A public works leader and manager...needs oral presentation skills

Susan M. Hann, P.E., AICP
Deputy City Manager
City of Palm Bay, Florida
Member, APWA Leadership and Management Committee

The APWA Leadership and Management Committee recently concluded its series of articles on public works leadership entitled "The Baker's Menu." This was the second series of articles (the first being "The Baker's Dozen") that discuss various leadership and management topics of interest to APWA members. The Leadership and Management Committee is now embarking upon the next series—entitled "The Baker's Potluck"—which will touch on a variety of leadership and management topics, many of which have been suggested by members. Included in this issue is the first in the series recommended by the committee. For more information please contact Ann Daniels, APWA Director of Technical Services, at (800) 848-APWA or

Yikes!! Oral presentation skills!!! As in talking to a group of people???

The very thought of presenting to an audience—whether friendly or hostile—strikes fear in the hearts of many public works professionals. For some, this fear is well-founded, as presentations have only led to disaster in the past. So, what is it about talking to a group of people that is so frightening?

For many, the biggest obstacle is the fear of looking silly or stupid or worse in front of your peers. Unfortunately, in the public works arena, most of us have no choice but to do presentations and most of us have survived looking silly, stupid and worse! However, there are some tips that can help you become a fearless presenter.

One thing you can do is recognize that presenting is just one of the many things you do each day that will make you look good or bad or will get you accolades or fired. Most public works professionals routinely deal with issues that are much more scary, risky and complex than public speaking, so reset your paradigm to think of it as just another aspect of your job, not something extraordinary.

Another way to reduce your "fear factor" is to prepare, prepare, prepare and prepare some more. Again, think of presenting as just another aspect of your job. Prepare for a presentation as you would any other function, such as a meeting with your boss. Practice is always a good idea, even for seasoned presenters. I do a lot of public speaking and I'm usually pretty busy, so finding time to practice is always challenging. So, sometimes I practice my presentation while driving and sometimes I go through my presentation while riding my bike alone in the woods. Talk about looking silly—imagine a middle-aged woman riding her bike through the woods at 6 a.m. while talking to someone no one else can see. As you speak your presentation out loud to the invisible audience you can make adjustments. Try different intonations and experiment with content. You can also ask yourself questions and answer them, or better yet, anticipate likely questions and include the answers in your presentation.

Another preparation tip is to do a good job developing your presentation materials. If you have researched your subject well, developed a logical progression of information, confirmed your facts and supported your deductions and conclusions, you should be absolutely fine.

Stand up and get in front of the podium if at all possible. A presenter who is sitting down and/or hiding behind the podium is a target. As a presenter you want to be "one with the audience," so the closer you can get to the group the more you will be seen as part of the group. I recently saw a Q&A presentation by a Regional FEMA Director who sat in a chair about five feet from a somewhat hostile audience. Because this person was sitting, it was a little hard to hear, but by sitting almost as part of the audience, this person was seen as part of the group and treated much more gently.

Personally, I prefer to stand up because I am short and if I sit down, no one can see me; but sometimes, the situation warrants a different approach. With experience, you can judge how you can best set up the room and position yourself to be a more effective presenter. The room set-up can sometimes convey how receptive you are to dialogue vs. one-way presenting. Your body language sends a message. Do you look scared or does your posture and eye contact convey confidence? Also, check the audience for their body language—are they engaged or are they sleeping? You can sometimes command attention by randomly asking questions of folks in your audience.

Make eye contact with your audience, not your notes. I once sat through an incredible presentation where the highly paid speaker actually read verbatim many pages of notes. To this day, I have no idea what this person talked about, but I was absolutely stunned at this individual's lack of connection with the audience. In order to remember what it is I'm talking about, I will either put up a few slides that have bullet points on which I can elaborate or I will jot down a few notes—large type in bullet format. I would rather fumble a little when speaking than read from notes in a monotone. The unexpected humor resulting from an "oops" can also endear you to the audience.

If I'm making a particularly difficult presentation, where I'm not completely sure of myself or if there is a lot at stake (like my job or a lot of grant money), I will write down the basics of the presentation and give it to the mirror a few times. By writing down the presentation, it helps me to focus on the important points and also helps my memory of the subject matter. Speaking the presentation in advance again helps my memory and also illustrates any problems or dead spaces in my presentation. I keep the presentation material with me until the time I am presenting and continually review it, jotting down additional notes or highlighting sections.

Another important point is to know your audience. If you can, get as much information as possible about who will be listening to your presentation. Is it a small group of your coworkers or a room full of people you've never met? Are they coming to see your presentation because they want to or because they are forced to? Is it a hostile group or a friendly group? All of these scenarios present different challenges and may require a different approach, but in all cases you want the audience to be glad they had the opportunity to hear you speak! You should also make sure the technical level of your presentation is closely matched to the audience. A group of homeowners is not the right audience for a Ph.D.-level discussion of stormwater management. Modify your presentation content, vocabulary and style to fit your audience. Don't forget to review your presentation for acronyms that are only known to you.

So, why do you need these skills? Can't you just toil away in the background and let somebody else do all the talking? Well, sure you can, but the person leading the meeting almost always starts out being viewed as the leader in the room. If you want to be perceived as a leader, you must be able to inspire others to follow; and, besides setting a good example, your ability to communicate is one of the most important skill sets you can have.

Force yourself to accept presentation assignments even when you can delegate to someone else. This will help you get more comfortable, establishing speaking to a group as a routine rather than a crisis. In fact, once you're done reading this article, go to the APWA website and submit a proposal to speak at Congress next year! If you're willing to take the step to broaden your professional skill set, you can call or e-mail me and I will gladly help you prepare. I'll bet that something you have to say will surely impress your fellow APWA members and the experience will give you the confidence to present to folks closer to home!

"You can have brilliant ideas, but if you can't get across, your ideas won't get you anywhere." - Lee Iacocca

Susan M. Hann can be reached at (321) 952-3411 or

The Baker's Potluck Topics

  • Oral Presentation Skills
  • Coexisting with the Unions
  • Interviewing for the Right Skills
  • Personnel Evaluations
  • Focus on Your Strengths
  • A Leader's Legacy
  • Identifying the Skills Needed for Crew Leaders and First-Time Supervisors
  • Mentoring for the Future
  • Leading through Change
  • Determining Your Level of Service
  • Connecting with Your Community
  • Creative Problem Solving
  • Creative Recruitment