Speaking Skills in Engineering Careers

I recently visited a local high school to speak with a teacher friend’s speech class. She’s trying to show her students that the skills they’re learning in her speech class are valuable in most careers. She gets a lot of pushback from her future engineers who believe they’ll be relying predominantly on their technical skills, not giving speeches.

I’m entering my tenth year of developing software. I use the presentation skills and techniques learned from my high school speech class almost every day. To an extent, I agree with my friend’s students: you can get by without these skills, but not having them will surely prove to be a significant career growth inhibitor. You might be an incredible [insert engineering career here], but in order to be fully effective, you must be able to communicate your ideas to others, compare and contrast options, and convince your audience–whether it’s your peers, boss(es), or customers–what’s best. This is where those skills come into play.

When I talked to the class, I gave several examples of how I use speaking skills everyday. I gave examples, starting with the most formal, speech-like events and moving to more common, everyday things.

The biggest and best example I have is presenting at my company’s annual customer conference. Customers pay to come to the conference and spend three days attending sessions presented by all sorts of different people, including developers like myself. This is a formal presentation and a direct application of skills taught in a speech class. Preparation is key. We’re required to submit outlines of our presentations months ahead of the event that are refined and built out as the conference draws nearer. At the conference, I’ll be behind a podium at the front of a room, possibly on a stage, giving a presentation or demo to an audience of 20 to 100+ attendees. I’m letting them know what’s new or how they can use my company’s products better. If I do a good job, customer’s get value from the conference. Their opinion of the company and it’s products improve, and maybe they purchase more software. If I do a poor job, the worst case is that a customer begins to question their decisions.

The conference is a wonderful example, but it only happens once a year. A more common scenario occurs when I have a good idea. I need to socialize that idea with my boss and peers, and that requires lots of small communication. I need to make them understand the value of my idea. If I do a good job, they might talk to others. At some point, I might get a call. “Hey, Adam. Remember that idea you were telling me about? I’ve got some people with me that want to hear more. Can you come talk to us?” That’s all the notice I get. I need to walk into a room with an audience that I don’t know and sell them on my idea. If I can talk about the idea enthusiastically and confidently, I might convince people that it’s worth doing and get it onto a project plan. If I don’t have good energy, or the audience doesn’t believe that I have what it takes to see it to fruition, the idea might die there.

A more common (and less dramatic) situation involves my peers. There could be a team working on a problem, and they need my input. Once I understand what they’re trying to accomplish, I use my technical skills to determine options and decide which will be best. From there, it becomes an ad-hoc presentation. I need to present options with their advantages and disadvantages to help my teammates understand what I’m suggesting and get them to buy into my recommendation. If my message isn’t clear, it could result in a bad solution or the need for rework.

And let’s not forget customers. When we create new products, it’s not uncommon to demo them to customers to get feedback. Good presentation skills help the customer understand the value that you’re delivering, and it gets them excited. Bad presentation skills destroy their confidence in you and the company. The same applies to training and conference calls. When you’re able to “speak their language,” customers will like you more and believe in you. I’ve been on calls with other software vendors that aren’t able to articulate their plans and ideas, and it can be really frustrating for all sides.

I certainly couldn’t do my job without the technical skills that I have, but a large percentage of every day is spent communicating with others. I couldn’t be as effective as I am without strong speaking and presentation skills. Those skills have given me growth and leadership opportunities that I wouldn’t have had without them. Standing in front of your classmates, telling them how to care for your dog may not seem like it’s going to be applicable to your career, but being able to explain a complex process to a group of your technical peers is an invaluable ability!

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