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How to Become an Effective Communicator as an Engineer

In this podcast Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods spoke to Neil Thompson of about how to build great communication skills as a technologist.

Key Takeaways

  • Effective communication skills are crucial in almost every role, and vital for career progression
  • Engineering schools focus on the technical skills and generally don’t provide any guidance on what is needed to be an effective communicator
  • Key to engaging people is use language they understand and tell stories that provide context for the facts you want to convey
  • Design slides to tell a story through images not text
  • When trying to persuade rather than just communicate facts ensure there is a compelling story of why your suggestion is better than the alternatives


Shane Hastie: Good day, folks. This is Shane Hastie from the InfoQ Engineering Culture Podcast. Today I'm sitting down with Neil Thompson.

Neil, welcome. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today.

Neil Thompson: Thanks for having me.

Shane Hastie: My first question to all my guests is, who's Neil?

Introductions [00:31]

Neil Thompson: Well, it's not that complicated of an answer really. I was somebody who ended up as an engineer because my father said that I probably should. It was never really something that I thought to do really. When I finished high school, I was pretty good at math and science. And he said, "Become an engineer," and I said, "Okay." I used to lie about the reason I became an engineer, too, because I was embarrassed by the reason. Oftentimes when you hear people answer that question, they'll say something like, they were in robotics club. Maybe ever since they were kids, they played with Legos. I don't really remember playing with Legos as a kid. And I certainly wasn't a member of a robotics club. My high school didn't even have one. I solely became an engineer because my father said I should. And luckily, it worked out okay. So, I have got a degree in materials engineering.

And then my father said, "Go to graduate school and get a master's degree." And I said, "Okay." and I got a master's in engineering, as well, in biomedical engineering. And then he said, "Go get a PhD." I said, "Okay." So I started a PhD program. But that's why, I guess, the agreeing with my father ended. When I was 18 is when I started undergrad. And by this time, starting the PhD, I'm 24 years old. So that's six years later. At some point, you got to start making decisions for yourself, not for the wants of others, your parents included. And I really didn't see myself going through a PhD program for however long it was going to take to get this PhD if I really wasn't passionate about getting the PhD. So, after a year in the PhD program, I left, and I spent about seven months looking for a job, living in my father's condo. He certainly wasn't happy about the fact that I was back in his condo.

But luckily, after a few months, I was able to find a job and I kind of got off to my career that way. Actually, with my second job that I even thought about, what I needed to do to move up within an organization. With that first job, I was just kind of feeling my way out, just trying to figure things out, I suppose. But with that second job, I was put on a project as a project lead. And what's a project lead? Well, the company that I was working for was too cheap to hire project managers, they pushed that responsibility onto the engineers. And one of them was giving presentations on a monthly basis to senior management. So we're talking the CEO, COO, CTO, C-fill-in-the-blank-O, all the C's, all these people in this conference room, with myself and all the other project leads talking about project-status updates for their projects.

The fear of public speaking [02:50]

And those first two presentations that I had to give were absolutely horrendous. I didn't even know it was that possible to sweat that profusely from one's body, but there I was, like I came out the shower, just completely coated with water. But I realized, ultimately, that giving presentations in front of these people, many of whom were not technical, was something that I should probably get better at because I really didn't want that feeling of just being completely covered in sweat before, during, and after presentations. I really wanted to get better at it. That coupled with the fact that the project that I was working on at that second job, the project that I was actually brought in to do was cancelled. And I firmly believe that perhaps if I was better at communicating the updates to the senior management types, maybe I could have saved it. And that was almost 13, maybe 14 years ago, and I still think that.

So, eventually, I did get better at giving presentations in front of others. I joined Toastmasters. For those of you that don't know, it's a international organization that helps people, like myself or just anyone, with their public-speaking skills. It's a great forum to do that. And then, now I was looking for opportunities to speak in front of others. Basically, I took everything that I learned in getting better at communicating with others, and I built an online course called Teach the Geek to Speak. And it was geared towards people like myself, people in technical fields who want to get better at communicating their technical expertise, especially to non-technical people. I eventually turned it into a membership, and the membership comes with the course and then an online community and then also monthly calls, where people can talk about the issues that they're facing and get real-time advice on how to overcome any hurdles that they may have. So, that's essentially who Neil Thompson is.

Shane Hastie: Cool. So, Teach the Geek to Speak. You gave us an eloquent description there of why being able to speak in public is a good thing.

There are the stories, but there's also some clear studies that for some people are more afraid of public speaking than they are of dying. How do we help naturally-introverted people overcome that?

The benefits of building better communication skills [04:52]

Neil Thompson: Well, I'm naturally introverted myself, so I definitely can answer that or have some thoughts on that. At least for me, it was just seeing the benefit of what getting better at public speaking can do for you. When I was in undergraduate and even in graduate school, we focused mainly on the technical aspects of becoming an engineer, not nearly enough time, in my opinion, on the soft skills. Because once you start working at a company, you can have all the technical expertise you want, but if you're not able to communicate it, a lot of the times, you won't even be listened to because people won't even understand you. So, even if you have that fear, like I did even, of giving presentations in front of these people, really focus on "Why should I get better at it" and see all the benefits. As I mentioned, the people who move up in organizations, those are the ones who are great at communicating with others, with networking with others, just talking to people. And if you keep that in mind, well, at least in my opinion, that will push you past that fear.

Shane Hastie: What makes an engaging talk? Let's take the technical architect having to explain their architecture to a group of non-technical people. So these are people that need to approve the funding or approve some significant decisions. How does the architect get the message across?

Meet people where they are at and tell stories [06:25]

Neil Thompson: Well, firstly, you have to figure out where the audience that you're speaking to is, what is their level of expertise. If you're an architect and want to talk about architecture to a non-architect, it's really important for you to figure out what level of expertise that they have. Are they novices? Are they maybe more advanced than you may have thought? If you could figure that out, then you can tell your presentation to those people. So, let's just say that they're novices. They know very little about architecture. You certainly want to use words that they'll understand. So you want to minimize the amount of technical jargon you might use with other architects and use more commonly-used words.

I remember, when I was working as an engineer at that second job, when I had to give project-status updates, I was working in a group called orthobiologics. So if I were to continue talking about orthobiologics right now, you probably would have no clue what I'm talking about, unless you're from that field. Essentially, orthobiologics is implants that are made out of human cadaver bone. I worked at a spinal-implant company. And implants can be made out of ceramics, they can be made out of metals, but they can also be made out of human bone. And I worked in the group that designed the implants made out of human bone. If I continued using that word orthobiologics, people wouldn't know what I'm talking about. But if I talk about human cadaver bone and implants being made out of them, well, I know what a human cadaver bone is. I know dead people's bones, I know what that is. I know implants, I know what those are. So now I'm using words that people can actually recognize. So, that's another thing.

And one other thing is the use of storytelling. I never realized how important that was in presentations until I really thought about it and heard other people giving technical presentations doing it, too. In fact, I used to think it was rather inappropriate to tell stories in a technical presentation. I thought it was more important to get the data and the facts out there and that was it. But if you're talking, especially to a non-technical audience, storytelling is even more important, because they already are at a deficit when it comes to your knowledge, so you have to fight that uphill battle. If you're able to couch whatever data and facts that you have in stories, they're way more likely to listen. I mean, I just told a story about orthobiologics. That's completely off the radar for many people. But just even explaining what it is, I mean, hearing that word and getting the explanation of what that word means, people are more likely to listen as opposed to me just babbling on about orthobiologics.

So, those are the things that I would say. Know who you're talking to and know their level of expertise. And then also, using words that they're more commonly known, so they're more likely to listen. And then also, the use of storytelling. I think that all three can be really helpful in engaging an audience.

Shane Hastie: I am now fascinated by orthobiologics. Thank you. That was a really great example of putting those ideas into practice.

What other advice would you have for the person moving into that technical-leadership role?

Techniques to engage an audience [09:11]

Neil Thompson: Well, when it comes to just communicating what you need to with others, I think less is more. I have been on the receiving end of being in presentations at conferences. When I worked as an engineer, I used to have to go to conferences. And being in the audience of those technical talks, you don't want to be in that audience if you don't have a cup of coffee with you, or a Red Bull, something, some smelling salts, or else you're falling asleep hard, because I used to, all the time.

And one of the issues, I think, that a lot of these technical-type peoples, especially technical leaders, whomever was giving presentations, was that they would read their slides, they wouldn't look at the audience. It was almost as if they were there just to be able to say that they gave the presentation as opposed to "I want to engage these people. I want them to come away with something that they didn't know before." But if you're just reading slides, you're not looking at people, obviously, because you're looking at the slides as opposed to the people. And if you do that, that's a very easy way to lose others.

So, if you're a technical person, I'm a big fan of minimizing the amount of words that you use on slides when you give presentations. And then also, I'm a big fan of having images on the slides as opposed to a lot of texts, because what that does is it eliminates the ability of the audience to read. So now they only have two options: they either listen to you or ignore you. And then it also, for the person who's speaking, the leader, it eliminates the crutch of being able to read the slides. So now either you have to look at the audience or look at your shoes.

Shane Hastie: Hey, certainly, all of the presentation training and stuff that I've done over my career has taught that, using images, not words, the seven bullet points of seven words each is a nightmare scenario. But how do I make the image that I'm putting up on the screen meaningful to connect to the audience?

Neil Thompson: Well, it certainly should have something to do with what you're talking about. And what that does is it helps jog your memory, even, of what you're going to talk about to the audience. I recognize that it's difficult to give a presentation and you don't have those words on the screen that can help you really jog your memory as to what you want to say, especially if they were sentences, because it's easy to be able to read a sentence and then communicate that way to the audience. But as I mentioned, it's a terrible way to engage people because you're not able to look at them. So, as long as the image that you're using has something to do with what you're talking about, that's helpful.

And then another thing I would like to say is, if you have graphs or tables on your slides, give those graphs and tables titles that convey what you want the people to take away from those graphs and tables. You don't want them to have to think too hard about what that graph and table means. If the title says essentially what they're supposed to take away from that graph or table, that's really helpful, in especially a non-technical audience listening to what you have have to say, so they don't have to think too hard about what you're trying to convey.

Shane Hastie: What about the panel discussion? How do I engage my audience when I'm part of a panel?

Engaging an a panel discussion [11:44]

Neil Thompson: That can be quite difficult, especially given... if there's several people on this panel and there's only a certain amount of time for the panel, you have to be able to say whatever you need to say, in as efficient a manner as possible, to make sure that everyone else has time to talk about what they want to talk about. If it is, at all, possible to find out essentially what the scope of the discussion is going to be beforehand, before the actual panel discussion, you can already have some stories available, ready at the go, so that you can save them during your panel discussion. So, that's really helpful.

And then, as I mentioned even earlier, being able to distil what you have to say in as few words as possible. That's something actually that comes rather easy to me. And I never realized that until it was brought up by others. I've been told I'm economical with my words. And I like that. I like being able to say as much as I possibly can in as few words as possible, because what it does is it makes it so that people don't have to think too hard about what you're saying. The more words you use, the more they have to think about it. I can even remember reading, reading just in school, just reading generally, technical books, and if you have a long sentence, it's way more difficult to take in what that sentence says as opposed to a shorter one. Even if you break up that long sentence into a couple or a few shorter sentences, it's much easier to really take in what that initial long sentence was trying to convey. So, if you're on a panel discussion, try to be short and sweet with your answers to give time for the others to answer the questions that they're asked. And hopefully, they're short and sweet with their answers, too.

Shane Hastie: If I'm not just presenting but I'm trying to convince somebody to make a decision or go down a path, what's different?

Persuading and convincing rather than just communicating [13:21]

Neil Thompson: Well, when it comes to persuasion, it's presenting options, but then also presenting the option that you think is the best option, and telling the person using the data and the facts that you have. And then also by using stories, I mentioned earlier, why you think that the option you think is the best option is the best option.

It's certainly something that I wish I was better at back when I was giving those presentations in front of management. I did mention that project was cancelled, and perhaps the reason... I truly think the reason it was cancelled is because I didn't have those persuasion skills. "Why should we add more money to this project deal?" "Why should we add more people to this project deal?" I didn't have any answers to those questions. I was trying to get out there as quickly as possible. I was up there reading slides, sweating bullets, trying to get out there as quickly as possible, but I never got out of there as quickly as possible, Shane. What ended up happening is I'd get questions that I thought I had answered during the presentation, but now I'm sweating even more because I thinking I really messed up by getting these questions.

So, when it comes to just being able to convince or persuade people and taking a path, they certainly want to know what the options are, but they also want to know what the best option is. And the use of storytelling to be able to convince them or to tell them why that option is the best option, I think it'd be quite helpful.

Shane Hastie: Changing tack, one of the things that we mentioned before we started recording was you've also written a children's book. Tell us about that.

Writing STEM books for children [14:43]

Neil Thompson: Sure. The book is called Ask Uncle Neil: Why is My Hair Curly? It's about my nephew asking me why his hair is the way it is, and I use science to answer the question. Ultimately, I'd like to make it a series where my nephew asks me a question and I use science to answer it. The goal for me writing that book was to encourage children to be curious. I mentioned earlier that I grew up in a house where my father was telling me what to do. He told me to go into engineering, and as I said, it worked out okay, but it was quite possible that it might not have. I mean, I could have hated being in engineering and hated being an engineer and resented my father for telling me to go into engineering and all of that. But luckily, as I mentioned, it worked out.

What I really want to encourage in kids is to be curious and be okay asking questions. When I was a kid, I wasn't okay asking my father "Why should I do engineering?" I just did what he told me to do. I want kids at a young age, this book is geared to kids up to about eight years old, to be comfortable asking questions about themselves, asking questions about others, just asking questions about the world around them, and being okay with getting answers from others and even finding the answers themselves, because, ultimately, the question askers of today are the problem solvers of tomorrow. And I want them to be able to see themselves in the future as the people who are solving the problems that they questioned back when they were young.

Shane Hastie: Anything else you'd like to explore?

Neil Thompson: Well, we talked about Teach the Geek. We talked about my children's book, other things that I do. So, I became a patent agent about 10 years ago. For those of you all that don't know what that is, it is a person who drafts patent applications and files them with the patent office. And what's a patent? It is an instrument used to keep others from making, using, and stealing your invention idea. I became a patent agent because the boss that I had at the time said that I should.

I don't know if you noticed the pattern. My father told me to go into engineering. My boss told me to become a patent agent. When am I going to start making a decision for myself? But luckily, that decision actually worked out pretty well, too. So, even to this day, every now and then, I'll draft patent applications for select clients. I do contract work with a patent shop here in the San Diego area, where I live.

And I used to work in medical devices, more specifically spinal implants, as a product-development engineer. So a couple of former coworkers and I do work with typically smaller medical-device companies on their packaging. A lot of these companies, they have a lot of work to do on the product themselves, and they have that expertise in-house. They don't often have the expertise of what the packaging is supposed to be in-house. And there's quite a lot of regulations that need to be followed for the packaging that the product has to go into. So we assist those type of companies with developing and design the packaging.

Shane Hastie: So, as you mentioned, a bit of a pattern of doing what people tell you, but it's worked out all right. And it's an interesting career and an interesting journey so far. Where's your journey going next?

Neil Thompson: As I mentioned with the children's book, I plan on making it a series, the Ask Uncle Neil series. My nephew asks me a question and I answer it with science. And hopefully with that, always trying to do more author visits so I can go to libraries and schools to expose children to the book, and then also to just get out the message that curiosity is a good thing. I remember being a kid and asking too many questions and your parents tell you, "Stop asking so many questions." I really want to even tell adults and get that message to adults that: Please, don't do that. Really foster the curiosity within children. So, there's that.

And then also with Teach the Geek, I mentioned I started it off as a course and it evolved into a membership, and now it's evolved even into trainings going into companies and organizations, associations that hire or work with people like myself, technical professionals, on improving their presentation skills so they're not the sweaty engineer that I was early on in my career, having to give presentations in front of others. So, there's that.

And then there's always... looking to do more with drafting patent applications. That's always fun to do. And just whatever I find interest in, I just want to be able to have the flexibility to go down that path. It's the reason that I stopped being an employee about seven years ago. It wasn't because I was necessarily disgruntled being an employee, it's just that I wanted to work on the things that I wanted to work on. My father told me to study engineering. The boss that I had told me to be a patent agent. Now I want to work on things that I want to work on and not be told what to do.

Shane Hastie: Neil, some really interesting stories there. If people want to continue the conversation, where do they find you?

Neil Thompson: They can go to I also have a podcast that's affiliated with Teach the Geek, called the Teach the Geek Podcast, where I interview people with technical backgrounds about their public-speaking journeys. That's been really interesting finding out more about people that got these technical degrees and, in many instances, ended up doing something completely different. One of my former guests, she started off as a civil engineer, never worked as one though, but she got a degree in civil engineering. Then she went to law school, worked at a lawyer for about five years. Then she was a stay-at-home mom for about a decade. And now she works as a personal stylist. This is not somebody that I would've just come across in my normal travels. Civil engineering to law, to stay-at-home mom, to personal stylist, helping people with their clothes. It's been really interesting learning about the journeys of people like that.

So, you can learn more about that at And if you care to check out the YouTube channel, it's And then also, if you want to learn more about the children's book, you can go to

Shane Hastie: We'll make sure to include those links in the show notes. Thank you so much.


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