Michaela Merz

My first presentation in London

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At the beginning of my tax career, my English was poor. Very poor. I don’t want to claim that it is now excellent. But back then even a conversation in English was difficult, a presentation unimaginable.

My back then boss had been asked to give a presentation on the Swiss VAT system in London. He felt very flattered and he agreed even though his English was even worse than mine. The task to prepare the presentation ended up on my desk. That was not all that difficult because for the 45 minutes only 20 slides were required. I prepared 30 slides and gave them to my boss. I learned early that it is useless to fill slides with text. Visualisation is key and part of a good presentation. This was almost half a year prior to the presentation. About one month before, my boss came and told me that he had a calendar conflict and could not go to London. I should go instead.

I was speechless. Never before in my life I had given a presentation in English and at that time I was not capable of doing it. But I did not dare to say “No, I cannot do it”. I started thinking how to do it in order not to appear ridiculous. I wrote the entire presentation, the entire 45 minutes, word by word in English. At the end I had several A4 pages. Then I asked a British friend to correct the presentation but wherever possible to leave my wording. Only where something was wrong or too awkward, she should replace it. When she returned the pages, they were almost completely red. From the original text not a single sentence was without a mistake. Pure horror.

I took one week holidays, went to Spain and walking along the beach I learned the corrected text by heart, word by word. Like a theatre play. At the end of the week I know the text inside out, was saddle-fast, and could tell the jokes with charm. It had been hard work, but it had been worth it. I had lost my fear and gained self consciousness. There is a way to almost every goal, even if it is long.

I went to London. I was nervous, since among the speakers I was the only one without English mother tongue. According to the programme, my presentation was supposed to start on Thursday at 11am. I knew that I would give my presentation and then could enjoy the rest of the conference. The conference would last 2 days.

The shock was big when I did not see my presentation on the programme for the first day. I asked the conference leader why this is like that and he told me that my boss had requested the change in date. Thus his presentation had been postponed to the second day as very last presentation. Why for heaven’s sake had my boss not told me?

After that I could not enjoy the conference and my calmness was gone. Due to my nervousness I could not concentrate at all and the words coming from the speaker’s desk passed like a meaningless wave past me.

One the second day my nervousness increased even further. I saw all the eloquent English men and women and felt lost. I would have preferred to run away. The afternoon was coming closer and there were only two speakers left. And then it happened. For the first time during the conference a speaker overran his speaking time. And that massively by 15 minutes. That for sure could not happen to me.

I went to the speaker’s desk and the conference leader whispered to me: Michaela, you are the last one. It is Friday afternoon. The people want to go home, have flights, trains. You have to shorten your presentation and finish in time. You have 25 minutes.” Said that and smiled at me.

Oh no!! I thought. That cannot be true. I learned 45 minutes text, not 25 minutes.

I started. I told all the jokes, which I had written in the presentation and finished on time after 25 minutes. How I did it, I do not know. But that it was a success, I know. The organisers invited me for the next year to give again a presentation. Me, and not my back then boss.

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