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Samuel Nitsche
Samuel Nitsche

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“You’re a panelist for 2018 CodeTalk Series” – about the struggles of giving a live presentation in a foreign language

This was first published on Clean Database Development

It was a strange moment when Jacek, co-author and maintainer of utPLSQL, asked me last November if I’d like to be part of the next ODTUG CodeTalk series about PL/SQL testing. Not only that I immediately got hit by a strong impostor drive-by and felt way too low-skilled and inexperienced, the host would be Steven Feuerstein, Mr. PL/SQL himself and to that day an unreachable, a bit unreal celebrity for me.

Nonetheless I immediately agreed and tried to behave and communicate as professional and skillful as possible so I wouldn’t embarrass myself in front of the other, highly skilled and seasoned panelists of the talk.

While a good portion of tension and anxiety never faded completely I was very eager and motivated. It was also a great benefit to have Jacek continually encouraging me. Together with him and Pavel I developed a narrative and overall-theme for the talk, prepared a dedicated Star Wars demo-project which could be used for all the different parts of the CodeTalk and also did some slides.

It was fun and I got somewhat confident. I had that picture of myself in mind where I casually type code and explain in an entertaining and understandable way what I’m doing and why it’s important, switching to the prepared slides at some crucial situations. I had already done presentations in the past about technical topics in German which I think were good or at least okay. I knew what I wanted to present, built all the examples myself and therefore felt well-prepared.

We had the first meeting of all participants roughly a week before the event. I suggested to do a dry-run of my part and was encouraged to do so, while Steven would check how much time I’d need.

It was a disaster.

I couldn’t articulate one straight sentence, I mistyped the most basic statements, was constantly stammering and forgot lots of what I wanted to say, replacing it with meaningless jabbering or silence while trying to type.

To make things worse Steven told me that I just used 15 minutes when I had fought myself through about a third of what I wanted to show. I had previously estimated that my part would only take 10 minutes.

I guess it would have been much worse if the Steven, Jacek, Pavel and Stefan wouldn’t have been as kind, positive and encouraging as they were. I got lots of good advice, nonetheless I felt like I’d make them look ridiculous and they knew it.

At that point I knew very well that I had to change my approach completely.

The same evening I started to write down what I wanted to say word for word.

A funny coincidence was the following tweet in my timeline the next day:

Well-presented talk is well-written first

— Anton Arhipov (@antonarhipov ) April 18, 2018

That was the main part of my new plan, but not the only one. What I did during the next two days:

  • Wrote down exactly what I wanted to say
  • Threw away all slides so I could stay completely in the IDE
  • No live coding. I Prepared every bit of code so I just had to open the correct files.
  • Threw away half of what I wanted to show, concentrating on just three examples
  • Practiced and at least partially memorized the text

Most of these things aimed at reducing the amount of brain power I needed because that was what I identified as the original source of my struggles: speaking in English consumes a lot of my brain resources. I’m just not used to. I don’t do it because it’s not needed in my daily life. And I totally underestimated that speaking is a totally different skill than reading or writing – especially in a foreign language.

I did some partial and complete dry-runs for myself before doing one for my best friend and later for Pavel. It was a totally different experience. I wasn’t that cool live-coding badass hacker, I wasn’t spontaneously joking and seamlessly switching from funny slides to code all the time, I even had the whole written text on my main screen with the names of the files I had to open at a specific point in bold, red letters.

But I was clear, I could articulate in an understandable way and could provide my message.

Coming from that base I could further improve details and wasn’t even that nervous when I finally took a seat in front of my webcam for the actual presentation – I had done it several times already and was confident that I wouldn’t have to search for the right words because I had it all prepared.

You can watch the result here (no, I won’t tell you where my specific part starts because the whole CodeTalk is worth watching):

I want to thank all the people who encouraged me and provided me with confidence and advice throughout the whole preparation. It was a great and precious experience and I wouldn’t want to miss anything.

For everyone who faces his or her first presentation in a foreign language I have the following tips:

  • There’s nothing more helpful and valuable than people who believe in you and encourage you.
  • Keep things as simple as possible! You need so much brain power for just SPEAKING – limit the things you have to do and remember as much as you can
  • Don’t hestitate to throw things away
  • Prepare everything! It’s not cheating to memorize your pre-written text. It’s not cheating to read it from your screen. It frees some of your brain resources – and you need every bit of that.
  • Practice. Do a dry-run for someone of that first bullet-point’s category. Then practice again. Repeat that several times.

Top comments (2)

rodrigojuarez profile image
Rodrigo Juarez

I'm invited to participate in a podcast about software development, in English, but I'm a Spanish native speaker with an intermediate English level.
I will not be able to script my talk because I will be talking with another person.
Do you have any recommendations?

pesse profile image
Samuel Nitsche

Is there a possibility to reach out to the other panelists?
It might be helpful to know upfront what questions might come up.
I also guess the talk will be about a specific topic. You could think about the things you want to say and memorize some answers (Like a super short talk). That way it will be much easier to find the right words because your brain can at least partially rely on memorized sentences.
A big difference to a presentation is that you don't have the same time pressure. A discussion allows for more breaks and can be a bit slower.

One thing I noticed during all the talks I've given since my first: The beginning for me is the hardest. The more I have talked the more relaxed and natural I get.
So it might be a possibility to memorize one or two mini topics and speak with the moderator to get to them first.
At the time where you hit the more free Q&A part you'll already be more relaxed.

Best of luck! You will rock!