“But I don’t have to communicate in boardrooms much… more likely I’m on a site with a group of workmen!”
“So much of what we deal with is very technical – so communicating it can be tricky.”
“In any given day, we’re dashing between so many different kinds of meetings, it can be tough just keeping the head clear.”
These are just some of the communication challenges facing construction engineers I’ve trained in recent years. As a History graduate myself, frankly I’m in awe of the skills, commitment and ability of so many of the engineers I meet – whether they’re helping build Crossrail, constructing a skyscraper in the City or rebuilding a hospital wing.
But from training a significant number of engineers in recent years – including students on the Construction Engineering Masters course delivered by the Laing O’Rourke Centre for Construction Engineering & Technology at the University of Cambridge – what I’ve found is that simple tweaks to how you communicate your ideas can add up to a big difference in your impact.
A caveat: with spoken communication, there are no guarantees. What goes in one ear can always fly out the other… as anyone who has briefed health and safety procedures well knows! But there are things you can do in the construction engineering industry to help give yourself a better chance of ensuring that your key messages are remembered and acted upon.
What follows is a distillation of just some of the top tips to emerge from a number of sessions working with construction engineering professionals. These tips also draw on my own communication skills experience elsewhere, helping thousands of professionals holding down challenging roles in engineering, technology, financial services, oil & gas, logistics and retail.
Especially when tackling a complex subject, it’s SO tempting to over-complicate. Trying to communicate multiple points at the same time is a bit like waitering in a restaurant and serving up the soup, main course and dessert all at the same time.
Break your content down into a short series of simple, single-minded components, each headlined by a clear Point. Much more digestible for your listeners.
With any form of spoken communication, you’re in the persuasion business: persuading your listeners that what YOU have to say is more worthwhile than the infinite number of other things vying for your listeners’ attention.
Whether you’re talking to builders or to the executive board, if you start by talking about THEM (rather than ‘what you want to talk about’) you’re much more likely to get their attention. Perhaps it’s the work they’ve just completed; maybe it’s a corporate challenge that the Board are currently grappling with. Use the word ‘you’ and you’ll find you’re forced to frame your ideas more from the point of view of your listeners than from your own. Just like in that last sentence!
Tap into problems/issues which they can relate to and you’re even more likely to hook them. Once you have their attention, it’s much easier to keep it. Regaining attention that’s been lost is far more difficult…
Whether you realise it or not, you tell stories already… and so do your colleagues. Round the water-cooler; at the beginning of a meeting; with friends over a beer; while having a well earn cuppa on-site.
Few people ‘use stories on purpose’ to get their Point across. But if you do, you bring your ideas to life and your Point is much more likely to be remembered.
I remember one workshop participant in Dubai I was coaching a few years back. He was – and still is – Norwegian and having to brief contractors on health and safety regulations. Not the easiest brief! But the minute he told the story of a colleague who was driving a truck, took his eye off the road and suffered appalling injuries, you could hear a pin drop. Because as you’re doubtless well aware, all it takes is for your guard to slip for a split second… and it’s all over.
What’s more, that engineer honed his key Point down to just two words: “Take Five”. Five minutes to read the guidance; five seconds to gauge whether the next move is a sensible; five hours to plan a proper strategy for undertaking a particularly complex lift…
I’ve heard thousands of speeches in my time – but that’s one of the few to really stick… and it’s down to the impact of the story and the single-mindedness of the message.
If you work in the construction industry and you’re still reading this article, do forward it to a friend. A small number of simple changes can make a very significant difference to your impact under pressure.
Most important of all, in light of what you’ve read, what will YOU take away and apply?
Maybe you’ll clarify your message… maybe you’ll use a story… perhaps you’ll find a way to engage with your listeners’ world first in a presentation.
But make a change – and this article will have been a worthwhile investment of your time.
To find out more about the Construction Engineering Masters Programme at the University of Cambridge, click here.
Simon Bucknall has extensive experience coaching high-achieving engineers and technologists to ‘connect’, influence and inspire through the spoken word. If you’d like to find out more, click here.