Public Speaking as an Engineer: a VERY useful skill

emily-2013 Uncategorized 1 Comment

I’m sure you can all picture the stereotypical view of an engineer: brilliant, introverted, unable to look you in the eye and have a pleasant conversation, much less speak rationally in front of a crowd of people.

Maybe it’s because I had practice performing throughout my life in plays and choir, but I love public speaking!

I have to be careful, because sometimes I assume that people like hearing the sound of my voice as much as I do, and sometimes it’s better not to speak up in a large group of people when some of them are your boss…. but in general, the ability to speak well for a crowd has served me well in several ways

  1. It got me a leadership position in SWE. I started out as an officer then worked on my abilities to: communicate with companies, represent our organization well, manage my time, and work within a team.
  2. It got me a job! As head of Corporate Affairs for SWE, I presented bi-yearly to the Center for Engineering Diversity’s Industry Advisory Board. After one of these presentations, the representative from Being approached me and asked if I wanted an interview. He said to me “You speak very well, I think you’d really stand out in the recruiting process. Hope you have a good GPA!” because he signed me up without ever looking at my resume.
  3. It’s helped me get good grades. For several classes, such as WRIT 140 and 340 and engineering classes like AME 341 and ENGR 499- Global Innovation, presentation skills comprised a large portion of my final grade, which was an A!!!

More and more, engineers are being called upon to present to their peers. We are the technical experts, and we must convey our knowledge in industry, research, academia, etc. At USC, oral and written communication are stressed in our curriculum, because our professors recognize how important it is to present information with that they call “a high signal to noise ratio”. Many of them have worked in industry and know what is expected for working engineers.

I thought I’d share some of my advice and tips to public speaking in the hope that it can help you (whoever “you” are….) become a better engineer, or presenter in general

  • Know Your Audience: I change the way I present depending on who is listening. For example. I have a different way of speaking if it’s to a room of women than a mixed crowd, if it’s 10 people or 50, or if the crowd has non-technical people for example. Always tailor whatever you’re presenting so that it will mean the most to your representative audience
  • Connect – This is a tricky one to describe. My goal is always to have every eye in the room, and to meet them ( I love eye contact). However, if attention is lapsing, what do you do? I’ve tried:
    • adding longer pauses between phrases – it gives people time to process what you’ve said, makes them wonder why you stopped and look up, ready for what you’ll say next. It’s more dramatic really, and a little drama makes things interesting
    • throw in a joke – this one you have to be REALLY careful about, because with the wrong audience, it can reduce your credibility or fall completely flat and take the fun out of presenting (or make you nervous). However, I love to make jokes about myself, because it helps the audience connect with me as a person. i.e. “When I graduate from USC, well that is IF I graduate, of course…” little chuckle about my fatal senioritis
    • Involve the audience – this can be either a question or quiz to get their mind engaged, like “Who can tell me the percentage of moon gravity to Earth gravity?” or just acknowledge and flatter your audience i.e. “You’re the best and brightest women at Viterbi, and I need you all to represent by volunteering for an outreach event this weekend!”
  • General Presentation Tips: common sense for the most part, but…
    • Have straight posture
    • make eye contact
    • speak loudly and clearly and slowly
    • use your hands effectively but not wildly
    • move confidently (that is avoid nervous ticks like crossing your legs/arms and shifting your wait back and forth)
    • modulate your voice!!! (this one is not mentioned much. speaking at the same tone can get monotonous (by definition) even if what you’re saying is super interesting)
    • Avoid any speech fillers like “uh” “um” just pause and work through what you want to say, the pauses feel longer in your head, trust me
  • Practice, Practice, Practice – I like to pretend I can just deliver a great speech at the drop of a hat, and some people can. However in my experience, the best presentations I’ve given were ones that I wrote out completely and practiced beforehand. I NEVER say exactly what I wrote and usually add in cheesy stuff like a joke or a quiz, but at least I know the content and organization of what I will say, so I don’t have to scramble to remember my next topic after my impromptu joke.
  • Use PowerPoint very very carefully – PowerPoint is overused, and people get in the horrible habit of just writing what they’re going to say on slides and then … presenting that. However, I find that I make much more interesting powerpoints when I think of them as:  the image I wanted in the audience’s head when I’m speaking. Sometimes, this is text covering my key points and often its a relevant picture or illustration. This is one of my biggest pet peeves, and I’m still working to really use presentation technologies effectively. Caitlin did the powerpoint for our Senior Design Project because she is much better than me at making them at this point.

That’s about all the general advice I have, sorry for rambling a bit, but I’m pretty passionate and critical about presentation techniques, because I’ve worked very hard to improve mine and hope to keep improving. Feel free to ask me any specific questions you might have!


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