images. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody is visually literate and able to read and understand all these different visual languages that we are confronted with. In the business world we still find strong resistance against the use of pictures in presentations. It is this typographical cultural bias that leads to presentation slides filled with bullet points and whole text paragraphs, the notorious slideuments (the ugly hybrid between presentation slide and text document). Neurath wanted to “debabelize” the international language. Together with artists he developed ISOTYPE (International System Of Typographic Picture Education), a visual language of informational signs that help make sense of statistical data.

Finding appropriate metaphors to make a presentation memorable is an important part of our method. If at all possible it should be one general metaphor that can be used throughout the presentation to explain different aspects of a topic. The topic of this presentation is pricing and growth. The general metaphor used is gardening — it evokes positive associations and entails concepts such as growth, maintenance, timing, weather, etc.

We see ourselves in this tradition. When designing presentation slides we develop a congruent system of simple, distinguishable signs that stand for certain types of information, data, concepts etc. Pictures are far more easily recalled than words. We call that the picture superiority effect. This effect improves the retention rate of key information tremendously. Only the combination of pictures and key words is more effective. Our leitmotiv is: Combine simple pictures and key words on your presentation slides. Make it visual!

A printing plant in Düsseldorf cares a lot for voluntary climate protection and carbon neutral printing. In their marketing presentation they wanted to talk about the difference they make — for themselves, for their customers, and the difference their customers can make for themselves. What the customers get from them is five-star quality, a five-star service, and good karma.

In our seminars we see people adopting the new approach and improving literally over night. It is possible. You can even be visual without any visual aids — by telling stories and using metaphors. Design starts long before the visual part. Design has to do with structure and logic. Many business people think of themselves as more logical and less creative (the left brain / right brain idea). That is not what we find in our seminars. We see that people are far more creative than they think. We see that people often find it hard to create a logical structure for their presentations so that their listeners really remember. We see that people are eager to learn, that they hunger for proper guidelines and robust techniques. After attending our presentation seminar they never look at a presentation the same way as before. They might not be able to use all the techniques and suggestions in their daily work, but they get inspired by trying things out.

(This article is based on an interview, published in the Sietar Europa Newsletter, September 2010, pp. 9–12, PDF download here.)

Axel Wendelberger