Andy Burkhardt is the Emerging Technologies Librarian at Champlain College. He enjoys playing with new tech, information literacy and generally helping students, faculty, and staff learn new things. He is also a dinosaur enthusiast from Minnesota. You can read about most of these things on his blog Information Tyrannosaur.
Some people are naturally great speakers. They are able to get in front of a large group of people and get their points across clearly, all while keeping the listener interested and engaged. I am not naturally one of those people. Luckily, I’m not alone. Speaking in public is regularly cited as one of the biggest fears that people have.
Unfortunately in librarianship, speaking in public is necessary if you want to be in academia, present at conferences, or hold any sort of leadership position. We have to teach classes, run meetings, present to faculty, other librarians, and the public, and sometimes even give presentations to land a job.
I knew I was weak in public speaking when I began library school, so I sought ways that I could improve myself. The first thing I did was join Toastmasters International. Toastmaster’s is a club that allows you to improve your communication and leadership skills. It gives you opportunities to create and deliver speeches in front of groups of people who are also looking to improve their speaking. I got to learn about the mechanics of speaking, get some practice and make some friends. It was a genuinely valuable experience.
The second thing I did was to take a class about teaching. At UW-Madison where I got my MLIS, they offered an Information Literacy Instruction Practicum. In this class we were placed with a mentor in a library on campus where we worked on helping them with instruction. This class significantly changed me for the better. I remember specifically preparing for a class that I was going to co-teach with my practicum mentor. When the day came to present, I was in the room getting things setup. A few minutes before the class, I got word that my mentor was delayed because of snow. I was going to have to teach the class all by myself! I started off really nervous, but I knew I was prepared. As I got into the session I started feeling more and more comfortable, and finally I realized ìhey, I can do this!
Soft skills, like good communication, are essential for librarians. I would strongly recommend both of these experiences to anyone in library school. But more importantly, I would recommend looking critically at yourself and your abilities. I knew I was afraid of speaking, so I pushed myself into situations (often uncomfortable ones) in order to improve that skill. Maybe you’re a great speaker, but your technology skills need work. Create opportunities for yourself to improve your weaknesses, even if it’s hard or makes you uncomfortable. After all, discomfort is often a sign that you’re learning and growing.