Improving the Speech Delivery Skills of Engineers

Christopher Witt —  January 9, 2013

541059.TIFI work with engineers, helping them prepare and rehearse oral proposals for large government contracts. Engineers aren’t generally regarded as dynamic presenters, and yet I spend little time trying to improve their delivery skills.

Why is that? Three reasons…

First, there’s not enough time.

I may have two to three days – two weeks max – to help a team 1) create its strategy; 2) generate a storyboard; 3) craft their PowerPoint slides, revise them, revise them again, review the entire packet to cull redundancies and to fill in gaps, and make one final revision; and 4) to rehearse their presentation.

To make matters worse, my clients are typically working a full-time job at the same time, so I rarely get their undivided attention.

I choose to put my energy and to use the team’s time where it matters most – creating a clear and persuasive proposal that can be delivered in the allotted time. I might spend more time polishing people’s presentation skills, if there were enough time. But there never is.

Second, other things are more important than delivery.

For technical presenters, as a rule, and, specifically, for engineers presenting an oral proposal, having highly developed delivery skills is nice. But it is considerably less important than being able to articulate a compelling message clearly and concisely.

I simply don’t want my team to suck, at least when it comes to how they deliver their message.

I don’t want them to stare at the screen and read their slides word for word, using a laser pointer to highlight each word as they do. I don’t want them to mumble or to speak so quietly that no one can hear them. And  I don’t want them to speak so fast that they run out of breath and look like they’re about to pass out.

Engineers don’t exude excitement or passion at the best of times. They’re certainly not going to do so while making a presentation to a selection committee.

It’s not my job — or anyone else’s — to try to change their nature or their long-standing communication style. My work is to get them to be good enough presenters, which sometimes means I’ll be happy if they’re not bad presenters.

Third, there’s a better way to improve their presentation skills.

There’s a more effective, less direct, way to improve engineer’s presentation skills.

I never videotape engineers as they’re rehearsing their presentations. Never. There’s not enough time. (See above.) And it’s counterproductive. It simply makes them self-conscious and more nervous, which in turn makes them even stiffer.

What I do instead is simple. I have them explain their proposal to me over and over again through the entire time I’m working with them. I play the part of the audience, asking questions about their proposal, and making them explain it so clearly that I can understand it. I pick apart their slides and make them explain exactly what they mean, many different times in many different ways. I do all of this with individuals and with the team as a whole.

I tell them: “All I want you to do in front of the audience is to speak the same way you’re talking to me now, but I want you to speak louder and make your gestures a little bit larger. By the time we do formal rehearsals (often the day before the presentation), they’ve internalized their message. They know what they’re going to say. They know how to say it. And they believe what they’re saying.

And, miracle of miracles, their delivery style improves greatly. Some of them have become quite good. Some have merely moved up to the not-as-bad-as-they-used-to-be category, which is fine by me.

(For more information about this process, go to “How to Rehearse an Oral Proposal.”)

Here’s my take away. I think one of the best way to improve the delivery skills of technical presenters (of engineers and the like) is not to focus on their delivery skills. Focus instead on helping them create a persuasive message and explain what they mean until they are clear and confident. Encourage them to speak the way they naturally do — only louder and bigger.

Technical presenters gain credibility by knowing what they’re talking about and explaining it in a way that other people can understand. That’s what they’re good at. Help them build on it.

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.

2 responses to Improving the Speech Delivery Skills of Engineers

  1. Christopher, I wonder if I could suggest one tip on delivery that would be worth sharing for anyone and it doesn’t take much time.
    It is about understanding blank faces. As a speaker if we are not careful we carry on using normal conversational skills when we are speaking to a group.
    When you have a standard conversation – you normally get nods, smiles, agreements back from the listener however when we speak to a group ALL that changes. All you see is blank faces.
    So we start speaking to blank faces and they don’t usually smile (at least not very often) or nod their heads (some people will but again not a lot) so we are left struggling with critical thoughts about our performance. But blank faces are normal in audience – they are just listening faces.
    So try not to read people’s faces when you speak publicly because your brain will interpret any sign as negative.
    Of course there is more to delivery than this but when I teach public speaking this is the point that helps a lot of people.

    • John,

      Thanks for your helpful suggestion. You’re right. As speakers we get many fewer smiles and encouraging nods from out audiences than we get from our conversation partners.

      This is especially true for technical people speaking to other technical people.

      And it’s all the more true for anyone who is presenting to a selection committee. They make an effort to keep their faces neutral.

      I like your suggestion and will pass it on in the future.

      Since I’m often working with teams, I tell them that they have to be the ones to give the presenter the smiles and nods that the selection committee will be withholding.

      All the best, Chris