Muslim, Western biz challenges: Plenty of common ground

June 13, 2012: 10:42 AM ET

Whether you are in Saudi Arabia or Chicago, executives and entrepreneurs face some of the same challenges when it comes to keeping audiences engaged.

By Bill Connor

FORTUNE -- As I huddled with a Saudi business contact in a conference room in Madinah, just a few miles from the final resting place of the Prophet Muhammad last month, I was struck by how exotic and yet how familiar it all felt. My friend, a banker, wore the traditional kafiyeh and thobe to my blue suit. Outside, the temperature approached 112 degrees Fahrenheit. On the breakfast table: fried lamb liver, cardamom-scented coffee, and camel's milk.

But my friend spoke of exactly the same goals, hopes, and anxieties that I discuss every day with executives from D.C. to Dallas. How can I make more time for my family while growing my business? How do I stay ahead of the competition? How can I communicate more effectively with employees, customers, investors, and the media? And so, after years of working with clients from all over, I once again realized that in the world of business at least, we are much more alike than we think.

My conversation with Abdullah took place at the Madinah Institute for Leadership and Entrepreneurship (MILE), an executive-education program created by the Saudi government and corporate backers with help from McKinsey. Every day, over the course of each two-week program, a different marquee-name B-school professor from the U.S. or Europe delivers an eight-hour program to a group of 30 or so senior executives from the Middle East and Asia. The goal: to give executives from the Arab and Muslim worlds relevant business education without having to send them to Philadelphia or London. I was there to conduct media training and presentation skills coaching in small sessions. And I saw first-hand that public speaking challenges know no cultural bounds.

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That morning I watched a speaker do exactly what he was supposed to do at the opening of his presentation: he started strong. Instead of boring us with the kind of half-baked opening we all hear too often, (Um, hello, great to be here today, can everyone hear me in the back? etc.) he launched right into a genuinely riveting story about a brilliant young university student named Ahmed that previewed the key themes of his presentation and made us eager to hear more.

The problem was that he didn't end his presentation with quite so much panache. He just sort of finished talking and said, "I think that's about all I needed to cover. Any questions?" No big wrap-up, no final crescendo to send us off with a sense of purpose. He missed the opportunity to advance his point one last time.

There are plenty of ways to end with a bang and keep your key points fresh in the audience's mind:

A powerful quote. In wrapping up a paean to President Obama's oratorical skills, former U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown said, "When he speaks, he gives listeners confidence -- not in him, but in themselves. It is said that when Cicero spoke, people said 'That was a great speech.' But when Demosthenes spoke, they said 'Let's march.'"

A bookend. If you started with a strong story, consider saving the end of the story for the end of the presentation. "So: remember Ahmed, that gifted university science student I told you about when we started? Just last week he patented a medical device that stands to save 20,000 lives next year."

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A prop. Steve Jobs was celebrated for keeping audiences on the edge of their seats by saving his "one last thing" for the grand finale -- and that last thing was usually a prop. Pulling an iPod Nano out of his jeans pocket, or a MacBook Air from a manila folder, Jobs always got the drop on us. Sure, that's easier to do with cool consumer electronics than with Q4 marketing numbers, but use your imagination. What's something you can hold in your hand that will surprise and delight?

If you respect your audience by keeping things interesting from beginning to end, you'll have a better chance of getting them to remember what you said and what you want them to do. And that holds true from Saudi Arabia to San Francisco.

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About This Author
Bill Connor
Bill Connor

Bill Connor is a principal at Washington, D.C.-based Oratorio Media and Presentation Training, where he coaches corporate executives and other officials around the world to perform more effectively in media interviews, presentations, and speeches. Prior to joining Oratorio, Bill was a White House correspondent for the Hearst Corporation television stations and an anchor and reporter for NBC's WCSH-TV.

Email | @oratorio_bill
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