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How to "Read" Japanese Presentations

Japanese PowerPoint presentations can seem very different and hard to follow for Westerners who are used to a more linear, point-by-point style. There are 3 important cultural preferences that influence Japanese presentations. These include:

  1. The partiality for visual illustrations.
  2. The desire to see how things relate to each other.
  3. The custom of presenting information from general to specific.

The preference for seeing things visually depicted rather than through a string of words is prevalent throughout Japanese life. If you ask someone for directions, it's common for them to draw you a map rather than describe your path in terms of where to go first, what to do next, where to go after that, and so on. In PowerPoint presentations, it means slides will be populated with pictures, charts, graphs, and anything else that can make a visual impression.

The desire to see how things relate to each other affects how much information will be incorporated and how many bits of information will be included on any given slide. Because of the need for context, a great deal of peripheral information may be included. This adds a lot of secondary information that provides a larger perspective or framework. From this vantage point, something may look different than when considered in isolation. And when it comes to seeing how everything fits together, it all needs to be included on one slide.

The traditional style of moving from general to specific determines the order in which the information is delivered. It may, however, mean that you find yourself sitting through long explanations, or wading through a great deal of big-picture, contextual information, before you even know what the intention is. This may test your patience if you approach it with a "let's get to the point" attitude.

It may help to think of a Japanese presentation as a novelette. First you need to understand the setting and characters, how the setting affects the characters and how the characters relate to each other. This may help give you patience while the scene is being set. Think of the added impression and importance illustrations give a story, especially if you want the image to be clear and not open to (mis)interpretation, and the value of the many visuals becomes more evident.

Now for those PowerPoint slides with dozens of charts and pictures on them that make most Americans' eyes glaze over.  Don't try to take in everything on the slide at once. Go for the main theme, the headings, then the details of each part. Again, think of it as a story: look at the setting (the context), the characters (the various elements), their relationship to each other, and the action (the process that makes it all work together).

If it's still an overload of information put your finger over the pictures and look at just the words. A picture can be worth 1,000 words, but when you have 30 words and 20 pictures on a slide, the jumble of words and pictures may make it feel as overwhelming as 10,000 words!

by Diana Rowland, author Japanese Busines: Rules of Engagement

Also see: Four Tips for Giving Presentations to Japanese

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