I gave my presentation today at the ICICE conference being held at the Yuanshan hotel here in Taipei.
To be honest, it was a spectacular failure, and I record the story of it here for posterity. From the time I arrived, well before the conference formally opened with smoke, flashing lights, and Las Vegas boxing match intro-music and drums I was memorizing various notes I had taken in Chinese and working out the exact minute by minute allocation for my presentation. I slipped out a little early from the last morning session and ran down to the lunch area where downed a boxed lunch in about 5 minutes in order to use the lunch hour to make final preparations for my presentation.
Almost an hour before I presented, I confirmed my Power Point presentation was working on the conference supplied laptop, and tried to open the web pages of the OWLS software that I had developed. We soon discovered that their whole wireless network was down (a room nearby with dozens of laptops for conference participants to use were all also being scanned for viruses and reconfigured by a group of techies, which is never a good sign). I explained that I was presenting on some software and giving a demonstration that was online and would need to know if the network was going to be down during my presentation. If so, I could use various snapshots of OWLS and Sutaitai.com which I had brought on a CD. I was assured the net was going to be working by 13:30 and indeed, they resolved the problem within 15 minutes. I then tested the network every ten minutes or so until my presentation started. I also made a change to the order of my presentation file.
I estimate there were between 50-100 Chinese instructors and other conference participants in the audience for my presentation. As I approached the podium to begin my presentation, while they were introducing me, there were suddenly two conference employees hovering about the computer I was to use. I looked at the screen – the Windows XP machine had crashed and she was restarting the computer. Meanwhile, my 20 minutes for the presentation were already ticking and the audience was waiting while I was surrounded by conference employees whispering Chinese SOS signals into the CIA style radio sets attached to their uniforms.
I lost all composure. I completely lost all the stuff I had memorized and, between trying to work with the staff on the technical problem, tried to start a presentation by just casually introducing software and features that I had neither a Power Point presentation or a working computer to demonstrate. It was a nightmare. My Chinese totally failed me in this desperate moment of required spontaneity.
Half way through, the computer was up and running and I quickly tried to demonstrate the Sutaitai.com site. After finishing this, with again horrible Chinese, I then moved to my climax: trying to show the instructors how simply anyone with OWLS can create interactive exercises. Of course, just that moment, the whole wireless network of the conference hall died again and was I faced with a beautiful white Microsoft IE connection failure screen.
Again losing all my composure I fumbled for words for a minute or two while hoping the network would revive itself, again finding myself swarmed by conference employees who had no technical ability but who decided to stand around me and whisper into their radio sets. My time quickly came to an end.
There were two comments and two questions. A Chinese instructor teaching in South Africa was kind enough to be blunt, “Your software isn’t useful” (没有用).
Another Chinese instructor who teaches US military personnel caught me in the elevator as I was trying to flee the conference in despair. She tried to be polite by saying the same thing in about 15 minutes of indirect criticism.. From what she said, I realized how completely I had failed to communicate some of the most basic features of the software and the limited applications for which it can truly be useful.
There was one technical question about the software and the other question was simply a request for the password to be removed from Sutaitai.com so the teachers can evaluate for themselves how effectively the software can been used.
I learnt a few things from today’s complete humiliation: 1) When I panic, anything stored in short-term memory gets fried, especially when it is in a foreign language. 2) Try at all costs to avoid doing presentations which heavily depend on technology or computers not under your direct control. If you can’t, make sure emergency plans (like my snapshots) are available for fast and immediate implementation. 3) When you are giving a presentation, make sure you front load and heavily emphasize points which can funnel constructive criticism into the areas where it is most useful and relevant. 4) My Chinese, and especially technical Chinese, still needs a lot of work. 5) When measuring time for parts of a talk, double the time it takes you when you practice your presentation. 6) Know your audience well. Preferably speak their language fluently.