Most of you have changed jobs a few times in your career; in fact, you will probably have about seven to 13 jobs in your lifetime. Think for a moment of the jobs you’ve had to date, including your current job. What do you recall about the environments, the people and the unspoken rules—the cultures of each workplace?
Most of you have changed jobs a few times in your career; in fact, you will probably have about seven to 13 jobs in your lifetime. Think for a moment of the jobs you’ve had to date, including your current job. What do you recall about the environments, the people and the unspoken rules—the cultures of each workplace? Chances are they were all fairly unique. Most of us experience several organizational cultures before we are 30—we learn from them and how to adapt to them. The successful presenter can also learn from culture—and yet this important step to presentation planning is often overlooked.
Culture is important. The emotional impact of culture is important. An understanding of culture is priceless for the stellar presenter. When you understand the culture of your potential audience, you have an edge on influence. This is especially true and important for women presenters who are often left out of inner-circle discussions and male executive networks. Culture is tricky, and it’s often difficult to find immediately. It is unspoken and comprised of traditions, language, experiences and environmental changes.
Picture your hometown and you can easily understand the nuances of culture. Think about how difficult it is for those who do not share your experiences to completely grasp it. For example, I grew up in Peoria. My memories of Peoria culture are a mosaic of sights and experiences. Growing up, there was no better social event than the Friday night high school football game. As a Brownie Scout, I hiked the winding trails that echoed the existence of the Peoria Indian tribe of the Illini. The river valley provided Peoria with beautiful hills and the river itself always connected us elsewhere—Chicago to St. Louis to Chillicothe. The river barges were quiet until they honked their great horns and you could wave at them when you were looking for turtles down by the bank. As a child, I knew the river was a good connection to the changing of the seasons and it provided a constant reason to look out the car window as we crossed the bridge. Even today in Peoria, people still smile and say “hi” at the grocery store, on the street or at the cleaners. As you can tell, my memories of Peoria’s culture are fairly specific and contain emotion. And, very similarly, as each community has a culture, so does every organization, association and group that you will address. You won’t always have a native to interview as you prepare—you will need to ask questions and dig into the answers to find culture. You will need to do this in advance of your presentation and even in advance of outlining a talk.
My first job upon graduating college was working as a substitute teacher for two bordering suburban high school districts—six different schools. You would think that all six cultures might be similar. No! They were vastly different. By the end of one day of subbing, I had an impression of the economic level of the students, their commitment to education, the school spirit or lack of it and the involvement of parents and teachers. I could tell how happy the teacher was that I subbed for, and I could read the cooperation and collaboration levels of the students, faculty and leaders. How? Because culture was evident everywhere, even in my lesson plans. When I had lunch in the faculty dining room, I observed what was on the walls, on the floors and even in a few drawers of the absent teacher’s desk. I listened to the language students used and eavesdropped on conversations in the faculty lunchroom. By the time I walked to my car at the end of the day, I had a good feel for whether or not this was a school I would want to work at full-time.
Being a temporary visitor or observer is actually one of the best ways to decipher culture. There is an old Polish saying that goes: “The guest sees more in a day than the host sees in a year.” As a speaker, you can identify the cultural essentials of every audience by asking these questions:
• What is the educational and economic level of this group?
• How would you describe the morale and turnover of this area?
• How often does the group get together during off-work time?
• Are they more creative or analytical?
• Are they committed or passing through?
• Do they respect each other?
• How would a new person feel on this team?
And as you ask these questions, keep in mind that culture is very personal. Rarely do people comment on culture without emotion. Ask a friend about her company and you’ll notice immediately whether she likes it or not. She will probably say something like, “It’s a great company.” If you probe you will uncover even more culture. She may add, “Well, the people are so friendly and the managers are supportive.” Or, “You can do anything you want and nobody cares as long as you get your work done.” You begin to decipher the culture. On the other hand she may say, “Ugh, it’s awful but I need the money.” Again, if you ask why she may say, “It’s boring, humdrum and there’s no room to grow,” or “It’s so competitive. Nobody helps you out.” Are you beginning to get a feel for the emotion that surrounds culture? Don’t be afraid to ask! And don’t be afraid to ask a number of people to establish majority feelings about culture.
I facilitate and speak with a lot of groups in the pharmaceutical industry; they cross all different cultures. By the time I’ve completed phone interviews with 10 or 12 people, I can usually tell what their culture is. It is not difficult to encourage people to talk about their work. Just remember, never, ever appear to be condescending or all-knowing about anyone else’s workplace—you’ll just end up being surprised over your deflated ego.
Every hospital, school, law firm, association, manufacturing facility and telecom company is different. You can shine as a presenter if you can communicate and connect about what makes them unique. As a woman, you are probably naturally good at this. Tie those information pieces together and quilt them into a meaningful pattern of communication! tpw