While presenting in Tokyo the other day, the issue of cultural differences and presentation styles came up. There were essentially two questions: (1) is the "no bullet points" style of using highly visual slides with an engaging, warm, dynamic delivery appropriate in Japan? And (2) are there important cultural differences presenters must know before presenting in Japan?
In my experience, Japanese audiences are indeed used to rather static, bullet-point-filled monologues. This is "normal." But when a Japanese audience does encounter someone who engages, connects, shows their personality, uses professional images while at the same time weaving their content into a logical story with evidence and support, the response is almost always extremely positive. So the answer to question (1) is yes, though of course every situation is different.
This bring us to question (2), are there things foreign presenters should keep in mind when presenting in Japan? Yes, there are. In future I will touch on some of the issues in greater detail, but perhaps the biggest difference between a Japanese audience and an audience comprised of, say Australians and Americans, is that the Japanese will be very reluctant to participate when you put questions out to them. There are many and varied reasons depending on the context. For example, younger members of the audience may be deferring to more senior members (Power Distance). Or perhaps the audience members have never met each other and therefore naturally hesitate to risk a mistake in front of such a group (Uncertainty Avoidance).
The important thing is not to misinterpret silence or a lack of verbal feedback from your audience in Japan. In the West, a silent audience is often a bad sign — an indication that they did not understand, or they did understand but did not agree. You do not necessarily need to worry about an audience response that is more subdued than you'd expect in the U.S., for instance.
An awkward situation foreign presenters get into in Japan is when they plan for audience members to participate and then get noticeably thrown off by the lack of involvement. For example, last year I attended a presentation where the speaker had counted on the last half of his presentation being a Q&A session. The problem was, after 1-2 questions volunteered from the audience (which took a lot of prodding), that was it. No more questions. The presenter still had a great deal of time left, was visibly surprise and bemused, and ended up concluding his talk early in a very uninspiring manner.
A good presenter visiting Japan will do a thorough job of anticipating the questions first and then building those into the talk or into the Q&A time if the audience is indeed quite. Consult with your Japanese counter parts if you need help identifying possible questions or areas where there might be pushback during the planning stage of your presentation.
The Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) provides a document entitled Communicating with Japanese in Business, a 35-page (pdf) document that provides a basic introduction to intercultural communication with Japanese.
Venture Japan also is a website which offers a basic introduction to doing business in Japan and some discussion on communication and culture.