November 21, 2017

Sell Your Ideas Like a Shark Is Listening | Leading from the Library

Steven BellYou’ve got a great idea for your library. You think it’s a slam dunk for success. No one else is listening and you’re frustrated. Maybe you need a new approach.

I gave the opening talk at this year’s On The Front Lines Conference. It’s a great concept for a conference: Give front line library workers an opportunity to share their knowledge and experience, and celebrate the work they do every day to give our community members the best possible library experience. I chose “Librarianship in the Great Age of Experimentation” as the theme for my talk because I wanted to bring attention to the front line as the library location where the bulk of our service experimentation occurs. Blending together stories of great experiments from the past with those happening in libraries in the here and now, my goal was to inspire the attendees to try out new things at their library in the spirit of experimentation. What’s happening right now in education, from K-16, offers ample indicators of rapid experimentation that most librarians, from all sectors of the profession, can appreciate. I shared some examples from the educational technology industry, where dozens of new and mature companies are experimenting with new technology in the race to be the next Khan Academy.

No One Listens

Whenever I give a talk like this one, invariably, I get “the question.” It goes something like this: “I have this great idea and I want to try it out, but it goes nowhere. Either the director is just not interested, co-workers demonstrate a lack of support, or everyone claims it’s just too busy to try something new. What am I supposed to do?” I can sense the frustration coming through in this question because the person asking it would like to assume a leadership role, but the barriers seem insurmountable.

My response covers a few possible strategies, from better understanding how to introduce an idea for change to making a better case for your idea. Brian Mathews offered some fine advice for achieving the latter in a blog post titled “Learning to Pitch.” Mathews lays out some concrete strategies for doing something that may be elusive to librarians—being a salesperson for their ideas. Presenting our ideas in a fashion that makes them irresistible to others is a natural talent few of us possess. That’s why academic librarians may want to explore less familiar methods to improve their ability to get others on board with their latest plan for an innovative service. Leaders at all levels need to learn how to influence others. You need to convince your director or coworkers that you have what it takes to move your concept from idea to implementation to successful service. Those techniques may be found in any number of places—even mass media.

How To Sell to Sharks

Have an idea you want to pitch? What might be the ultimate arena for asking support for a great idea just happens to be one of the most popular shows on network television. Shark Tank invites people with big ideas and insufficient capital to make a quick presentation to a panel of experienced entrepreneurs and investors. These “Sharks” listen and then ask tough questions. The presenters must be prepared to give insightful and compelling answers that will convince the investors that their ideas are well-researched, field tested, and worthy of funding. It helps to make an emotional connection, but when it comes to getting Sharks to part with their money, emotional appeals are of little help. When contestants fail to make the grade it can be painful, or entertaining, to watch the proceedings. While it’s your basic reality-TV show, there are still good lessons to learn if you want to get your ideas across in a convincing way. In his article “Secrets of Winning on Shark Tank,” Kevin Brass shares tips that come directly from the Sharks’ mouths.

  • Presence Matters: Go in with confidence that your idea is worth supporting and show it by standing up straight, making eye contact, and speaking with authority. If you are less than 100 percent confident in your idea it will come through in how you present yourself. Remember to be appreciative of the opportunity to share your ideas. More than a few entrepreneurs lost support because of their nonchalance.
  • Rule of Three: Focus on three specific reasons why this idea should get supported, choose the most important things, and be concise in making your points. It can help to have examples, illustrations, or props to get attention quickly—like the man whose product was energy bars made out of crickets. His tank full of crickets made an instant impact.
  • Avoid Jargon and Theory: Keep your message as simple as possible. It’s less important to know why your idea is a disruptive new paradigm than how it’s going to make a difference for your community. Make that connection.
  • Demonstrate Commitment: The service and the budget may sound great but often it comes down to the person who makes the presentation. Whoever you make your pitch to must believe that you will have what it takes to persevere and see it through.
  • Know Your Stuff: Be prepared to defend your idea from attack. Have the data. As much as possible, offer the evidence. Know your weak points and have good arguments to explain your plans and readiness to work through them.
  • No Sob Stories: As a leader you want to avoid the path of negativity. No sad tales about how your projects are always ignored or how other staff members give you a hard time. Stay focused on the positive outcomes your idea can achieve—and how you are prepared to overcome obstacles that may present themselves.

Sharing Your Vision

Another frustration librarian leaders may confront in seeking support of their new idea is when it’s something so new or different for the organization that colleagues and administrators are unable to envision it for themselves. It is part of our human condition that when we can’t comprehend something, we want to move on to the next thing. That’s exactly what you want to avoid. Lee Miller and Kathleen Onieal research how successful innovators overcome having an idea that is not easily understood. Some of their ideas seem to borrow from good pedagogy. For example, rather than trying to present an idea as revolutionary, which can be threatening to some, Miller and Oniel recommend building on what people already know. What’s less threatening is presenting an idea as simply extending existing services. Then work for some small successes that can pave the way to broader adoption. As much as possible, provide a small demonstration of what the new product or service is and how it allows for improvements over what it will replace. Once you gain some support, consider proceeding with caution by establishing a pilot project. It won’t require vast organizational commitment, and it could require some naysayers to get involved – which can contribute to overcoming resistance. Miller and Oniel have found that through persistence, idea champions can devise a strategy that, over time, helps colleagues get comfortable with an idea for which they previously were unable to imagine the intended result.

Takes More Than a Good Idea

While librarian leaders are unlikely to find themselves going in front of a panel of Sharks to pitch an idea, preparing as if that were the case may be advantageous. When it comes to sharing new ideas with our co-workers, supervisors, and occasionally other academic administrators, leaders can benefit by imagining those colleagues are Sharks and that the future of any new service or resource depends on their support. The first time or two that we put the Shark approach into practice things may not go well. Good leaders are constantly learning, not only from articles and books, but also their own failures. With experience, leaders will get better at selling their ideas to others, even when those ideas are difficult for others to imagine. It takes preparation, practice, and persistence. To paraphrase a losing entrepreneur whose idea was chewed up and rejected by the Sharks, “You better have more than an idea, emotions, or a shiny object, or else you will get creamed”. That sums up the lesson pretty well.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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