Engineers spend years just honing their technical skills. But, public speaking skills for engineers are just as important.
Now I get it, many people become engineers to avoid public speaking. They think they can sit hidden behind a computer screen all day and crunch numbers. And in some positions, this may be true. But, if you ever want to move up the ranks, or become a 10x engineer, you need public speaking skills.
Before I go over the 12 ways to improve your public speaking as an engineer, let’s go over why it’s important.
Important Note: public speaking is giving a live speech to a group of listeners. You don’t need to speak in front of thousands of people to be a “public speaker” though. I’d classify speaking to even 5 listeners as public speaking.
The importance of public speaking in engineering
In engineering, public speaking takes shape in the following forms:
- Presenting your firm to a potential client as you compete for a new project
- Introducing your firm to a prime consultant as a sub-consultant, for potential partnership
- Pitching your idea to a group of investors to receive funding
- Presenting your design work to colleagues and/or your client
- Talking to potential employees about your firm at a job fair
- Teaching crowds about technical subjects
- Interviewing for jobs
Now, not all engineering positions will check off each of these bullets. Maybe your position only does involve sitting behind a desk all day long. But, at some point, you’ll need to present yourself, your company, and your projects to others.
If you can’t do this, you’ll fall behind those who can effectively speak publicly. So your career will stall. Because few people get high-paying engineering jobs with stapled lips. Especially today, where communication is paramount to every project’s success.
To illustrate, imagine the roster of an NBA team. You have two 7-footers who have almost the same skillset. But, one of the 7-footers can drain 3-pointers from deep, consistently. Which of the 7-footers would you choose for your roster?
The 7-footer who can drain 3-pointers of course. It’s a no-brainer. The same applies to engineers. The engineer who has both technical and speaking skills will win out all day long.
In short, public speaking plays a large role in engineering. This is despite the misconceptions, you find in Hollywood and the media.
Important Note: in engineering, public speaking requires a strong technical background. Because to effectively communicate, you need to know what you’re talking about.
Interviewers look for public speaking skills
When you go in for a job interview, you’re not only tested for your technical skills. But also, how well you communicate. This is why an interviewer checks to see how well you respond to interview questions.
If you just blurt out a jumbled mix of nonsensical words, you’ll get dinged. Because many engineering positions require teamwork and speaking with customers. So, interviewing managers want to be sure you can handle high levels of communication. And I’d go as far as to say, if you have both technical AND speaking skills, you’ll be like a unicorn in the industry.
Important Note: public speaking improves your day-to-day communication. It goes without question, if you can half-ass speak to 10 people, you can speak confidently to a single person. I know, at first, it’ll be nerve-racking. With enough practice though, it’ll become second nature.
I find learning public speaking skills as an engineer is like diving into the deep end of the pool. It’s scary at first. But if you can confidently dive into a 20-foot deep pool, the 5-foot end will be a breeze.
12 tips on how to improve public speaking skills for engineers
Now, we’ll go over the 12 tips to improve public speaking for engineers. You can leverage these tips no matter your age, or career position.
1) Become more social
Start with baby steps. You crawl before you learn to walk. So if you’re an introvert by nature, start speaking more to the people around you. Go speak with friends and family. Even more, bug them to listen to your presentations.
I suggest discussing subjects you don’t usually open up about. This will challenge you to step outside of your comfort zone. Next, reach out to strangers over meet-up groups to further challenge yourself. You can find awesome people in almost every city to meet up with using apps like Meetup.
2) Take a public speaking course at a local university
Take a public speaking course at a local university or community college. Most universities have at least one public speaking course you can take part-time. These courses will force you to speak in front of others. Sometimes, we all need a kick in the butt to get going.
Plus, a college course will hold you accountable. This accountability can be very powerful in forcing you to practice speaking.
3) Take an online course
Sounds counterintuitive, but online courses do help even though nothing beats in-person classes. Because sometimes, you need to improvise when only online courses fit your schedule.
You can search on Udemy, and brick-and-mortar universities. I suggest courses, which offer a lot of digital presentations.
4) Join Toastmasters
Toastmasters heavily promotes public speaking as a nonprofit educational organization. I find it to be a very positive atmosphere, where everyone is just trying to better their public speaking.
You simply join and give speeches to groups of your peers. Then, you get constructive feedback. It’s an awesome way to improve your public speaking while gaining confidence. I have several friends who’ve joined Toastmasters and they love it. They tell me it challenges them, and they pick up new helpful pointers after every speech.
For example, they get a recording of their speech with constructive comments. My friend said from his recording, he learned he’s using excess filler words. After each second sentence, he was unknowingly saying “so,” or “you know.”
5) Create public speaking sessions at your job
At your company, set up an hour every week where employees can present to one another. The presentations can be on current design projects or anything else. The goal is just to speak in front of an audience.
What’s great is, your colleagues can critique your technical knowledge. This isn’t feedback you can receive from most of your friends and family, or even at Toastmasters.
6) Strengthen your technical skills
Public speaking skills do NOT trump technical skills. BUT, the stronger your technical skills are, the more confidence you can speak with as an engineer. So learn subjects inside and out without memorizing.
For example, Elon Musk perfectly understands the theory and real-world applications of rockets. He even understands the work behind all the different types of engineers at SpaceX. So, in his talks, he’s like a professor speaking with students. This is a huge confidence booster.
7) Know your audience
You need to have the pulse of your audience as you speak. For example, if you’re speaking with a group of reporters, you don’t need to be overly technical. This will help make your audience vibrate to your wavelength. In return, your confidence will shoot up and you can deliver an amazing speech.
What’s more, by knowing your audience, you can better cater to their wants and desires. Just imagine, your audience is a bunch of expert engineers. By knowing this beforehand, you can prepare a speech, which includes the following:
- Information sources
- Explanation of all analysis studies
- Technical assumptions
- The theory behind technical subjects
To point out, as an engineer, your job isn’t to entertain your audience. Rather, you’re educating your audience. Now, I’m not saying to be boring, but you don’t need to fear bombing on stage like a stand-up comedian.
8) Improve your writing skills
You’d think writing has nothing to do with speaking. But, both are effective ways of expressing yourself. So, if you improve your writing, you can improve the following parts of your speaking as well:
- Content structure: in public speaking, you want your ideas to flow. So, properly organized content in writing creates better flowing speeches. In other words, writing can help you create the perfect speech outline.
- Punctuation: your usage of periods and commas will reflect in your speaking. So, proper punctuation in your writing will carry over to the pauses you make in your speeches.
- Concise: writing shows you where you need to trim the fat from your content. In return, you can deliver concise talks without any extra fluff.
- Content: writing forces you to write out all your thoughts in great detail. As a result, you discover knowledge gaps in your content, which you can quickly fix.
In short, writing helps you best express your thoughts in spoken words. For writing tips, check out my following articles:
Important Note: you never want to write and read your entire speech word for word. Because you’ll sound very mechanical and you won’t properly engage with your audience. Also, your listeners will think you don’t know your material.
9) Understand the limitations of your learning
With how deep some engineering subjects are, you don’t need to try to learn everything. Frankly, it’s not even possible. So don’t worry if you can’t answer every audience question. It’s totally okay to say, “I don’t know,” or “give me a minute to think about it.”
You won’t look like an idiot, as the best of the best do it. Plus, these statements bleed confidence. Because you’re not afraid to stop your talk and think in front of an audience. You’re showing you’re human.
10) Create your own public speaking style
You don’t need to model your speaking, around people like Obama or Tony Robbins. Both these men are amazing speakers who have years of experience under their belt. Plus, they have a knack for public speaking.
Instead, find what works best for you. If you’re less nervous when speaking slower, then speak slower. If you need to pause more, then pause more. Just look at how Elon Musk speaks. He has his own unique style of speaking.
I bet many public speaking experts would tear apart Elon’s speaking style. But frankly, who cares. Elon communicates his ideas confidently, and everyone hangs on his every last word.
BUT, do learn from great speakers. Study them, like you’d study any other subject you want to badly learn. For example, hit mute and watch Obama speak to a large audience. Look closely at how he engages an audience with his body alone. It’s quite impressive!
11) Fake it until you make it
I’m a big proponent of all the tips I’ve listed so far. But, fake it until you make it, is insanely powerful despite what anyone says. At the very least, it’ll allow you to get the ball rolling to practice public speaking.
Now, I’m not saying to misrepresent yourself. Rather, act confident even when you don’t feel confident. Because when you fake being comfortable, you can better maintain your composure. This then leads to a positive feedback loop. Eventually, your fake confidence will morph into real confidence.
12) Practice and practice some more
This is pointing out the obvious, but practice makes perfect. My first public speaking experience as an engineer was less than ideal. I remember I was sweating and nervous. I had out-of-control butterflies, despite having public speaking experience.
My issue was, I had never given a technical speech to a room full of engineers. Engineers who I knew would then drill me with endless technical questions.
What I felt, was totally natural though. You’ll feel nervous the first couple of times you speak. The trick is, to learn from each speech to become better and better. The more you practice, the better speaker you’ll become. Duh, right?!
Engineers are always taught to cram more equations and theories into their heads. But, public speaking falls through the cracks in most engineering curriculums. I’d even go as far as to say it’s one of the major shortcomings of formal engineering education.
I find good public speaking skills to be like a cheat code in engineering. It allows you to separate yourself from your peers. Even more, it’s a must-have skill if you ever want to start your own business. So add it to your engineering toolbelt!
How important do you find public speaking skills to be for engineers? How do you recommend engineers improve their public speaking skills?
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Koosha started Engineer Calcs in 2020 to help people better understand the engineering and construction industry, and to discuss various science and engineering-related topics to make people think. He has been working in the engineering and tech industry in California for over 15 years now and is a licensed professional electrical engineer, and also has various entrepreneurial pursuits.
Koosha has an extensive background in the design and specification of electrical systems with areas of expertise including power generation, transmission, distribution, instrumentation and controls, and water distribution and pumping as well as alternative energy (wind, solar, geothermal, and storage).
Koosha is most interested in engineering innovations, the cosmos, our history and future, sports, and fitness.