You’re standing at the front of a conference room with a PowerPoint presentation on a screen behind you and an audience in front of you. How do you feel? Calm and confident? Nervous but collected? Or a bundle of anxiety with shaking hands and a pounding heart?
Did you consider at the outset that your career might require you to give presentations? Many young engineers don’t, but it’s important to be comfortable conducting an interview, pitching your firm for a new contract or speaking to a packed trade show audience about your experiences on a project. March 4 is World Engineering Day and National Speech and Debate Education Day, so it’s the ideal time to talk about the prevalence of public speaking in engineering — or any field that requires leadership and speaking abilities.
Scared of the spotlight? You’re not alone
Glossophobia, or the fear of public speaking, is a common phobia in the U.S. If that applies to you, there is hope. I was in your shoes, and I found a way to start taming my fear. As a business development support specialist at Hanson, I haven’t been in the position of giving a presentation on an engineering topic or selling our skills to a client. However, I began to realize a couple of years ago that my lifelong case of glossophobia had been holding me back from opportunities throughout my career. That was when I decided to join a local chapter of Toastmasters International. From that point on, my life started changing in ways I didn’t expect.
Speaking in front of the club membership has helped me build a sense of comfort and confidence in giving prepared speeches and impromptu responses on a variety of topics. Accepting roles in the meetings and in the club has also helped me develop leadership skills that I’ve been able to apply professionally and personally.
Tips for giving effective speeches
A few things I’ve learned that have improved my speaking style:
- Slow down: Make a conscious effort to pace yourself when speaking and take the time to focus on clarity and enunciation.
- Watch your “ums”: Using filler words, such as “um,” “so,” “like,” “well” and “you know,” is a common mistake among speakers. To keep your message free from these unnecessary and distracting words, which often result from searching for what you want to say, practice pausing when you are trying to find your next point. There is nothing wrong with taking a moment of silence to collect your thoughts.
- Avoid PowerPoint paralysis: When using slides in presentations, keep the text short and to the point. You don’t want wordy slides to distract from your spoken message. Also, take care to summarize — not read — your slides, and use plenty of visuals to help keep your audience engaged.
- Look up: We’ve all seen and likely been the speaker who reads their notes. Eye contact is one of the most important aspects of connecting with your audience and can be the difference between delivering your message memorably and delivering a dud.
- Ditch the lectern: Don’t be afraid to step out from behind the lectern, move around and use hand gestures. The dynamics of physical movement help capture and hold the attention of your audience.
- Be a virtual virtuoso: Online presentations have different technological considerations from in-person speeches, so it makes sense to double-check your hardware, software, background, camera height and internet connection. I also suggest running through your speech during a meeting with a friend so you can figure out how far you need to be from the camera and if you prefer to sit or stand.
- PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE: The key to a successful speech is familiarity. The more you practice your delivery, the more likely you are to remember your main points and be able to make that all-important eye contact. Try gathering a few family members or friends and asking for their feedback on your delivery or standing in front of a mirror to practice so you can observe yourself. Familiarity with your speech also helps ease anxiety.
Above all, be yourself! Your personality and knowledge are the best tools you have for giving an engaging and effective presentation, so let them shine through!
Mandy Bekoin is a business development support specialist at Hanson who has been a member of League of Our Own Toastmasters in Springfield, Illinois, since August 2019. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.