10 Tips for Better International Meetings
I log over 200,000 miles a year bringing thousands of people together to do business, grow personally and professionally, and enjoy themselves in the process. As an international event planner I’ve been privileged to learn the ropes from some brilliant mentors, have garnered insights from clients and colleagues, and have discovered a few good methods on my own. Organizing an international meeting requires the same caliber of planning and attention to details that a domestic event does, only multiplied several times. Communicating across multiple borders is no simple matter!
As an example, the vice president of sales for a medical-devices company scheduled a two-day conference a couple of years ago, inviting about 100 independent distributors to resort location. Many of these distributors flew in on their own dime from around the world. The event kicked off with a 5 PM welcome reception over cocktails featuring the chairman. The executive arrived to greet a nearly empty room! He chatted with a few staffers, several stragglers walked in but the damage was done. The formal program opened with a bang the next morning, but by then the chairman was flying out, understandably irked.
I learned all this two months after the event, at a meeting with the vice president who wanted to know: Would I help organize a successful sales event for next year? But first, why did I think no one showed up to meet the chairman? He was clearly still rattled. I asked a few questions, starting with transportation. What were the arrangements? It turned out many attendees had made flight connections on the same international flight, arriving on the delayed flight just before the reception began.
I make it a practice to review airline schedules feeding the international airport near my event when planning my program. I try to anticipate delayed departures, late arrivals, and rush hour congestion. If my main event is taking place somewhere other than the hotel where the sleeping rooms are booked, and guests are arriving from all over, I’ll consider holding the welcome reception in the hotel itself. Sometimes I’ve held receptions in the international airport to accommodate middle-of-the-night arrivals. Those turned out to be some of the best receptions I’ve planned.
Language, and avoiding the potential for linguistic conflict, is also significant when organizing multinational events. Over 6,500 languages are spoken around the world; the European Community accommodates 23 official languages. Clearly, at most international meetings not everyone speaks English. Imagine for a moment you are a non-native English speaker where every sentence represents a struggle to communicate. It’s tough.
Fortunately for English-speakers, in business and scientific and academic cross-border events, English is the official language. Now, communicating “officially” and communicating effectively are two different things. I love the supermarket sign in Hong Kong recommending “courteous, efficient self-service for your convenience.” An Eastern Europe concierge apologizes that because the elevator is out of service, guests are unbearable. At another hotel a sign warns of the impropriety of entertaining members of the opposite sex in their bedrooms, suggesting you use the lobby instead. Rent a car in Japan and you might get a brochure offering helpful driving advice: “When passenger of foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage then tootle with vigor.”
I try to help non-native speakers by collecting and distributing the bulk of written material in advance. This includes PowerPoint presentations, collaterals, speaker bios, everything. I announce an early deadline on materials I need to receive, and move things along quicker. The extra few weeks to review materials have helped many attendees prepare themselves. And I recommend you avoid slang, trendy language and buzzwords, all of which confuse non-native speakers.
I also leave a little more time than usual for participants to speak up at Q&A moments. A native speaker can formulate a question on the fly, as it were; when you’re speaking your second or third language, phrasing the question properly can take a few moments. Be patient, and the questions will emerge a moment or two later.
Even when a language is shared, cultural miscommunications abound. The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw described America and England as two nations divided by a common language. Christopher Waltz, the Viennese-born actor holding German citizenship – and Austrian affinity - has puckishly compared the difference between his two countries with that between a battleship and a waltz.
So, let visuals – not just words – help tell your story. I rely on photographs, illustrations, logos, charts and maps. This approach pays off for our clients. We run several events a year around the world at shifting locations for an international nonprofit, building attendance by preparing and mailing thousands of programs in advance. Last year I cut back on words and printed a few more photographs from previous events. The program sold out faster than any other. (They were great photos, I have to say.)
Language and cultural expectations are closely intertwined. Our culture shapes how we express ourselves and how we understand the messages others send us. Culture shapes our behavior when it comes to activities like greeting others, establishing a sense of collaboration, and getting down to business.
The greeting process especially is laden with cultural expectations. Consider Bill Jones (not his real name), the thirty-something American middle-manager who attended a corporate meeting I organized last year in Paris. He met his senior-in-age German counterpart, let’s call him Kurt Schmidt, the first evening. The two men were to begin working together on a key project. The American stuck out his hand and said, “Hi I’m Bill.” The German responded with a quick handshake: “I’m Herr Schmidt.” Bill complained later Kurt seemed like a stuffed shirt, while Kurt said privately that he found the American’s informality presumptuous: “We hadn’t even met and he was calling me Kurt!”
What Bill didn’t realize was that in Germany, one addresses those older and outside the immediate family by last name. What Kurt (Herr Schmidt, if you will) didn’t realize was that Bill was just being friendly in the American way. The two eventually got to know each other and overcame the initial misunderstanding.
After the meeting, I went back and reviewed the registration software the company used. I learned the software was programmed to automatically put first names only on badges. I tweaked that. Now, participants can choose how they wish to be identified. Problem solved.
The opportunities for conflict grow exponentially as more cultures are involved. Take the handshake, for example. This greeting is used around the world – with a million variations. An American will shake hands firmly for several seconds, looking you right in the eye. A German might pump your hand once and nod briefly. A Singaporean might shake your hand a dozen times; a French person touch your hand lightly; an Indian might forego the handshake, place fingertips together and bow slightly; a Japanese or Chinese person might bow too, more deeply and for a longer time, conveying information about perceived social status based on how long heads stay down. In many cultures men will not shake hands with women, nor women with men. In some cases they will, based on circumstances.
I haven’t even mentioned the introductory kiss: do you or don’t you, which cheek first, and how many pecks!
Time perceptions are important too, particularly the concept of punctuality. It’s a mistake to assume that “We start at 3” translates universally. In general, northern people take starting times literally; at 3 o’clock your German, Swedish, English and Scandinavian attendees are in the room, seated and ready to go. Participants from Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Latin American countries may take longer to get ready, and they may arrive later.
One trademark of an inspiria meeting is local flavor. I make it a point to incorporate cultural references into every international event. I book local musicians to perform regional favorites, ask chefs to prepare regional culinary specialties, and program dancers and exhibit artists at our functions. Local artists, entrepreneurs and tradesmen get to strut their stuff on a bigger stage while attendees from Tallahassee, Iowa City or Detroit take in displays, presentations and experiences they might never encounter otherwise. It’s a fine exchange for both sides and one that widens perceptions.
I’ll leave you with ten tips to improve your international meetings.
1 Schedule with foresight. Check international arrivals early in planning process, then again closer to meeting date.
2. Opening Receptions: book where most convenient to travelers; in the hotel itself, even in the airport.
3. Practice cultural sensitivity – don’t assume everyone else is like you.
4. Let attendees decide how they want to be introduced (first name/last name)
5. Provide written materials well in advance
6. Use standard (correct) English rather than slang or trendy expressions
7. Use visual cues to help communicate
8. Recognize that greeting gestures like shaking hands are culturally sensitive; respond to cues.
9. Punctuality differs from place to place; know your attendees’ style, or be extra specific about starting times.
10. Find inspiration among local artists, musicians, and entrepreneurs.