Where to start when planning talk or teaching session

This seems obvious, right? And yet so often it doesn't happen.

Venn diagram showing 'what you know' in one circle and 'what matters to your audience' in the other. Where they overlap is where your talk should be.

Venn diagram showing 'what you know' in one circle and 'what matters to your audience' in the other. Where they overlap is where your talk should be.

There are two main ways in which, when we give talks or run teaching sessions and workshops, we don't adhere to this principle. Clearly no one ever strays entirely into the blue circle (giving a talk about a subject which matters to your audience, but which you no absolutely nothing about, is pretty much impossible) but we can easily spend too much time in the orange circle where it doesn't overlap, or just not make the most of the overlapping section of the diagram.

NB: I very deliberately use the phrase 'what matters to your audience' above - rather than 'what interests them', because I'm not advocating taking a superficial approach and only telling your community about cool stuff they already care about. We can tell them things they don't know they need to know! Sometimes they wouldn't choose to hear it in advance, but they thank us afterwards. So it's very much what matters to them, whether they realise it before the session or not.

There's no excuse for telling an audience things which don't matter at all - unless it's a small part of your presentation, to serve a particular purpose.

Telling people everything we know

I don't wish to generalise but a lot of times Librarians give out too much information, particularly early on in a relationship between the institution and the user. Induction or Welcome talks often contain vast swathes of detail, or a talk at a conference will include ALL the info about a particular project - and often this can actually get in the way of the message. After a while the audience gets overwhelmed and starts to filter, or just switch off. We can only retain so much new information at one time.

So when crafting a talk or presentation, the starting point should not be 'What do I know about this subject?' but specifically what do the audience want to know about this subject, that I can tell them?

Missing out on the over-lap

There's a second, more subtle, factor here. The over-lap of what matters to your audience and what you know about can also include things which aren't part of your core message. In other words, you can establish your credibility with your audience by telling them things which matter to them, and THEN telling about the library's relevance to them - they're more inclined to take you seriously if you aren't just advocating for your own service or value. I use this a lot in infolit teaching - I'll tell the students about internet privacy, different search engines, how to use social media in an academic context etc, as well as telling them about what the library does and how to use databases effectively. Because it's in the overlap of the diagram above - I know about this stuff, and it matters to my audience. What's really interesting is when I started doing this *rather than just talking about the library) the feedback, both the scores and the qualitative feedback, went up hugely; they really liked the sessions. But when they're asked to rate the most useful part of the session, the vast majority mention the bits about the library!

As long as it doesn't conflict with our ethics and values, libraries can provide both services and expertise based on what our users need - it doesn't have to be a 'library' function in the traditional sense.

So: create presentations and teaching from the audience's point of view first, working back to what you know about what matters to them, rather than the other way around. It's only a small shift but it makes a huge difference.

Five questions to ask yourself before you say 'yes'


There's a big thing in librarianship about the importance of saying 'no'. On Twitter especially I see it discussed a lot (and I take part in those discussions sometimes): it's really, really hard to say no to exciting opportunities, or even, frankly, unexciting ones, for all sorts of reasons. But if you say yes to everything you can end up burnt out. So how do you strike the balance? Here are some useful questions to ask yourself when weighing up a decision. I'd be very interested if anyone wants to leave a comment offering more advice on this.

(ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM KLAXON: it's hard to write about saying no to CPD offers without it sounding like one big humblebrag. Oh man, all these people want me to do these cool things but I'm so busy doing cool things already! Nightmare!

That's not what this is intended to be so I hope it doesn't come across that way.)

Is this going to add to *MY* professional development specifically?

By which I mean, does it feed into your specific goals and interests, or does it fall into the category of 'generic CPD'? I think a lot of stuff we feel like we should do actually turns out not to be something we can USE in our professional development. Job applications in our profession are all about tailoring your experience and skills to the specific role being offered - there's little room, in most cases (not all) for general experiences which sound quite nice but won't be used in the job itself. So if you get asked to chair or take part in a conference panel on The Future of Libraries, for example, does that help you tick off an essential personal specification on a job application? If so, great; if not, even if the conference is prestigious, it might not actually turn out to mean much, in real terms, that you were on the panel.

So ask yourself, where do I want to go next? And does this thing I've been asked to do potentially help me get there, or not?

Do I have the emotional energy to throw myself into this?

I really put my all into each workshop I run or talk I give. It's not just the time spent preparing, it's the emotional energy of being 'on' all day, as an introvert. I can't do this 50 times a year, it would stop it being fun. So even if something is on the surface a really exciting opportunity, you have to ask yourself if you have enough in the tank to do it justice given the number of other things you may already be doing.

Where does this fit with my wider calendar?

This is so obvious, but easy to ignore. It's not just about whether there are things the day before or after the event you're being offered; it's more about your professional life-cycle. If you're coming to the end of a massive project on a Friday, chances are doing a talk the following Monday will cause you stress about both activities because you need the emotional space to focus on each one individually.

Are there big events in your personal life going on? Sometimes they can be all consuming and the last thing you need is to plan a talk. Other times planning a talk can be the escape you need.

Does this have the potential to lead to other exciting things?

Are you going to find a new or extended network, or audience, by taking this opportunity? Or is it a no-through-road in terms of what might happen next?

Sometimes it can be worth finding a way to say yes to something if you can see more opportunities opening up as a result - as long as those opportunities are specifically relevant to your interests and goals, of course. I wrote an entire book mostly for that exact reason - it was a nightmare to do, too... But worth it for the doors it opened. 

Is this something new, or more of the same?

One of the best ways to eliminate an opportunity which seems like it will be great but you know you simply don't have time to do, is to ask what it offers that nothing else does. And if, for all its excitingness, it's not going to introduce you to new people or force you to do research into an area you don't know as much about as you'd like or make you explore new ways of presenting, or whatever, that can be enough of a reason to say no.

I don't want to give the same talk over and over again. Laura Woods and I did that with the echo chamber thing back in 2010 / 2011 and we felt really spent after a while - even though we varied the content, we felt we'd said all we had to say. So we stopped saying it.

Bonus question: would it be fun?

I added this one after asking my friend Céline on Twitter what advice she'd give. As she says, "you're allowed to say yes to things just because they'd be fun" which is very, very true. Fun is important! Sometimes it can trump all of the considerations above, because a fun experience leaves you fizzing with energy and motivation.

Extra bonus question for white males

Something I've just started doing with conferences invites is finding out a little bit about the other speakers. I'm giving a Keynote at LIANZA in New Zealand this year, and I wanted to make sure it wasn't going to be the all-too-common library conference situation where all the keynotes are male and white. Thankfully that was definitely not the case for this event, they have it covered. 

I'm not trying to preach that if you're white and male like I am you should turn down your dream conference talk because the other two speakers are both white blokes too - but I do think it's important to ask the question and ensure the organisers have considered it.

Of course, it's not just you who features in this equation, it's the people or body who are asking you to do something in the first place. If you can, as well doing the obvious helpful things like replying promptly, recommend someone else. If I know enough about the event from the description I've been given, I'll always try and match it with a name who I know would be great. Often the organisers are really pleased to have a new lead to pursue. 

It feels GREAT to say no. Knowing you're not adding additional pressure to your work-life balance. In my experience, opportunities still come up. It's not like saying no once forever puts the CPD genie back in the bottle.

There's a lot of rhetoric around the idea of being the best you can be, making the best of all the opportunities you have, and how you only regret the things you don't do. I can see the merit in all of that but I treat it all with caution. I keep a list of things I've said no to (partly because I want to show my employer that when I do ask to attend a conference in work time, it's for a good, considered reason, and not just  something I do at every opportunity) and honestly there's some pretty cool stuff on there which it would have been fun to be a part of. But I don't for a minute sit around wishing I'd said 'yes'. Because if I had, who knows how much I'd've been able to enjoy the things I DID agree to - maybe I would have been too busy to prepare properly (I HATE being under-prepared for a talk, even by a tiny amount) or I would have been so exhausted by All The Things that I wouldn't have truly enjoyed any of them.

So to maintain a healthy relationship between work, life, day job, CPD, creativity, energy reserves and all of that, learning to say no is a genuinely important skill. Don't always say no! But at least ask yourself some questions before you say yes...

Building your professional reputation. Library adventures in Cape Town part 1

In October I was invited to South Africa to speak at LIASA 2013, the 15th annual Library and Information Association of South Africa conference. It was in the fabulous City of Cape Town and it was incredible; I just haven't had a chance to put my thoughts down in a blogpost until now. But I know not everyone is particularly interested in a 'here's what I did' type post so I've put that separately in Part 2. There's also a Part 3 to follow about the differences between UK conferences and international ones. I was asked to do three things at the conference - a marketing workshop (half a day on strategic marketing and half a day on emerging technologies), a session for the Higher Education Library Interest Group on induction / orientation here at the University of York Library (the presentation is here, although it doesn't make much sense without me talking over the top, I'm afraid), and a talk aimed primarily at new professionals on building your reputation and professional brand. It's a tiresomely controversial subject, this; what it comes down to for me is that people fairly new to the profession can sometimes worry about being some sort of super librarian and DOING ALL THE THINGS, but actually you don't have to be like this at all. You just have to get involved with the areas of librarianship which correspond to your goals in the profession. So the talk was about that, and about different ways to be part of the wider community.

Below is the talk: it consists of my slides, the audio of the talk (recorded from my iphone in my jacket pocket!) and a couple of pictures to look at while I talk about some things I wasn't intending to talk about, at the very start.

It was fun doing this talk, it was different to the normal things I do. The room was bigger - this is the first time, outside of the webinar environment, that I'd talked to several hundred people at once. Speaking to a room that size is very different to speaking to 30 people - my usual very conversational presentation style wouldn't have worked. Presenting is a bit like drawing a picture in that the further away the audience, the broader the strokes needed for the picture; the detail gets lost.

The atmosphere was different in SA that from conferences I've presented at in the UK, too - people were laid back, ready to laugh. I was one of only three international speakers so everyone was very welcoming. And also, this talk is a version of something I'd originally delivered at a New Professionals Day back in 2012 which was designed primarily to address an anxiety about branding I'd heard many new professionals express - an anxiety which, having arrived in South Africa and been at the conference for a couple of days already, I'd found to be largely absent! So I felt a bit like my talk didn't match my slides - certainly I was trying to manipulate the slides to tell a slightly different, more widely applicable story, as I went along. But anyway I really enjoyed it and I've had some genuinely touching feedback about people feeling inspired.

Parts 2 and 3 to follow!