5 tips to help engineers effectively communicate big ideas
You’re a mechanical engineer, and you have an idea that can potentially provide amazing benefits to the company you work for or the customers you serve and in the process help you advance your career. However, in order for both of these things to happen, you must successfully sell this idea to potential stakeholders to facilitate the adoption and execution that will bring your idea to reality. This is anything but easy to do, especially for a mechanical engineer that has been trained to design some of the most complex and intricate systems in the world. Designing is one thing, but effectively communicating an idea and gaining support or approval for those designs may present a challenge.
In this article, leaning on my experience of coaching hundreds of engineers to successfully improving their communication skills, I will give 5 very actionable strategies that you can use to pitch your idea, moving it from a preliminary design to reality, and to get the recognition you deserve in the process.
Tip #1 – Clearly communicate the benefits.
This strategy is sales 101, but often overlooked by engineers. When pitching your idea to stakeholders, who might be your manager, a client, end customer, or other mechanical engineers, you MUST speak primarily about the benefits the customer will reap from your idea. Most engineers want to speak about the nuts and bolts of their design, and why it is superior to other designs on the market. We will talk about the design detail for your big idea later on. For example:
The new design will be 25% lighter allowing us to use a smaller motor, which will result in a savings of $20 per unit.
Changing the material and design of this component will extend the product life by five years resulting in improved customer satisfaction.
When you are looking to purchase a new vacuum, a good sales associate is not going to talk to you about the design of the interior components. Why? Because firstly, you probably don’t understand it, or at least most people won’t; and secondly you probably don’t care about the design. What they will mention to you is the practical aspects of the design, and how it will help you to get more done in less time. They may mention the benefits of their cordless design over typical corded models. These are the benefits that you will realize by purchasing their vacuum. Dyson does a great job of selling the benefits of their vacuums and in turn can consistently sell the top line of vacuums. You should use this same approach in trying to sell your ideas.
Tip #2 - Start with the benefits, end with the design
This next recommendation will hurt your brain because it is the opposite of how many of us engineers were taught to think. When it comes time to present your idea to others, present the benefits first.
This point builds off of the first strategy presented, but takes it one step further. The first few points of your presentation should emphasize, maybe even in a grandiose fashion, the benefits that your idea will drive.
For example, let’s say you were pitching the design of a new lightweight airplane seat that was to be manufactured through a combination of a new design as well as additive manufacturing (3D printing). As opposed to focusing too heavily on the design of the new seat first, focus on the benefits that your client (the airline) will reap from the new design. In this case, the main benefits to them would be savings in fuel costs and the ability to reach their weight reduction targets. You must make these benefits clear to them and provide numerical projections if possible with respect to the dollar savings they may experience.
Once you wow them with the benefits, then you have a little more leeway as to being able to discuss the design, because they will be listening intently with the idea of millions of dollars being added to their bottom-line, whereas if you were to start by talking about the design you would most likely lose their attention pretty quickly, and maybe never get to the results if they are buried at the end of your presentation.
Tip #3 – Gain support from key stakeholders through collaboration
Here’s another strategy that most engineers don’t employ. Rather than trying to impart your idea on potential stakeholders, give them a basic overview which is supported by proof data and then ask them how they think the idea or design can be improved prior to your final presentation. If you can get them to give you some recommended improvements, you have achieved two very important psychological victories:
You have, of course, received some possible ideas that can improve the benefits that your design can generate.
More importantly, by accepting and implementing some of this person’s recommendations, they will take some ownership in the project and most likely become just as strong of a proponent as you are.
While you may have to share some of the praise with someone that helps to improve your idea, having another person fighting for your idea, especially if it is a major stakeholder will drastically improve the chances of your idea becoming a reality.
Tip #4 – Verification and facts
Here’s another thing most engineers fail to do. If you plan to pitch a potential idea or design to someone, please make sure that you have confirmed the need and interest of the potential end users for the products you are pitching.
For example, imagine the example I used in step two above. Consider doing some research that will allow you to use third party facts to support your idea. What if you added a sentence to your presentation that said, “Estimates show that reducing the weight of one aircraft by 300 lbs. will reduce gas costs by $1,000 per flight.”
In addition to providing third party data and cost dollar estimates, consider discussing what your competition is currently doing and how your idea will benefit the customer more than theirs. Remember, they may be comparing everything that you are presenting to another proposal that they have received, so you need to position your design as the best option for them.
Tip #5 - Communicate confidently and clearly
I am confident that if you use the four strategies I have presented so far in this article, there is a high probability that you will be able to realize your idea, however if you implement these strategies in a way that you communicate clearly and with confidence, that probability will further increase.
When stakeholders are considering a potential idea, while the research and the design are important, the clarity and confidence with which the presenter pitches them will play a major role in their decision. Think about this one for a minute.
Without strong presentation, odds are you won’t purchase a car, and not because it isn’t the best possible car for you, but it’s because the salesperson isn’t making that clear. Be confident in your design, and effectively communicate the benefits in a way that will give stakeholders the confidence that if they decide to pursue your idea, you will be able to deliver it.
In addition to the way you physically present the idea, consider providing examples of the design to your audience. Some people need to see and touch something to understand it. Some examples might include:
Present a prototype of a scaled down 3D printed model so the stakeholders can hold and see something physical.
Create photo realistic renderings from your 3D CAD models of the product design. This can be included in the presentation instead of just displaying concept drawings or models.
Include some simulation results from your 3D model to further support your idea.
It only takes one idea to change everything in your engineering career, and while many engineers may have that idea, many of them cannot sell the idea and move their project forward. I hope that you now have the strategies to move your big ideas forward and change the world, while skyrocketing your professional development in the process.
Anthony Fasano, PE is an engineer, turned professional development expert, who has moved several of his own big ideas forward, and has also helped many engineers do the same. He has written a bestselling book entitled Engineer Your Own Success: 7 Key Elements for Creating an Extraordinary Engineering Career and has coached hundreds of engineers on their career development, through his website:
The Engineering Career Coach which is loaded with free career resources for engineers including two top rated iTunes podcasts that have been downloaded over 1.5 million times. His goal is to help engineers create extraordinary careers and lives. You can view all of his work at www.EngineeringCareerCoach.com.