It’s likely that the big challenges that you face in your early career have been tackled by young engineers before.  For many, it can be comforting to know thattheir situation is not unique.  And it’s always useful to get advice from someone who has been there before.  This post is the first of a series of guest blogs written by other young engineers about their early career challenges.

In this post, Erin Fletcher, P.E. of Seattle recounts her first big public speaking engagement.  Was she set up by her boss to see if she could handle the pressure?  The positive experience became a defining moment in Erin’s career.  Communication skills are critical for effective leaders in civil engineering.  Erin’s example proves that anyone can be a public speaker and how doing so can open up career opportunities.

By Erin Fletcher, P.E. (Seattle): My second job out of college was working for a transit agency in Seattle. I was about 23 years old and just starting to learn about project management and the importance of communicating project progress to the public. I was working full time and in school part time, so that kept me pretty busy and ensured that I had virtually no social life.

My boss was scheduled to give a presentation about our project to the Seattle chapter of the Design Build Institute of America. Our project was to use a unique Design-Build-Operate-Maintain contracting method that had not been utilized before in Washington state, so there was a lot of interest from the local design build community.

The day before the presentation, my boss told me that due to other pressing matters, he would not be able to give the presentation, and he wanted me to give the presentation. I studied the presentation as much as I could, but I was so nervous. This was a big deal, and I was so afraid that I would muck it up! I also had homework to do that night, and class in the morning, so that limited my preparation time.

The next day, I went straight from class to the luncheon where I was to give the presentation. I arrived early, and found a corner to hide and go over my notes. I also got on my Blackberry to email my boss to tell him I didn’t think I could do this and it might be best if he were to come and give the presentation…I got no response. I gathered my nerves and thought that if all else goes wrong, at least I got a free lunch.

I went on to give the presentation without incident, and was able to answer most of the questions asked of me. No one booed or threw anything at me. No one called me a bum or took my lunch away from me. Though it took me a while to develop my own self-confidence in giving presentations, I was able to address the group with the confidence my boss instilled in me knowing that I could handle the task.

To this day, I am still not sure whether this was a deliberate “test” by my boss to see if I could step up to the plate. After that presentation, I went on to deliver other presentations on behalf of my boss, and even presented some of my own. I enjoy presenting to project constituents and technical groups. It has definitely required that I learn how to communicate fluidly and in “plain speak”.

Learning these communication skills has equipped me to effectively deliver ideas and design concepts to everyone from the public to agencies to politicians and beyond. On that fateful day when I was terrified to deliver my presentation, I learned that the worst thing that could happen was that someone might ask me a question to which I didn’t know the answer. When that happened, I would collect their information and tell them I would look in to it and get back to them. Most people are fine with that answer, so it all worked out.

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