How did an undergraduate engineer end up in a public speaking class?
“Trust me, it’s an easy A” was all I needed to hear.
As all engineers know, if you are going to take a non-technical elective class, it is nice plus for it to be relatively easy in juxtaposition to the brutal engineering classes we were taking.
So when my friend mentioned public speaking as a class recommendation, I didn’t really think too much into it. Anyone who knows me knows that I am not a quiet person by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t mind being the center of attention and have had my share of “class clown” moments.
However, I never enjoyed public speaking and was looking forward to this class helping me improve (or at least just be mildly comfortable) speaking in front of a group.
In the end, it was an easy A, but what I really (and somewhat unexpectedly) gained was a life skill that has really helped me in my engineering career.
Looking back on my 18+ years experience in the mechanical/energy engineering field, I’m really glad that I had this skill as part of my repertoire. Most directly, I have used this skill to allow me to speak at several conferences. However, as I note below, this is far from the only reason to develop this skill.
Of course, you need to have solid technical skills and I’m not saying you should forget about them and start developing your public speaking skills to the detriment of your technical skills. However, if I HAD TO PICK ONE SPECIFIC SKILL that has given me a disproportionate ability to have career mobility, I can honestly say that public speaking was the single most important skill I have developed over the years.
Seriously, is public speaking really useful for engineers?
I already hear the push back
. . . “but I don’t plan to speak to groups”
. . . “it’s just not my thing so why bother”
. . . “I’m not interested in engineering sales positions and don’t need that for my engineering desk job”
Here’s the thing, when people think public speaking, they think about Tony Robbins getting a small stadium all pumped up. They think about the Sunday morning speeches given by the pastor in church or perhaps a stand up comedian in front of a room full of people waiting to be entertained.
However, that is a very narrow view of public speaking. In my mind, any time you are talking and others are listening without any back and forth, you have moved from a conversation to public speaking.
Giving a company overview to two potential investors? That’s Public Speaking.
Presenting your firm to potential employees at a job fair? Also Public Speaking.
Discussing your team’s latest project at a staff meeting or trying to voice your opinion on a project’s direction? Once again, Public Speaking.
EVEN IF you never give a speech to large groups, you can see where this is a worthwhile skill. During your career, you will have to present your projects, your company, and yourself to your team and/or clients. If you don’t have the ability to push your ideas forward and gain buy-in from others, then you are setting yourself up to be a step behind.
Being able to publicly convey your ideas is one of the most powerful ways to gain that buy-in and flourish in your career.
Interviews? Yep, public speaking skills help there as well
I remember my first interview and how I failed SPECTACULARLY.
He asked me a question about design and I gave a completely garbled answer trying to figure out what he wanted. Instead of collecting my thoughts and giving a clear answer, I gave one that made no sense and I immediately saw the confused look on his face.
Needless to say, I never heard from that guy again.
It’s tough sitting in the hot seat in front of one or two people who hold your fate at their company in your hands. Both literally and figuratively, all eyes are on you.
This is your time to shine and get the job or possibly fail to make your case and get turned away.
Presenting in a clear & concise manner and in a way that keeps the listener interested is a key component of public speaking. This skill transfers well to interviews and can be the difference in being presented with an offer or the exit door.
Remember, landing the interview is just step one in the job search process. Now that you have reached that stage you are now faced with the task of showing the interviewer why you are a great fit for the job. Being the best candidate on paper doesn’t mean much if you stumble through the questions or ramble on.
Next Steps . . .
There is often a way to set up your career to avoid certain skills that are not to your liking. This applies to both certain technical skills as well as peripheral skills like public speaking.
However, as I define public speaking above, it is REALLY DIFFICULT to avoid it completely.
Here are three steps you can take to help you towards feeling more comfortable in front of others:
- Are you still in university? Find a public speaking class and sign up for it next semester. The sooner you are exposed to these skills, the sooner you can use it to your advantage in other classes.
- Join your local chapter of Toastmasters International. This is an amazingly supportive organization that helps promote public speaking at all levels. I still regularly attend my chapter’s meet-ups as I find that continued constructive criticism in a supportive environment is a great way to continue my progress
- Develop a lunch learn program at your company. Just like we had in university, have the company order some pizza and have one or two people present something they are working on or a concept that can be helpful in your industry.
- Online courses. While nothing beats in person classes for this skill, I have seen several courses that are given online. Not vouching for any one specifically, but taking one of these is certainly better than doing nothing.
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** This article was initially published in November 2018 and was re-written/updated in April 2020