Two years after graduating from Rice University, Jade Juzswik ’15 was recognized for giving the best presentation at a deepwater oil and gas operations conference. It was her first industry presentation outside her company.
“I was definitely nervous as I prepared for that presentation. I had just come into our group, and I was one of the youngest presenters at the conference,” said Juzswik. “So, I rehearsed a lot. I practiced giving my presentation to diverse teams across the company because I wanted it to resonate with a broad audience.”
She credits a co-worker and fellow CHBE alumna Lisa Swank Patel ’15 for setting her feet on the right path. Juzswik said, “Lisa spearheaded the initial work on the material that I ended up presenting, so she was critical in making this presentation a success.
“To make a good impression, you have to know your material back to front, and Lisa helped me get to that stage very quickly. But our most important tip is to practice as much as possible. I started rehearsing and giving the presentation to a variety of teams early in the process. I wanted my 15-minute talk to be accessible to all audiences, not just my niche of chemical experts and engineers. That meant practicing with teams like business development and finance —as many groups as I could get in front of — because they all had different perspectives.”
Presenting to a variety of internal audiences helped Juzswik simplify her slides and eliminate jargon and acronyms that did not make sense outside her area of expertise. Those same audiences asked questions about the project that most impacted or reflected their own areas of the company. Improving her responses to such a wide range of questions in the rehearsals enabled her to face the conference Q&A session with confidence.
“Always begin your talk with your ‘why’ – why is your presentation important? What should the audience’s key takeaway be after listening to you? This is particularly important when your talk is slotted in between many others and you want it to be memorable. After several days of presentations, many audience members will leave a conference and have a hard time remembering each of the different topics or speakers. It is surprising how many presentations fail to announce up front what they are going to tell you and then deliver that message.
“Our ‘why’ was that we saved our company $2 million annually with chemical optimizations. That resonated with our audience, and there were definitely people at the end of the conference (and in our own company) who remembered ‘the woman whose team saved $2M’ and the two main things her team did to achieve that.”
Juzswik’s savvy ‘why’ was no accident. In her internal rehearsals, audience members would stop Juzswik mid-presentation with comments like, ‘Wait, back up. You saved the company $2M?’ Those comments helped Juzswik better understand what to stress in her presentation.
It was not the first time Juzswik allowed herself to consider a familiar topic from a new perspective. Growing up close to campus, she said Rice was initially far from the top of her prospective university list. She said, “I would literally be able to walk to my house for lunch, and I was NOT going to spend my college years that close to home.
“But I visited for Owl Days, and the experience got me really excited about Rice. The OEDK was still new, and I met students coming out of one of those classes where they were getting to do hands-on design work as freshmen. Right off the bat, I could tell this was unique. Plus, everyone was so friendly, generous with their time, and eager to collaborate.”
She enrolled at Rice and immediately began developing her engineering communication skills in that same introductory design course that had influenced her admission decision. Then taught by Ann Saterbak, ENGI 120 empowers freshmen to design and manufacture an engineering solution to a specific problem, documenting their attempts and results through lab manuals, status updates, and presentations. Tracy Volz helped Saterbak coach students on their writing and presentation skills.
Juzswik said, “It was challenging to compose technical memos when my only previous writing experience was from high school assignments like English and history essays. But Dr. Volz and Dr. Saterbak were both amazing; they provided me with so many tools and opportunities to practice engineering communication early on in my college career. I was so enamored with their process that I applied to work as a technical writing mentor after finishing ENGI 120 to help guide the next cohort of engineers.”
Her communication skills continued to grow as her mentoring role evolved. As the head writing mentor for the program, Juzswik continued working with freshmen as well as training additional mentors. Her presentation skills also rapidly improved when she became a campus tour guide.
“If you want to proactively learn to handle difficult questions, become a tour guide,” she said.
“You will meet a lot of different kinds of people with a wide range of questions, often from left field. You’ll master how to tailor your presentation to your audience based on how they respond to you. It was a great learning experience in how to communicate with strangers, particularly if you were more introverted like I was.”
Her passion for Rice overcame her shyness; as a freshman, she began hosting prospective students in one-on-one overnight visits and talking with them over on-campus lunches with their parents. Then she tried leading several tours during the slower winter season. Each success helped her push her comfort zone a bit further.
“Suddenly, I was comfortable walking backwards while talking with a group of 30 people. When I became the head tour guide, I began teaching other students how to best communicate with their audiences,” she said. “The more you know your topic, the more comfortable you are in speaking about it. For example, it is probably easy to extemporize on your favorite music artists or sports team; you don’t even need to practice.
“Translate that to your presentation topic or the project you’ve designed as an engineer. In order to present with the same kind of confidence you have when you are talking about your favorite sports team, you will have to really know your topic backwards and forwards. Practice your talk with other people, so you will be prepared to answer all kinds of questions.”
Speaking and writing clearly is one way she believes new engineering hires can shine in their early days on the job. Getting to know their various day-to-day audiences is another key to successful engineering communications.
“Be adaptable in your communication style,” said Juzswik. “Especially as a new hire, it can be challenging to grasp that not every employee needs all the details. Before you go above and beyond to create a detailed analysis that spans 50 pages, think about your audience. Senior managers don’t always have time to read 50 pages of details, so figure out which people need that level of detail and who wants the short and sweet summary. This kind of insight can really set you apart.
“I quickly learned to streamline my emails with subheadings and bullet points. Don’t bury a request for $X for a specific project deep within multiple paragraphs; the decision-maker needs to see this important takeaway clearly and up front. In a fast-paced environment where people look at hundreds of pieces of correspondence daily, it is best to know your audience and know what communication style best suits their needs.”
This story is part of a series for our Activate Engineering Communication program.