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It's No Joke - When Icebreakers Fail

Don't Blame the Audience!

Scott Morrison, senior director of business technology at Pfizer Pharmaceuticals Inc., took a big risk recently in a presentation in Tokyo on the changing pharmaceutical market. He began his speech with a joke.

I'm always asked two questions in Japan." Morrison says to the audience. "First, what does your department do, and second, do you like sushi? The answer to the first one is the most difficult to answer and the answer to the second is absolutely yes." Many laugh, and the somber mood the 36- year-old Morrison had sensed before beginning his speech seems to have lightened up.

But he hits a snag about halfway through his speech when he asks the audience some questions. It's a technique he has used successfully in the U.S. in order to get to know the audience. It flops in Japan.

"Nobody raised their hands." he says. "It really surprised me at first. Now, when I see that happening, I'll fluctuate my voice to get them to respond. But I don't always succeed."

Morrison did what most American professional speech trainers advise against by joking with a Japanese business audience. But he is an accomplished speaker and managed to carry it off.

Humor often doesn't translate into another language, experts say and cultural references that are often used in jokes are usually lost on the listeners. Instead, foreign speakers in Japan are advised to be spontaneous, speak from the heart or tell a personal story that is relevant to the speech.

Diana Rowland, founder and president of Rowland & Associates, Inc., which provides cross-cultural consultation and training for corporate personnel, and author of the best- selling book, Japanese Business Etiquette, advises a more serious approach, particularly for those not yet familiar with Japanese ways.

She warns, also, that a hearty laugh from the audience may not be what it seems, and relates the case of an American delivering his first speech in Japan.

"He began with a joke." she says. "When the interpreter finished, everyone laughed. He was clearly pleased. Unfortunately what the interpreter said was: 'This kind American has just told a joke that is very culturally bound. Would you all therefore please laugh now!"'

Debbie Howard, president of Japan Market Resource Network, a Tokyo- based market- research firm, uses the story of a good friend as an example.

"He was an excellent teller of jokes and stories," she says. "He translated two jokes into Japanese with the help of Japanese friends. He practiced to the point where he told them flawlessly. But when he gave the jokes, the Japanese audience didn't understand anything. It was doubtful whether they even knew it was a joke or not."

The typical Japanese speech doesn't begin with a joke as it might in the U.S. Instead, a Japanese speech is usually begun with an apology, such as "I'm not the expert." "I'm not good enough to be here." "The other guy is not here." or "I"m so young and unworthy." "This is not a speech culture." Howard says. "They stand up, don't move a lot and are reserved."

This practice is diametrically opposed to U.S. business culture, in which executives cannot advance unless they are very good speakers.

Howard says she trains her own Japanese staff in giving presentations to become more animated by pushing out their energy and projecting with natural gestures. Gestures are crucial for a lively speech.

"It's so difficult for them to do it, even with a lot of encouragement." she says, noting that everything about the Japanese work culture emphasizes being reserved.

Shiro Koriyama, chairman of Sony PCL Inc., believes things are slowly changing. "It's not so much like the old days when speeches were so formal and not entertaining." He says. "They're incorporating the friendly casual atmosphere that American speakers bring to presentations, which I like a lot. These days, good speakers are giving interesting presentations and talking to their audiences on an equal level."

His advice to foreign speakers is to speak slowly and clearly. Although some humor may be appreciated, Konyama emphasizes that it must be appropriate and be neither critical nor direct.

Lance E. Lee, president of IGC (Japan) Ltd., doesn't start speeches with a joke. His theory is that it's too hard to understand jokes from another culture and language. "Even my wife, who is Japanese, and my staff don't get my jokes because there is a nuance in the language, and a joke has to cross all borders," he says. "Also, the Japanese don't know American personalities. Japanese society is very proper. Don't take a chance and offend someone with a joke."

Lee also advises speakers to understand what the members of an audience want from them. This may fluctuate according to many factors, including the time of day "If it's late evening, people want to get home. They don't want to be cheered up and certainly don't want to listen to bad jokes." Speakers should instead try to make the audience feel at ease with a personal story that will create a casual atmosphere, Lee says.

Charlie Badenhop, president of Arati K.K., who teaches creativity innovation and strategy to corporate clients, says the best thing is to "be who you are. Canned material, he says, "usually comes out flat. And some people just aren't funny. It's like you re saying, 'Here's my attempt to be funny"'

Those who use prepared jokes also run the risk of telling the latest joke that everyone else is using from the same 'best selling joke book' of that month.

The best presentations are the ones in which you create metaphors, Badenhop says. For example, good speakers can share an experience that others relate to.

"Telling stories can also erase personal boundaries," he says. "This helps lessen the distance between you and the audience." You're telling everyone up front that you will be interesting and spontaneous.

by Catherine Makino, a former newspaper reporter currently a freelance writer living in Tokyo.

Her articles appear in many local and overseas publications.

(Condensed from the original)

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