By Kenneth H. Rosenfield, P.E., ENV SP, F.ASCE
While public speaking is not typically taught in formal settings, it is an essential tool that professionals can develop to become effective communicators. Particularly for engineers, who predominantly exhibit introverted tendencies and seldom seek the spotlight, public speaking qualifies as a challenging skill.
Civil engineers should seek to master effective speaking techniques to navigate business meetings, present technical concepts in a comprehensible manner, and address challenging public issues.
By mastering these skills through instruction, practice, and refinement, professionals can excel in conveying their messages, avoiding common speaker errors, and conquering the fear associated with public speaking. This three-part series will focus on these key elements.
Effective preparation — the focus of this first installment — is the foundation of a successful public speaking event. Whether addressing a small or large audience; at informal or formal settings; to business associates, elected officials, or concerned community members, the significance of thoughtful preparation remains consistent.
Here are my top 7 tips to help you prepare thoroughly for public speaking:
1. Know your material: Thoroughly understand your topic and commit your presentation to memory.
Outline, summarize, and write out your speech verbatim. Practice it aloud, either in front of a mirror, a friend, or even your pet. Pay attention to your volume, tone, pauses, and speed, allowing you to effectively time your presentation.
Demonstrating a deep knowledge of the subject matter will help you limit the need to rely upon notes and establish credibility with your audience. Varying the volume, tone, and pace of your voice will also keep your presentation engaging.
2. Plan visual aids: Visual aids, such as PowerPoint presentations, can significantly enhance your message.
Prepare clear and concise points on your slides, avoiding the temptation to read them directly to the audience. The visuals should complement your speech, keeping the audience members’ attention as they listen to your explanation of the information. By maintaining intrigue and preventing the audience from reading ahead, you can sustain interest throughout the presentation.
Avoid the overuse of detailed information on your slides; this causes the audience to read the information and tune out your verbal message.
3. Arrive early: Prioritize arriving early to the venue to familiarize yourself with the physical setup.
Take note of the room's size, seating capacity, audio-visual arrangements, and stage, if any. Test the equipment beforehand to ensure everything is in working order. Familiarize yourself with the acoustics and visibility, making necessary adjustments to optimize your presentation.
Avoid asking audience members at the beginning of your presentation if they can hear you, as your preparation should have addressed this concern. If you have and there is still a problem, the audience will tell you otherwise.
4. Dress appropriately: Consider the formality of the event, and dress in a manner aiming to slightly exceed the expected attire of the audience.
If you find yourself overdressed, be prepared to adjust. Overdressed attire can be relaxed by removing a jacket or rolling up your sleeves to establish a connection with the audience. Being appropriately dressed for the presentation is a way to show audience members the respect you hold for them.
5. Exude a positive presence: Your physical presence and demeanor greatly influence your connection with the audience.
Maintain eye contact, scanning the room to engage everyone present. Project confidence through your posture, hand gestures, and facial expressions. Be relaxed, stand tall, avoid pointing fingers, keep your hands at your sides when not otherwise gesturing, lean into your audience, and remember to smile.
Practice your facial expressions, posture, and use of hands in the mirror to understand your effect. These traits contribute to a positive impression and a connection with the audience.
6. Manage podium etiquette: Whenever possible, opt for a lavalier hands-free microphone, which allows for freedom of movement and natural gestures and conveys to the audience that you are comfortable speaking.
However, if a podium is your only option, ensure it does not become a distraction. Adjust the microphone once and avoid further contact. Refrain from letting your notes slide off the podium. Avoid gripping the edges of the podium or stepping to the side and resting upon it. Such actions divert attention from your message and undermine its impact.
7. Address nervousness: Even seasoned speakers may experience nervousness before a presentation, particularly in unfamiliar settings or with unfamiliar audiences.
Recognize the symptoms of nervousness, such as butterflies in the stomach or a change in voice pitch. By acknowledging these sensations, you can take a moment to relax and practice deep breathing. Various calming techniques can be learned, but self-awareness is the first step.
Practice relaxation in advance. With practice, nerves can be effectively managed and overcome.
The remarkable aspect of public speaking, which should alleviate anxiety when faced with the responsibility to make a presentation, is knowing the audience has an innate desire to hear your message and gain valuable insights.
In the next article in this three-part series, we will delve into the successful techniques employed by experienced speakers during their presentations and highlight common speaking errors to avoid.
This series is available in partnership with the 2023 ASCE Convention (Chicago, Oct. 18-21), where Kenneth H. Rosenfield will present on public speaking. Register for the convention today.
This article is published by Civil Engineering Online.