How to improve communication skills as an engineer

Steve Jobs introduces product
source: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

As an engineer in undergrad, I took a public speaking class. Somehow, the liberal arts majors were exempt from this graduation requirement. At the time, I didn’t understand the logic; my industrial engineering friends and I had no problem talking to/in front of people. Fast forward a few years, I am glad Northwestern did something about the widespread communication epidemic among engineers.

While software engineers don’t need to talk nearly as much as McKinsey consultants do, strong communication is a universally highlighted requirement on every engineering job post and a vital component to personal/work relationships. So let’s get to how to improve both your written and verbal communication.

1. Read more books

man reads a book

Reading is like practicing the scales for a musician; it sharpens the very foundations of communication. Reading improves diction, syntax, sentence structure, and most importantly, the ability to logically organize your thoughts.

You don’t necessarily have to read technical books to improve your ability to communicate engineering concepts. Read anything that interests you. Here’s a breakdown of my bookshelf:

  • 50% memoirs (e.g. Jobs, Tyson, Reagan)
  • 20% politics/history (e.g. Freakonomics, Roman Empire)
  • 20% technical (e.g. Code Complete, Making Embedded Systems)
  • 10% fiction (e.g. Count of Monte Cristo, Harry Potter)

With that said, different genres exercise different parts of your communication skill set:

  • fiction: improves verbal communication/presentations as it contains many dialogues
  • technical: improves ability to break down complex concepts in a logical manner with brevity
  • nonfiction: makes you smarter overall (who doesn’t love that!)

2. Blog

person blogging on computer

I’ve recently been training to improve my vertical jump with the goal of being able to slam dunk before 2018. I quickly learned that the fastest way to increase your vertical is to…jump a lot. Similarly, the fastest way to become a better writer is to write a lot.

Blogging is a great platform to write about anything that interests you. The key is to practice conveying your ideas in a cohesive and concise manner.┬áIt’s akin to readable vs. unreadable code; nobody likes to read unstructured, messy, unreadable code. Same goes with all writing, especially technical/design documents where the goal is to communicate your design clearly to others.

3. Watch great speakers on YouTube

wozniak speaks

While books do improve verbal communication (especially if you read out loud), emulating other great speakers can be helpful. But choose your role models carefully; choose people who can explain technical products/concepts to an audience in clear and concise manner (with all due respect, don’t pick Elon Musk).

Some of my favorite speakers are: Steve Wozniak, Jack Ganssle, Jeff Atwood, and Steve Jobs. Jobs’ legendary product introductions are great because he’s a great communicator. As an example, watch Steve compare the Android vs. iPhone in the below video. Pay close attention to his tone, brevity (no uhms, you know, eh, hmm, well, etc.), emphasis, facial expressions, gestures and how he beautifully weaves them together to communicate his ideas to the audience.

4. Go to meetups/Toastmasters

woman speaks at LAUSD toastmasters

What good is all this if you’re not putting your improved communication skills to use? Go to meetups, chat up people, and practice public speaking. Even better if you have a Toastmasters in your area and you have the guts to speak at them! Just going to a Toastmasters session once and speaking there helps a lot (that’s what I did). There’s great value in having someone analyze your speech to identify your weaknesses (for me it was saying filler words like ah, um) so you can readily improve them. Trust me, you can and will get better with practice.

Having great communication skills is power; as software engineers, we’re all too aware of this. We curse ourselves every time we refactor a poorly designed and unreadable chunk of code. Same goes with communication. Don’t be the guy that people dread communicating with; good communication for an engineer is every bit as important as technical chops and deserves continuous improvement.

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