Russian Speech Challenge (Objective: Survive 7 Minutes)

When was the last time you challenged yourself? That the goal you set for yourself was way above your current skill level? That, many times along the way, you wanted to give up? How did it happen? What kept you going? What did you learn in the end?


As Toastmasters Club Growth Director in the Wild East of Europe, I’m responsible for creation of new clubs. I can’t create all of them alone. So sometimes, I try to nudge people to create clubs of their own.As Toastmasters Club Growth Director in the Wild East of Europe, I’m responsible for creation of new clubs. I can’t create all of them alone. So sometimes, I try to nudge people to create clubs of their own.


Thursday, October 26th

I was meeting Kate, the president of Prague’s University of Economics Toastmasters club. Kate doubled her club’s membership in the past few weeks – from 8 to 16 – and now she was telling me what she was planning to do next. About ten minutes into the conversation, an idea struck me.

“Kate, how about starting a Russian speaking club here in Prague?”

Kate frowned. “As long as it’s not me doing it. But you know what Lukas? Maybe Sasha can do it!”

Sasha! Arguably the most cheerful person among Prague’s Toastmasters. Her enthusiasm is hard to match. But…

“But Sasha is in Arizona till the end of the year…” I replied.

“Yeah, but she can do it once she’s back!”

I doubted she would be up for it. Half of the world away, there were probably one thousand and one other things on her mind other than a Russian speaking Toastmasters club in Prague. However, as Madonna puts it: “A lot of people are afraid to say what they want. That’s why they don’t get what they want.”

I took out my phone. It was late in the afternoon in Prague, so it was already daytime in Arizona. Sasha was online.

“Hi Sasha. Kate just came up with an idea for you.”

“Hi Lukas, what idea? Should I be scared?!”

“Yes.”

I showed the phone to Kate. Now we had Sasha’s attention. I smiled and put the phone back to my pocket for dramatic effect. Too impatient to make this last more than a minute, I took it out again. I explained Sasha the idea: She should organize a Russian club demo meeting. The messenger app showed that Sasha was typing.

“Go to hell”, was the response I expected. But a chat bubble appeared that gave me a surprise.

“Let’s do that!”

I was taken aback. I got a “Yes” with no struggle at all. This made me do something for which I would later curse myself. I added: “I’ll take my Russian to a level when I can give a speech at the demo meeting.”

“Отлично!” Sasha replied. This was where my trouble started.

Taking Russian to a level at which I would be able to give a speech might not be so intimidating – if I actually did speak any Russian. Well – I didn’t. I had been learning Russian for about a year some time ago, but because I had never really needed it, my learning was not that intensive. I could read. I could understand. I could definitely not give a presentation.

“Let’s worry about that later”, I thought. Who knows whether Sasha would organize anything. And if she would, it could take her half a year to put everything together. There was still time.


Sunday, January 14th

I received an email that summarized outcomes of a meeting Sasha – now back in Prague – organized.

“Dear Lukas,
Here is what we have discussed today:

  • Demo meeting in Russian will be either on Wednesday, March 7th or on Sunday, March 11th. (…)
  • (…) We are honored to offer you a role of the speaker. (…)”

She was making progress. Unlike me with my Russian. Somehow this got out of hand. But I can’t really say “No” to the offer of giving a speech, can I? With that on my mind, I did something everyone in my place would do.

I procrastinated.


Wednesday, February 28th (one week before the demo meeting)

The discomfort created by the probability of total failure had just surpassed the discomfort created by attempting to deal with the problem. I chose one of the last speeches I gave in English. I made a few edits and sent it to my friend Anna from Kiev, asking her to translate it. She responded in 30 minutes – with the translation attached.

“You’re fast!”

“Google Translate is fast.”

I wondered whether the English-Russian translations of Google Translate were a lot better than the English-Czech ones. I decided not to take risks and sent the speech to another friend of mine. Elina apparently did not plan to use Google Translate. She said the speech would be ready on Saturday. Now what? Now I wait. A little waiting never killed nobody.


Sunday, March 4th

I was on a trip to Slovenia and Croatia. Enforcing connections between local Toastmasters clubs and the District. I noticed the email with the translation from Elina arrived (Anna had sent her updated non-Google Translate version the day before too). The bus ride at lunchtime from Ljubljana to Zagreb was a perfect moment to start – there was nothing else to do on the bus anyway. I read through the speech a couple of times. Of course, it was written in Cyrillic letters. Even reading was a challenge. “This is going to be interesting.”

In the evening, I cut the sightseeing in Zagreb short to save some time for speech learning. I sat down with the script. I tried. I struggled. I cursed. I came to the conclusion that maybe the best would be if I just called it off and asked Sasha to get someone else to do it. I decided to text her. Tomorrow.


Monday, March 5th

8:40am. After having a cup of filtered coffee in Zagreb’s Eli’s Caffe, I was heading back to my rented apartment where I planned to work today. The time had come to show my colors. I opened the Messenger.

“Hi Sasha. For a few days now I am attacking the speech in Russian – and I admit defeat. It won’t be good enough for a demo meeting. Is there somebody else who could do the speech instead of me?”

Sometimes, people take hours to respond to a message. Sometimes even a whole day. Sasha replies within 30 seconds.

“That is very bad news for a Monday morning. I don’t know of anyone who could replace you and honestly, there is not enough time to look for someone. I’ll ask. You can also try to find a replacement for yourself.”

The mood of the day just darkened. All my fault.

I could think of only one person who could save me. My friend Olga.

“Olga, a quick question.” I type. “I found out I won’t be able to make my Russian speech good enough,” (that is an understatement of reality which is that at the moment I can’t remember a single sentence) “would you be able to give it?”

Olga’s didn’t say “No.” She said something worse.

“Lukas, if only you told me on Friday! From now, I don’t have a free moment until Wednesday. I won’t be able to prepare anything.”

Damn!

“But Lukas, try it! You can do it.” For a moment I thought how nice it was to have friends who believed in you. Then she added: “Nobody expects much from you anyway.”

I laughed. Well, that may be the case. During the morning, I gave it some more thought. Sasha put the meeting together. If I backed out now, I would not deliver my part of the deal. There was simple no way I could look at myself in the mirror after doing that.

Final decision: I would give the speech in Russian, or I would die trying.

At lunchtime I texted Sasha: “Hey. You know what? I’ll do it.”

From this point, there was no way back.


Tuesday, March 6th

On Tuesday, I had a day off from work. After a breakfast with Vanja, a friend whom I had not seen for 8 years, I went back to my Zagreb apartment. I used the last hour before checkout to download Anki Mobile (and paying insane $25 for it). I broke the translated speech into sentences and created flashcards, one sentence per flashcard. I ended up at number 80. Suddenly, the task did not seem to be so impossible anymore. All I needed to do was to memorize 80 sentences in Russian and repeat them on Wednesday evening. Preferably in the correct order.

At 11am I left the apartment. No sightseeing for me today. I spent the rest of my time in Zagreb memorizing sentences in Russian. And I spent my time on the night bus to Prague listening to the speech Kate recorded for me – and repeating after the recording. At 11pm I wished it was all over, while at the same time, I wished I had more time to prepare.


Wednesday, March 7th

American scientists say that sleep is important for memory. At 5:00am, I wake up on board of a FlixBus, approaching Prague. I swear that the next time I give a speech in a language I don’t speak, I would make sure I sleep in my bed. But let’s think about that tomorrow. Today, I just had to survive the speech.

In the evening, I arrived to the University of Economics. Large lecture hall. The audience: 30 native Russian speaker and Ondra, Czech guy who spent 6 months in Moscow. The meeting started. Ariadna, the host of the meeting (or, in our jargon, the Toastmaster) introduced me and I received the usual round of “welcome to the stage” applause. I looked at the faces. Some of them knew me. They seemed to be genuinely surprised that I was going to speak in Russian. Some of them didn’t know me. They seemed to be genuinely surprised that it took me so long to start speaking.

I took a breath and with the words “Bylo-li u vas takoe…” I said the opening sentence of my speech. I pronounced the last word of the sentence and then…

Nothing.

Zero.

Quiet.

I forgot what came next. And because I did not have the vocabulary to improvise – I could not continue.


Over the past 6 years in Toastmasters, I had seen about two hundred icebreakers – first-time speeches. Some of those speakers were speaking like pros. Some struggled. A few – three or four – froze in the middle of their speech, and went silent for ten, twenty or thirty seconds.

I always wondered: “What is running through their heads right now?”

Now I know.


Standing there, frozen and helpless, I felt like a little child. I wished I had a magical ring – like Bilbo Baggins. A ring that I would put on my finger and make myself invisible. I looked up at the faces of the people in the audience. I saw a mix of pity, curiosity and, surprisingly, encouragement. What did I get myself into?

Luckily, I capitalized on my years of speaking experience during the preparation. I had a solution of last resort.

Before the meeting, I printed the whole script in big letters and clipped it to a writing pad, which I brought to the stage. Now was the time to use it. I took the pad and began to read. I struggled a bit even with reading, but it was a lot better than silence. After 30 seconds, I was able to calm down. I put the pad down and continued – for the most of the speech – with my own words. Five minutes later, I came to the closing phrase. The final words came to me easily. Having finished, I smiled at the audience and turned to Ariadna.

I received a thunderous applause (well, as thunderous as a group of 31 people can give). Sasha, who was my evaluator – said that she was looking forward to seeing my next speech in Russian. And during the break, I got some handshakes, hugs and compliments on my… courage.

For the rest of the evening I was flying high on a wave of endorphins. I survived. And that was, what all this was about.


Aftermath

Looking back, I got a few takeaways from my Russian Speech Episode.

1. Challenged, you will find new ways

It’s been a long time since I stretched my skills this much. On the Wednesday, one week before the speech, it seemed to be an impossible task. Because of that, I had to look for extraordinary measures to get it done. I had to ask friends for translations. I had to ask friends to read and record the speech for me. I had to download and learn to work with a flashcard app (something I considered doing for a few years already, but never got the real motivation for it). For a day, I had to drop everything else and focus only on learning the speech. Striving for something close to impossible pushed me to look for extraordinary means to achieving it. I have to do this more often.

2. If you want to understand, walk in their shoes

Now I got way better understanding for the people who are really nervous when they are asked to give a presentation. For me, to give a presentation in English or in Czech is as easy as brushing my teeth. But standing in front of 30 people, having to speak in a language I did not master – I felt scared, weak and defenseless. Now I know what it feels like having all the eyes in the room on you and not being able to utter a single word. The more I will be eager to help anyone who needs it.

3. The right people will push you to do more

I realized how important it is to be surrounded by people who push you to give your best. Sasha did not express her doubt about me being able to give a speech in Russian (even though she had never heard me speak it). Olga told me it would be best if I gave it a try even when I wanted to give up. And everyone in the room gave me a supportive applause when I finished – even though I’m fully aware it was more for the courage to try than for the performance itself. Having those people in my life, I am eager to seek future challenges. And being (again) made aware how important this is – I will be eager to give such support to someone who will seek it.

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4 thoughts on “Russian Speech Challenge (Objective: Survive 7 Minutes)

  1. Hello Lukáš,
    my wife (native Russian) and I want to visit a meetup in Kiev. I have learned Russian long time ago (someday between Great Oktober and Velvet Revolution). Living in a household refreshes your foreign language speaking skills. Especially in areas like “What kind of potatoes should I buy – mealy or waxy?” But what if I should speak about my job? I am a software developer and I lack completely vocabulary in this area. Having read your article, I have one month to brush my impromptu skills and I should put it on my agenda.
    Thanks
    Filip

    • Hello Filip,

      thanks for sharing. Such potato vocabulary can come handy when visiting Kiev (even though – I never heard about neither mealy nor waxy potatoes).

      I hope your Russian keeps improving, good luck at the meetup!

  2. Hi, Lukas. I was recently the target speaker at the Francophone Toastmasters Area Contest. The challenge was: All-French, no notes!! I really respect what you did. As the prospect of saying “no”” melts away, you realize: It’s me versus the universe. And, the universe can be pretty forgiving. . (it would have been nice if they’d laughed at my jokes, though. . .)

    Stephanie

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