Don’t Fence Me In

11 Sep

I just returned from the bookstore where I bought myself a few Tootsie Rolls (yes, my tooth is much better, thanks), my reward for sitting through a 90-minute webinar. This isn’t to say that the webinar wasn’t interesting, but more that I believe in positive reinforcement and extrinsic motivators. Walking to the store, I was thinking about the question that comes up so much in classes, presentations, talks, and webinars on the topic of emerging roles for librarians today, i.e. “How to talk to researchers about ___.” You fill in the blank. Most of the time lately, it’s “How do we talk to researchers about their data?” All three presenters during the webinar that I listened to today mentioned it and/or gave advice on the subject, and so I was thinking about it as I was on the hunt for my well-deserved, afternoon treat.

Our bookstore always has a cart or two outside of it with books that are marked way down. Passing it, the title, The Art of Conversation: A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure, by Catherine Blyth, caught my eye. “Funny,” I thought to myself, considering what I’d just been thinking about.

In Chapter 2, “Small Talk, Big Deal,” Blyth gives us these five principles to follow when engaging in small talk:

  • Put others at ease
  • Put yourself at ease
  • Weave in all parties
  • Establish shared interests
  • Actively pursue your own

She then offers several rules as a strategy to follow. One is to “approach small talk like a treasure hunt.” “The most productive spirit is pioneering: sincere, curious, light, humorous,” she writes. The other rule is, “Start in neutral.” By this, she means that one of the best ways to be prepared to talk to people is to have a mind filled with a whole host of interesting thoughts and ideas; news items, books you’ve read, music you enjoy, fashion tid bits, and cultural affairs. In other words, be well-versed in a whole host of relatively safe, non-controversial topics. “Keep it light: an observation, question, a thread to weave to something new.”

Now, you might think that these rules are all fine and good for the next cocktail party, but I advocate that they are also EXCELLENT tenets to apply when asking the question, “How do I talk to researchers (clinicians, docs, students, etc.) about data?” About anything. Here’s why… despite the fact that we all live in a harried, time-sensitive, pressure cooker of a working world, most everyone still enjoys an expression of kindness and friendliness. Such expressions accomplish the first two principles – they put both you and the person that you’re talking to at ease. With that in place, everything else that follows becomes a whole lot easier.


Complementary Colors

Similarly, small talk allows you to be inclusive of everyone. It lets you discover those things, sometimes completely unrelated to work (but sometimes not) that allow you to build a conversation that, ultimately, puts you in the best place to achieve your goal(s).

Which brings me to the bigger point – the one that I was thinking about before I picked up this book. When we go into a meeting or a conversation with an agenda, i.e. “I’d like to talk with you about your data management needs,” we’ve already eliminated about 7/8 of the services that we might be able to offer this patron. I agree that it’s good to have a few things in mind when you approach the person that you wish to pitch your services to, but go in with too tight of an agenda and you’ll likely miss a bunch of opportunities to do things and to meet needs that are being unmet. You want to provide data services, but maybe the researcher really needs help with disseminating his/her research findings in more creative ways. When you engage in some small talk, when you “start in neutral,” you’re much less likely to get hung up when the person says, “that’s interesting, but…”

Ladies and gentlemen once kept commonplace books, magpie hoards containing scraps of literature, historical facts, bon mots – any bauble that snagged the owner’s fancy – that were consulted and memorized before engagements, lest opportunity arose to flourish them and impress the company. (The Art of Conversation, Catherine Blyth, p. 51)

Consider your work, your toolbox of skills and knowledge, to be your “magpie hoards.” (I’d never heard this expression before, but I love it.) Review those things that you do and that you know, often. Take stock of yourself. Then, when someone is telling you about his/her research project, your much more likely to be prepared to know just when, where, and how you can insert yourself and your skills into the process. If it’s what you may have initially intended, great. If it’s something else, that’s great, too. Bottom line, you found the way to integrate yourself into the work of the person you wish to help. You’ve experienced success.

You might recall that a few posts back I mentioned that I have a new boss. After answering questions about this project and that project and the many iterations of “What do you do?” that a new supervisor needs to ask her team members, I finally sat down last Friday afternoon and wrote out a list of all of the projects I’m currently working on, along with any relevant documentation that explains my role(s) on each, and emailed it to her. I also wrote down the teams that I serve on in the Library and the Med School at large, professional organizations I serve, places that I’ve been invited to speak, classes that I’ve been invited to teach. It was a good list and when I finished I couldn’t help but notice the extent of it. I don’t say this as a way of saying, “Look at all of that stuff I have to do!” but more, “Look at all of the things that I do!” It was a really varied and interesting list and for me, that’s pretty important. I like to do a lot of different things. I like to be involved in a lot of different projects. It makes my job a lot more enjoyable.

And I think that this is key when it comes to finding success in the role of an informationist or embedded librarian (likely in a whole bunch of professions). The art of conversation involves being interesting and interested – the more, the better. So go ahead and have your goals and agenda, but keep them on the back burner the next time you’re tasked with talking to a potential patron. Instead, engage them in conversation – even a little small talk – about something(s) you like or know or think they could relate to. Ask them questions about themselves and their work. Ask them if they play a musical instrument or what they think about the scraggly beards that the Red Sox players are partial to this year or if they saw that article in Science News about caffeine and its effect on brain growth in mice (this would be a good one while waiting in line for coffee). You absolutely have no idea where these topics can lead you or the value that they can bring to what you’re trying to accomplish. My bet is that you’ll have better results and if not, you’ll have had the chance to enjoy the “neglected pleasure” of chatting with another interesting person who shares your world.

7 Responses to “Don’t Fence Me In”

  1. Holly Miller September 11, 2013 at 5:03 pm #

    Nice post! I like how you turned musing and serendipitous book discovery into a really thought-provoking essay on conversation. I have been trying to become a better conversationalist since high school and I think you make great points. I so love the idea of a commonplace book.

    • salgore September 11, 2013 at 5:05 pm #

      PLUS knowing a bunch of trivial things improves your odds of success at becoming a candidate on “Jeopardy!” 🙂

  2. Ed Donnald September 12, 2013 at 9:26 am #

    Another excellent post, my friend. I agree that our nature is to fall into comfortable routine, whether it’s the same types of foods we eat or topics we talk about. Whenever we take pause and courage to try something new, it’s amazing the possible places it can take us and the results that occur.

  3. Ramune Kubilius September 19, 2013 at 12:32 pm #

    So, did you buy the book or did you read it out on the sidewalk by the cart in front of the bookstore? Another book with some similar threads, not so much for the purposes of conversation as for networking and sharing, is “Love is the Killer App: How to Win Business and Influence Friends” / Tim Sanders (written in the pre e-book reader and IPad days…)

    • salgore September 19, 2013 at 5:01 pm #

      Thanks, Ramune! I sprung the $4 and bought it. It proved to be well worth the investment. I follow Tim Sanders on Twitter, so I’ll have to check out that book, too. Thanks for the tip.


  1. Cheating on This Blog | Digital Carrie - September 25, 2013

    […] “Don’t Fence Me In” from the A Librarian By Any Other Name blog This is one of my new favorite blogs, written by a medical librarian who blows my mind with her note taking and her insights. This post is about a book she stumbled upon that discussed conversation. She presents a nice summary of some points from the book, and then applies that to her work. The reason this post struck a chord with me is because she talks about setting an agenda for our conversations and how that can limit the potential interaction we have with a person. It’s good to be prepared for important (and impromptu!) conversations, but we need to have a set of talking points – not just one. I applied this to my conversations with faculty members. As a new librarian at this campus I want to make sure I engage faculty to tell me about their assignments, concerns, etc. and then pair those with services I can offer as their campus librarian. “8 Creativity Lessons from a Pixar Animator” by Leo Barbuta from Zen Habits I love Leo Barbuta. I heard him interviewed on a podcast I subscribe to, and immediately added his Zen Habits blog to my feed. I read his blog more for personal reasons, but I love when my worlds collide and I can apply information from outside LIS-land to my work. This post is about Barbuta’s visit to Pixar with his son, and what he learned about creativity based on that visit. Every lesson can be directly applied to library work, especially to those of us working on long term projects or committees. […]

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