Orange County Branch Newsletter

March 2010

Secretary's Column

Public Speaking and Civil Engineers

By Tapas Dutta, PE



There are always three speeches, for every one you actually gave.  The one you practiced, the one you gave, and the one you wish you gave.  ~Dale Carnegie

When I was a graduate student, I was not one of the students who would frequently ask questions in class.  I would rather meet the professor before or after class and have him answer my queries.   I did well in one-on-one conversations but I was terrified of public speaking.  I was not alone. Numerous studies have revealed that speaking in front of a group of people ranks high in the list of fears many people had, ahead of fear of death!  When I started to work on my thesis, imagine my horror when my faculty advisor announced to his students that each graduate student of our research laboratory would take turns each week to give a presentation on the status of their work.  Worse, these meetings would have invited guests from other departments.  I had mistakenly allowed myself to be lulled into a false sense of security that in order to be a successful civil engineer, you had to be good only at engineering. After all, I had not signed up to be a lawyer, journalist or a talk show host.

Dr. Weyers, my graduate advisor explained that civil engineers in their profession needed to have excellent public speaking capabilities.  “In your career” he said, “you are going to be making presentations to clients in order to win a job.  You are going to have status presentations to your team and your client during a project.”

In the last 21 years as a civil engineer, I have come to appreciate the validity of his words.  Consider any successful civil engineer, such as managers and leaders of agencies and firms. The one common trait that you are likely to see that is common to all of them is that they are usually competent public speakers. The ability to speak clearly, succinctly and communicate your ideas to your audience is vitally important to us as professional civil engineers dealing with projects that affect public safety.  Lack of this capability may lead to:

Miscommunication with your team, that can lead to wasted work effort or a wrong decision being made
Good ideas that may not get considered, compromising the quality of your project

Some individuals have innate natural talent to be great speakers and seem to have no fears in speaking in public; on the contrary, they seem to thrive in that environment.  All of us however can conquer our fear of public speaking through perseverance and improve through sheer practice.  Experts say that a certain amount of fear is actually healthy; being too relaxed when speaking in public may result in an ultra-casual delivery. 

Joining Toastmasters has personally enabled me to improve my public speaking capability. The two types of speeches the organization focuses on are the timed speeches and the impromptu speeches. Each type serves its own specific purpose.

The timed speeches prepare you to deliver your planned speech within a specific time. You learn to encapsulate your ideas in a logical progression and have your opening, body and closing of your speech topic within usually a five to seven minute period. This is invaluable practice for an engineer asked to give a project presentation to city council or to a client during a project team meeting.

The impromptu speeches (also called Table Topics) are one to two minute speeches on a topic that is given to you on the spot.  This helps you to “think on your feet.”  An example of this in our professional life is being asked an unexpected question at a public outreach meeting.

Some tips on good public speaking are:

  • Practice.  Writing down important speeches and then practicing them repeatedly will make you better. As you practice, you can refine and revise your speech to make it better. If time is of importance, time your practice sessions.
  • Audience. Be familiar with your audience. You do not want to speak down to your audience if they are technically well informed; you also do not want to overwhelm them with technical jargon if they are not as technically proficient.  You may also want to provide sufficient background information: your audience may not be as a familiar with the project history as you are.
  • Body Language. Make eye contact with your audience. Do not focus on one individual; work the room. Make appropriate hand gestures to emphasize your speech. Have a relaxed posture.
  • Voice. Make sure that your voice can be heard at the back of the room. Vary your vocal tone during your presentation; avoid speaking in a monotone.
  • Minimize Verbal Fillers. Make a conscious effort to minimize your “ahs”, “ums” and “you know”. The more you practice, the smoother your delivery will be.
  • Beginning and Ending. Have an impactful start of your speech to get the audience’s attention. Similarly, have a strong ending so that the audience remembers you. If you have a single message, it is very powerful to tie your beginning to your ending. It is acceptable to use humor, as long as it is appropriate to the circumstances.

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