March 16, 2018

What’s Your Pitch? | Office Hours

Michael StephensSpeaking here and there, I’ve logged a few airline miles over the years and visited some pretty cool places. A short while ago, I was coming back from the New York Library Association conference, flying from Albany to Chicago, and I was seated next to a friendly young man who asked me what I did for a living.

This can sometimes be an awkward conversation. It can go any number of ways. “I’m a professor” is one answer. “I teach,” another. When I say “libraries,” sometimes my seatmate’s eyes glaze over, and I get the typical, “Aren’t libraries going away?” question or a joke about the Dewey Decimal System or some other very telling response that makes it easy to see exactly how that person feels about libraries.

This fellow perked right up. It turns out my neighbor, Colin Ryan, was a comedian and motivational speaker who had recently done a program at New York’s Saratoga Springs Library. He had many positive things to say about Director A. Issac Pulver’s staff and the audience. He was thrilled with the crowd that had packed the meeting room to laugh at and learn from his talk on managing money. He also had some interesting and well-thought-out questions for me about libraries. No eye-glazing, no invocations of “Won’t Google save us all?”

Airplanes and elevators

Our conversation got me thinking about my airplane pitch, also known as the elevator speech. It’s the answer you give to the “What do you do?” question. My patter has changed over the years, from talking about my public library work to the “in the elevator at an Association for Library and Information Science Education (ALISE) conference and looking for a teaching position” line describing my research agenda and educational philosophy.

Google “elevator pitch” and you’ll find plenty of “how-to” sites, mainly aimed at helping business folks sell their products. Tips include rephrasing “I’m in sales” to “I sell mobile solutions that help businesses maximize profits.” You’ll also find suggestions for selling yourself as a job seeker, another role of the pitch. It’s a good exercise for information professionals to consider what their elevator spiel might be. Here are a few of the various ways we might use a well-deliberated pitch.

Advocating for your library

I recall being in line at the movies back in the 1990s. “Hey, you’re the ‘AV Guy,’ ” said someone nearby, referencing my then position and department at St. Joseph County Public Library (SJCPL) in South Bend, IN. “That’s me,” I said. This led to a chat about what SJCPL offered in music and movies. Looking back, I could have said so much more.

Now, it’s a given that we should be prepared to tell folks who recognize us from our places of employment just what the library can do for the community. Not interested in chatting outside the confines of your library about the benefits your institution provides? It might be time to reassess the work. This is a call to action for all staff to become evangelists for the library.

Advocating for all libraries

This is a good one for the airplane or while traveling. Not only are we advocates for our own institutions, we’re also advocates for the profession and the mission of libraries in general. How do you describe what I’ve called the “ultimate service profession”? It’s easy to fall into some of the clichés the media uses—we’re not “shushing” anymore—so focusing on both the foundational tenets and the evolving nature of our profession might be a better route. This might be a good exercise to do with colleagues or your staff as well as a fun experiment for your students: brainstorm the broadest of library-focused elevator speeches.

Advocating for yourself

This might be during the job search or if you are seeking to move up in your institution or the profession. In a time when shameless self-promotion is often painfully obvious in many online channels, talking about yourself, the work you do, and what it means to you is an art. Be humble but authentic. Share your passions, successes, and failures.

Pitching yourself

All of these approaches require a high degree of reflection. They are also about defining how we view ourselves. Making our elevator speeches good and solid will help us define our roles and what we hope to achieve. Elevator speeches should be as much about what we’ve done as what we plan to do.

Many of us go through periods in which we’re not sure what “good” we’re doing, what role we and the library are playing. Perfecting this patter means we have to figure out some of these things, which often helps us redefine our goals and redirect our efforts.

What’s your elevator pitch? What statements have you used to educate and advocate for the library? Which worked the best, and what have you changed over time?

This article was published in Library Journal's February 15, 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Michael Stephens About Michael Stephens

Michael Stephens ( is Associate Professor at the School of Information, San Jose State University, CA



  1. Excellent suggestions and points here, Michael!

    EVERYONE needs a great Elevator Speech!

    Here is a proven template on how to build one, floor-by-floor with – NO SWEAT!

  2. Michael, you’re too kind to include me in your story! You made a great impression on me, and I’m so glad I took a moment to meet my seatmate on that flight.

    I agree that it’s so important to encapsulate what you do in a memorable way. It took me a long time to get my job description down to this: I’m a stand-up comedian who helps students and adults change their relationship to money.

    And you’ll be happy to know I’ve elevator pitched you many times since our flight. To my library association friends in New York, California, and even very close to you at Troy Public Library in Michigan!

    You’re a good man. Thanks for the thoughtful article and keep taming that web!