How Engineers Can Have Captivating Communication Skills

January 15, 2014

Engineers are highly intelligent people, and they often come with highly technical backgrounds. Engineering recruiters, though they may also be highly intelligent, often come with an HR background.

And therein lies one of the biggest hurdles in the path of job-seeking engineers: effective communication. Have you ever tried to describe over the phone, to a recruiter or HR intern, what exactly you do?

How about in person to their manager, who will be deciding in the near future whether to forward your resume on to the chief decision maker?

A Learning Curve of the Tongue

conversation skillsStrong presentation and communication skills have been correlated over and over with success in business, leadership, entrepreneurship, and other areas. And they are just that – skills, which have to be mastered in order to consistently put your best foot forward. Similar to the (even more difficult) challenge of giving a presentation, presenting yourself well before an audience of one during a job interview is a valuable and relatively rare skill.

Certified Speaking Professional Laurie Brown heads up The Difference, where she focuses on communication and presentation skills for technical professionals. She has also trained engineers at organizations like General Motors, BMW, Denso, Visteon, the EPA and others. She has had extensive experience coaching those who inherently talk techie.

“A common communication issue for engineers and technical people is the tendency to get into ‘tech talk’ during interviews—using highly technical language, acronyms and jargon,” she said during a recent email conversation. “Even if the person they are speaking with has a technical background, not all acronyms and jargon are understandable to everyone.”

This writer recalls one such techie, a computer-centric college dorm mate, who one day asked what song I was listening to. I told him, and he said thanks, and that he was going to find its MP3.

This was in 1999, when Napster had just popped up and most people didn’t know what an MP3 was – so I asked what it was. He struggled to find another way to describe it, gave up, and walked away without replying. Had I been a hiring manager, it probably would not have flown.

Fortunately for techie engineer job hunters, hiring conversations do not happen like that. Brown recommends a few ways in which engineers can prepare for these conversations in order to avoid the tech-talk stumbling block.

The Ally of Good Communication is Preparation

research“First, learn about the company. What do they do, and perhaps more importantly, what do they aspire to do?” she said. “Use your personal history to highlight how you can help the company achieve their goals.”

If the company you’re interviewing for specializes in one very specific thing and your knowledge base happens to be at its core, chances are your interviewer’s understanding of the subject matter will be closer to yours, and you’ll be able to get away with more lingo. However if you’re a programmer, for example, and you’re interviewing at a manufacturing organization that just needs to hire a few programmers, it’s more likely that you’ll have to speak in layman’s terms as you describe how you’ll contribute to their mission. The key is knowing in advance.

“Secondly,” Brown says, “if possible, learn about the person or persons who are interviewing you. It is easy to look people up on LinkedIn where you can learn if you have past work history in common.”

This is a more specific aspect of point one. If you’re given the name of your interviewer and you see that they’re active on a nanotechnology forum, it will be safer to speak nanotechnology than if, say, you were being interviewed by a general technology manager.

“Thirdly, think about shaping your communication style to match the person to whom you are speaking,” Brown suggests. This particular technique has been discussed here before and involves strategically echoing things such as pace, tone, word use, intensity of eye contact, and other speaking characteristics. “This doesn’t mean that you need to be fake, rather it means dialing up or down your communication style in order to build rapport.”

Eye contact can be one of the trickier ones, as intensifying eye contact can be uncomfortable for some. “If they prefer eye contact but you aren’t comfortable with it, try focusing your right eye to their right eye. This can help reduce the discomfort,” Brown says.

Here are a few other tips Brown recommends for engineers who want to practice coming across smoothly and clearly during interviews:

Play 20 Questions

speaking exercises“Write out 20 questions you think that the interviewer might ask you,” Brown says. “Then come up with succinct responses. This will give you more confidence during the interview.”

Having prepared answers to common interview questions cannot be recommended highly enough, especially for those who tend to either freeze up or go on at length. Forbes lists the 50 most common interview questions, which are the sort most people will run into. But for those who may have to field more oddball questions, here are a few of them as answered by veteran engineers, to give you some insight into what else you might run across.

Learn to Be a Storyteller

“When you can take complicated ideas and express them as a story or analogy, you will become more relatable and leave a more memorable impression,” Brown says.

One exercise she recommends for strengthening your storytelling muscles is to look up random photos online (National Geographic photos work well), and see if any of them remind you of a personal anecdote. You can start with thoughts like:

  • A time when I overcame a challenge…
  • The biggest lesson I learned in business…
  • My best trait…

Don’t Forget to Breathe

“Make sure you are breathing from your diaphragm,” Brown says. “This will lower your blood pressure and heart rate, bring more oxygen to your brain and help you relax and stay focused.”

Breathing exercises are used by athletes, martial artists, singers, and others who perform stressful tasks. They can help you feel relaxed and grounded before an interview. An example of diaphragm breathing is demonstrated here.

Even though “soft skills” may appear to be quite a challenge – and trust us, they are – they are not a challenge that cannot be conquered with a little planning and practice. And those are things engineers are definitely good at.

Have a speaking tip you like to use? Tell us in the comments. Also follow us on Facebook, Twitter or Google+ to catch more advice for engineering job seekers.