February 13, 2018

Public Speaking. Say those two words and many people shutter. Their heart rates increase, their palms begin to sweat and their stomachs twist into knots. In fact, nearly three in four people have this reaction, as it’s reported that 75 percent of people fear public speaking. It’s easy to understand why – we live in a digital age. We text friends and family. We email colleagues and clients. We’re social on social media.
Face to face communication – especially public speaking – has gone the way of floppy disks and fax machines. However, I’d argue that public speaking skills are now more important than ever. In an age when there is an abundance of voices to wade through on our screens, I believe that we, as engineers, designers and planners, have a unique opportunity to use our voices – to practice public speaking – to create conversations with authenticity that leads to lasting change in the communities we work in.

In 2014, I joined Toastmasters, an international non-profit organization that helps members improve their communication, public speaking and leadership skills. As a transportation engineer-in-training, I thought it would be beneficial to polish my presentation skills. After attending weekly meetings for more than three years, I can say that the benefits of membership extend far beyond simple public speaking skills. I feel more confident in my speaking skills, yes, but I am also a more confident leader. I feel prepared to start complex conversations about the issues plaguing our communities and am confident in my abilities to carry on that discussion.

After attending countless classes, I’ve found that there are several skills that are crucial to remember, but easy to forget. Whether you experience sweaty palms or speaking comes natural to you, I’ve shared a few key communication techniques below that I think we can all benefit from.

Top Tips for Public Speaking

1. Take your time – People tend to rush when they’re nervous. Your speech is not a race – take a deep breath and speak at a calm, steady pace.

2. Silence is golden – Silence doesn’t have to be awkward! It’s better to fill a void with silence than with meaningless speech and redundant chatter. Silence also gives your listeners time to contemplate what you’ve already said.

3. Know your material – It’s easier to speak about a topic you’re familiar with. If you’re asked to speak on a topic that’s new to you, do your research. In the event that you’re called on to speak off the cuff, it’s ok to take a moment and gather your thoughts (ah—silence!).

4. Know your audience – Tailor your information to your audience. Is professional jargon appropriate or should you be more conversational? Do you need to provide background or is your audience already up to speed on the topic? 

5. Engage the audience – Whether you use humor, personal anecdotes, or call for audience participation, it’s necessary to capture your audience’s attention.

6. Eliminate filler words – Avoid variations of “um”, as well as transitional words, which can become filler words when you use them at the start of every sentence. Instead, briefly pause (there’s that golden silence again!) to gather your next thought before moving on with your narrative.

As engineers, architects, designers and planners, I think we have a responsibility to speak up. By using our voices we can introduce new ways of thinking, new ways of doing and new ways of being into our communities. We are in a unique position to make impactful, lasting change, but it takes us using our voices – something that technology will never replace. With the tips above and a little practice, you’ll be a confident speaker in no time!