Even though I have been a professional speaker for three years as of the publication of this guide, I still introduce myself as an engineer. People often joke and say, “You can’t be an engineer, engineers don’t speak well in front of an audience.” This is one of the reasons that I wanted to prepare this comprehensive guide on public speaking for engineers.
There is a preconceived notion that public speaking is an art and a skill for communication professionals only and that the place of scientists, engineers, and the like is in the laboratories and workhouses. This kind of mentality has resulted in the stereotype of engineers and scientists as nerds, geeks, introverts, and socially awkward individuals.
While it is true that engineers spend more of their time doing calculations than standing in the limelight, there are certainly instances when they are expected to come out of their comfort zones, face the crowd, and talk. And more often than not, these are momentous events, such as when they are asked to share their newest invention, explain the impacts of a significant project they’re working on to local citizens, or convince donors and supporters of a technology’s larger impact on the community.
These are circumstances wherein no skilled communicator can replace the expert, and as such, the technical specialist like the engineer is forced to take the stage. This is why, despite the general belief that public speaking is outside the scientist’s purview, engineers should learn how to face and wow the crowd. I have also found the ability to do so a game changer in career development.
Why Public Speaking Matters
Science is one of the most dynamic fields, with innovation after innovation coming out every day. Engineering, perhaps next to the field of medicine, has some of the most interesting breakthroughs in structures and systems that impact communities—from buildings and bridges to digital developments and computers. The depth and breadth of technology that comes out make it doubly important for experts like engineers to share their knowledge with the public. Aside from this, there are three other great reasons why
you need to take courage in speaking to the crowd:
- Presenting a project to your peers or a decision-making board. At some point in your career as an engineer, you will be asked to face your peers or an approval board of some type and discuss with them a technology or a project you’re working on or have worked on. This may be in a conference, a seminar, a workshop, a public meeting, or any related event. And while you need not worry about the language of your talk, your delivery and manner of presentation are important.
- Clarifying and responding to issues about a technology. A simple advertisement can probably explain the features of a new earthquake-resistant building, or a short video can discuss how a new computer program works; however, while a video or even a communications person can undertake the task of simplifying and communicating a technology to the public, there are questions and issues about an innovation or a technical topic that are best answered by an expert. At events like press conferences,
debriefings, and program launches, a technical person such as an engineer is expected to be around to answer questions from the public.
- Selling yourself. Your skills in public speaking may come in handy, whether you’re a fresh engineering graduate or a seasoned professional. Confidence in speaking may be useful in that job interview with your dream company. A good knowledge of how to project and carry yourself can give you added points if you’re looking for funding for an engineering project or simply advertising your skills and expertise as an engineer to prospective clients.
What Makes a Good Public Speaker
Another misconception most engineers have about public speaking is that it is an innate skill. True, some people may have been born with a smooth-talking tongue and natural charisma for drawing people and holding their attention, but like any other skill, public speaking is something that can be learned and, with practice, mastered.
Learning public speaking firstly requires understanding that we are all speakers. It is possible that we’ve spent more time on the other side of the stage, listening to enthralling presentations, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t be good speakers too.
You’ve probably seen a speaker deliver a wise, sharp speech in just under 10 minutes, or perhaps listened to someone talk about new engineering technologies and enjoyed it so much that you didn’t even mind the time. Conversely, you might have seen your share of presenters who had certain mannerisms that distracted you from fully listening to their speeches or who perhaps bored you to death with their presentations.
So, before delving into the ways and hows of speaking confidently in public, let me first talk about some of the qualities and traits that I believe make an exceptional public speaker.
- He or she is sensitive and attuned to the audience. Most speakers fail because they don’t know how to listen to and take note of their audience’s cues. Some speakers bore their audiences to death because they get so absorbed in the talk that they don’t notice their listeners yawning or closing their eyes. Others lose sense of the time and fail to see people checking their watches or rising from their seats to leave. A good speaker is someone who is quick enough to notice such nonverbal
cues and gestures. By being sensitive and attuned to the nuances of his or her audience, the speaker will have a better idea of how to pace the talk or adjust the presentation if needed.
- The speaker is quick on his or her feet. One of the major fears when it comes to public speaking is that it puts someone on the spot, and if that person is unprepared, it can cause embarrassment, humiliation, or ridicule. A good public speaker is someone with a sharp and quick mind who easily knows what to do if someone raises a hand in the middle of the presentation or if a sensitive question is posed. A good speaker doesn’t lose his or her cool or poise, and if something unexpected
happens on stage such as the lapel microphone falling off, he or she is quick enough to know what to do.
- He or she has a sense of humor—and knows how to use it. One doesn’t have to be a comedian to entertain people and make them laugh. Good public speakers need not be masters of comedy; they just need to know how to loosen up and relax a bit so they can put their audiences at ease. A good speaker doesn’t need to pile on the jokes; he or she just needs to have one or two witty lines that can make an audience smile. The use of humor in public speaking is an effective strategy to lighten up
a tense crowd, cover up or draw attention away from mistakes, or make light of unexpected incidents. In fact, I once had the projector die five minutes into my speech to a group of a hundred engineering students. I laughed it off, saying, “Good thing I’ve given this presentation three times already this week.” I then proceeded to do the entire presentation from memory, and it went very well—so well that I am speaking at the same university again this February.
While these qualities are ones we tend to see in great speakers, they are not hard to develop. Indeed, they are innate in any individual, although not always thoroughly used or maximized. Engineers who consider themselves neophytes in the art of public speaking simply need to draw out these dormant qualities and build on them. This is one of the things that we try to help engineers do through the Institute for Engineering Career Development.
Twelve Ways to Master the Art of Public Speaking
Now I want to talk about the steps you can take to conquer your fear of the stage. We will cover three sections: planning, delivery, and wrapping up your talk.
Planning the Talk
As an engineer, you know that the blueprint is as important as the final product. Before the first stone is laid or any codes are developed, there has to be a sound working plan to guide the execution and/or construction. That blueprint is a product of planning, brainstorming, and creative exercises. In much the same way, planning for your talk is as important as the actual delivery. For first-timers and neophytes, planning well for your speech or presentation will give you extra leverage and a chance to draw
up a contingency plan. Here are some important steps and reminders for before your talk.
1. Know your audience and the occasion. This is a cardinal rule in communication. You will be better prepared if you know who is expecting you, a factor which can help you tailor your presentation to suit your audience’s needs. Understand that not all audience groups are the same. You may be speaking to your peers and colleagues in the industry in one moment and then to a group of laypeople on a town planning board the next. For these two different groups, you will need to create different sets
of messages and design different styles of presentations.
Key information you need to know about your audience to help you better design your talk includes their educational background, occupation/work, and knowledge of your topic (zero, intermediate, advanced). If you have the luxury of time, it is also good to have some knowledge of the things that are popular to the audience you will be facing. This can give you some ideas on how to design your presentation. For example, if you’re doing a talk for a prospective client, you might emphasize a certain process or type
of material that they prefer and give examples of such in your presentation.
At the same time, you need to know the context of the event. Is it a formal conference? A workshop? A college fair? More serious events may be more structured and formal. If you’re speaking at a conference, it’s likely that you’ll only be given a limited time, so you need to plan for a quick but comprehensive talk. More informal events like workshops or college fairs may be more lenient with time and have more opportunities for question and answer.
2. Identify your key take-aways. Knowing your audience will help you set the goals of your talk. What is it that you want your talk to be about? Do you want to convince your young audience to take up engineering in college? Do you want to highlight to your peers the three best features of a new building technology you’re working on? Are you delivering the speech to solicit ideas for a computer software?
From these goals, identify key take-aways you’d like your audience to have from your talk. These could be things like the three best features of the building technology or the five best reasons to take up a course in engineering. By identifying your talk’s take-aways early on, you’ll be able to develop a more streamlined presentation and be more focused during your actual talk.
3. Prepare the right visual presentation. It is highly likely that in your talks, you will be asked or expected to have a visual presentation to accompany your talk. In most cases, this is a PowerPoint presentation, but it can also be a video, a sound byte, or simply a collage of pictures or images. Regardless of the type or format, here are a few blunders in designing your visual presentation that you should avoid:
- Using small text size and paragraphs on a slide – Visual aids like PowerPoint are meant as a guide to complement the speaker’s talk, not to serve as the main presentation source. Audiences have no patience for reading long texts and paragraphs on a slide, and font that is too small will only make it harder for them to read. Use bullet points and phrases, not sentences. Have at most seven lines of text on each slide, with at most six words per line.
- Overdoing animations – An animation is a good tool for specialized purposes, such as for letting the audience view a 3D image of the building from various angles and perspectives. However, overdoing animation, even on your text slides, can distract your audience. Apply simple animations to your text (e.g., fade, dissolve, or appear) instead of head-jarring ones like rotate, twist, or spin.
- Using pixelated images – Go for high-resolution photos if you’re using images in your presentation. Low-resolution pictures create a pixelated effect if zoomed in, which distorts the image.
- Preparing very long slides – Remember your key take-aways and make sure that you capture them in as few slides as possible. There is no use preparing 50 slides for a 10-minute presentation. Most talks last only about 15 to 20 minutes, so a good rule of thumb is to prepare around 15 to 20 slides (planning about one minute for every slide).
Do set your plans on a board. I know from experience when presenting to town planning boards or other civic associations that mounting your engineering plans on a board can be extremely helpful.
Adding color to the plans can also help make it easier to explain the benefits that the community might realize from your proposed design.
4. Practice. A key step in planning and preparation is practice, especially for first-timers and for presenters who are given a time limit for their talks. By practicing, you’ll be able to gauge the length of your presentation and see gaps and holes in your talk that you can still improve on. This will also help you anticipate the needs and questions of your audience. If you’re afraid of fumbling in the question-and-answer forum, write down a list of questions that you think attendees might
ask, and prepare your answers.
Delivering Your Talk
Now it’s time for the actual event. To help ease your nerves, it’s best that you come to the venue or event early. You can use the time to chat with the people and learn more about your audience, as well as to get a feel for the venue.
5. Introduce yourself. A good way to open your talk is to briefly introduce yourself. Before you dive straight into your topic, your presentation can include some slides showing photos of your recent work or a project you’re working on currently. Keep this part to at most two minutes. If you are presenting in front of an approval board, be sure to conform to their introduction guidelines; for example, they may specify name, company name, and address.
6. Don’t read your slides. The most common problem with first-time speakers is that they pack all their information onto their slides and end up reading them. This is a big no-no in public speaking. Your slides are only to complement your talk. You are the talk. Your slides should only contain your key points and ideas; the meat of your presentation should come from your speech.
7. Never memorize your talk. Another no-no in public speaking is memorizing the talk, which opens you to committing more mistakes. If you forget a line you’ve memorized, you’ll likely stall or stop in the middle of your presentation and fumble with your notes, which in turn only makes you more nervous. Memorizing your talk will also make you sound less natural and more stiff in your delivery, as if you’re on autopilot.
Instead of memorizing your lines, consider preparing a set of talking points or keys sentences on a notecard. You can also use your slides as a reminder of your talking points.
8. Maintain eye contact. It has been said that one of the ways to capture and hold your audience’s attention is to look them in the eyes. Look at your audience, not at your slides (another reason why speakers shouldn’t be reading their slides all the time).
Eye contact is one way to connect with your audience and be attuned to their needs and nuances. You can see on their faces if you’re getting through to them and if your presentation makes sense. You can check for frowns, smiles, or nods that can give you some clue as to what they’re thinking or feeling about you and your talk. Most of all, with eye contact, you convey a feeling of sincerity and interest in your audience.
9. Check for signs of fading attention. Adult audiences can only maintain focused attention on a talk for about 40 minutes. Younger audiences have even shorter attention spans, ranging from 10 to 20 minutes. This is why most talks are often set for 20 to 30 minutes only.
You’ll have their attention in the first five minutes of your talk. By the time you hit the 10-minute mark, they will start drifting away, and you can see this if they start yawning, checking their watches, or talking to their friends. Male audiences have a tendency to rise
and leave the room if they’re bored, so check for this also. If these happen and you’re not even halfway through your presentation, then it’s a cue for you to speed up a little. You might need to skip some points, but this is better than extending your talk and not having your audience listen to your presentation.
10. Deliver a memorable ending. Your ending should be just as powerful as your opening. If your opening is important in holding your audience’s interest, the ending is your one final chance to leave something memorable with them. In some cases, people might forget the rest of your talk but remember your ending, because it’s the last thing they heard or saw from your presentation. You can make it memorable in a number of ways:
- Answer a question you posed in the opening of your talk
- Deliver your summary with a powerful photo
- End with a quote
- Share a short anecdote to highlight your main point
- Emphasize the benefit of whatever you are trying to sell or pitch
After Your Talk – Handling the Questions
Often, you’ll be expected to entertain questions after the presentation, except at some informal events where the audience can ask questions in the middle of the talk. This part is also crucial, as it can either ruin or enhance your image in the eyes of your audience. Some speakers handle their presentations excellently and earn the admiration and respect of their colleagues only to lose them because they don’t know how to handle the questions.
11. Maintain an open mind. This is something you have to keep in mind even while delivering your talk, but more importantly in the question-answer portion. Before the first question is even asked, tell yourself that you cannot please everyone and there will always be people who will disagree with or oppose an idea. This is not to say that you’re wrong, but simply that you cannot control such impressions.
Keeping an open mind will help you better accept criticism or thought-provoking questions. You’ll also be likely to be more accommodating and to offer to talk about the subject matter in more detail after the session.
12. Keep your cool. Some speakers use this portion for showing off their knowledge or for challenging opposing views and thoughts. Whether or not a question or comment was meant to provoke you, you should never let it get to you. To avoid letting things run off course as well as to prevent tempers flaring, you can give a brief answer or comment and even offer to discuss the question in more detail with the person after the talk. Don’t challenge the person to a verbal match or an open debate.
If a question seems slightly off topic or odd, don’t tell the person that their question is wrong. Don’t even correct the person. Instead, ask the person to expand on their question and then try to answer as much as possible while relating it to the topic of your presentation.
Remember again that public speaking is an act that can be learned and mastered. True enough, communication experts and professionals may do better in this field, but this doesn’t mean that engineers will never be good in it as well. There are cases when an engineer is equally good as the communications person—and sometimes even better.
Like with any skill, the key to mastering public speaking is to have as much exposure to it as possible. This means practice, practice, and more practice, and accepting every single invitation to face the crowd and talk. Only then will you gain enough confidence and overcome any fears of talking to a crowd.
We would love to hear any questions you might have or stories you might share on public speaking.
Please leave your comments, feedback or questions in the section below.
To your success,
Anthony Fasano, PE, LEED AP
The Engineering Career Coach
Author of Engineer Your Own Success