Mind the Culture Gap

Have you ever been in a meeting and had someone use a phrase or word that seemed to imply something that you didn’t quite get? Or acted in a way that was not immediately familiar to you?

Have you felt over or under dressed? Have you been pitching your story or technology and wondered if the person is following along all right or simply being polite? What does their blank face really mean?

As an expat living in Israel, I have well and truly walked miles in the shoes of not being sure that what I was saying was correct or taken the right way. Slowly, I became accustomed to the differences – Israeli directness is a biggie! – and as I learned the language and the subtleties in it, I began to recognize when an expression might actually be offensive rather than complimentary.  I got more comfortable with the fact that Israelis use their hands to gesture a lot and that this is not a bad thing, whereas Americans are much more still when they speak.

There are culture gaps not only between different nationalities but also in different businesses. Hollywood has a particular culture and if a writer has a pitching opportunity, whether at an event or in a meeting, it is important that you adjust your expectations.  Start Up and entrepreneurs also have a world quite their own.

I am fascinated by the similarities between start up entrepreneurs and the business of Hollywood. Both are high risk, high stakes, rarefied environment and both have distinct cultures.

A standout similarity – the defining similarity really – is that whether your are pitching a script idea, a manuscript for a novel, or a new technology or app – you have to explain something a bit vague in a  very specific way. You have to take the information in your head about how great your new application or technology is, or how fascinating your novel will be and why so many people will love it, and articulate that quickly and simply.

This is not easy and definitely a skill that increases with experience.

If you are the person pitching in the meeting, it is important that you allow the person you are meeting with to take the lead socially.

When in Rome is the operative term.

Do they want to have small talk for a bit? Okay, then do that. Do they want to get right down to it? Be prepared to do that as well.

Whether you write, code or invent new technologies, in a meeting you have a new role – you are a salesman. If the person who called you for the meeting asked you to take off your shoes and sit on a tatami mat while pitching – you’d do it. Because this is about sales. And sales is about listening and observing.

[I trust that you already know your story or your pitch/product COLD*]

*Cold means “perfectly”.

You don’t want to be  in a meeting and not know what the executive is referring to when they say they will “pass” your project “up”. What do they mean? Pass it up like forget it, like passing up more creamed spinach? No. They mean pass your project UP to the next higher person in the pecking order. A decision maker.

You don’t want to be in a meeting and not understand when someone refers you to an “accelerator” either.

But what if you still don’t get it?

Listen and watch for context. You might figure out the meaning very quickly. If a person is “passing up” your project or script, maybe they DO mean they are not interested.  Can you observe their tone of voice, body language and other contextual hints that what they are saying is positive or negative?

Your ability to roll with the conversation in a meeting is important.  A successful meeting depends on establishing a rapport – an ease – with the decision maker.

  1. Take your cues from the person who called the meeting. Small talk? Okay. No small talk, fine. Be flexible and let them lead the dance.
  2. Look for verbal and visual cues – leaning closer to you, a lot of direct eye contact and gesturing usually connotes real interest.  Listen for the tone of voice, is it tense or relaxed?
  3. Do your homework and know some of the buzz words in your pitch.

For you entrepreneurs out there, here is a link to commonly used “around the office” buzzwords and phrases. They aren’t all that exotic – but do you know what someone means when they say they want to “drill down” on something? It means to get more specific.  Here is a glossary of Start Up words and expressions. 

For writers, here is a dictionary for the “language” used in Variety, the granddaddy of Hollywood trade rags that developed its own language over time. Here also is a glossary of screenwriting terms. Know these words.

Wherever you live and whatever you are pitching – a new interior design, an amazing new technology for which you are trying to get funding, a great script idea for the next blockbuster script – human behavior is similar world and industry wide, unless you live under a rock, your intuition will tell you whether the person in the meeting is liking what you are saying, merely being polite and getting through the meeting, or out and out disinterested. It isn’t rocket science.

The key is to be prepared, flexible and observant.

And get help. You might just need it.

 

 

 

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