The Importance of Public Speaking

For the past few weeks in my Library Programs and Services for Young Adults course, we’ve started our class period with materials talks. Every student has spent five to seven minutes presenting three to four items that teens could expect to find in a library collection. The goal is to share just enough about the book (or other item, one of my selections was the board game 7 Wonders Duel) to entice teens to check it out from the library. Of course, our audience is our fellow LIS peers, not teens, and given the pandemic, people have had to be creative more creative than normal about the choosing items for their materials talks since not everyone has easy access to an actual library collection at the moment.

Many lessons have emerged for me while listening to others share their materials talks and while preparing and giving my own materials talk. The variety of items available in a library, the creative themes that my classmates have chosen to use to group their materials, and the unique ways of sharing the same item are just a few of the many take-aways that I’ve come across. However, perhaps the most important takeaway is that public speaking skills are incredibly important in the library profession.

To be fair, public speaking is important in any profession, but given the amount of interfacing with the public, library professionals need to be prepared to speak to both individuals and groups. I don’t want to conflate having a one-on-one readers advisory conversation with a patron to actively public speaking, but the two are definitely related. Being able to prepare things to say, like in the case of the materials talk, and being able to speak off-the-cuff with a patron, like in the case of reference and readers advisory, are both incredibly important. I listened to a lot of my classmates talk about how nervous they were to give their materials talks, and nerves aren’t what you want in a public speaking scenario.

I’m lucky, I started public speaking at a young age due to my involvement in my local 4-H program and I continued honing my public speaking skills by participating in speech (also known as forensics) in high school and into my undergraduate career. I have lots of thoughts about how we should be teaching children about a public speaking at a young age in a context that goes beyond just giving a class presentation about a topic that they may not actually care about, but that’s a topic for a different time. I want to share a few things that are important in any public speaking scenario, but that I think are particularly relevant to an LIS setting and library school students looking to improve your public speaking skills.

Take the time to acknowledge and respect your audience

There are some cases where you may be able to know who your audience is in advance. For example, if you’re speaking to the board of trustees for your library, you can prepare your remarks so that they’re tailored to that audience. On the other hand, if you find yourself in a scenario where you’ve never met your audience, or perhaps you’re trying to share a materials talk with a group of unfamiliar teens, acknowledging your audience and showing them respect is important! Letting an unfamiliar audience know that you’re trying not to make assumptions about them can be particularly effective and you want to build a connection with your audience whether you’re speaking to a couple of people or a large group.   

Don’t worry if you mess up

Everyone’s human! There are going to be scenarios where you get something wrong, particularly if you’re speaking in an informal or impromptu setting, or where you simply trip over your tongue. As a newcomer into the LIS field, particularly if you’re young like I am, I think there’s a tendency to feel like you have to work hard put yourself in a position of authority and it’s possible to view messing up as a subversion of that authority. But messing up and just rolling with it or acknowledging your mistake is fine. You should never let a mistake fluster you, because that will just subvert whatever authority you’re trying to establish more than if you’d just paused and collected yourself or acknowledged the mistake in the first place!

Let your personality shine through!

I’ve mentioned that building a relationship with the patrons or audience you’re speaking to is important, and one way to do that is to let your personality come through while you’re speaking. If you like to make jokes, crack a joke or two that is appropriate to the setting. If you talk like a robot or are really stiff (perhaps trying to assert whatever authority you feel like you should have or perhaps because of nerves), it’s even more difficult to actually settle into a comfortable and natural speaking routine and build a connection to the audience.

Take whatever opportunities you can get to practice!

As a library school student, I’ve had plenty of chance to give presentations in class. Sure, I’m not always a huge fan of the subject, but I still make sure to give a good presentation. Don’t look at public speaking as something to dread. If the audience is made up of your peers that you’ve gotten to know in class over the course of the semester, they’re not going to judge you because chances are they’re just as nervous about their own presentations as you are about yours! Even talking to a friend and telling them about a book you’ve read can be a chance to practice a reader’s advisory conversation. There are lots of scenarios that have some aspect of public speaking, you just have to take the chance that exist to practice.

Do you have any tips for public speaking tips for LIS students or new librarians? Share them in the comments!

Macy Davis is a second-year student at Simmons University in the MA in Children’s Literature/MS in Library and Information Sciences dual degree program. She’s a former American Forensics Association All-American public speaker and has written far too many speeches for one person to count. You can find her on Twitter @bookishlybright or through her personal blog.

Photo by mentatdgt from Pexels

5 replies

  1. I was nervous to speak in front of groups of people until I started working with small children and their parents. If you’re nervous and plan to work with youth, try your hand at a Storytime or assisting in one. Start off with something silly like the Hokey Pokey or one of its many variations. The rule in Storytime is everyone has to be silly, including the grown-ups! You will laugh and your shyness will diminish after a few times. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I believe “Take whatever opportunity you get to practice” is extremely important when it comes to public speaking. I felt , the more we practice it in diverse circumstances and in front of varied audience, the more it helps us to get some good insights on how and where to improve.


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