When Amanda Studebaker '13, Service Delivery Manager for Baker Hughes’ Drilling Services operations in the Caribbean, has a presentation to give, her first thought is often “What would Dr. Volz do?”
While Studebaker was earning her B.S. in bioengineering at Rice University, Tracy Volz was instrumental in teaching the bioengineering students how to write, speak, and present their work — often to a variety of audiences at events held in the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen (OEDK).
Studebaker said, “Our project team would take Dr. Volz’s advice to heart and totally revamp our presentation. Then we’d keep working to perfect it, sometimes until two or three in the morning. We’d straggle back to our beds, so proud of the improvements we’d made, and look forward to finally hearing Dr. Volz say, ‘Good job!’
“However, the next morning in the OEDK, we’d give our presentation to the audience and turn to Dr. Volz, who would then hand us all these corrections. Dr. Volz never accepted good enough; she only accepted great.”
Volz, who is now director of the ACTIVATE Engineering Communication program at Rice, taught engineering students to write and speak more professionally. Her first lessons to new BIOE students focused on simple presentation tricks: think about how you stand and where your hands are; don’t rock back and forth. Studebaker said the tips were eye-opening and she began using Volz’s increasingly stringent feedback in all her presentations.
“From the start, BIOE students had Dr. Volz’s workshops incorporated directly into our regular courses,” she said. “Learning to hear, accept, and act on her critiques early in our courses and to continue receiving that type of feedback all four years had a huge impact.”
“Throughout my career at Rice, there were interdisciplinary pitches and presentations for audiences composed of other engineering students, faculty, alumni, and industry representatives. It was obvious who the BIOE presenters were because we’d all gone through Dr. Volz’s rigorous training. The difference between our presentations and those of the other engineers was often night and day.”
Volz’s impact on Studebaker’s industry career was also significant. In her first year on the job, Studebaker gave a presentation during a Baker Hughes leadership training program. At the end of her talk, a divisional leader stopped Studebaker and asked if she’d had a lot of practice giving presentations before. He wasn’t surprised when she acknowledged her Rice presentation training. The executive said it was rare to see an employee straight out of university who was comfortable doing more than reading off a slide - especially an engineer.
“I’m fortunate to have worked on four different continents now in different roles with Baker Hughes, which has given me the opportunity to present to a variety of audiences with different cultural and technical backgrounds. This has given me a lot of practice at modifying a message for different audiences,” said Studebaker.
“After my first presentation in China, one team member asked me what a few of the words I had used meant. It isn’t necessarily a matter of direct translation; a common phrase in one culture may not have any correlation in another.
“In another country, a joke in my presentation didn’t get any laughs because it depended on a common phrase used in English-speaking teams. For another presentation —to an audience that did not speak English— a team member was translating and I had to think about where to pause to let him catch up.”
In that example, Studebaker did not know until shortly before the presentation that she would be working with a translator. Luckily, she was comfortable making changes on the fly because she had learned that every room and audience requires some type of adjustment.
“I remember a recent presentation I gave in Houston about how technology is impacting the oil and gas industry,” said Studebaker. “Digital technology solutions - from machine learning algorithms to smart helmets - are making us more efficient. But just because I know this doesn’t mean the current audience knows it or perceives it the same way. A big part of giving presentations is figuring out what the audience thinks and using that as the basis to adjust your message.
“If I’m giving a similar presentation to changing audiences, and I have a deck of 25-30 slides, roughly 20 of the slides are the same for every presentation, and I have 5-10 slides that I add in or take out, depending on the audience. Particularly with customers and colleagues in different parts of the company, being sensitive to their perceptions and valuing those perceptions is important. I may need to pause my presentation to explain an idea further or be ready to skip ahead if my approach is too basic.”
Flexible and perceptive in her presentations, Studebaker is equally adaptable with her written communication. However, writing has a different set of constraints and her biggest challenge is writing as succinctly as possible. Studebaker said when communicating up the chain - to her boss or her boss’s boss - she has to be direct so her message does not get buried.
“It is difficult to be concise when you are excited about something, but the best advice I received was to cut my message down as short as I could, then cut it in half again. People just delete long messages, so learn to say what you need in less than five sentences.
“Short and direct also works well when communicating within my team. Being clear about our priorities and stating simply what action we need & who owns it will cut down on email replies. A lot of wasted time can be avoided if email recipients don’t have to figure which parts of a long message are actually important.”
With written communication, she explains that writing more doesn’t necessarily improve the message. “I joke with my team that we sometimes turn into novelists when we write emails. When I see my team sending long emails, I remind them about the limited time and attention their message is going to get. With that kind of constraint, we have to make sure the most important information is what is being communicated.
“A former manager gave me a mantra I continue to use and to share with my teammates. ‘It is not the sum of what you write, it is the average of what you write [that people read or hear].’ Obviously, how and what you communicate can make a huge difference in your career.”
Engineering communication coaches like Volz emphasize that the best engineer in the world won’t get the funds they need or be able to advance their projects if they cannot appropriately communicate the importance of their work and the resources they need. Studebaker agrees wholeheartedly with this.
“If you have the opportunity to work on your communication skills with Volz, do it,” said Studebaker.
“Invest in yourself even if you can’t work with Dr. Volz. There are many resources you can seek out to improve your own communication skills. Watch YouTube videos of great presenters, take an online course. Your next presentation doesn’t have to be perfect, but you should aim for it to be better.
"Keep working to improve your presentation and writing skills. The dividends down the line are enormous. The time you spend improving your communication skills will pay off 100 times in your career, no matter which career path or industry you choose to pursue.”
This article was originally published for the ACTIVATE Engineering Communication program.