Ways To Improve Your Soft Skills

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.

by-nc-nd | Flickr user Jason Schlachet

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.

13 replies

  1. Point well taken. I decided to take User Instruction over the summer because I know it’s my weakest area. I know it will be rough and that I will feel foolish most of the time, but I really need it. I’ve watched several job applicants give presentations so I know how crucial it is to do a good job.


  2. Great post! We all like to dismiss the stereotype of the meek, socially-awkward librarian, but the truth of the matter is many in our community have challenges when it comes to social engagement. It is so important for librarians to work on improving our soft skills, yet I see so few people actually taking steps to do it. Certainly the degree of difficulties is varied, and some have far more work to do than others, but I can’t think of a single library position where social skills are not important.


  3. You make a good point Lauren. Many folks who go into librarianship often tend to have quiet or introverted demeanors. At least this was the case at my library school, and I’m sure at many other. This is perfectly fine, but we still need the skills to be articulate advocates for our libraries and our profession. I am an introvert on the Myers-Briggs but I still do a good job promoting the library because I have developed (at least some of) these soft skills. No matter what our preferences or demeanors are, we still need the ability to speak up and speak loudly on behalf of libraries.


  4. I was just having a conversation about this with someone else. Most of my life I’ve been painfully shy, to the point where I was afraid to raise my hand in class throughout high school. I found the teaching experience to be extremely beneficial to getting over my shyness. I became a reading tutor for k-8 students, and after a few successes I became a lot more confident. Then, with San Jose, I became an assistant for students using the web conferencing software we use, Elluminate. I had to teach Orientation sessions every week and communicate with students in a variety of ways. Even though I’m still shy in new situations, I’ve gotten a lot better and faking confidence until it becomes real confidence. If you’re shy or uncomfortable communicating, you really need to jump in there and challenge yourself!


  5. I’m so glad Toastmasters got a shout-out! In many libraries, it’s very possible you’ll need to give a presentation as part of your interview, often to an entire room of strangers (i.e. your potential future colleagues) you’ve never met before. I joined Toastmasters a couple years ago, and recently completed the first level. The confidence I’ve gained in public speaking over the last couple years is incredible, and I credit Toastmasters entirely with this growth. I highly recommend it for all LIS students!


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