How to Make an Impact When You Speak
Recently I completed an assignment to help technical managers and engineers speak better. The problem? They had adopted a culture of techno-speak. Even colleagues within the company couldn’t figure out what was being said without an acronym dictionary. Acronyms are a way of life in technology. Yet the problem wasn’t just the acronyms. Meaningless jargon was getting in the way, along with a number of bad habits. Here’s the advice I gave them.
- Set a goal for your speech
- Dynamically engage the audience — find out what they want from you
- Show where you will have impact
In my training, we focused on speaking for internal audiences. Most engineers don’t think they give speeches. They believe they give technical presentations. Whatever you like to call it, the rules of engagement are the same.
The company I was working with prefers PowerPoint slides to make any kind of presentation. They aren’t alone. Dependence upon PowerPoint slides has engendered an entire generation of weak speakers. Slides are often used as an unnecessary crutch. Instead of helping, they generally cripple what might have been an impactful presentation.
Three Levels of Engagement – Very Short, Short, and In-Depth
Generally, if you have a good message, you should be able to break it into three lengths: 3 seconds, 3 minutes, and 30 minutes. No speech or presentation should ever take more than 30 minutes, especially in the world of technology. Engineers and technical managers are too busy to listen for more than 30 minutes.
Let me break that down for you.
In just 3 seconds you should be able to explain your point and hook the listener with a benefit. For example, “Today I will show you how to use your existing equipment to test the latest cellular standards with inexpensive software upgrades.” Really? How can you do that? Tell me more!
The next message focuses on the 3-minute speech. This encapsulates your key points and explains how you deliver the benefit you just promised. Utilizing positioning, message development, and training, you can hone your speech to just 3 minutes.
This used to be called the “Elevator Speech.” It’s wise to use this for higher-level managers who don’t understand the bits and bytes. Management is concerned with just two things—how much will this cost and how soon can it make money?
If you are successful in the short speech, AKA “The Pitch,” then you will be invited to give a lengthier, 30-minute presentation. Your next speech will explain the details and you’ll hope to win something from the audience—including funding, loyalty, internal resources, or well-placed cheerleaders within your company or the customer’s organization. If you bore your audience with details and specifications, don’t plan on your agenda winning the day.
A mistake engineers often make is to assume everyone knows what they are talking about. I often hear it said, “Well, we don’t have to explain that, everyone knows what it is.”
Let’s unpack that. You walk into a room of customers. You don’t know them; they don’t know you. You start talking about your latest specifications. All of a sudden, one of the bright new stars of the company (a recent college graduate) whispers to his colleague, “What is he talking about?” He’s never heard of MITB. At no point did you explain the problem you can solve. Guess what? You didn’t help him. Now you’ve made him feel stupid. He’s not on your side.
The attitude that “everyone already knows” creates a giant torpedo for effective communications. It assumes that no one new is ever coming into the industry. Instead of helping create a bridge to understanding, you created a barrier. You put distance between you and the audience.
When you are making a presentation—yes, a speech—keep these guideposts in mind:
- You are not writing. Technical documentation can come later.
- You seek to be understood.
- You need to be understood.
- You need to educate.
The language we use seems to reflect our quality of mind; therefore, it is imperative that engineers perfect their speaking skills. It is a hard fact of life that we are judged by how well we speak. Strangely, few technology companies put a premium on this vital communication skill. I am here to say that technology companies should put a very high value on this key skill. How many wasted meetings would turn into something positive if only the speaker were better? More prepared? More engaged?
Have you heard someone speak poorly? What happened next? I‘ll wager that you disregarded that person. Speaking confers knowledge. No matter how smart you are, if you can’t convince other people—and win converts to your idea—you lose opportunities. Your idea will be subsumed by 100 other ideas that may not be better than yours. Yet someone spoke better of their idea and won the funding. Your idea died.
“Everything that can be thought at all, can be thought clearly. Everything that can be said, can be said clearly.” — Ludwig Wittenstein
Simple Tips & Thoughts on Speaking
If you find yourself in a position to make a speech to two or more people, here are some easy tips to remember.
- Speaking is like running. Tread carefully. The faster you go, the easier it is to make mistakes, especially when you are delivering new or very old content (something you have repeated many times before).
What do I mean by that? The most common mistake engineers make when speaking is to talk too fast. They hope to dazzle the audience with their technical expertise, but in the end, they forget to persuade the audience. They forge ahead, getting faster and faster as they get more nervous. Mistakes and fumbles happen. Pretty soon the audience tunes out. The speaker finally looks up from the twenty-fifth PowerPoint slide only to see that everyone’s answering email on their laptops and smart phones.
Jargon is created with the specific purpose of dividing, not uniting people.
- Pace yourself. Practice your timing before the presentation. When you set an appropriate pace, you will be sure of yourself, and you won’t stumble as much. Once you feel comfortable, you can speed up a bit. But remember, the most impactful speeches actually have very slow, deliberate timing. Do you recall hearing these words: “Ask not what your country can do for you…ask what you can do for your country.” John F. Kennedy’s speech was measured and full of impact.
- The goal of a speech is to link people and close a gap. When you speak to customers or other engineers at your company, you will be conveying important information. Remember one thing above all: Why am I here? What do I want? As a result of your presentation, what do you want the audience to think, feel, and believe? Be very clear about this. Your presentation will go much smoother.
- A bad speech is a missed opportunity. What’s at stake if you make a poor presentation? Nothing less than a missed opportunity. Perhaps it was a new product or feature proposal. Or maybe you were hoping to convince a customer to buy a new module from you instead of your competitor. Whatever it was, your goal went down the drain because of a muddled performance by you.
- Avoid jargon and use natural language. You might say this about jargon, “I can’t avoid it!”Don’t worry; I’ve heard it all before. Or, how about this chestnut, “Everyone knows what I am talking about, I don’t need to explain it!” I think that excuse is the worst crutch for bad speaking skills. I hear it all the time. It actually means you’re too lazy to put more effort into explaining what you mean. On the other hand, I have also heard the most technically gifted engineers—from the largest and most powerful companies in the world—bring people together by talking about how and why something should happen, precisely because they did not describe it spec by spec.
Language can be used to divide people. That is the case with jargon. It says, “I know something that you don’t. And, if you don’t know it, then I don’t really care. I’m more important than you.” That’s what jargon communicates. Maybe you are not using technical jargon. You might just be using language in a meaningless way. For example, here’s a phrase I found in one presentation: “We want to connect to the vision.” Whose vision? How do I connect to it?
- A great speaker closes the gap with the audience at the outset of the presentation.
You can do this by using one of these techniques:
- Making a declaration of extreme importance
- Point out a curiosity
- Cite a fascinating point of fact.
To illustrate this tip, here’s a great example. If you are old enough and/or have lived or studied in America, you will recall this ridiculous statement about an extreme engineering goal, made in a speech by President Kennedy in 1961:
“First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
At the time President Kennedy made the speech, it seemed ludicrous. It caught everyone’s attention. Your own declaration of importance may sound something like this, “It’s my belief that if we don’t adopt this architecture right now, we’ll be left behind in the market. I saw our competitor give a paper at the last IEEE show and they are well on their way to solving this.” Connect. Make an impact. Close the gap.
Use humor, but only if it works for you. If you don’t think humor fits into your natural style, then use anecdotes from your own knowledge and experience. Instead of marching through slide after slide of features and specifications, add some of the “how” and “why” to your details. For example, “If we adopt this new architecture, we can reduce process costs by 50 percent.”
Overcome objections the right way. One of the most uncomfortable positions for a speaker is to be challenged by the audience. You can skillfully address any objection in three steps.
- First, acknowledge the challenger personally. They need to know they are being heard.
- Second, don’t dodge the question. You shouldn’t try to deny what they are saying or avoid their question. Don’t give an answer, if you truly don’t have one.
- Third, turn the question to the positive side. Even in a worst-case scenario, you can respond positively. Let’s say there was a large layoff at one of the company’s divisions because of a product that failed in the market. In this scenario, you will need to acknowledge the failure. You should show sincere sympathy for the human impact, that people are losing their jobs. Then, discuss what the company has done to correct the source of the product failure and how market growth can be achieved by addressing a different part of the market.
Acknowledge mistakes. Tell people how you are correcting the mistakes. Whatever you do, don’t rush your answer. Stay alert. If you need a minute to gather your thoughts, just say so. Say, “Give me a minute to think about that.” If the answer is too complex, put it in a “parking lot” — that’s jargon professional presenters use when they want to table an issue for later discussion.
- Don’t let the audience sidetrack your presentation. If you are lucky, no one will ever sidetrack your presentation in an aggressive way. However, you still need to keep your goal in mind at all times. Have you attended meetings that did not accomplish anything due to: poor time management, too much time spent on the wrong agenda items, socializing, or just plain bickering?
Sidetracking can happen other ways. There may be side meetings (two people whispering to each other), distraction (many people continue to read email during meetings), or hijacked agendas (someone else starts talking about another urgent topic, and everyone is swept up in it). Stick to your agenda and take control back. Stop all side meetings and agendas. It’s your meeting and you are in charge.
- Be prepared. There is no greater advice that I can give to a speaker than to be prepared. You should know your material, of course. You should also know your audience. Ask questions ahead of time. If you are going to make a presentation at a meeting, find out who will be there. Find out what they want from the meeting. Be prepared to be flexible while still accomplishing your goal.
- Be relaxed and have fun. There’s nothing worse than a speaker who wants to be somewhere else. Everyone in the room will know it immediately. Be “present” at your own presentation. If you believe fervently in what you are saying, and convey it successfully, you will have success as a speaker and also in life.
Debra Seifert Communications is a public relations, advertising, and marketing agency based in Portland, Oregon.
DSC specializes in marketing for technology companies. Debra assembles the right talent tailored to the needs of your project. Our goal is to help your company succeed by communicating effectively with technical customers.
Debra Seifert’s communications background includes hardware and software technology, nanotechnology, semiconductors, photovoltaics, embedded software development tools, EDA, test & measurement, wireless and IT network technologies, and biotech. Debra has a B.A. in English Literature from Linfield College and a M.A. in Communications/Business Administration from the University of Portland, where she graduated summa cum laude. She is Accredited in Public Relations (APR) by the Public Relations Society of America.