How to Build Communications Skills as an Engineer

The following tip is from the ISA book by Greg McMillan and Hunter Vegas titled 101 Tips for a Successful Automation Career, inspired by the ISA Mentor Program. This is  Tip #40.

Consider the stereotype of the engineer. He (or she) is shy, socially inept, and rarely the life of the party. Understanding Fourier transforms and partial differential equations is no problem but standing in front of an audience and giving a presentation is a nearly insurmountable challenge. If he does give a talk he tends to mumble and look away from the audience when he speaks, puts WAY too much information in small type on his PowerPoint slides, and tends to read the slides to the audience as he drones on.making a speech

…sound a bit too familiar? –

Unfortunately, that description is close to the truth for many engineers, and often a more technically qualified engineer has been passed over for a promotion by a candidate with less experience and knowledge but with better communication and presentation skills.

As a high school student I realized I was headed down this road. My math scores were excellent but my English/verbal scores were at best mediocre. I was struggling in a writing class where the instructor held me to a much higher standard because he KNEW I was capable of it – but I was not delivering. I finally decided it was time to address the problem, knowing it would only worsen with time. I sought help with writing and joined the speech and debate team, where I signed up for extemporaneous speaking. (You pick a topic out of a jar then have 15 or 20 minutes to prepare and deliver a five minute speech.) It forced me to organize my ideas and think quickly on my feet – useful skills, to be sure.

Later in life I took courses on media presentation as part of my Hazmat team training as well as a few sales presentation classes. Such training has been invaluable to me over the years.

Concept: A knowledgeable engineer is worth a great deal to a company. However, a knowledgeable engineer who can write and present is worth much, much more!

101 Tips for a Successful Automation CareerDetails: The average engineering-bound high school student has a profoundly skewed math/verbal aptitude ratio. Math and science classes are no problem but most engineering-bound students struggle in English and communication. Unfortunately, this inability to communicate will hamstring them throughout their career. People will steal their ideas because they cannot sell them to upper management. Many will lose promotions to less technically qualified applicants because the other candidates speak and “show” well. Opportunities for exposure to upper management will be lost because they look so uncomfortable in presentations. However, a highly qualified engineer who can also write and present is a rare thing indeed. The combination of strong technical talent and excellent communication skills is extremely valuable in most organizations.

If you are still in school, do not shy away from writing and speaking courses – TAKE THEM. If you are already in the work force, take a few writing and presentation courses and sign up to give a technical presentation at your local technical society meeting or national conference. Seek opportunities to write or present on the job.

If you are scheduled to present, take the time to practice and more important, record your practice talk on video. It may be painful at first to watch yourself speaking but you cannot fix a problem until you experience it first-hand.

Watch-Outs: Engineers often assume that their audience has the same level of technical knowledge as they do and is as excited about the subject as they are. However, both assumptions are usually false. Some, or perhaps many, in the audience do not know all of the technical background and will get lost quickly. Combine that with a poorly presented or dull topic and the snoring can be intense. Take the time to quickly explain the technical background concepts well enough to ensure that everyone is on the same level, then proceed with the new information. Most importantly, make the slides INTERESTING!

Do not use dull PowerPoint slides with tiny fonts, no graphics, and line after line of bulleted items. Instead, use interesting pictures, simple phrases, and large, easy-to-read fonts to excite the audience and entice them to listen to you.

Exceptions: If you already have your own TV or radio talk show, then you are probably exempt from having to pursue this tip further.

Insight: When you are giving a technical presentation, it may be worth taking the time to create two versions of the slides. Make up a set showing all of the technical points and details and provide that version to the audience as a handout, then create a second set that has the major talking points but is much more visually appealing, with fewer words and lots of pictures and/or graphics. The audience will appreciate and enjoy the presentation (which will be refreshingly different than MOST of the presentations they have seen) and they will have the technical handout for reference and notes.

Rule of Thumb: Many engineers are not naturally adept at writing and/or presentations, and they pay a price for that failing throughout their career. Like anything else worth doing, good writing and presentation skills take training and practice but the effort WILL be rewarded.

 

Hunter VegasAbout the Author
Hunter Vegas, P.E., holds a B.S.E.E. degree from Tulane University and an M.B.A. from Wake Forest University. His job titles have included instrument engineer, production engineer, instrumentation group leader, principal automation engineer, and unit production manager. In 2001, he joined Avid Solutions, Inc., as an engineering manager and lead project engineer, where he works today. Vegas has executed nearly 2,000 instrumentation and control projects over his career, with budgets ranging from a few thousand to millions of dollars. He is proficient in field instrumentation sizing and selection, safety interlock design, electrical design, advanced control strategy, and numerous control system hardware and software platforms.
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