Simple, Effective Public Speaking Tips for Engineers

Photograph of a woman speaking at a podium
Photo: iStockphoto

By: Kathy Pretz

THE INSTITUTEThere are few skills that can help you climb the career ladder faster than the ability to speak well in public. Senior management is always on the lookout for employees who can clearly and effectively communicate information, ideas, and new concepts throughout the organization. That’s according to Harry T. Roman, author of a new IEEE-USA e-book, Public Speaking for Engineers. The e-book costs US $4.99, but IEEE members can buy it for $2.99.

Roman, who is retired, spent more than 30 years as a project manager for the R&D group of Public Service Electric and Gas Co. in Newark, N.J.

Senior management has little time to interact directly with lower-level employees, he says, so when you are asked to make a presentation to your managers, you need to do a good job.

Roman says he has seen plenty of engineers’ careers get derailed because they didn’t speak well in public.

Being a good public speaker also can raise your visibility. Roman says that because of his communication skills, he was asked to lead corporate project teams, present his work in front of PSE&G’s board of directors, lead VIPs on tours of the company’s facilities, and represent the organization at important forums and meetings.

His book covers how to master the basics of public speaking.

PREPARATION IS KEY

Make sure you do your homework on the topic and understand what you’re going to talk about. If it’s a subject you’re already well versed in, show the audience that you’re an expert. If the topic is not exactly your area of expertise, become better informed by doing research and talking with authorities in the field.

Knowing your audience is important: Are they senior managers, representatives from another organization, or engineering students? Your audience affects your approach and how sophisticated your talk should be.

“Remember, you are there to clearly and concisely communicate important information—not to show off and use big words,” Roman says. “To the extent you can, draw parallels to their interests, professions, or experiences.”

ORGANIZE YOUR THOUGHTS

Start preparing your presentation by determining the conclusions you want the audience to leave with, and then work backward. Summarize the main points concisely to help attendees remember them. Roman offers three simple rules: Tell the audience what you are going to speak about, tell them the things you came to say, and sum up by telling them what you just told them.

Each slide in your presentation should contain a complete thought or concept that meshes with the previous one. Have one or two slides for each minute of your allotted time. Be sure to number the slides to preserve the order, and have an extra copy on hand, just in case you encounter technical problems.

To feel comfortable with your talk, rehearse it several times, Roman says. Speak clearly with a strong voice. Enunciate all your words.

Don’t race through the presentation, and be sure to look at your audience, not only at your slides or notes. Do not read your slides to the audience. The visuals should act as a cue about what you want to say.

At the end of the talk, summarize the main points concisely to help the audience remember them.

Encourage questions after your talk. Try to answer them; if you don’t know the answer, simply say so, but then get the person’s contact information so you can send the answer later.

“No audience wants to see a speaker do poorly, because they will have wasted their time,” Roman says. “Good public speakers are remembered, respected, and often emulated.”

HIT THE LECTURE CIRCUIT

A good way to improve your presentation skills is to give talks to groups such as your religious organization and civic groups. Roman also suggests joining your company’s speakers bureau or Toastmasters International, which operates clubs worldwide for the purpose of promoting communication and public speaking skills.

Consider presenting a technical paper at a conference, visiting schools to talk about the engineering profession, or giving a presentation at an IEEE-sponsored event or section meeting.

“Whichever method you use to learn how to speak confidently in public is up to you, but do take the time to learn this valuable skill,” Roman says. “It’s a stepping stone to your career and the perfect way to develop your leadership skills.

This article originally appeared in IEEE Spectrum on 13 May 2019.