When I received a phone call from Yale asking me to come out for an interview for my current job the person on the other end of the conversation informed me I would have to give a 20-minute presentation about the future of emerging technologies in law libraries. I was shocked. At some point during my education I was informed that academic librarians often have to give presentations as part of their interview, but it just hadn’t crossed my mind when I applied for this job.

As I was thinking of what I wanted to say about technology and how to start my presentation, I went to my good old-fashioned standby – tell a story. And I started with one of my favorites. It seems to be something of an academic folktale, told differently by different people to illustrate different points. And if you hang around me enough you’ll probably hear me tell it.  The basic story can be found at this 37 Signals post. Some of the interesting twists and takes on the story can be found here. The story loosened me up, set a good tone, and made the presentation a successful one.

Whenever I don’t know what to write or how to start a presentation I try to start with a story. And if you look at some of my previous blog posts you’ll see many of them start with stories or feature them prominently (including this one). When I think of my favorite blog posts and presentations, and professional interactions, stories are always prominently involved.

I was reminded recently about the power of storytelling after watching the video of Scott Berkun’s keynote at the Web 2.0 Expo in NY last month.

What I love best about his talk is the application of storytelling to the vendor – customer dynamic. As many law librarians are aware vendor – librarian relations have been rocky for a while and 2009 was a particularly bad year for vendor relations with law librarians.

It occurred to me as I was watching the video that my interactions with vendors almost always tend to be sales pitches. A sales rep, not “someone who was in the room” as Scott says in the video, tries to sell me on a product or feature. They tell me what librarians love (if I had a nickel for every time a rep said “librarians love this” …), they give me slogans and buzz words. These sales pitches are missing the two important aspects of storytelling touched on in the keynote, honesty and authenticity.

Telling a story is not the same thing as a case study, although a good case study tells a story. And I’m not referring to an off-hand comment like ‘professors at x school like to do this’, and ‘this library has tried this’. Tell me the story as you might if we were sitting together at a bar. Why did these professors and libraries do what they did? What problems were they trying to solve? What was culture of the organization and did that factor into the choices made?

Maybe getting back to this basic storytelling could be a great way to rebuild the trust between librarians and vendors. Storytelling can restore the honesty and authenticity that’s been missing from this relationship. To change the game from a struggle between spending money and cutting resources and selling products to a conversation between partners helping each other solve problems.

There are a lot of good resources out there for storytelling. Scott Berkun’s blog is very good. Anecdote is also a good resource. There are others who advocate for this, but these are just two who come to mind.

It may be naive to think that storytelling will change this too-often dysfunctional relationship. But I am going to try to start doing it anyway.

So Librarians: When I network with you at a conference tell me a story about what’s going on where you work. What are some problems you’re facing? How are you dealing with those problems? I’ll share stories about what’s going on at Yale.

And for vendors: next year at AALL, or online sometime, or if you come to visit me – I am going to ask you to tell me a story. You can tell me a story about how the product was developed, or why. You can tell me a story about someone using the product right now, or how you were able to sell the product to someone else.

But please, when I ask you to tell me a story have one ready.

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Hey – thanks for the mention. Glad to know my message got through. If you want a copy of the book I was talking about in the keynote, drop me a line w/your address and I’ll get one to you. Cheers.

December 19, 2009 9:16 pm

Hi Jason, Anecdotes are your last word, and thats where I continue. My book has many anecdotes, library related. Let me know if this interests you.

You can read extracts here: Case Studies from India: Evidence-based Librarianship

December 20, 2009 5:50 pm

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