Going Up?

“How are things in the library?” A door opens – not the elevator door, but the door of opportunity. Are you ready?

The concept of the “elevator speech” has been popping up all over the place lately. At the Ontario Government Libraries Council AGM, keynote speaker Farida Karim challenged us to come up with a 30-second synopsis of what our libraries do. Umair Haque, blogging for The Harvard Business Review, has dumped the elevator speech in favour of the Dumbwaiter Speech. In other reading, I’ve seen librarians chastised because they are unable to explain what their library does in an elevator pitch. Stage fright? Humility? There’s a danger in this – some libraries are losing staff and funding because they can’t make the case. 

In a flat economy, we need to quickly, clearly and compellingly explain who we are and why we’re being paid. Deborah Copeman and Michel-Adrien Sheppard point out that statistics won’t cut it, in their paper “Best practices for demonstrating the value of your library services” (distributed in April on the CALL listserv). Statistics are easy to gather and interpret, but use them to create a compelling story about how your services improve decision-making, and help the organization meet its goals. Numbers are the foundation of your narrative, not a substitute for it. 

The trick with an elevator speech is that is should seem spontaneous. The reality is that it is a well-thought-out, crafted piece of wordsmithing. There are tools available to help you construct an elevator speech. Microsoft has a template for elevator speeches! Practice it until you cannot stand the sound of your own voice. Then, you can trot it out with enthusiasm and conviction when you bump into the Managing Partner, ADM, Chief Justice, Chairman or the new articling student. 

Humility is not your friend. I know, I know. We’re Canadians (for the most part). We are self-effacing. We suffer the additional disadvantage of being librarians, not a profession known for howling in victory. Michel-Adrien and Deborah based their report on submissions from SEVEN libraries, because, they hypothesize, we don’t see what we do as “best practices”. If we do something well, it must be what everyone does – there’s nothing special about this product or service. Instead of “it goes without saying that the library is the place for (answers, information, insight)” – SAY IT. 

Get used to telling your stories. If you don’t want to brag to your clients, share with your profession. The best-reviewed program for the Toronto Association of Law Libraries (TALL) in my year as Chair was one where we invited members to come and tell us about new products and services that they had created. Some of the projects were modest, aimed at making the lives of the librarians easier. Others were bigger, benefiting whole firms or, in one case, all of Ontario. The scale is not important – if you made things better for yourself or your clients, that’s a story that deserves telling. It will be news to someone else – an innovation that they can adopt or adapt, and a change in the story that they tell. It is story-telling that social media is great for – how many statistical analyses do you see in the blogosphere? Tell me your story, don’t inundate me with numbers. 

I had a very illuminating conversation in an elevator once. I was riding with a bunch of work colleagues, and one started to thank me for a complex piece of research that I’d done for him. I asked some quick follow-up questions and promised a bit more work later that afternoon. Not unusual at all. But another lawyer turned to me and (with wonder in his voice): “You do that type of work for us?” “Of course! I replied, “That’s what the library is for!” If I’d been smart, I would have spent more time in that elevator. It’s a way more effective method for reaching and developing relationships with our clients. 

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