February 16, 2018

Leaders and Their Library Message | Leading from the Library

Steven BellMany leaders have developed an elevator talk or pitch about their library. When there’s more time and opportunity there’s a place for another type of communication, the “library message.”

Anne is a relatively new library director. She’s crafted a great elevator talk about her college library. Coming from a department head spot at a regional university, Anne felt completely confident communicating about her unit’s work to colleagues or her dean. Communicating to high-level academic administrators, however, left Anne feeling out of sync and uncomfortable. Nonlibrary deans, provosts, and others had little patience for any long-winded answers or technical jargon. Anne adapted her communications better to suit that audience. In time Anne gained confidence and competence in handling nearly every nonlibrarian administrator question. Most often, the KISS approach was effective. Where Anne found herself struggling was that middle ground, somewhere between the elevator pitch and the detailed explanation. Whether it was delivering information to nonlibrary colleagues, users, or community stakeholders such as alumni or potential donors, Anne was less confident in her ability to strike the right tone and hit the critical points, while balancing the need for detail with limited attention spans. Call that sweet spot the “library message.”

Beyond the Pitch

Leaders can use the elevator talk to make a simple and quick connection when meeting someone new who needs a fast introduction to the library’s mission. Whether the gist of that brief talk is the library as a center of community learning, as the connector between diverse subcommunities, or as the preserver and provider of access to materials, the goal is to plant a seed with the potential to grow into a better relationship. When there is time and more detail is sought, there’s a brief opportunity to drill a little deeper and drive home a more passionate message about what the library brings to the community and why that matters. It’s the time to communicate exactly what differentiates the library from all the other information sources. Leaders need to share this information with the level of confidence and enthusiasm that turns doubters into believers. That’s the library message. It’s more than just an answer to a question. Leaders who are skilled communicators take the question and morph the response into the message.

An Acquired Skill

After many years being at ease talking mostly to other librarians or faculty, library leaders like Anne find they now engage with other top administrators, community leaders, and potential donors. Getting the communication right at this level, and speaking with command, is a skill that takes some time to develop. Although I resisted it at first, one of the better leadership learning experiences I had was a half-day workshop with a communications consultant that my university hired to help the administrative team prepare for encounters with the media. It opened up my eyes to how much work I needed in this area of communications. Library leaders rarely encounter a reporter asking an unexpected question, particularly in a crisis, but just understanding the dynamics of that situation and how to prepare for it and execute under pressure can be incredibly enlightening. First you need to know how to handle the situation (e.g., stay calm) and second you need to know how to respond (e.g., get from question to answer and then on message). The experience led me to seek out similar communication workshops. When elected to a national-level association presidency, I was required to take a media training session; not much new but a good refresher. If you have the opportunity to do so, get some media response training. Even without it, library leaders can prepare by crafting their library message.

Developing Your Message

What goes into a library message? It has to be more than a few clichés about the library. Heart of the campus? Living room of the community? Avoid those platitudes at all costs. The library message needs to get beyond the pitch by sharing the leader’s passion for the library, what it means to the community, and the vision for where it’s headed—and what it will look like when that destination is reached. The message should enable community members to stretch their imagination about and understanding of the library beyond some traditional conceptualization of the library as a book repository. Good messages should incorporate stories, reference important community symbols and values, and encourage people to believe that the library’s mission makes a difference for all community members.

Help Getting Started

As a library leader you likely have loads of things you want your primary audiences to know about the library. Your message has to distill all those great facts and imagery down to two or three minutes. A worthwhile book that will help to accomplish that is Tom Calcagni’s Tough Questions—Good Answers. It’s an odd title because Calcagni’s focus is to get beyond simple answers to message delivery. Here are a few key points for developing your message:

  • “Are you hungry?” Giving an answer: “Yes.” Delivering a message: “Yes, but I’m in the mood for pizza, so let’s go to this new restaurant downtown that got a great review.” See the difference? Answer the question, then shift to the message you want to deliver.
  • Focus on three things. Not too little information but not too much. It can be any three important points you want to make, but if you need help, go with what your library does, how your library does it, and why it’s important to the community.
  • Practice responding to a few basic question types such as the “what if” (e.g., “But what if it takes a whole day to get my book from remote storage?”), the “open ended” (e.g., “Why do we still need libraries?”), or the “loaded preface” (e.g., “With those budget cuts won’t you have to close on weekends?”). Have variations of your message prepared for each type of question.
  • Also develop a “bridge,” which is your transitional phrase that allows you to get from each type of question onto your message. (e.g., “These budget cuts will force us to make some difficult choices, but what really matters…”)

Delivery Counts As Much As Content

How it’s delivered matters, too. Leaders need to speak with passion and enthusiasm. If that message is delivered correctly, every listener knows that their leader truly believes every word he or she says and is convinced that leader can make it happen. How can aspiring leaders get this right? They probably won’t—at first. It takes time, practice, coaching, and learning from our uninspiring and questionably delivered messages. It also helps to watch leaders, from libraries and other professions, who know how to deliver their messages and  take cues from these examples. For instance, I’ve always thought the way Paul LeClerc speaks about the New York Public Library to a reporter is a good model for showing enthusiasm and telling the story. Also take a look at video interviews with any of the last several American Library Association (ALA) presidents. Library association leaders rarely get ambushed by reporters, but leaders like ALA’s Barbara Stripling, Courtney Young, and Sari Feldman all undergo media training, have excellent messages prepared, and offer great examples of demonstrating poise and presence in interview situations. Reviewing video of candidate forums held for ALA officer elections can also be educational.

Putting it Into Practice

Library leaders will typically be put on the spot when they take an action that someone in the community opposes. Removing books, whether permanently or to a remote storage site, is the sort of thing that might cause a community member to raise a challenge in a public forum. So might a decision to take a popular lounge area and repurpose it for a new Maker space. These situations hardly rise to the level of a crisis, such as would missing funds from the budget or a free speech controversy that might attract media attention. Still, they require some deft communication from a library leader who needs not only to defend a decision but to use persuasive influence to shift the mind-set of the community from opposition to support. Getting caught off guard by an unexpected question can be unsettling. Preparing in advance will train library leaders to fall back on their bridge phrase and then regain balance with their library message. “I understand how this change may create some anxiety…your support of the library is always appreciated…here’s why we need to make this change now”…[deliver the message]. This initial response affords a brief transitional period in which to get collected, focused, and ready to deliver the actual message.

Staying on Message

Every leader will face situations when they need to be their most articulate and “leaderly” in delivering a response. Having a well-thought-out library message and the ability quickly and confidently to get and stay on point will make the difference. That’s not to say that leaders are know-it-alls who must always have the answer to every question. Good leaders know that on occasion the best answer will come from someone on the library team, perhaps the collection or budget expert. Savvy leaders also know that sometimes the best strategy is to acknowledge the complexity of a question and use it as an opportunity to engage community members in a conversation about a controversial or difficult issue. What matters is thinking ahead about communication situations, having the library message ready, and taking time to practice the delivery. Communication is among the most essential skills that library leaders need for success, whether it’s communicating with staff, community members, or other leaders. Look for every opportunity to learn to get better.

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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