Granted “hate” might be a strong word…but at the time it definitely felt accurate.

An Italian manufacturing conglomerate asked me to help improve productivity at one of its plants. I spent three days and nights on the floor and developed a number of recommendations to present to the leadership team.

I was eager to prove my worth so I led with a bang. “Let’s jump right in,” I said. “First, I recommend you funnel every short-run job requiring major equipment changeovers to one production line. While you will reduce efficiency on that line, your overall productivity across all production lines should increase by at least 6%. Then…”

“Wait,” one executive interrupted. “Please explain how you made that determination. What data did you use?”

“I promise I’ll get to that in a second,” I said. “For now…”

Another exec spoke up. “Historical data is useful, but tell me how you factored potential future changes in customer specifications into your calculations.”

“We’ll cover that in just a moment too,” I said. “But if we could just…”

A department manager raised his hand. “How did you assess the relative skill levels of different crews to see how that could impact the changes you describe?”

My “bang” was a dud. I got frustrated.

Worse, they got frustrated. I felt like they hated me.

According to Erin Meyer, a professor at INSEAD and author of a superb (and I don’t use that word lightly) book The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business, their frustration wasn’t their fault.

It was my fault.


First some background. Generally speaking there are two basic styles of reasoning:

  • Principles-first reasoning derives conclusions or facts from general principles or concepts. Basically you establish the “why” before you move to the “what.”
  • Applications-first reasoning is when general conclusions are reached based on factual observations. Basically you start with the “what” and then — maybe — move to the “why.”

Me? I’m an applications-first kind of guy. To me the “good stuff” was what we would do. How I arrived at my recommendations was certainly important… but definitely secondary.

To my Italian audience, though, how I arrived at my recommendations was their first concern. They weren’t willing to consider my “good stuff” until I proved they could trust I actually had good stuff.

Why? Some of the difference in approach lies in the differences between our respective countries’ educational systems — both systems get to the same place but take very different paths.

Generally speaking, schools in countries like the U.S., Canada, and the UK tend to spend 80% of their time focusing on how to apply a tool, and 20% of their time explaining its conceptual underpinnings. They take an applications-first approach.

School systems in countries like Spain, Portugal, Germany, and in Latin America tend to spend 80% of their time covering general principles, and only 20% of their time on how to apply those principles. They take a principles-first approach. (Again, generally speaking.)

Unfortunately for me, the list of principles-first countries also includes Italy.


And that, aside from my spectacular inability to read and adapt to the room, is why my presentation failed. Based on the needs of my audience — which is the only thing that really matters — my approach was backward. Instead of leading with my conclusions, the better approach for this audience would have been to:

  1. Introduce the scope of my presentation
  2. Describe my methodology: the data used, the assumptions made, and the potential limitations of my analysis
  3. Ask if anyone had questions about my methodology
  4. Then share my recommendations, when necessary tying each back to the specific data and analysis used to arrive at my recommendations

Of course you might be thinking, “Nope. Lay it out that way and you’ll lose me halfway through item No. 1. If you don’t quickly get to the point I’ll assume there isno point… and I’ll check out.”

If you feel that way then the way you like to process information is different. Not right. Not wrong.

Just different.


So how do you deal with those differences when you’re a leader? Say you need to implement a change.

Some of your employees may be totally “American.” They’ll expect you to get to the point and tell them what will happen. They’ll quickly tune you out if you spend too much time up front on explanation and analysis and background. What they most want to know is what will change (and how they will be affected by those changes).

The “why” stuff is, well, kind of boring.

Some of your employees may be totally “Italian.” First they expect to find out why you’re making the change. They want to hear the background. They want to understand. Only then will they listen closely to what the actual changes will be.

To them, “why” is everything. Without sufficient “why” you will never get their buy-in… or earn their trust.

But most of your employees fall somewhere along the continuum of preferred reasoning and persuasion styles: a few near the extreme ends, most falling somewhere between.

Individually it’s easy to tailor your communication to meet each person’s needs (as long as you know each person well enough to understand his or her needs… which you should because that’s your job). Some will care deeply about why; others will only want to know what; most will prefer some blend of reasoning and application. To persuade, convince, and gain buy-in, tailor your message to meet each individual’s specific needs.

But what should you do in a group setting?

Here’s what Meyer says:

“The best strategy is to cycle back and forth between theoretical principles and practical examples. Provide practical examples to capture the interest of your applications-first listeners. The principles-first participants will enjoy them also.

“But you may find the latter asking theoretical questions and, while you are answering them, the applications-first learners get bored. Try ignoring their boredom for a moment. Avoid the temptation to push away conceptual questions as you risk sacrificing the interest and respect of your principles-first audience.

“Instead, take the time to answer the questions well and then quickly provide a couple of practical examples to recapture the waning attention of the applications-first learners.

“If you are aware of the (different ways people reason) and the challenges it presents, you can read the cues from your audience more clearly and react accordingly.”

And that’s what I failed to do. My audience asked for — okay, demanded — more data, more analysis, and more explanation. I should have immediately shifted gears and responded to their needs.

But I didn’t. I tried to force them to stick to my script. I kept trying to get to what I saw as the good stuff.

Big mistake: the best audience is an engaged audience, and this audience definitely wanted to engage… yet I failed to meet them on their terms.

Think I’m wrong? Look at some of the best Steve Jobs presentations. He built layers of facts and emotions… while weaving in possibilities and practicalities… until everyone in the audience had a reason to not just pay attention but also care… and then he sprang the solution: iPods, iPhones, iTunes, iPads.

Jobs painstakingly crafted presentations that made everyone in the audience, regardless of background, genuinely care — both about the reasons and about the solutions.

When you hope to engage, when you hope to inform and persuade and convince, what you say is important, but how you say it, how you structure your message, can make all the difference.

To “Americans,” to “Italians,” to everyone — regardless of “nationality.”

This article is published in collaboration with LinkedIn. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Jeff Haden is a Contributing Editor for Inc. Magazine.

Image: Professor Christian Agunwamba writes on the board while teaching his “Fundamentals of Algebra” class. REUTERS/Brian Snyder.