Sharpen Your Speaking Skills

Sept. 5, 2012
Oral presentations say a lot about you.

I was embarrassed for him. Technically, he was an excellent candidate. He was completing an internship at a prestigious company; his resume was impressive for a new graduate. Now, the downside: his body language spoke of intimidation. He hardly looked up from his notes. When I tested his analytical skills with a problem, his answer was spot on but he was talking to the table twelve inches in front of his face.

Success in engineering, as in business, depends on communication. I’ve talked about writing skills (“Take the Write Steps for Career Advancement”), now let’s consider verbal skills.

I was fortunate that I spent some of my formative years in the military. My presentation skills were polished there, enabling me later to successfully handle a grilling by the head of chemical engineering at Princeton while delivering a paper to more than a hundred scientists. Outside of the military, organizations such as Toastmasters International can help bolster skills.

All presentations consist of two components: substance and appearance. You not only must anchor your argument in logic, but also should make your talk clear, concise, well organized and believable.

Let’s consider appearance first. Poor eye contact makes you look shifty and scared. Stooping or slouching and down-turned eyes make matters worse. Remember body language contributes a lot to communication — from 55–80%, experts reckon. In face-to-face communication, look directly at the audience, smile and avoid unnecessary repetitive movement.

Smiling can soften your audience. It’s a good idea to think of something pleasant, practice smiling in the mirror and ask those close to you about which friendly expression looks best on you. There’s more to body language than facial expression. Don’t cross your arms or legs or put your hands in your pockets. Don’t lean forward or backward — sit erect in your chair with your shoulders straight.

When delivering a speech, move your eyes around the audience. Ideally, focus on a different group of people every few seconds. Watch for crossed arms and legs. That often indicates a person has an opinion; so, ask questions to ferret these out. Occasionally try pacing to keep your blood flowing, if that works for you.

The cliché “dress for success” applies here. Wear something that is comfortable, gives a professional look and, just as important, makes you feel competent. Look like you came to say something important. I’ve seen engineers give talks in torn tees and sweat pants and wondered why our client would take us seriously. Don’t go too far the other way, though. Wearing a suit and tie in our business will make you the focus of ridicule. My operators at Anheuser-Busch loved to open valves on “suits” from the safety of the control room.

Now, let’s talk about substance. Suppose you’re trying to assure the client that you’ve considered the worst case of twenty drain pots that could potentially overwhelm the main header and vent in an alkylation unit collection tank. First, there are 190 potential pairs of pots as well as numerous triples, quadruples, etc. You’ve got to show the futility of running hundreds of simulations. Next, you must evaluate the potential for running multiple streams into the network. You must present the maximum potential flows and then show how several pairs could interact in the pipe network. These are logical steps that draw conclusions you can defend in your report. However, don’t get into all the details in the presentation: capture the key points and link them together with good graphics and a short punch list.

In a face-to-face discussion your tools are limited. Stick to no more than three points, without preamble, just the facts.

Lastly, consider the delivery: make it clear, concise and well supported. Know the material well enough that you can put your notes aside. For a face-to-face meeting you should be able to speak your piece in less than 30 seconds. A major presentation may last 30 minutes and take weeks to prepare properly. (On projects get into the habit of summarizing all your work in a single notebook with updated abstracts — you can expand this into a presentation as needed.) You’ll want to anticipate questions your audience might ask and plan how to steer them through the path you choose. This sounds Machiavellian but you don’t want your good will with the audience to dissipate while you search for an answer. Create folders for questions with defense material inside. Don’t forget to go over graphs and tables for hidden flaws.

Developing good presentation skills will go a long way to advancing your career.

DIRK WILLARD is a Chemical Processing Contributing Editor. You can e-mail him at [email protected].