22.05.2012 14:30 Age: 5 yrs

International Presentation Skills Workshop in Vilnius

Iceberg is spelled in red on the International Presentation Skills Workshop

Here we are: proud representatives of several nations, young, energetic, full of ideas, ready to engage in grand projects. We all speak a common language, maybe are fluent in more than one. We all share this unique experience of having studied abroad, maybe on both sides of the ocean. We gathered in the impressive top-floor lecture hall of the Vilnius Gediminas Technical University in order to polish our presentation skills. Some of us are quite professional public speakers. Almost everyone present had to take a public speaking class at some point of their academic career. We already know some tricks and ways to engage the audience in our story.

We came here to improve.

Yet, most of us did not know that in Japan it is considered unlucky to write names in red. A small detail that makes all the difference in the world.

 The workshop participants came to Vilnius from different parts of the globe, mostly from Europe – the Baltic States and Central Europe in particular – however, there was a strong representation from distant lands such as the United States, South Korea, Japan and even Australia. Everyone grew up in different environments, came from different backgrounds. Although international travels and years of using new social media imbedded in them some principles of what we call international presentation skills, there are things impossible to overcome no matter how cosmopolitan one may be. Some see in it a power of custom, some call it a cultural wall and foretell clash of civilisations, others name it an inner iceberg. If one is exposed to a foreign setting for too long, it can eventually lead to a cultural shock. It is hard to put a finger on what exactly an “inner iceberg” is, except one usually knows when it appears on the horizon. On the extreme side, it may result in a genuine lack of comprehension of the other’s intentions, an irrational dislike for another person, a sense of mistrust, and definitely is the root of many a stereotype that circulates about other nations.

At some point, the workshop participants were asked to prepare a short, spontaneous presentation on a given topic. The exercise was designed not so much for the people volunteering to give a speech, but for those who gave them feedback on the performance. Even though the event coordinators prepared an outline of how a constructive feedback should look like, everyone, unsurprisingly, adapted it to their liking. Even though it never was a mystery that the mind-set of Americans differs from Asian style and that at times Europeans from the South and the North seem to come from different planets, it came as a revelation that we so naturally tend to fall into set categories. It was hard not to notice that representatives of some cultures were more prone to point out even the tiniest imperfections in the otherwise very good presentations of the speakers. Those brought up in less rigid environment were happy to elaborate on how “well-done” and “great” a given presentation was, while only briefly and somehow tentatively mentioning that it was not the best performance they witnessed in their lifetime. And all this comes from a person sitting on top of an iceberg called “born-and-raised-in-Poland”, which immediately disqualifies the author of this text from giving a cool and objective assessment of any of the presentations given during the workshop. One could almost sense a conflict thickening above our heads, and its source was a genuine lack of mutual understanding.

 Before any of the people taking part in the exercise begun issuing sparkles of annoyance at what they perceived as nit-picking or patronising attitudes of others, the next part of the workshop started. It focused on presentation styles in different countries and body language used in public speaking. It is then when we found out that one should never highlight names in red when talking to a Japanese audience. A random fact, mentioned offhandedly as a curiosity, which left some of us quite astounded. The atmosphere in the lecture hall immediately loosened to be replaced by a sense of wonderment at the ways of the world. It dawned on everybody that no matter how skilled a speaker one may be, no matter how much good will they might have, they can easily fail to communicate with a foreign listener or offend them altogether, if they are blissfully ignorant of some aspect of the other person’s upbringing.

Thanks to several brilliant presentations about various styles of public speaking in different countries (one of which was given entirely in Latvian), we made a small step on the path leading to better understanding of the “other”. Something as useful in informal relations as well as in business or diplomacy. We got some tips on how to introduce oneself in Italy, how to address one’s superiors in Australia, or how not to torture Central and Eastern Europeans with flashy PowerPoint presentations. We even reached deeper within ourselves in search for inner calm and confidence while being guided through an inspiring exercise by a talented yoga teacher. At which point all the tension was already long gone and forgotten.

However, if it is impossible to eliminate cultural clashes in the intercultural exchanges, how one is to communicate?

Are we doomed to fall prey to misunderstandings?

Is it better to suppress our individual traits of character and come up with something as neutral and dull as possible, lest we offend someone on the way? “Just take it easy.” This is how the last presentation, given by a sole representative of Romania at the workshop, could be summarised. The art of public speaking, of presenting oneself in the international setting, and the art of interacting with others on daily bases is all about negotiating between the accepted forms of behaviour, and the unique features of one’s culture and character. For people trust in sincerity rather than in things carefully crafted and unauthentic.

The workshop participants proved that in their presentations, which had strong foundations in the cultures of the individual speakers. They showed us that a view seen from a peak of an iceberg can broaden the perspective, not necessarily narrow it down. Because once you know that someone’s iceberg is spelled in red, it stops looking so scary anymore.

Written by Maja Isakiewicz