Beyond boundaries: Speaking across cultural differences

Recently I was listening to a presentation made by a Canadian speaker at a conference in California. The audience was entirely American, and after being introduced as a Canadian, the speaker said, “There is one very big difference between speaking to a Canadian audience and speaking to an American audience.” He then began the substantive part of his speech. Almost immediately, he was interrupted by an audience member who abruptly yelled out, “Hey! What’s the difference?” The speaker responded, “That’s the difference!”

Speaking across Canada and United States cultural differences

On the surface, Canadians and Americans look pretty much the same. Many speak the same language, watch the same television programs, eat in the same restaurants, and drive the same cars. But if you look beyond the surface, you’ll see cultural differences throughout every aspect of our lives.

Studies comparing the attitudes of Canadians and Americans have repeatedly concluded that, generally, Canadians are more cautious than U.S. citizens, who place more emphasis on individualism. The speaker in California knew Canadian audiences tend to be more passive, less likely to ask questions.

The differences were summarized succinctly by Michael Adams, in his book Sex in the Snow: Canadian Social Values at the End of the Millennium. Adams states, “Even in the face of powerful international forces favouring integration, our roots, our history, our size, our degree of secularization, our institutions and yes, even our climate have created two very different socio-cultural environments on this continent.”

Meeting professionals should be aware of these differences during the planning process, particularly in the choice of keynote speakers and seminar leaders. Organizations hire speakers for their meetings to achieve a variety of goals. Cultural differences may affect the selection of the most appropriate speaker for three frequently requested subjects:

  1. Sales and marketing
  2. Management skills and strategies
  3. Motivation

A workshop at York University in Toronto produced a collection Problems in Canadian Marketing. In their article Canadians and Americans: Implications for Marketing, Stephen J. Arnold and James G. Barnes, professors at Canadian universities, conclude, “Canadians and Americans differ on major personality traits and exhibit markedly different attitudes and behaviour in purchase and consumption situations. In turn, these differences suggest variations in the marketing strategies that should be applied in both countries.”

Marketing speakers

It is crucial for those selecting speakers on marketing to determine whether the speaker is familiar with not only the issues facing the industry but also regional differences which may affect sales and marketing strategies.

Nike is an example of a global company that recognizes such differences. In Canada, rather than identifying their products with a sports icon like Michael Jordan in the United States, Nike sponsors teams, events and “local heroes.” Nike accepts Canadians’ lesser emphasis on individual achievement, adds another layer to its global brand and wins over the hearts and buying power of Canadians.

Many speakers, both in Canada and the United States are aware of these differences and tailor their presentation for each audience. Be sure to ask the speaker if they have spoken to audiences in your specific industry and region and request client references to determine whether speakers have been willing to customize their presentations.

Management speakers

In the area of management skills and strategies, subtle yet profound differences should be considered in the speaker selection process. A Globe and Mail article by Madelaine Drohan, What Makes a Canadian Manager? explored some of these differences. “In an age when globalization is breaking down commercial barriers, cultural differences in management style still survive,” Drohan says. “Many Canadian managers went to the same business schools in the United States as their U.S. counterparts, where they listened to the same lectures recommending the same solutions. But experts say this advice is applied differently once it has passed through the Canadian cultural filter.”

Renowned management professor Henry Mintzberg says Canadians are more low-key, collegial and less aggressive than U.S. managers but may be lacking in toughness. His observations are backed by business leaders who argue that Canadians are more committed to their companies, less willing to follow management fads and more open to different cultures because of the French-English character in the country’s history.

Before shelling out the sizeable fees that “management gurus” often command, you must be sure that the advice they provide is applicable to your audience and that your audience will be receptive. This is especially crucial if you are crossing cultural boundaries between the presenter and the audience.

Motivational speakers

Many organizations hire motivational speakers to “pump up” staff and inspire higher levels of personal and professional achievement. Josh Hammond and James Morrison, in their book The Stuff Americans Are Made Of, reported four major differences between Canada and the United States, listing the first as source of motivation. The study they cited found that Americans are future-driven, constantly uprooting and questioning themselves, whereas Canadians thrive in the present.

Canadians’ relatively cautious behaviour and Americans’ strong admiration of individual achievement should be considered when selecting a motivational speaker. Canadians may relate to an individual who was part of a successful team, or who achieved their goals through successful planning, organization and implementation. Americans may relate better to a person who has outstanding individual achievements, or who succeeded against all odds.

Selecting outstanding speakers is not an easy task, and diversity within an audience doesn’t make the process any easier. The cultural considerations for Canada and the United States certainly extend to planning presentations across national and cultural borders around the world. Although the global economy and global market place have become modern buzzwords, the savvy meeting planner will always acknowledge the sensitivities of individuals attending conferences.

While no presenter can be all things to all people, some are far more inclined to learn about your audience and design a program to provide maximum benefit. Speakers bureaus may provide important insights and past clients are excellent sources of objective information. In short, ask questions to ensure the speakers you choose know how to cross cultural as well as geographic boundaries to reach your audience effectively.

About the author:

Martin is an unapologetic idealist. He’s passionate about people and ideas, and after 20 years in the speaking industry believes more than ever that a great speech can provide the impetus for action and be a catalyst for change. Prior to co-founding Speakers’ Spotlight, Martin was a corporate lawyer at a prestigious international law firm. While he realized early on in his career that he needed to do something more entrepreneurial, he learned some incredibly valuable best practices that have shaped his approach to client service and business management. Martin’s views on the speaking industry have been reported in various television and print media, and have been published in over 60 countries. He’s been a guest lecturer at several colleges and universities, and was a keynote speaker at the Public Words Speaker Forum at The Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School in Cambridge. Martin is a graduate of the Faculty of Economics at the University of Western Ontario, and the Faculty of Law at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto. He lives in Toronto with his wife and business partner Farah, and their children Jade and Cole. He is an avid reader and music lover.

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