Engineered to Speak: How C&IS Equips Engineers with Presentation Blueprints

Aug 26, 2021

Engineering students work with Speaking Studio consultants to enhance their public speaking and presentation skills.

Imagine this: You worked hard for your engineering degree—tackling complicated mathematics courses, co-oping for nationally acclaimed manufacturing companies and putting in the extra hours with study groups and tutors to ensure your academic success. Your academic credentials and co-op experience helped you land a great job out of college with a better-than-average starting salary and healthy company culture. After two years at the company, you finally get the opportunity to lead a project—a small project, but one you can proudly put your name on.

So, you carefully listen to your client’s needs, you and your team come up with a few different solutions at various price points and pick the one you agree your client will like the most. Your team creates charts and graphs, drafts talking points and ENGINEERED TO SPEAK timelines, and even manages to come in slightly under budget. Now, it’s time to present your pitch to the client. In front of a conference room filled with various stakeholders in your client’s business, you run through your presentation. But why do they have so many questions? Why do they look so confused and overwhelmed? You triple-checked all the math, priced every project component competitively and it’s all laid out in the presentation clearly—or is it?

As some of the brightest minds in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math), engineers have a language all their own—but not everyone speaks that language. Translating complicated and nuanced ideas into the vernacular of everyday people with confidence and clarity is an essential component to success in the engineering world. As a campus partner to UA’s College of Engineering, C&IS prepares and equips engineering students to meet these challenges head on and excel as leaders in their careers through its valuable faculty expertise and classroom instruction, as well as the opportunities provided to master their craft.

EXPERTS IN THE FIELD

If anyone at The University of Alabama are experts on public speaking, it’s Dr. Alexa Chilcutt and Dr. Adam Brooks, who serve as the director of C&IS’ public speaking program and the director of the Speaking Studio, respectively. Chilcutt and Brooks have designed and administered more than 100 professional development workshops for corporations and continuing education departments nationwide, teaching a vast skillset of transferable communication skills.

“What we’re seeing across the globe is a large conversation about how quickly we’re advancing in technologies and the ways in which this is going to fundamentally transform our country and the world,” said Brooks. “However, many of these brilliant minds—scientists, engineers, software developers— lack the skills and knowledge to effectively communicate their ideas to any audience.”

This is why, in 2019, Brooks and Chilcutt incorporated their stories and strategies into their book Engineered to Speak: Helping You Create and Deliver Engaging Technical Presentations. The first of its kind, the book is designed to pair their approachable workshop style with the experiences of dozens of technical professionals to teach oral communication, public speaking and visual aid design skills specifically to a STEM audience.

Brooks and Chilcutt are not the only professionals to notice the gap between the need for engineers to make presentations and their proficiency with public speaking. In fact, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), which is the accrediting body for more than 4,000 engineering programs in 32 countries, recently updated their criteria for Accrediting Engineering Technology Programs. The update now includes “an ability to apply written, oral and graphical communication in both technical and non‐technical environments; and an ability to identify and use appropriate technical literature.”

As these leaders in engineering education are enhancing their commitment to developing the communication skills of engineering students, C&IS experts are providing them with practical solutions to make the shift as simple as possible.

“Engineering curriculum is intense and extremely dense. It is difficult for them to squeeze in a course devoted to communication. Now, according to ABET they are required to incorporate learning outcomes that ensure proficient communication skills,” said Chilcutt. “We have specifically written the book to include a 10-module curriculum. This will allow engineering programs to drop learning modules into existing curriculum.”

PUBLIC SPEAKING CLASSES

Depending on the exact course of study, an engineering major enrolled at The University of Alabama will have a schedule with heavy portions of math, chemistry and computer sciences. These are not courses that emphasize the art or importance of effective communication, and unlike other majors on campus, their structured course list does not afford them a plethora of chosen electives.

In 2011, Chilcutt collaborated with aeronautical and mechanical engineering faculty who received funding from the National Science Foundation to create a research experience for UA Engineering students. For the next eight summers, Chilcutt designed the communication component of this curriculum for engineering students and taught summer courses exclusively for them. Since then, Brooks and Chilcutt are viewed as campus-wide experts and requested to speak with senior capstone engineering courses. They have also hosted workshops on how to give effective presentations.

In addition to the years of support Chilcutt and Brooks have provided to assist engineering faculty, C&IS offers public speaking courses for students all across campus. Currently four UA Engineering degrees require COM 123: Public Speaking. According to Dr. Ed Back, Professor and Department Chair of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering, this course has had a tremendous impact.

“In professional practice you present proposals, defend your solutions and deal with really challenging questions,” said Back. “Being able to communicate is really essential. Our graduates who possess a well-developed technical competency but can also communicate effectively—their careers just skyrocket.”

While upper-level courses in UA Engineering stress communication as a learning outcome, leading team conversations and delivering complicated presentations to a variety of audiences are skills that can be acquired by learning the basics. In addition to the way Brooks and Chilcutt teach public speaking, their book emphasizes a process to public speaking that transcends natural abilities and personal charisma.

“What Adam and I found in talking to countless engineers and technical professionals is that they love a good process,” said Chilcutt. “If you give them a process—a blueprint for how to put together a presentation and step-by-step instructions for crafting a speech—they follow it. Then, if they get a little bit outside of their comfort zone and embrace a delivery style, charisma and creativity, they’re just brilliant.”

Engineering students who wish to improve their public speaking skills have connected with C&IS in a variety of different ways. In addition to the hundreds who have taken COM 123 over the years, many have entered the speech contest for the Holle Award for Excellence and Creativity in Communication for Public Speaking; a few have even won. Still yet, the engineering students who seem to have excelled the most have crafted their skills behind the desk of the College’s public speaking laboratory, the Speaking Studio.

THE SPEAKING STUDIO

When chemical engineering graduate, Russell Durand (’18), was finishing his first co-op rotation at Kia Automotive’s manufacturing plant in Georgia, he was asked to give a presentation in front of upper management. Reflecting on the presentation and knowing that more were sure to come as he continued his co-op experience, Durand took it upon himself to enhance his skill level with public speaking.

“Engineering students have to know what technical information to share and how to share it in a way that it makes sense to someone who might not have the same background,” said Durand. “I wanted to get involved with something public speaking related because I saw that students sometimes had really good projects they completed as interns, but, because they couldn’t craft that clear message, the project kind of got brushed over.”

The Speaking Studio actively recruits students from all over campus to serve as consultants. This role offers a transformational experience that enhances their skills and their comfort level with public speaking, as well as their ability to craft effective messages. Now working at the Exxon Mobil Pipeline Company, Durand credits much of his success to the time he spent developing his skills at the Speaking Studio, where he also worked as a consultant.

“I learned a lot as a Speaking Studio consultant,” said Durand. “It helped me improve tremendously because, as I helped others, I was working on it myself—seeing what’s effective and what’s not effective. It helped me get this job at Exxon.”

During an appointment at the Speaking Studio, trained public speaking consultants like Durand record a client’s presentation and offer them immediate feedback. This is the only service on campus that offers this kind of feedback, and consultants can critique and encourage clients who are crafting both individual and group presentations.

Durand is not the only UA graduate currently working in the STEM field with experience as a Speaking Studio consultant. After graduation, Alexa Rosenberg (’20) began working for NASA at the Marshall Space Flight Center for a program that offers prizes to the public for solving technical problems NASA faces such as how to get increased nutrients in astronaut diets.

According to Rosenberg, her experience with public speaking played largely into why she was selected for her role. “My boss saw my Speaking Studio experience on my application and said, ‘Thank God. None of us like presenting,” said Rosenberg. “They gave me a project to work on that includes a full presentation to NASA headquarters, which was exciting.”

Whether UA students are pursuing a degree from C&IS, engineering or something entirely different, diverse experiences and skillsets increase their marketability to potential employers. And students who served as Speaking Studio consultants often directly tie these experiences to helping them launch successful careers and fast-tracking their promotability.

Now, imagine you’re back in the conference room in front of your client. All of your math, charts and graphs, and budget are ready and prepared. It’s time again for the big pitch— only this time, it’s not just your skill as an engineer you bring to the table. Your clear and confident message captures your client’s attention because you supplemented your education with experience and instruction from the leading experts in the field of public speaking.

Engineers have some of the brightest technical minds in the world and communicating their ideas effectively distinguishes them in their field. As the University continues to educate and graduate global leaders in the world of STEM education, a commitment to excellence in communication will ensure their success. At C&IS, our public speaking curriculum, Speaking Studio and expert faculty will lead the way in shaping the next generation of engineering professionals.