Presentations in France

When I arrived in Paris in early 2014 I was sent on a training course entitled “Living and Working in France”. It was run by a French lady who’d worked for Michelin and been sent on expatriation to the US for several years. When she returned she realised how peculiar the French way of life must look to foreigners, so quit her job and set up this course, which was excellent. The course took two days, morning and afternoon, so four sessions in all. The first day was about life in France, the second covered the work environment. On that second day an entire morning – a quarter of the whole course – was dedicated to a single topic: meetings in a French company.

When she introduced this topic, the instructor laughed and said this is one of the things which baffles and infuriates most foreigners working in France so she had to give it plenty of attention in her course. Having spent almost five years sitting in meetings in France I can say she was absolutely correct, but the training only allows you to understand what is going on and why, which does little to ease the frustration. I was about to describe meetings in France in a blog post but realised I couldn’t do so without first describing what passes for a presentation in a large French company. Now aspects of this will certainly be found elsewhere, particularly in large, bureaucratic organisations, but parts of it will be uniquely French with the combination being quite horrific. So here goes.

The best people for giving presentations by far are Americans who’ve practiced it. They’ll stand at the front of a room with a slide showing a picture and they’ll kick things off by talking about why that picture is relevant. That gets your attention. A Frenchman will kick things off with an agenda he has no intention of sticking to. The American will then proceed to the next slide which has a maximum of three pieces of information in concise form, a picture or cartoon, and plenty of white space. He will then leave that slide on the screen as a focal point while he talks around it for several minutes, imparting the information you’ve come to receive. A Frenchman, on the other hand, will present a slide like this:

He will then read out what is on the slide, word for word if it’s a series of bullet points. Whereas the American uses his slides as a presentation aid, with the bulk of the information delivered verbally, the French think all information to be imparted must appear on the slide. It is common when preparing slides for a French manager for him to say “You forgot to mention it rains in Argentina”. If you say, “No, I’m going to say that in the presentation” you’ll be instructed to include it in the slide.

As such, when an American gives a presentation, he’s going at a rate of around one slide every four or five minutes on average, and each slide is light in content. When I’m asked to give a presentation I ask how long it is and aim for around one slide for every four minutes, with a couple spare at the back if I need to expand on something. The French, bless ’em, don’t appear to think there is any link between the number of slides and the allocated time, hence don’t use this as a basis for preparing the presentation.

Instead, they just put in as many slides as necessary to deliver the information they believe their hierarchy wants to see (French presentations are delivered solely to satisfy anyone in the room more senior than the presenter; anyone else might as well not be there). As such, it is not uncommon to see what is supposed to be a two-hour presentation contain eighty or ninety slides, each crammed full of text in size 8 font with almost no white space and graphs spilling over the margins. Nobody – not even the geniuses who finished top of the class in a polytechnique – seems to understand that a slide every 45 seconds for two hours is laughably impossible, and human beings can’t consume visual information at that rate. They get around the first problem by letting the presentation overrun by a ludicrous degree: I’ve seen hour long meetings go an hour and a half over time. The second problem doesn’t actually matter, and I’ll explain why.

A presentation in France is essentially a report using PowerPoint instead of MS-Word. I noticed some time ago certain managers don’t like reading block text. I suspect they believe it’s beneath them; rather than read a report and provide comments, they feel a lot more important ordering someone to stand in front of them and explain things in person. I once had a facility manager tell me he “didn’t have time” to read my project execution plan explaining what changes were about to be made on his asset, and instead I should make a trip of several days to give him a presentation. The implication was that four days or my time was worth less than half an hour of his, but I suspect he was just lazy.

The other reason some managers prefer presentations to reports is the same reason they prefer management-by-committee to individual decision-making: it allows them to evade responsibility. If someone writes a report and sends it up through the hierarchy, the managers have some sort of obligation to act on it, and they can’t claim ignorance. This is especially true if, as is the case most of the time, one of them has to sign it before it’s issued. Far better to have a presentation where lots of people are present, nobody really knows who said what, and every decision can be passed off as a collective effort or denied outright. Taken to its extreme, even technical work – calculations, designs, etc. – is not validated using an inter-discipline check endorsed with signatures, but by sticking the whole lot in PowerPoint and presenting it to a bunch of people who try to spot any errors. This actually happens. Several times in my recent career I asked for some technical data or a design and was handed a PowerPoint presentation. This is why it’s important all the information is contained in the slides themselves, and nothing left to be imparted only verbally: a presentation in France is often the method by which work is endorsed by the hierarchy, as opposed to signing off on a document. Unlike elsewhere, it’s not actually a method of sharing information in the sense normal people would understand the term, hence it doesn’t matter that it’s ineffective.

In summary, the reason presentations in French companies differ so wildly from those found anywhere else is because they serve a totally different purpose. For the uninitiated, I’ll leave it to you to imagine what it’s like sitting through one of these things on a warm afternoon.

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28 thoughts on “Presentations in France

  1. Having just, this week finally got sign off on an apparently simple 30’ish page procedure the type of which I can normally produce standing on my head, getting endorsement for issue in the same week, I read this with a smile.

    The revision of the procedure was started by my predecessor LAST YEAR… guess which nationality the operating stakeholder in this JV is?

  2. Those sound like management consultancy presentations, which also double as the final report. The difference is that management consultants know how to present the salient points and the target is normally someone very senior who has already been briefed on the key findings, which are what they were contracted to find anyway.

  3. There’s little doubt that operating in another country’s system can present a few surprises. Found this with Spain.
    For a start, pretty well everybody here lies as a matter of course. So you can’t actually trust anything you’re told. I’m currently on an apartment to rent search. The advert will say it has airconditioning & a parking space. This is because apartment adverts receive greater attention if they’re described as airconditioned & with a parking space & has nothing to do with whether they’re airconditioned or have parking. And the lies will continue if you ring up to check. So there’s no alternative but to view the apartment & physically check. Does the apartment have airconditioning? (And “airconditioned” for the Spanish can mean one unit serving one room in a four bed apartment) Does it work? “Airconditiioning” does not imply air will be conditioned. Only that a box supplied by an airconditioning manufacturer is present. The parking space has to be inspected. Is it actually a space a car larger than a Smart can be parked. Does the space actually relate to the apartment? “Parking space” can be 10 unallocated spaces for a 50 apartment block. Grab one if you’re lucky. Is there a car currently occupying it? If so, whose? That the use of the parking space appears on the contract does not mean the owner hasn’t rented it to someone else.
    And this applies to everything you do here. Delivery dates are not even aspirations. They’re just something you’re told to get the sale. Appointment times are meaningless. Whether the person you’re meeting with turns up to time or turns up at all depends on whether it’s convenient to them. Inconvenient can be it’s a nice day & they fancied going to the beach.
    Never underestimate the Spanish ability to fuck up. You’re dealing with some of the most incompetent people on the planet. I’d been trying to get hold of my Spanish lawyer for a fortnight. Phone was never answered. Monday last week I was eventually able to speak to his secretary. About half hour after the conversation an e-mail from the practise arrived. “Whatever Abogados will be closed from the 13th to 26th August for annual holiday.” Sent on the 27th. Quite why you’d send inconvenienced clients an announcement that you’d fucked up & inconvenienced them escapes me. But this is the women who was asked to obtain registered ownership details on two properties & managed to get the incorrect property on both. One wasn’t even in the same street. Actually it’s quite hard to remember anything she’s been involved in she ‘s done successfully first time round. One might ask why my lawyer doesn’t fire her & get a decent secretary? This is a decent Spanish secretary. This is the default setting. They can be a whole lot worse than this. As can pretty well anyone you have to deal with. If it’s possible to fuck it up, they’ll fuck it up. But they’ll never ever accept responsibility. Or apologise. How anything ever gets done in this country is a mystery. It’s no wonder they’re about half as productive as the Germans. Although they seem to want the same money.

  4. I worked in France for two years. One of my roles was to help the organisation increase their sales in other countries.

    Everything you have written accords with my experience.

    I would add that the lateness of attendees at any meeting was directly correlated with the seniority of the latecomer.

    As with everything else in France, it’s about power.

    I got so fed up I locked the door after a 15 minute wait and carried on anyway (we were actually quorate).

    The bastinado was applied later…

  5. Have to second bloke in Spain’s experiences … they are a feckin nightmare over there. In 2009 I was there and needed an NIE number. Got the form, thought it was simple enough, but then had second thoughts along the lines of “don’t risk it, get it done by a pro”. So went to a lawyer in Benidorm who charged €25 to fill it out. Then I took it to the relevant Spanish department. The man behind the desk took a look at it, sighed, got a blank form out, and started to transcribe line by line the old form onto the new one, but offsetting each line vertically by one. Whoever had done the original had put everything onto the wrong lines. And not a sign of regret when I went back to complain, not a word of apology. Just the shrug that somehow manages to imply “well it’s really your fault for trusting us in the first place”.

    For a few seconds there I really had bloody visions of finding a load of empty bottles, finding a petrol station, some rags and a box of matches and then er, “registering a complaint”, so to speak.

    It’s the same where I live now, Malta, except – second time around after Spain – I’m now used to it and know how to plan for it and deal with it when it happens. “It” being people that don’t give a shit, lie, screw up and then just shrug when you are dropped in it as a result.

    You don’t really appreciate the much unfairly maligned Anglo Saxon ethic/approach until you’ve had to deal with this stuff on a regular basis, and in a scenario where you are largely directly at the mercy of the after effects.

  6. French meetings almost sound like a dream compared to Italian meetings. A meeting in Italy goes something like this:

    The boss will stand up and talk for at least an hour. Is his talk got anything to do with that we’re supposed to be meeting about? Only if you’re lucky. Usually he’ll just talk about whatever he feels like, which most of the time is about how great the company is doing and how great he is. He’ll also talk about challenges that the company is facing which will be the fault of all the departments that are not present at the meeting.

    Let’s say there are 10 people present. At the end of the boss’s rambling oration will be a sparse acknowledgement of the actual topic at hand. The boss finally sits down and the inexperienced foreigner will now be under the not unnatural expectation that the next person to stand up and talk will continue on the actual topic that was left dangling by the first speaker.

    Oh no no no, mio amico. It doesn’t work like that at all.

    The next speaker will talk about whatever he wants to talk about. While not quite as long as the first speaker it will be long enough. He will finish with some vague reference to what you’re supposed to be talking about.

    Everyone will get their chance to pontificate and orate, particularly when what they’re talking about has nothing to do with the actual reason for the meeting. An Italian meeting is simply the opportunity for all workers to employ their democratic rights to have their say. Nobody expects that anything brought up will be acted upon, and it never happens that way. If you want to get something done in Italy then I hope that you get invited by the boss to his after work Friday aperitivo. That’s where all the real decisions are made.

    An hour and a half longer than a 1 hour meeting in France? That’s fucking heaven, mate.

    In the end I refused to attend meetings and told them to send me the show notes as I called it.

  7. Having sat through countless meetings with brainless salesmen just reading out the bullet points (inaudibly quite often ) of unedited slides from Head Office marketing dept., I can sympathise. I was usually next up to do the technical bit and had to wake everyone up with my Frankie Howerd impersonation.

    This used to be the case in Germany too, but my company introduced compulsory presentation classes and things improved rapidly.

  8. It sounds similar to teaching/lecturing, espcially at University level. I remember some lecturers have dozens of slides and would give out thick handouts containing all of them, while others would maybe have only a few and deliver more off the cuff. I confess when I started teaching I fell into the trap of having large PPTs and just reading them out, a habit I got out of eventually…

  9. Fascinating from everyone here. Russians seemed to follow the old Communist apparatchik model where you read a speech from a typed piece of paper. No eye contact, no voice inflection, no pauses for emphasis. Fortunately, at Intel Corp., training was abundant and the people there were smart and willing to learn. I also held constant training to my own team, which they continued long after I left. They had a name for those sessions that included my last name in it which was quite flattering.

    Of course, the country can be a nightmare administratively but I never felt like I was lied to. Not sure if that was Tim’s experience. It was usually no sense of urgency, historical legacy of multiple forms and notary requirements, and a sense that it was all out of their personal control, so what to do? Ukraine was even worse and were often trying to scam you.

  10. The other thing that French senior excs are guilty of in western meetings is storming into serious meetings late, eating all the biscuits and sandwiches and then falling asleep and snoring.

  11. @Adam – “sound like a dream compared to Italian meetings”

    Oh yes, I know what you mean, they don’t have love the high attendee rate whilst Julius Caesar wax lyrical about the trials and tribulations of some far-flung senator in the north.

    A very recent example of this was a very high profile meeting I attended in Accra that was organised by a very large Italian company, one of the largest in fact. No agenda, just an email invite that read like a Roman bathhouse visitors book, no titles, nothing. The meeting was called quickly, and I had to attend which involved a 28-hour trip with a stop off in Dubai. No problem, had a shower just before landing, yep, pepped up, ready to go, the meeting was scheduled for two hours after my landing. Met our Project Director at the airport, he is a kiwi and I insisted that he buy a new shirt there and then for the meeting, cheesecloths just don’t cut it.

    Arrived at their HQ in Accra, some minor introduction and there were at least 16 of them, some obvious smiling assassins, plus a video conference group in Milan and another videoconference group from West Ghana. The main man just started talking and talking, he threatened me, said that he would cut up my passport and confiscate our equipment if we did not get on with it. Then another lady from another company that was attending the meeting, she was their senior counsel, attempted to question me on a legal matter in front of everyone and showed her hand as well, I politely said that I would be quite happy to discuss the matter with her in private but otherwise I was taking the fifth! They understood that alright.

    I met Caesar later on the same trip and he once again threatened me, anyhow I got out of the country and got my fucking gear out as well, fucking eytie wanker.

  12. The best presenter I have experienced by far was an ex Exxonmobil attorney, he done a crash course negotiation workshop on a major project I was on in Melbourne.

    He opened up by putting a shining revolver on the desk, then introduced himself. His teaching methods were absolutely focused on adult learning and I think that I learned more in that one day about negotiating skills than my whole time at yooni.

    At dinner that night I asked him about the gun (it was a replica) and he said that it was a technique he uses to get your attention and establish credibility!

  13. Uck, presentation ‘training’.

    Ambitious young thing from HR had everyone involved in a very important customer meeting do a dry run on video, which was then critiqued.

    Three days before the actual presentation.

    So – not enough time to work on skills, but enough time to make the presenters really self conscious. Brilliant.

  14. Dagwood Bumstead said that the secret of success is learning to sleep with your eyes open.

    I’m thankful to everyone who shared their experiences here because they made me feel rather optimistic about my own country, South Africa. Yes we have African Time here but that’s mainly politicians. Business people, engineers etc. want to get the meeting out of the way so that they can go back to making money and building stuff.

    South Africa has a hierarchy of urgency. Pietermaritzburg, the Last Outpost of the British Empire, is justly known as Sleepy Hollow. In Cape Town they complain about those high-pressure Durban business people and when you ring on Monday for an appointment, if pushed might agree to make it early next week. In Sandton nobody has time to go face-to-face anymore and videoconferences are only for the self-indulgent. OTOH, schmoozing time is always open-ended.

  15. I mildly judge the maturity of a department/organisation/project/person by the Microsoft Office tool they are using.

    If they are trying to launch multi-million dollar projects with a dozen PowerPoint slides, they’ve probably not thought through enough detail.

    It’s not completely foolproof; there may be a bunch of data behind the slides and they’ve simply learned that their stakeholders have the attention spans of a gnat but if you scratch the surface and there’s no substance, at least you know what you’re dealing with.

  16. I have a mate (and former colleague) who is brilliant at presentations. Then again he was into the arts in a big way. Musician, stage management for local am-dram, etc. He looked and dressed like a 1950’s libertine and his delivery was reminiscent of Magnus Pyke, and he was not above telling the audience how shit their company was at doing stuff.

    I think the thing with presentations is that most people are generally uncomfortable speaking in front of a group of people, even people who are generally garrulous in social situations. It is like being on stage and it should be entertaining. I like to think of it as a bit of a standup routine – limited time and you need to finish with a punch line.

  17. @Bill – “by the Microsoft Office tool they are using”

    Honestly I think that Singapore has gone mental on WhatsApp for important business information and my MD who is in China has been told the he needs to use Wechat is he wants to do business there.

    An effective presentation technique that was shown to me to overcome those like me that don’t know what to do with our hands when presenting is to simply hold a biro in the writing position, it works a treat and doesn’t look odd. Watch out when you see newbie presenters on TV especially ex sports stars you will see that most of them have a biro in their hand.

  18. @Bardon… interesting what you say about Singapore and WhatsApp – my last role was in Asia embedded with a national oil company and almost overnight the “normal” way of doing business through outlook meeting requests, email, telephone conversations was usurped by semi official use of the “Line” app (essentially WhatsApp with more emoji content). This all came about because some senior management were using it for group chat on various issues but eventually became clique ridden. i.e. if you weren’t invited into the boss’s chat, you had no idea of what was going on. Because it was seen to be endorsed by senior management then almost everyone started using it for almost everything.

    As far as I could see they were (and probably still are) sleepwalking into a massive shitstorm as none of this was going to be auditable, not to mention the penchant for punctuating everything with laughing anime characters. As with conventional company email etc the attitude remained with a lot of staff/ managers that if they’d responded it had been dealt with but this was all going on via what is essentially a tool for tweenagers to meet at Dairy Queen or whatever. The concerns were raised repeatedly from many quarters but no one important seemed to give a shit. Good luck to them!

  19. This all came about because some senior management were using it for group chat on various issues but eventually became clique ridden. i.e. if you weren’t invited into the boss’s chat, you had no idea of what was going on.

    Heh.

  20. This used to be the case in Germany too, but my company introduced compulsory presentation classes and things improved rapidly.

    Every company should have these as standard for anyone expected to prepare a presentation. We got taught it at university, but it seems the French don’t consider it important at all.

  21. An effective presentation technique that was shown to me to overcome those like me that don’t know what to do with our hands when presenting is to simply hold a biro in the writing position, it works a treat and doesn’t look odd.

    At university we were videoed doing a presentation, and the first thing that became obvious watching my own was I had “hand trouble”. Keeping your hands still is harder to do than you think. There’s a reason TV presenters often hold mugs when standing up.

  22. I think the thing with presentations is that most people are generally uncomfortable speaking in front of a group of people, even people who are generally garrulous in social situations.

    Exactly, and any functioning organisation would select people who have the natural aptitude for presentations to deliver them. Instead, engineering companies seem to like putting people who are significantly on the spectrum to do them. For all the research that’s gone into personality testing and the importance of personality traits in a team, few departments seem to actually implement any of this knowledge.

  23. Ever read Edward Tufte’s essay on PowerPoint?

    Nearly fifteen years old, but it’s just glorious.

    And if you want to see how bad the Septics can be at presentations, have a gander at some of the slides the military used in various Middle Eastern adventures.

  24. All of the above explains the essence of EU… set up and run by the French and Italians, paid for with German post-war-guilt money.

    And should you ever wonder why the Industrial Revolution happened in Britain and not on the Continent, well you have your answer.

  25. The Line app? Good god. Line has accurately been described as “having unprotected sex with the entire internet.” Good luck with that.
    One of my retirement hobbies is listening to and “judging” presentations by founders of new companies seeking early stage funding. (Typically $250 K up to $2 MM). These sessions are mostly about coaching the presenters, and I do this for fun. Stop laughing.
    The number one sin is too many words, of course, but the main piece of advice I give is: Never put anything on the slide which will immediately raise a question in the listener’s head. Because they will stop paying attention to you, and start thinking about the question.

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