BBC Radio Four recently announced that local councillors in England and Wales are learning presentation skills from actors in a bid to 'help them engage more effectively with members of the public and give them an edge when pitching for European funding'.
Verbal communication and presentation skills are becoming more critical, not least in the construction industry. Given the speed of modern communications, the need to concentrate on effectiveness has never been greater.
Employing actors might seem a drastic approach, but most people could benefit from a little help with their personal presentation skills, particularly public speaking.
Cristina Stuart, founder of communications company Speak First Training and author of several books on public speaking, says there is a need for more focus on communication in the British workplace.
She says technically skilled people often pay a lot of attention to detail, and while this is an important part of being an engineer, the ability to adopt a more general approach may boost an individual's interpersonal skills. 'This enables them to see the bigger picture and to more effectively communicate ideas in a way that clients will understand, ' Stuart says.
She assures those not possessing the gift of the gab that such skills can be taught.
Whatever the purpose of a presentation, speakers should aim to speak for between 20 and 45 minutes - the length of the average person's attention span. Because audiences find it easier to absorb information by eye than by ear, use audio-visual techniques whenever possible - but remember to keep physical back-ups in case AV aids fail.
Robert Heller, founding editor of Management Today and author of the book Communicating Clearly, says people should give themselves enough time to compose and research a presentation - but avoid writing out the full text, which can take hours.
'Plan the presentation around linked themes, ' he advises, 'and summarise each theme, adding material for each in note form. Allocate about three minutes per theme if you're using AV aids - otherwise one to two minutes for each.' While repetition on the page is not advisable, Heller adds, it is essential in public speaking: 'Any speech is a performanceàthe brain's recall of heard information is poor, so make your speech as accessible as possible; keep your language clear, your sentences short, and preserve a smooth fl ow, with a logical transition between points.' And the last point made, he adds, should always relate to the fi rst.
Presentation trainer Alan Mars urges the adoption of a positive attitude: 'Remember, serious, grim determination and striving for results are counter-productive, ' he warns.
'The qualities that will enhance your work and speed up your progress are humour, curiosity, patience and a playful attitude.' The techniques involved in making a presentation are essentially the same, whether addressing a technical or non-technical audience, asserts Dave Hughes, associate dean (learning and teaching) at Bradford University's School of Engineering, Design and Technology.
'I don't believe civil engineers are any different from other engineers - all need training; all engineers should know the 'what', but without practice and training can falsely believe that the rest is not relevant, ' he says.
In his introductory lecture on communication skills, Hughes refers to an American communications expert who says engineers are 'problemsolving detectives who deploy 'ics' and 'ings' - physics, soil mechanics, hydraulics; planning, problem solving, speaking etc'.
At university the 'ics' are emphasised, Hughes says, and with good reason. However, by the time the engineer is in industry the 'ings' probably account for 80% of their professional life.
'I view engineering as a fi bre composite with the 'ics' being the fi bres and the 'ings' as the matrix. Composite action is only achieved by a good bond between the two - imagine a ground anchor with no shear.
'A brilliant engineering mind is incomplete if its contents remain bottled up in the original grey matter.'