In my last “Cogent Communicator” column, I wrote about cross-cultural communication-specifically about context, whether our culture is “high” or “low” context. Do we assume a lot and depend on our listeners to get our subtle messages (high context)? Or do we assume nothing and spell out everything (low context)? Speakers and listeners from Asian countries, which are very high context, understand implicit messages from those within their own cultures. Speakers and listeners from, say, the United States-very low context-expect everything to be stated explicitly. Implicit, unspoken messages get missed. “Just say what you mean,” low context communicators think.
It’s good to know whether the person you’re listening to is expecting you to glean a deeper meaning from the few words he’s shared or whether the message is right there on the surface. The mistakes that can result from misreading messages across cultures are sometimes humorous, but they can also be calamitous.
I love this example from The Culture Map, by Erin Meyer, of this very thing. It’s a conversation between Mr. Diaz (explicit/low context) and Mr. Chen (implicit/high context):
Mr. Diaz: It looks like some of us are going to have to be here on Sunday to host the client visit.
Mr. Chen: I see.
Mr. Diaz: Can you join us on Sunday?
Mr. Chen: Yes, I think so.
Mr. Diaz: That would be a great help.
Mr. Chen: Yes, Sunday is an important day.
Mr. Diaz: In what way?
Mr. Chen: It’s my daughter’s birthday.
Mr. Diaz: How nice. I hope you all enjoy it.
Mr. Chen: Thank you. I appreciate your understanding.
After which, Mr. Diaz thinks Mr. Chen is coming, and Mr. Chen is sure he has explained he will not be there.
There are other kinds of trouble you can get into when working cross-culturally, and one of them is misunderstanding how to put together a persuasive argument. There are, Ms. Meyer says in her book, two culturally different ways to come at persuasion. Knowing which to use, and which your audience prefers, may make the difference between getting your point across and not.
The Importance of Persuasion
As a communication consultant for the last decade or so, one thing I hear repeatedly from professionals at every level is: How can I be more persuasive? In engineering and tech, where knowledge is valued and subject matter expertise is highly prized, the ability to get one’s ideas across is vital. Whether introducing strategy, recommending a change to standards, tweaking a process, or tackling the current sev 1 problem, getting others to buy into your idea can depend on how persuasive you are.
The ability to persuade can make or break careers, even companies. Something that important deserves a closer look.
How to Construct an Argument
Let’s start by dissecting an argument. When I say “argument,” I’m not talking about a verbal slugfest. I’m talking about “argument” as a means of using reason to convince others that something is right or wrong, a good idea or a bad one. That kind of argument.
How you construct an argument has something to do with where you’re from, according to Ms. Meyer’s research. Do you start with your conclusion and then offer the supporting facts that led you there? Or do you take listeners through each step and method you used to arrive at your result and then hit them with your conclusion?
The research in The Culture Map says that those of us from Anglo-Saxon parts of the world (US, UK, Australia, Canada) prefer starting with a conclusion or recommendation, which usually comes in the form of an executive summary or a bullet list. We get straight to the point, assuming our audience is impatient and unwilling to listen to our analysis, alternatives and discoveries. Afterwards comes the supporting information-research, alternatives, pros and cons, best practices, and such. In a presentation or meeting, we may never even get to some of that supporting info. It stays in our “hip pocket.”
But those who are from places like Italy, Russia, Germany and South America prefer to save the conclusion for the end and begin instead with the methods, discoveries and analysis that led to the conclusion. They don’t assume the audience is impatient but rather that the audience wants first to understand the background, the data and the process. Starting with the conclusion and then following up with “how we got here” is, in their minds, omitting the essential run-up to the finish. It’s asking the audience to buy in to the conclusion without knowing how you got there-and without giving the audience the chance to question and explore your work.
“I Don’t Have Time for This!”
Not long ago, I did some consulting for a tech company that was determined to help their engineers become more persuasive. They’d invited me to sit in on a series of short presentations where presenters were to recommend how to proceed on various problems and project quandaries. The point of this exercise was to practice persuasive presentation skills in front of a small panel of senior managers and receive feedback, not to solve the specific problems.
Many presenters had organized their arguments the Anglo-Saxon way, by putting the conclusion first, then diving into supporting data. The panel of managers approved of this approach. “Good, thanks, got it. Now, let me ask you some questions,” they said.
One young woman from India, however, came at it the other way, starting with a problem statement and then describing three possible alternatives to solving it that she had explored. As she was starting to unwrap the first alternative, one of the senior managers (clearly a conclusion-first kind of guy) barked, “I don’t have time for this! Tell me what you want me to do, and then give me your data!”
A classic example. Her persuasive approach-starting with a detailed run-up and not the conclusion-wasn’t working for him. She hadn’t arranged the argument to appeal to her audience, probably because she had no idea it mattered. Worse, she stammered and struggled to say anything after that. Watching her, it seemed to me that she wasn’t ready to articulate the conclusion without the prep work, as if, without her whole spiel, the conclusion wouldn’t be strong enough.
The managers in this panel of reviewers had conclusion-first expectations about how the arguments should be presented. Not surprisingly, they were all from Anglo-Saxon cultures where conclusion-first is the preferred approach.
Anticipate Your Audience
In competitive, fast-paced tech and engineering organizations, the desire to get to the point quickly is part of the pace of everyday life on the job, but I’m convinced it’s also influenced by the Anglo-Saxon cultural preferences Ms. Meyer describes in her research. It’s worth keeping in mind, though, that there’s more than one way to shake maracas, and if you’re making your persuasive case to an audience that wants to deep-dive into your information, don’t rob them of that pleasure. Be prepared to re-organize your information to appeal to the way they like to think and analyze, the way that’s most likely to persuade them. Or perhaps you simply prepare so that, if they push back, you can shift gears and do it their way.