How to talk about your soft skills

Find out the do's and dont's of demonstrating your soft skills throughout the hiring process. Photo by: nappy from Pexels

While global development is known for valuing high levels of education and technical expertise, when it comes down to actually succeeding in a role, many human resource professionals and managers say soft skills matter most.

Jobs in global development often involve working with multiple teams and stakeholders, adapting to different cultures and contexts, and making decisions in challenging situations. Skills such as empathy, diplomacy, and flexibility are critical to navigating and making an impact in such a dynamic sector. However, soft skills can be hard to demonstrate, particularly early on in the recruitment process, when the emphasis is on the CV.

“Marketing your soft skills can feel impossible because they are difficult to quantify,” says Siobhan Brooks, senior recruitment specialist at Tetra Tech. “However, your soft skills can also be what sets you apart from the competition,” she adds.

Devex spoke to recruiters from Tetra Tech to find out the do’s and dont’s of talking up your soft skills. Here is what they had to say.

Identifying your soft skills

While a candidate can be qualified for a job on paper, recruiters are interested in what diverse experience an individual could bring to help them succeed in the role. Soft skills are qualities that define how an individual will work with other employees and how they will handle obstacles, explains Caroline Vantine, senior staffing specialist at Tetra Tech.

In asking a candidate about their soft skills, the hiring committee is trying to gain a better understanding of the candidate’s working style. So the interviewer might be looking to know if the candidate likes to work independently or in a team, if they strive for challenges, and how they accept and provide feedback for others.

“At the end of the interview, the hiring committee should have a clear idea of whether or not the candidate will be a good cultural fit,” says Vantine.

Communication is a key soft skill for many employers, specifically the ability to accurately represent the company to a client or speak to someone from a completely different background, says Craig MacFarlane, an international recruiter for MSI, a Tetra Tech company.

When and where to highlight these skills

While questions on soft skills are guaranteed to come up in an interview, it’s tricky to know whether you should highlight these skills earlier in the application process — and recruiters can have varying opinions on this. According to Brooks, candidates can highlight their soft skills in a variety of ways — from a well written cover letter, to a bio summary at the top of your CV, to bolded text or a table outlining achievements that illustrate specific skills.

“In addition to this, when speaking to recruiters, pepper in statements regarding your soft skills throughout your discussion,” she adds. “Be mindful of what sets you apart from other candidates and make marketing your soft skills part of the entire interview process.”

Since space on your CV can be limited, MacFarlane recommends listing your previous experience with one bullet point per position showcasing how you applied your soft skills; for example, a time when you negotiated a difficult contract in an environment culturally different to your own.

For Vantine, however, a candidate's CV is better used explaining previous responsibilities and professional achievements, while their soft skills can be highlighted in the cover letter or in an interview. With limited time to vet applications, Vantine first reviews resumes and scans them for specific words that focus on the candidates’ hard skills. Then, if she wants to know more about a candidate, she turns to their cover letter to find out about their soft skills. Ultimately, these skills should be highlighted during the interview with clear and concise examples, she says.  

“An interview is an opportunity to show how well you express yourself, how well you listen, and how you respond to various personalities,” says Vantine. “Show the hiring committee that you are the perfect candidate not only because you meet the position requirements, but also because you share the same core values as the interviewing firm,” she adds.

Tell a story

Recruiters will often ask candidates to tell them about a time or situation when they applied a particular skillset. These types of behavioral interview questions are designed to provide the recruiter with a deeper insight into how a candidate would approach and solve a problem, Brooks explains. Instead of simply asking the candidate how they work under stress, the recruiter might ask candidates to describe a time they had to work in a stressful situation and how they handled it. When answering these questions, “take the time to think about what you want to relay about yourself,” she says.

“Instead of saying ‘I manage stress well, share a story of a stressful situation that turned out successful because of the way you managed it,” explains Brooks. “This will show the recruiter that you can manage stress, problem solve, and produce a strong work product in a variety of situations.”

Recruiters are looking for candidates to come up with a very specific example of a time when they faced an issue that school or job training might not have prepared them for, explains MacFarlane. They want to know about “a time when you to think on your feet and come up with a solution that isn’t immediately obvious.”

What not to do

While it can be easy to rely on cliché words or phrases to describe your soft skills, these often don’t tell the recruiter much about your strengths as a candidate. “Self-motivated” and “self-starter” are overused phrases that don’t carry much meaning. It’s better to include more details about your responsibilities for each previous job role, rather than an introductory paragraph filled with “meaningless buzzwords” at the top of your CV, says MacFarlane.

Brooks, however, thinks that it’s fine to include commonly used buzzwords and phrases — as long as you back up those statements. “If you refer to yourself as a team player, be prepared to provide examples,” she says.

About the author

  • Emma Smith

    Emma Smith is a Reporter at Devex. She covers all things related to careers and hiring in the global development community as well as mental health within the sector — from tips on supporting humanitarian staff to designing mental health programs for refugees. Emma has reported from key development hubs in Europe and co-produced Devex’s DevProWomen2030 podcast series. She holds a degree in journalism from Glasgow Caledonian University and a master's in media and international conflict. In addition to writing for regional news publications, she has worked with organizations focused on child and women’s rights.