Ask Anthony: How Do I Improve My Public Speaking Skills? (Part 2 of 2)

February 26, 2018

(Part 2 of 2)

If you’re reading this, you’re most likely in the field of civil engineering, and you probably understand how important public speaking is to your career. Your ability to speak can facilitate project approvals, help you communicate important technical solutions, and help you to bring new business into your firm.

So how do you improve your public speaking skills?

In part one of this two-part series, which you can find here, I outlined five resources that you can use to become a better speaker, and as a follow-up, in this post, 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.

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.

5 Comments
  • Definitely rehearsing helps. However, I found, by using the Toastmasters methodology, I could make a very good presentation with very little rehearsing.
    The key is knowing your topic and organizing your presentation using key words that trigger an explanation.
    Once you develop the flow, it is amazing how easy it is to interject humour, anecdotes, gestures and body language to make your presentation riveting.

  • I heartily endorse your recommendation of joining Toastmasters.
    I was a member for five years and I wish I had joined much earlier in my engineering career.
    It not only provided my with the methodology of creating and presenting topics, it instilled confidence in myself.
    Toastmasters is a world wide organization. If there is a club near you and you want to improve your speaking abilities, RUN – don’t walk, to the nearest club and sign up.
    You will not regret it and it will change your life!

  • Shelley Goldbeck

    You forgot “Rehearse. Rehearse. Rehearse.” A great way to do that is to join a Toastmasters club. You have many opportunities to speak each meeting and you get feedback from real people (as opposed to your cat or your mom!) When I’m coaching people on reducing their accents, I recommend they record themselves and listen to how they sound. It’s good advice for any speaker. Video is even more effective for training. You’ll be amazed at the things you see and hear! Awareness of where you need improvement is the first step.

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