I occasionally get called on to speak in public, and I've been told I'm very good at it. That feedback, however, came from a colleague who during his own talks is so anxious to get down in front of people that he looks like he's being tortured. I'll still take the compliment.
I don't think it's always right to force otherwise excellent employees to get up on stage and be miserable. For better or worse, though, we live in a world where good presentation skills sometimes, unfairly, trump actual engineering knowledge. If public speaking is a worry, you could take a class on public speaking, but to become a better speaker I simply try to step out of my comfort zone once in a while and volunteer to present.
Recently, I was asked to speak to a group called Beer and Napkins. The purpose of this group is for people to meet up and hash out entrepreneurial ideas in an informal setting. That night, the group met at a bar called the Growler Haus. I felt immediately like I might be out of my league. I have a website about camera-related stuff and I do some freelance writing on the side. Others who were there either represented or owned multimillion-dollar corporations.
But as soon as I began to speak, my confidence kicked in and I was able to get through my presentation unscathed. Afterwards, though, I reflected on my performance as well as that of others. Some take-aways:
When you find yourself starting to begin a sentence with "At the risk of looking like an *******," it's probably best to stop. Maybe you don't mean to put others down by informing them of your high IQ or family wealth, but if you were to examine your audience you would likely see some major eye-rolling.
Keep in mind that people have limited attention spans; Even if you are an interesting speaker, many people will start to check out after a half hour or so. Maybe even sooner. You don't always have control of your speaking time, but if you do, try to cut out what's not needed. Take this article for example; there's a good chance you've already started skimming the text.
Don't always feel the need to challenge or correct people: During the Q&A, a guy asked me why I don't use a 3D printer. The correct response probably should have been something noncommittal, like "Good idea, I'll look into that." Instead, I tried to justify my use of a CNC router.
I think the best thing to do in these situations is to tacitly agree, then later think about where the person is coming from. Engineers almost always think their way is best, but some introspection is healthy. After all, you wouldn't want to be that 80-year-old guy who owns his own company and has no idea why anyone would want to switch to a 3D drafting package or use a newfangled CNC mill.
If you're using a timer to keep track of things, don't put it in a place you can't get to. A speech I once gave ran much longer than I thought it would be, and I had to scramble over a few people to get to it and shut the ringer off. On a similar note, whether you're speaking or listening, be sure to silence your cellphone!
— Jeremy Cook is a manufacturing engineer with 10 years experience and has a BSME from Clemson University. In his spare time he enjoys writing for DIYtripods.com.