Presentation Matters: Public Speaking in the World of Engineers

Photo by Jeremy Noble. Use with attribution.


Jerry Seinfeld does a bit where he cites research that, “…people’s number one fear is public speaking.” The fear of dying is second on the list. “This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

And this is for the general public. Engineers, by stereotype at least, are not known to be the best communicators, let alone public speakers (e.g., the old joke: what’s the difference between an extroverted and an introverted engineer? An introverted engineer looks at his shoes when talking to you; an extroverted engineer looks at your shoes when talking to you).

In college, I took classes on all technical aspects civil and structural engineering. I learned how to calculate the moment of inertia of asymmetrical beams. I learned about ductile detailing, buildings’ mode shapes, and the hysteretic behavior of lateral force resisting systems under seismic loading (I’ll stop there).  However, I never took classes in public speaking, giving presentations, on how to communicate the complexities and nuances of engineering concepts to an audience of architects, public officials, and building owners…shoot, on how to keep people awake when talking about mundane engineering topics.

In my four years at Reid Middleton, I’ve learned that the ability to effectively communicate is one of (if not) the most important skill sets of the consulting engineer.  As expected, this includes report writing, e-mail correspondence, client phone calls, construction meetings, etc.  But it also includes a fair amount of public speaking. Reid Middleton is a place that encourages young engineers to “put themselves out there” and, as a result, I’ve had numerous presentation and public speaking engagement opportunities. This includes teaching post-earthquake building evaluation classes (ATC-20), giving presentations on SEAW earthquake reconnaissance efforts, presenting on successful projects at technical conferences and award ceremonies, and teaching structural engineering to architects (AIA Seattle Architects Registration Exam prep classes).

Now don’t get me wrong; I am far from mastering this skill. I think we all are. Like everyone else, I get nervous, mumble, forget what I’m saying, turn toward the screen, speak too loudly/softly/quickly/slowly/monotone, etc.  So, when I was asked to blog on this topic, I first wondered “why me?” Then I asked myself, “What in the double chopsticks will I write about?”

Without further ado… (non-sarcastic drumroll, please) here are seven public speaking rules of thumb I’ve learned as a gangly, awkward, geeky engineer attempting to give presentations to the outside world:

1. Be Yourself

The main thing I’ve learned through giving presentations is that  audiences crave authenticity. Audiences are like wolves: they can smell fear and detect  the smallest hint of falsehood. The more genuine you are, and the more you act  naturally, the more people feel like they know you, the more they can trust  you, and the more they actually listen to you. In other words, I think every  presenter must find his/her own presenting style, be it loud and bombastic or quiet and poignantly contemplative.

2. Know Your Stuff (Prepare)

Teaching classes about engineering content has taught me that just because you know something at your desk doesn’t mean you know it in front of an interrogative group. We’ve all been there; there’s nothing worse than looking at a slide and asking aloud, “Now what was I trying to say here? It made sense this morning.” To use engineering-speak, I recommend a hefty factor of safety on your level of familiarity with your presentation’s content.

More importantly, if you forget what you intended to say, or if you’re not sure if what you say is valid, don’t fake it. No one expects you to be perfect, but they do expect you to be human. Admitting your uncertainty or saying, “I don’t know,” is probably the best way to gain your audience’s respect and trust.

3. Jack Be Nimble

It’s good to have a game plan for your presentation. In fact, it’s great to have a plan. However, people don’t want a robot, and they don’t want a dog-and-pony show. So, like a scrambling quarterback calling an audible, read the defense and be ready to take things in a new direction. This may mean focusing on content applicable to the audience, discussing relevant tangential topics based on attendees’ questions, or skipping/revising sections of your presentation to accommodate time constraints.

When teaching an ATC-20 class on post-earthquake building evaluations, I like to start by asking the background of the attendees and what they hope to get out of the class. Are they engineers, architects, facility managers, maintenance workers? How will they be using this information? Are they excited to volunteer as inspectors or were they forced to attend on their lunch hour? Based on the demographic and objectives of the audience, the prescribed material may be adapted to best meet the needs of the audience. Think of your presentation as a clay form; the material won’t change, but the shape is malleable.

4. This Isn’t a Late Night TV Monologue

People tune out to monologues, so give them a dialogue to help them engage. Ask questions. Then play “silence chicken” to force them to speak. Give out small-group problems or discussion topics. People learn when they’re engaged; people engage when they participate, use critical thinking skills, share their perspectives, and apply concepts to their respective situations. The PowerPoint presentation monologue is so 2000s. Create an environment that requires active engagement.

5. It’s Not About You

It may sound trite, but for the duration of the presentation, you have to care more about the audience than you do about yourself. This isn’t the (insert your name here) show created to execute your agenda. It’s an opportunity for the attendees to obtain some piece of information that’s in your head. If the information transfer does not occur, the presentation was not a success. So, rather than focusing on “How’d I do?” “Did they like me?” or “Did I succeed in saying what I wanted to say?” ask yourself, “Did they learn what they wanted to learn?” “Was this hour valuable for them?” or “What would I want to walk away with if I was attending this event?” If you ask the latter questions, the former will be answered positively.

6. Practice, Practice, Practice

The more opportunities I’ve had to practice public speaking, the more comfortable the process becomes. Like most things in life, you have to employ Nike’s “Just do it” mantra and learn on the job. And, any opportunity counts. I’ve found that professional public speaking experiences have led to personal public speaking opportunities as a wedding emcee, an auction host, and even dabbled in stand-up comedy. These have, in turn, helped with professional presentations. So, to the presenting engineer, my biggest recommendation is to seek out opportunities to hone your skills.

7. Here We Are Now, Entertain Us

For better or worse, we live in a consumerist culture obsessed with entertainment. We like a good show. And entertainment isn’t a bad thing; it means people are engaged with the content. The more entertaining your presentation, the more they’ll pay attention and enjoy the experience. Use props, tell jokes, tell stories, show videos — whatever it takes to keep people engaged with the material.

And if none of that works, you can always try the old imagining-people-in-their-underwear trick.


  1. I agree. Great content and had me engaged the whole time.

    Erik – you’re setting a high bar with this blog. I expect to be fully engaged in your next public speaking event, and will be keeping notes on how well your nimble-ness is presented, as well as much you let me participate.

  2. Thanks for your gracious and encouraging comments, everyone.
    Mr. Clark, I hope to see you at my next presentation, as well. And vice versa!