Public Speaking For Engineers
Don't Listen to the "Experts"
Public speaking is one of the most universal fears humans have. You might still cringe about standing up in school and talking, and knowing that all the kids were laughing at you. Or at least you thought they were (maybe they really were!)
I’m not afraid of public speaking. Later on I’ll show some examples of me on YouTube; but the purpose is not so you can try to be like me (God forbid!), or so you can think “Wow, you really suck!” It’s to show you that what these “trainers” tell you is often BS.
There’s a vast ocean of public speaking advice out there. Much of it is actually worthwhile, and it’s unlikely I’m going to say anything you can’t find somewhere else. Conversely, some of the stuff you will find on YouTube is actively harmful.
Who is This For?
If you’re in a technical field, there’s an excellent chance you’ll be asked to talk about whatever it is you do. You’ll need to explain it to people who are curious. You’re my audience.
If your goal is to be able to talk about anything, even if you don’t know the first thing about it, this post is not for you.
If you mainly want to persuade people to believe or do something (vote for your candidate, support affordable housing, etc.), this isn’t for you. You might find some good ideas here, but a persuasive speech is a different animal than a typical engineer tech talk.
If your goal is to “build leadership skills” or improve your “communication skills” as though either was actually a Thing, this post is not for you. This isn’t Toastmasters.
If you’re in a job where the audience expects you to be a good speaker, and they’re judging you on that, then this isn’t for you, either. If you’re a CEO speaking to investors, you’d better be great at it. If you’re a politician, you’d really better be great at it.
On the other hand, if you have a lot of knowledge and people want to hear it, read on. That’s a lot of technical workers. Here’s the good news: once you do a few dozen little tech talks, talking to 1,000 people in an auditorium isn’t that scary, either.
I left out the most important thing (after knowing your subject):
You have to want the audience to understand it.
If you don’t care whether they get it: you will be lousy. If you don’t think ahead about what they know already and how to teach them what you know: you will be lousy. You’ve got to care.
A Prelude to the “Expert” Advice
A long, long time ago, I took a Public Speaking class at Orange Coast College, in Costa Mesa, CA. They give you all the usual stuff about hand gestures, eye contact, “watch the um’s and ah’s filler words”, etc. Here’s the only thing I got out of that class that stays with me:
You can only think of one thing while you’re up there talking. If it’s “hand gestures”, that’s all you’ll be doing, and you’ll look like a robot. If it’s “eye contact” you’ll be looking into everyone’s eyes for 1.5 seconds, and it will be creepy. You cannot consciously practice all the tips they give you.
What’s Wrong with the Expert Advice?
Here’s the problem: “public speaking” is not a generic Thing. Someone judging your technique most likely doesn’t know anything about your topic and doesn’t care. So the only thing they can critique is your voice, hand gestures, eye contact, etc. They have no idea if you’re making any sense.
But you, dear engineer, are going to be talking about a specific topic. Your audience will care about that topic much more than they care about you. They don’t want you to be a robot; they want you to be you.
So What Do the “Experts” Say?
“Public speaking anxiety” has an academic literature, believe it or not. If you search on Google Scholar, you can find papers by behavioral scientists, where they use virtual reality training to lessen your SUDS (Subjective Units of Discomfort Scale) or your ATPS (Attitude Toward Public Speaking). I am not making this up.
There is even an article on the Mayo Clinic website! Let’s see what they have to say (refer to the linked article for details):
Know your topic.
Practice, and then practice some more.
Challenge specific worries.
Visualize your success.
Do some deep breathing.
Focus on your material, not on your audience.
Don't fear a moment of silence.
Get support. Join a group
These pointers are somewhat like the ubiquitous “quit smoking, eat less, and exercise more” advice from your doctor. But you know what? That advice works, and so do those Mayo Clinic ones.
Let’s say you have to get up and talk about some technical topic for your job, and you’re terrified. So rather than taking a class or reading a book like in the old days: you’re a modern person, so you look on YouTube! Surely someone out there has a video with the answers! Let’s search “public speaking training” and see what we get:
Public Speaking for Beginners
The first one, “Public Speaking for Beginners” has 1.3 million views. It must be great, right? Here’s what he says:
Don’t: ramble and get long-winded. Do: be organized and concise
I can’t argue with this. Have a good idea of what you want to say. We’ll come back to that.
Don’t: look with your eyes in the wrong places (at the back wall, at the floor, etc.). Do: look directly in someone’s eyes long enough to finish a thought.
Remember what I said in the Prelude: if you’re thinking about eye contact, that will be all you’re thinking about. So forget this. You’ll either do it while you’re talking, or you won’t. Over time you’ll evolve into a style that works for you.
Don’t clutter up all your notes with a lot of details. Do have simplified notes.
Totally right. Carry a few note cards with the main points you want to hit: just a couple words each.
Don’t load up your slide with a lot of complicated animations and text. Do use clear, simple slides.
This assumes that your talk is built on PowerPoint slides with bullet points. We can stop right there: don’t do that! There is nothing more boring than endless slides with 3-5 lines each and the speaker robotically reading from them. This is the way to put the audience to sleep.
Besides being boring, condensing your ideas to fit your bullet points, rather than designing the slides to fit your ideas, leads to oversimplified groupthink, as Edward Tufte outlined here. He argued that the NASA Challenger disaster was partially caused by the widespread use of PowerPoint. As the presentation went up the management chain, each level condensed the facts a little further, until the “takeaway” was “it’s a risk, but we should take it.”
Another famous article about this is the Gettysburg address in PowerPoint. If you haven’t seen this, go read the article now. The summary slide is the best:
In my 2021 talk at the Vintage Computer Federation, I had only one slide with bullet points. The rest was just pictures, and I talked about each one. You can see the slide deck here.
Let’s continue with Public Speaking for Beginners:
Don’t fidget. Don’t pace. Don’t keep your hands in your pockets. Do have a nice confident posture, where you stand in one place for a little while. Then if you want to move with a purpose, move. Do use gestures to emphasize your ideas.
This is BS; it’s not wrong, but it’s another way to be self-conscious. If you worry about that (remember, you can only think about one thing), then you won’t be thinking about your subject.
Forget moving around or standing still or using your hands. Do whatever comes naturally as you teach the audience. “Teach the audience” should be the only thing on your mind.
Don’t speak too softly, or use a lot of filler words, like ‘um’ and ‘ah.’ Do have a confident voice where you speak to the back of the room.
More BS. It’s not wrong, but ponder this: you want the audience to understand you, right? (Remember I said “you have to care.”) Will they understand you if you mumble? Of course not. So if you care about the audience, you won’t mumble.
Don’t use up your “one thing you can think about” with a rule about your voice. Think about your subject. Watch the audience to see if they’re getting it.
How To Become A Master In The Art of Public Speaking (Part 1 of 2)
This video, #2 on our search results, has almost 2.4M views. And the first 8 minutes are a narcissistic narrator recounting his dreadful experience of going to Poland to give a talk as a favor to two friends, how incompetent the conference was, and how unspeakably awful it was for him to get up to talk for 3 1/2 hours, with only 15 people in a gigantic auditorium.
I’m sorry, but I just couldn’t watch this self-absorbed twit.
Improve Your Speaking
I liked this video. Conor Neill is an Irish guy who advises you to sit in front of your laptop’s webcam for 3 minutes a day, for 10 days, and record yourself speaking. He cites Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” rule on practicing a lot.
I don’t do this, but effective practicing is always worthwhile, as long as you aren’t too hyper-critical of yourself. Seeing yourself and hearing yourself is a shock at first. Get used to it.
As I said, if you give a lot of tech talks, you’ll find that bigger audiences are less scary, if you’re ever lucky enough to speak to one. Speaking to your laptop is a substitute for that; probably not as good, but easier to schedule.
4 Tips To IMPROVE Your Public Speaking - How to CAPTIVATE an Audience
The very title of this sounds like a 3:00 am infomercial on cable TV, doesn’t it? Yet it has 2.1 million views. There must be something there!
I actually liked this one.
Do: You have to show up with a giving attitude. You know something, you’ve seen something, you’ve tried something that someone else thinks people need to hear.
Totally correct. As I said, whatever you know, you need to care that the audience learns it. They will sense that.
Don’t: have a "taking mentality.” I’m so great, you need to buy my book, follow me on Twitter, here’s my Patreon, etc. etc.
How many talks like that have you seen? He’s right. Skip all the “support me” stuff.
Do: Authenticity engages. When you’re talking to an audience, the audience can feel realness. And you have to be yourself.
Let’s say you’re a techie of some sort, not a Marketing MBA. It’s OK if you look like a techie and talk like one! That’s you; that’s what they came for. Wear it with pride.
Do: Have awareness. In the military they call it “SA” for “situational awareness”. Realize that everything may not go as you planned it, e.g. the audience might be in a party mood when you’re planning a professional presentation.
I’ve been in the chorus or stage crew for some amateur theater productions. Invariable, the moments we remember are when something went wrong on stage, and we all had to adapt without “breaking character.”
I also dropped the mic once in a talk. It’s all good. Improvise and make a joke out of it. The audience will love it.
Do: have audacity. You have to be bold. Tell a story. Of the top TED talks, 85% of them are story-centric.
This one is too well-known. I’ve seen lots of speakers do this because they’ve read it somewhere, and it just comes across as “oh, she’s trying to tell a story now.” It’s not authentic much of the time. It can seem like a gimmick.
Telling a story is like telling a joke: it’s a high-wire act. You might wow the crowd or you might fall off and kill yourself. Don’t be obvious about it, at least.
Public Speaking Tips from Toastmasters
And now for something truly terrible. Although I’m not writing a video production guide, the video editing in this is also terrible: jarring cuts with no change of perspective.
Do: kill my ums. Get rid of filler words. Just pause instead of saying “um.”
We covered this already. It’s not a bad idea to get rid of filler words like “um” and “ah” per se, but obsessing about it will just make you crazy. If you watch yourself enough, some mistakes will stand out for you, and you’ll just stop doing them.
Do: have a clear main point. Simplify your speeches. Break it down to the essentials.
In other words: “be boring. Drone on, and tell them over and over again what the point is.”
A better approach is just to watch the audience, and invite them to raise a hand if they don’t get it. You’d rather find out after 5 minutes that they’re not getting it than finish the whole half hour and then find out, wouldn’t you?
Do: asking for and accepting feedback is a skill worth developing.
In general, it’s hard to argue with that. I think, though, he means to join a Toastmasters group, where they critique your talk. This is a terrible idea. You don’t want to look like every other marketing droid who went to Toastmasters and followed their rote advice — you want to look like you.
Some of Me
OK, I promised some examples of me. I had a channel on YouTube: “bob’s author talks” but it seems to have gone away, so here are some individual Authors@Google talks I hosted (you’ll note I’m holding the audience’s mic in one hand, so I can’t really do many hand gestures!).
Interestingly, I always asked the authors if they had an intro they wanted me to read, or if I should just wing it. All of them said, “Wing it!”
I lied when I said there was only one thing you can think about when you’re up there. Maybe this is two things:
You know the stuff, and they don’t
They want to learn it, and you want to teach them
There’s a whole world hidden in those two rules.
“You know the stuff” : do you really? If you’re practicing with a friend, make them promise to really try to learn it, not just critique your speaking style. That means the friend or relative who knows nothing about your topic is not your test audience. Think about every question that someone could ask, and have an answer.
“You want to teach them”: hey, you do, don’t you? If you don’t, all the body language and eye contact in the world won’t save you. If you do, the audience will sense it, and they’ll be in your corner.
You can’t fake this. Find some reason why you care if they learn it.
Now go out there, be the real you, and teach us what you know.