By Dr. Bjorn Mercer  |  10/22/2021

exploring STEM

Many students pursuing an engineering career believe their technical knowledge will be their greatest skillset for career advancement. Not so, says author and professor, Alexa Chilcutt. In this episode, learn why it’s critical for engineers to focus on improving their communication skills so they’re better presenters and public speakers. Learn tips like relying on trusted friends and colleagues to provide guided constructive feedback and knowing your audience so you can find ways to connect with them so you can effectively communicate your research and findings.

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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And today we’re speaking to Alexa Chilcutt, Executive Education faculty at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. And our conversation today is about the challenges of communication in STEM. Welcome Alexa.

Alexa Chilcutt: Welcome Bjorn. I’m happy to be here.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. I’m excited to be here. We met a few years ago at an AACU conference, and I’m excited to talk about your book and also specifically how STEM students and people in STEM can improve their communication. So you wrote an excellent book “Engineered to Speak” with your co-author Adam Brooks, can you describe it for us?

Alexa Chilcutt: Sure. We were approached to write basically how we teach. We had worked with engineering majors at the University of Alabama, I had, for several years. We were doing corporate training, continuing studies through the university, and then working with other organizations and got connected with an editor from Wiley who then approached us and said, “We really need a practical guide for presentations, for technical presentations and public speaking for that engineering technical field.”

And we really had to have a moment of how do we approach this from a yes, a little bit of an academic, but not an academic perspective. How do we make it very utilitarian and process-oriented? Laying out the steps about how to really not just create and craft an engaging presentation, but how to think about who your audience is, to really draft those points out and approach it from a reverse engineering perspective of how to put together a really dynamic, if anybody can think of technical presentations that way, presentation and how to connect with audiences.

So the book lays some foundation for why communication skills are so important for engineers and technical professionals in their career. And what we know through the book and through the research is that not only does research show us that communication skills are pivotal to professionals in the advancement of their career. As far as helping them create credibility in their space, getting that buy-in from different audiences, whether technical or non-technical, getting support for their projects, and then being able to speak coherently and concisely about what they do and why it matters to a variety of audiences, whether management or stakeholders external to the company.

And we really wanted to make it something that was practical. We’ve got a little bit of research in there, a lot of interviews from technical professionals around the world.

I really think that’s the unique perspective of this book is that it’s not a reading book, it’s a reading and then doing and applying. And at the end, we compiled all of those assessments and activities together to take someone from the very beginning, when they’re asked to give a project update or presentation all the way through designing their slides.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I love that it’s a workbook and that it’s practical because public speaking, I think for many people, oral communication, I guess you can say, is nerve wrecking. A lot of people will self identify as being, “Oh, I’m just no good at it, I’m bad at it.” But the reality is that when you communicate and like any skill, you get better with practice and workbooks are the perfect way to facilitate improvement. You said you would like to talk about who you interviewed. Please do tell.

Alexa Chilcutt: Sure. I do want to talk about that. And then in a minute, let’s circle back around to that practice element, because I think that’s crucial too, of why we created that. But just some of the people so that your audience gets an idea of how did we try to really make this applicable to practicing engineers and technical professionals.

We interviewed here just a couple of names, Dr. Daniel Schumacher, he’s the director of technology development at Torch Technology; Dianne Sherman, who is a formal materials engineer at Dow Chemical; James Hans who’s a senior manager of purchasing and supplier quality at Mercedes-Benz US International; Rajesh Mishra, he’s an NPI manager at Caterpillar; Yuri Malishenko from Danske Bank, he’s an agile coach and a visual thinker. And then Jenn Gustetic, who is a director of early stage innovation and partnership at NASA.

We really got to reach out to people that we probably would have never had the ability to contact because we were doing this book and asking them: How did communication and public speaking skills really factor into how to use them, day to day, and how did they factor into your career advancement?

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I love that you reached out to these professionals. And sometimes when I talk about communication and public speaking, I relate it to being a musician, where musicians will often say, well, I’ll let my music speak for itself. And I think STEM and some technologists have the same perspective, “Well, the technology or what we’re developing, it’ll speak for itself and then that will convince people.” But the reality is that it doesn’t always, sometimes in certain occasions, the audience or the stakeholders will realize what’s going on.

But sometimes especially with technology, the ideas or the concepts, and the details are a little too complicated that the lay person, I’ll definitely include myself as a lay person, we need it to be explained like, what is going on here? And if your average STEM person is able to truly explain what is going on to the lay person, the person who doesn’t quite have the knowledge in technology, they’ll be able to sell and they’ll be able to advance. And so this leads us to the next question is: What are some of your experiences with teaching STEM students and professionals, and some typical communication challenges in STEM?

Alexa Chilcutt: And you’ve just brought up one that will be a great segue into that too. In 2011, I was asked to be a communication instructor for an aeronautical and mechanical engineering summer camp, it’s called “Research Experience for Undergraduates.” It’s funded by the NSF and it was there at the University of Alabama, and they really didn’t even have any curriculum for teaching those skills to these students.

And working with these students, so they are bright, they are extremely intelligent students from wonderful schools. And how was I going to make them understand that learning how to present their research, that they would be working on over the summer, why those skills were important, why communication skills were valuable and going to be valuable to their careers.

And at the end of that, the real outcomes were having poster presentations, also recording a three-minute video of their research, kind of a teaser to get people interested in it. And then a 15-minute research presentation at the end that they would hopefully take to a conference.

And working with those students really did teach me a lot, it taught me that I had to think about my audience and why it was important to them and creating that curriculum was a wonderful way for me to really get into the minds of engineers and technical professionals and get them to embrace those skills really and see that they could be good at them.

And you brought up just a moment ago, how a lot of people are, they’re nervous about public speaking. I think also in engineering fields and technical fields, the status quo is just very dry, overly technical, too long, too much data presentation. And how can you show them that this could actually be interesting? You have permission to get enthusiastic about your research, you have permission to pare it down to what’s really going to be engaging or exciting to your audience depending on who they are.

And what I love about engineers and we’ve seen this, my colleague, Dr. Adam Brooks and I who, working on this book, we’ve seen this over the years, teaching public speaking to undergraduate students we had two competitions at the end of the year, mid year, and then end of the year for these students, we typically have about 2,000 students go through our public speaking courses.

And the one competition in the spring was a $10,000 prize. And year, after year, after year, the students who ended up winning that competition were engineering students. And it was like, why? What about these public relations students who have so much charisma?

But it was because if you gave an engineering or technical student a process to follow, to build a presentation, to really think strategically about their information and about their audience and how they presented it, they embrace that process. And time and time again, they ended up as finalists in that competition and many times walking away with that $10,000.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s absolutely wonderful and a wonderful competition also. It makes me think just like you said, if a student or just anybody has a process, or even a reason to be charismatic, then if they believe in what they’re saying, then their charisma will shine through and they’ll be able to actually communicate to people the importance of whatever they’re talking about.

Versus if you’re just charismatic, you’re just being charismatic, to be a charismatic and that could get you far, but sometimes it could be a little hollow and that’s not a criticism of people who are charismatic or anything. But again, when you have a meaning, when you have a purpose, when you have a drive, that comes out. And then acquiring the skills like you were saying, especially important for STEM students, those public speaking, those oral communication skills can just go so far.

Alexa Chilcutt: Absolutely. And the process, as you said, the permission to be a little charismatic, to be dynamic, where most of them have not seen other dynamic instructors or classmate be dynamic, show their personality while also talking about their research. And it’s the same way with whether it’s students or professionals, but it is that practice part, like you were talking about with the music, it is getting comfortable with that. It’s having the foundation of the process, practicing through that process, time after time. And then, this is one of the things in the book too, we have a whole chapter, two actually, but on delivery, how do you feel confident in this space? How do you think about your voice? We don’t want to be, “Buehler, Buehler, Buehler” and that’s what people are expecting a lot of times.

So even if you’re just a little bit better than the status quo, you can really stand out. And for STEM students, yeah, we’re talking about public speaking and you don’t think that that’s something that you’d have to do a lot of, but studies have actually shown that, one study that interviewed practicing and retired engineers, they asked them about the oral culture within their firms. And they set up to 70% of their career advancement had to do with their communication skills and that 50% of their public speaking opportunities were typically in meetings, giving project updates and reports.

These are very useful skills and something that even when you’re going out into the, let’s say career fair or to interview for a job, it’s not just your technical expertise that people are going to assess. It’s your ability to connect and relate and talk about what it is that you know, and what you’ve done.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s absolutely perfect. That leads perfectly to the next question is why is it important for STEM students to work on communication, not only as a soft skill, but also for their own long-term success?

Alexa Chilcutt: A good story that in interviewing Jim Hans from Mercedes, we were sitting there and we were talking about it and I was asking him about his own presentations that he had given and his advice. And it got back around to why it’s so important in his career that he’s been able to communicate with management, externally with stakeholders, how he was a scout for let’s say a global logistics location, he was a scout for a whole year.

And at the end of that year, he had to give the presentation of the location that they had chosen his team to the higher ups at Mercedes-Benz. Why did it matter to them? He had to give the same, not presentation, but he had to talk about that choice to the people in that county, in Bibb County, in Alabama. While the purpose was the same, the audience was completely different. What he chose to talk about was different for each audience and just understanding who your audience is, is such a big part of success.

But he was also talking about coming to the University of Alabama to interview students for internships or for jobs at Mercedes. And he said, “I have so many students that come up to my table or that come speak to me and they hand me their resume and they have a 4.0. And I’m wildly impressed that they have a 4.0, but they’re looking at their shoes, they’re not making eye with me, they’re not talking, they’re not telling me about the last internship they had. He said, time and time again, I’m hiring the student with a 3.2 who can come up to me and really discuss the things that they’ve done. The teams that they’ve worked in, the projects that they’ve had success working on.” And so those communication skills are necessary. They’re not soft skills, they really have a lot of return on investment, immediately. And it can really get you that job.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I completely agree. And I remember being in a conference once where this woman who works with CEOs, she was like, the CEOs often complain all these new grads they don’t have the soft skills, they don’t have the communication and the problem solving the X, Y, and Z. And it’s one of those things where it’s like, well, I agree. And I think a lot of higher education fails at that, especially for students that are “younger” say 22 when they graduate. Because being a fully developed person at 22 is difficult, I’ll just say me at 2, whoof, bad.

Alexa Chilcutt: Join the club.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I don’t know how I did anything. I don’t know how I went on to get my masters. I don’t know how I paid bills, what did I do? I have no idea. But at the same time, it’s difficult because schools have so much on their plate to educate students with. And that oftentimes this “soft skills” are something that have been more relegated to, “Ooh well, that’s professional development” or that’s communication and communication as a field has been viewed as “lite” when in reality, it’s some of the most important things you’ll do for success.

And I was thinking about what you were saying about the audience and when you’re talking to people, audience is the most important thing, because like you were saying, I always tell people, if you struggle with public speaking, be an actor. So be yourself 100%, you have to be authentic in how you present yourself. But if you’re naturally introverted, do some acting chops, be somebody whom you’re typically not and be more extroverted, a little more gregarious. And that doesn’t mean that you have to change who you are or lie, but it just means that in that situation, you’re going to rise to the occasion.

And at the same time, it’s like public speaking, like when I think of politicians, those are speeches, that’s acting, that is 100% acting. And in public speaking, especially oral communication, we’re not talking about that per se. We’re not all CEOs giving speeches to the entire company, that is completely different.

And when you’re talking to your team and you are trying to influence them to do a better job or to follow a new process, it’s about trust. And I think a lot of times that component of trust and authenticity when people are just struggling for the right words, it gets lost sometimes because they’re nervous. How would you say, how should people approach how to convey trust in an authentic and real way?

Alexa Chilcutt: I think you’re right in that there is that persona that you want to put on that’s a better version or a more in that moment, kind of engaging version of yourself to connect with the audience. But authenticity, I think really the best way to create that connection, that trust with your audience, to come across as authentic is to really understand who your audience is and what’s important to them, what they want to hear from you about whether it’s your project or about their role within the team, why, let’s say, changes have been made in the company. And you’re expecting, if you’re a leader, you’re expecting them to do something differently. It’s really about talking with people, not at people. To have more of a, even if it’s public speaking, a conversation. But at the heart of authenticity, it’s knowing who your audience is and being able to connect with what matters most to them.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I love that you said, it’s about having a conversation with people instead of at people. And so often with public speaking, when people are a little unskilled, they’re just about, I’m getting the message out as fast as I can.

Alexa Chilcutt: That’s right.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I want to make sure that I just don’t mess up. And the reality is that you oftentimes, when you are speaking, you need to sit back a bit. You need to be a little more relaxed and you need to, especially not be tense because when you tense it can mess up with your vocal chords, it can get you tired, so many different things.

And so this brings us to the last question here, for professionals, why are communication and presentation skills considered areas of needed professional development? Or what feedback have you received from those who have read your book?

Alexa Chilcutt: Well, professional development is about that continued learning. And I think in any profession, technical or not, if you want to continue to rise within that organization or within your career, you have to think about where am I currently and what could I be doing better? I mean, that’s really the only two questions you should ever be asking yourself: Where am I and where do I want to be?

And there are no perfect communicators, there just aren’t, I’m not a perfect communicator, my husband would tell you that. We have to continue to develop and hone those skills because it is about self-awareness. I’m sure so many people have heard about emotional intelligence and emotional intelligence is that secret sauce to leadership, to success. It’s not about IQ, how technically smart you are, it’s about those social skills, it’s about communication, connecting with people, motivation. And that’s where I believe communication skills touch every single part of our day-to-day business transactions, working with our colleagues.

And because there’s always room to improve, not just in public speaking, but in how we connect with others down the hall, or up to management, or out to broader audiences, there’s always room to evaluate and improve those skills.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I completely agree, and it really is about where am I today and how can I improve? And like you said, evaluating and improving those skills. And it’s one of those more difficult things as you need to be able to reflect. And self-reflection is a skill in its own because then you can’t be too overly harsh on yourself because so oftentimes we are. We’re our own worst critic and say, we have a presentation and we give it, the immediate thing we’ll do is start picking apart the little things we messed up on. Now, how do you help people with that overly critical aspect of themselves that sometimes if too much, can actually sabotage self-improvement?

Alexa Chilcutt: Well, assessments. In this book, we have assessments for you to, let’s say you record, and we suggest you record a presentation that you’re going to give. And yes, we’re all absolutely so hypercritical of ourselves. A great example that I like to give is, you have to record your voicemail on your cell phone. And how many of us go back and listen to our voice message and think, “Oh my gosh, do I sound like that? Do I have a Southern accent?” we’re always in that critiquing mode.

But knowing that about yourself, you are your harshest critic most of the time, but also understanding that, especially when we get into the work world, colleagues are so afraid to give you honest feedback. How many times have you done a presentation, you’ve walked up to a really good friend, a colleague, and asked how you did. They’re not going to tell you where you messed up, they’re just going to go to, “Oh, it was great, it was fine,” whether it was or not.

In this book, we have suggestions for practicing, practice, record yourself, watch yourself back. And we have assessments as far as, did you follow the process? Do you have all of these elements of the presentation? Do you have an attention-getting device to grab your audience’s attention? Did you preview what your topic was so that they understood what you were going to talk about and where you were going with it so that they could follow along? Did you wrap up well? Was it organized?

We have those kinds of checkpoints along the way. And we also have non-verbal. Did you have vocal variety? Were you making good eye contact? What did your slides look like? So we give people the option to do a self-evaluation and assessment. They can do it the first time, practice a little more, make some improvements, go back, record themselves and do it again.

Then we have a step beyond that, which is a peer evaluation. And that actually gives you numerical data so that you can have a trusted colleague or friend watch your presentation and they know how to give you feedback. Because as I said, most people don’t want to give critical feedback, but if you give them a way to give constructive feedback, they’re more open to that process. It’s all about being open, not being overly critical, but I think the biggest part of that improvement is having the process and the steps so that you understand how to evaluate yourself.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that is an absolutely wonderful response. And I love that you talked about the process and the steps and recording yourself. And one thing you said also, you said, “Do I have a Southern accent?” And we all have accents, that’s one of those things where oftentimes people will be like, well, there’s an accent over there, there’s an accent over there. But actually whatever we speak, if we think it’s typical is an accent. The world they’re just accents, various accents, there’s no one standard. And whatever kind of vocal habits you have, or even an accent, lean into it. Like Alexa, your accent sounds great.

Alexa Chilcutt: Well, and it’s authentic. And I have learned how to, let’s say, make sure that you can improve, you can think about hearing yourself and say, “Wow, I really need to think about articulating that word a little differently or enunciating” or, as you said earlier, you might have habits and speaking verbal fillers. Wow, that’s a huge habit that people don’t even recognize that they have saying, “ugh, um, like, you know,” because our brain, we’re trying to think about what the next word is. And while we’re thinking about that next word, our brain is putting in those space holders and it’s whatever that word is, that is your go-to.

And so, so many times you go back and you watch yourself and you hear the “ums” that you didn’t know you were speaking. And so you have those, we are the areas that yes, some of that’s authentic and some of that needs to be improved on. And so being kind to yourself along the way.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And I remember when I was in Toastmasters and they scored you and they said you had zero ums. I was like, “Yes.” I said, but you had 40 “clicks.” So instead of going, “Um,” I did a little tick. And so after that, it really makes me think, instead of me doing some verbal pause, which are ums and ticks, that sometimes you do just take a break, just stop for half a second. And that’s okay. It’s okay to have some silence and some pauses when you’re speaking.

And when you are thinking about how you’re speaking or even your own verbal habits, accents are fine. I’m sure when you are speaking to people in say, Alabama, you speak slightly different versus when you speak to other people. And the only thing that can happen with say accents is just ensure that whatever you say, the vast majority of people understand what you’re saying. Versus some colloquialisms or certain words that are only used in certain areas, you might want to avoid that.

I grew up in Texas, oftentimes I’ll say, “Howdy,” it’s more of just something I do versus my typical accent of newscaster American, whatever accent I have.

Alexa Chilcutt: Well, and one of the things that you brought up, which I’m sure we could have talked about earlier, but in thinking about those colloquialisms also for the STEM audience, what about jargon. Who is your audience and what degree of knowledge do they have about your technical expertise? Because just like those ums or ands, or the slang that we have incorporated jargon becomes like that as well.

Technical terms that are so ingrained and so easily understood for you, taking yourself outside of yourself, listening from, let’s say, a fresh ears experience, or that objective, observer, listener and understanding how to analyze your audience. Are they going to know what that term is? Okay. And it’s not about dumbing it down. I have had so many engineers or engineering students say, “Well, I shouldn’t have to dumb it down,” it’s not about that. It’s about connecting. How can I connect instead of using that very technical term, what is a way that I can explain it, that I can make it clear and vivid and some example?

I think there’s so much that we can learn from going back and watching or listening to ourselves with the audience in mind. And it’s a process, as I said, there are no perfect presenters, there are no perfect public speakers, no perfect communicators, but you have to be willing to open yourself up to submit yourself a little bit to that improvement process.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And I love how you said, focus on your audience and it’s not dumbing it down. If your audience doesn’t understand what you’re saying, they’re not going to buy it. So there’s that simple reality right there. And so absolutely wonderful conversation today, Alexa, any final words?

Alexa Chilcutt: Well, I would say, I would love for people to check out the book “Engineered to Speak.” Many universities have a subscription to IEEE, the explore, or the Wiley online library where students can access electronic versions of the book through a PDF. As I said, it’s a workbook, it’s on Amazon, it’s on Wiley, but at least you can get it right through the university library.

And I would also encourage people if they want to just check it out maybe professionals who are thinking about that next step in career advancement, improvement to go to Amazon, read some of the reviews and just see if it might be something they would enjoy working through and having. And that’s another thing that we did was making sure that this was a repeatable process, user-friendly guide and book.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. Thank you. And I completely, 100% agree, if there’s one skill out there that could help you with your career, it is oral communication. It’s better public speaking and especially in STEM where sometimes the concepts and the ideas are pretty complicated. And so for everyone, we all need to work on self-improvement and with our oral communication.

And today we’re speaking with Alexa Chilcutt about the challenges of communication in STEM. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And thank you for listening.

About the Author
Dr. Bjorn Mercer

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music in his spare time.

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