Ask Anthony: How Do I Improve My Public Speaking Skills?

February 20, 2018

If you have spent any amount of time in the field of civil engineering, you know that one’s ability to speak in public can play a huge role in their success in this industry, as well as the success of that person’s firm.

I am constantly asked by engineers how they can improve their public speaking skills.

Useful resources

Here are five resources that I have found to be helpful. Please note, none of the links below are affiliate links and I receive no commission for recommending these resources.

Toastmasters International

Toastmasters is a U.S.-based nonprofit educational organization that operates clubs worldwide for the purpose of helping members improve their communication, public speaking, and leadership skills. Essentially, you would join a local Toastmasters chapter and attend a few meetings each month where you’d be challenged to get up in front and speak to a room of supportive professionals also seeking to improve their skills.

Before I joined Toastmasters I spoke too fast during presentations, and no one could understand what I was saying. Since I joined Toastmasters, I have spoken in front of thousands of engineers in over 30 states, largely because of the presentations and feedback received from my Toastmasters group.

Speak to Win, by Brian Tracy

Brian Tracy is a professional speaker and well-known self-help guru who has authored books on leadership, sales, managerial effectiveness, and business strategy. His book Speak to Win specifically outlines strategies for becoming a powerful speaker based on his own experience. The book is comprehensive and may prove to be very helpful for civil engineering professionals, especially when trying to craft presentations that will help you seek project approvals or funding from potential stakeholders.

Steal the Show, by Michael Port

I was introduced to Michael Port through his bestseller Book Yourself Solid and recently read one of his newer books, Steal the Show: From Speeches to Job Interviews to Deal-Closing Pitches, How to Guarantee a Standing Ovation for All the Performances in Your Life.

In Steal the Show, Port outlines powerful strategies for making the most out of your appearances in the spotlight. He teaches you how to present with focus, engage your audience, manage your nerves, and much more. Drawing on his background in acting, Port has created a system that the nonactor can use to present powerfully. And because he provides a structured system, I believe engineers will find this book extremely helpful.

Dale Carnegie Training

Dale Carnegie was an American writer, lecturer, and the developer of famous courses in self-improvement, salesmanship, corporate training, public speaking, and interpersonal skills. He also wrote one of the most popular self-help books ever, How to Win Friends and Influence People (more on that later). Carnegie started out by provided coaching and training on communication skills for engineers and technical professionals in New York City prior to writing his bestselling book.

Since then, Dale Carnegie Training has helped thousands of professionals improve their speaking and leadership skills. I have not gone through the training myself, but have read his book several times, and know many technical professionals who have benefited from the training.

How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie

As mentioned above, this is a bestselling book written by Carnegie that provides a framework for building strong relationships and improving one’s communication skills. Reading this will undoubtedly help you to improve your ability to connect with people and present your ideas, both critical skills for civil engineers. I purchased the audiobook years ago and listen to it over and over.

Now, I’m going to give you five actions you can take to do the same.

Before I do that, I want to mention one more resource that you can use, because I’ve come across a great book called Public Speaking for Engineers (ASCE Press), by Shoots Veis, P.E., whom I interviewed on the Civil Engineering Podcast, and I thought you might find the interview and the book helpful.

That being said, I can give you all the resources in the world, but if you don’t take action and work to improve your public speaking skills, then you won’t improve.

Useful actions

I challenge you to pick just one of these actions and implement it in your daily routine, starting today:

1. Volunteer to Speak

You can volunteer to give a lunch-and-learn within your engineering company, visit your children’s classroom and present something on civil engineering, or do a reading at your church. It’s not the content I’m interested in – my point here is to push you to get up in front of a room of people. If you volunteer as a speaker often enough, you will improve as a public speaker, and once you volunteer, you make a public commitment, and nothing is stronger than that.

2. Focus Intently on Presenting One Topic

I started my speaking career while I was still practicing civil engineering. My first speaking project was visiting all of the offices within my firm and giving a presentation titled “Take Your Career Wherever You Want to Take It.”

I was asked by my boss to give a career development session, so I sketched something out on a piece of paper (which eventually turned into my book Engineer Your Own Success). My point is that if you focus on one topic and present on it repeatedly, you’ll not only improve your speaking skills, you’ll become an expert on that topic. So consider selecting a topic associated with your technical skill set.

3. Use Presentation Slides with Minimal Text

You may not be able to do this immediately when you start speaking, but over time, consider reducing the number of words on your slides. This forces you to really understand your content and also helps you to create stories throughout your presentation that help you connect more deeply with your audience.

I recently interviewed Traci Nathans-Kelly, a Cornell Professor on Engineering Communication and author of the book Slide Rules: Design, Build, and Archive Presentations in the Engineering and Technical Fields (IEEE-Wiley Press). In the podcast interview, she listed many valuable strategies for improving the slides in technical presentations, and this was one of them.

4. Breathe Deeply Immediately Before Speaking

Engineers (including myself) often get nervous before speaking in front of an audience. One action you can take to “defuse” your nerves is to breathe deeply immediately prior to speaking. I use the technique known as square breathing, where you breathe in for four seconds, hold it in for four seconds, breathe out for four seconds, and repeat the process four times. This can serve to immediately calm those nerves.

5. Inject Humor

Whenever you get up in front of an audience, even if it’s on the most technical of topics, try finding a way to inject at least a little humor into your presentation. The easiest way is to tell a story about a past experience you’ve had related to the topic, which was funny in some way. This will serve to ease your nerves and better engage your audience.

I hope these actions will be helpful for you. I can guarantee they won’t be unless you take them. Why don’t you start with No. 1 today?

Anthony Fasano, P.E., M.ASCE, is the founder of the Engineering Management Institute (previously known as the Engineering Career Coach), which has helped thousands of engineers develop their business and leadership skills. He hosts the Civil Engineering Podcast and he is the author of a bestselling book for engineers, Engineer Your Own Success. You can download a free video series on his website that will give you the tools needed to immediately improve your networking and communication skills by clicking here.

Anthony has also recently started the Engineering Management Accelerator to help engineers become more effective managers: www.EngineerToManager.com.

Anthony Fasano, P.E., M.ASCE, is the founder of the Engineering Career Coach website, which has helped thousands of engineers develop their business and leadership skills. He hosts the Civil Engineering Podcast, and he is the author of a bestselling book for engineers, Engineer Your Own Success. You can download a free video series on his website that will give you the tools needed to immediately improve your networking and communication skills by clicking here.

Anthony has also recently started the Engineering Management Accelerator to help engineers become more entrepreneurial: www.EngineerToManager.com.

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