How to become an expert communicator

Having proper and effective communication skills—oral and written—are vital to career development.

By Syed Peeran, PE, PhD, CDM Smith, Boston January 23, 2017

The hackneyed cliché, "communication is key," is still meaningful and pertinent, particularly to engineers. There isn’t any doubt that communication skills are essential for career development. The following professionals are expert communicators for various reasons:

  • Politicians can capture and hold the attention of their listeners even though the ideas they wish to convey may or may not have any depth.
  • Lawyers are very lucid in oral communications and are inscrutable, perhaps deliberately, in their briefs and written material.
  • College professors draw their strengths from the fact that they know more about the subject than their listeners or readers. Sales people train themselves to be persuasive.
  • Auctioneers and facilitators have the skill of subtly letting the listeners take an active part in the process.

Expert communicators all have one thing in common: the ability to reach out to listeners or readers.

There are some professionals, however, who may fall short in communications, including those in the engineering, medical, research, and scientific professions. This is not because there is a shortage of material to be conveyed, but because they often do not think about how their words are heard or viewed.

There are two ways of communicating: oral (public speaking and presentations) and written (articles, reports, and memorandums). Both methods need careful planning and preparation. An engineering presentation is the most difficult form of communication because there is usually a lot of material to be conveyed in a limited amount of time. Unlike classroom teaching, there is little time for a logical development of concepts and ideas. Often, the presenter assumes that the listeners know as much about the subject as the speaker. This is exactly why the quality of the presentation suffers.

The presenter typically does know more about the subject than the listeners. This is an advantage that should be capitalized on as the speaker proceeds with the presentation. Another advantage is the presenter is often assisted by technology to project videos, colorful diagrams, graphs, and animated slides as helpful tools that will also be visually appealing to the audience. 

Tips to creating successful presentations

Follow these tips to create a successful presentation:

Planning: Bear in mind that there is limited time to touch on a lot of information. On a sheet of paper, identify the essentials. Ask yourself, "Why am I making this presentation?" "What do I want to convey?" "How exactly should I proceed?" Expand on the answers to form an outline of the presentation.

Chronology: The presentation should unfold in a smooth, logical fashion. If the presentation is meant for a client to win a project, start with the request for proposal and follow it up with slides to show why your company is best equipped to execute the project. Present the methodology very briefly, leaving the details to the question-and-answer time. Introduce the team and their qualifications and talk briefly about one or two similar projects completed in the past.

If the presentation is being created for an internal team or to management, talk only about the philosophy of the design, the selection of equipment, and areas where value engineering and optimization can be applied as the design progresses.

Handouts: The handouts need not be brief but should not constitute a bulky package. They should include a brief introduction to your company; a copy of all the slides that you have used in the presentation; an exhaustive list of similar projects, preferably with locations, dates, and contacts; and resumes of key personnel. Make sure that all the handouts are bound in a book format with an impressive cover.

Practicing the presentation in front of a colleague is also helpful to ensure you are communicating effectively with the audience.

Written communications, such as white papers, reports, and memos, should follow the same guidelines as presentations. However, there’s an advantage of having more time to select the right words, polish sentences, and rearrange the contents for maximum readability.

Although it takes a lot of work in order to properly prepare for a presentation, practicing these tips and guidelines will only improve the effectiveness of a written or oral presentation. 

Syed Peeran is a senior engineer with CDM Smith. He is a member of the Consulting-Specifying Engineer editorial advisory board.