Rhetoric for Librarians

Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. According to Aristotle, it’s finding the best available means of persuasion for any given case. According to Chaim Perelman, the “aim of argumentation is not to deduce consequences from given premises; it is rather to elicit or increase the adherence of the members of an audience to theses that are presented for their consent” (The Realm of Rhetoric, 9). I note this so everyone knows that when I discuss rhetoric, I don’t mean it in the sloppy popular sense of “empty verbiage.”

Librarians have much to learn from the art of rhetoric. Essentially, rhetoric is about communication, and with any communication there are at least three elements: the speaker, the message, and the audience. Most people, including librarians, are aware of themselves as speakers and often aware of their message, but too many times do not consider the audience, and the effect on the audience is crucially important. From a rhetorical point of view, for example, it doesn’t matter how right or logical you are, if you alienate your audience and fail to persuade them of your points, then you have a failed argument. Fret and bemoan your fate all you like, but the problem is you.

Today I want to consider three rhetorical situations many librarians often find themselves in and show the importance of audience: staff meetings, presentations, and library instruction.

If you are in a staff meeting discussing some controversial topic and want to persuade your opponents, the last thing you want to do is alienate them. Unfortunately, that’s easy to do. You can call their ideas stupid, or better yet say something like, “only an idiot would believe that.” You can aggressively state your views as if they were the only ones that mattered. You can interrupt your opponents with frequent hostile criticism. You can state from the beginning that you have no intention of changing your mind. All these behaviors alienate others. Some, like aggression and interruption, alienate because they threaten. Others, such as saying there’s no way you’ll change your mind, inform your listeners that this is not in fact a discussion or debate, because where there is no willingness to consider the opponent’s point of view, there is no dialog, and thus no point of continuing a discussion. By acting like this, you’ve notified them that you don’t give a damn about them or their ideas. Don’t act surprised when they reciprocate.

Try to remember presentations you have seen, either at conferences, on campus, in your library, wherever. Were the speakers aware of their audience and their fellow speakers? Was it an hour long talk that took an hour and a half? Did the speaker seem aware of appropriate time limits or the effect on the audience? Remembering a few simple rules can make your own presentations better, but the most basic rule of all is, think about other people. Do as you would be done by. If you’re on a panel and someone else hogs all the speaking time leaving you with five minutes to get in fifteen minutes’ worth of information and thus forcing you to cut and adapt extemporaneously, how would you feel? I can tell you, you’d most likely be angry, and understandably so.

When you perform library instruction (and I use the word perform deliberately, for it is a performance), do you stand like a lump in front of the class for an hour or more monotonously giving special attention to every nuance of your OPAC or selected database but no attention to your audience? Do you even care if the students are listening to you? If students are checking their email or Facebook or are nodding off, do you blame these kids today and their short attention spans, or yourself for being so boring? You should blame yourself. You’re boring. It doesn’t matter if every single bit of information you convey could potentially be useful to your students. If you don’t communicate with the audience, then the message fails, and the problem is most likely you.

I could offer some practical tips. Listen to your colleagues and acknowledge that you understand their points, even if you don’t agree with them. Don’t alienate people with your arrogance. Pay attention to time limits. Don’t read from your PowerPoint slides with your back to the audience. Don’t speak monotonously or too quickly. During library instruction, consider having a student run that presentation computer while you walk around engaging students and speaking. (They’ll be less like to tune you out or Facebook that way.)

Practical tips are easy to find online, though, and there are plenty of them. However, the primary rule is always to consider your audience. Pay attention to what they’re doing. When you speak, do your colleagues roll their eyes or purse their lips while glaring at you? Then maybe you should tone down your aggression and be more sensitive to their views. During a presentation, do audience members check their watches frequently? Think about time, and how bored you’d be if someone prattled on too long. Do you notice jerky heads as people nod off to sleep but pop back awake as their chins hit their chest? Then speed it up, change the tone of your voice, change topic, do something to engage them. Do students come out of your instruction sessions thinking librarians are bores who want to teach everyone to be librarians? Can they still not research very well because they tuned you out as soon as it was obvious you had no intention of engaging them? Then change your approach, engage students more, don’t try to teach them everything.

Teaching and speaking are performances, and performances are designed for audiences. The best performances should teach and delight. This certainly doesn’t mean we all have to act like clowns or stand-up comics, though I’m never afraid to say something silly or make a joke if I think it will keep the audience paying attention. A bit of wit can carry an audience through a lot of dull business. But we have to keep in mind that public speaking is a performance, and the person up their speaking isn’t us. It’s a persona called Librarian, and part of that persona is an awareness of others.

Considering other people is always difficult. Having an awareness of how our speaking affects those around us, the audience at a big talk or the students at a small BI session, takes practice. Moreover, it takes deliberate consciousness of what we are saying and how we say it, which a lot of people can’t seem to master. Some people are nervous enough just standing up in front of audiences and speaking. I know how it can be. I’ve been teaching and speaking to groups for 15 years, and I’m pretty good at both, but every time I feel sick in the minutes before beginning. Some people mistakenly believe that it’s what they say that’s important, not how the audience hears what they say. Those people don’t usually feel the same way when they’re part of an audience, though.

The most important thing is to communicate our point, to persuade our colleagues, to win the adherence of the audience to our ideas, to get our students to understand a bit about library research and about what librarians can do for them. By alienating or boring your audience, your message is lost, and you have only yourself to blame.

4 thoughts on “Rhetoric for Librarians

  1. I completely agree with you. In regard to my instruction sessions, I sometimes feel my theatre background is more useful than my MLIS. I’m pretty new to the profession and my current job, and i’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from my colleagues as well as faculty about my sessions. My colleagues specifically are wanting to share with them my secrets to success but i’m not sure there’s anything i can share with or teach them – how do you teach energy? It’s certainly not purely an age issue, and coffee helps, but I think really works for me is seeing it as a performance. So how do i teach that to my colleagues? Improv exercises and games? Creative movement? Funny voices? A lot to think about.

  2. I’ve had similar questions over the years. I think it really would be like teaching acting. Part of my public speaking is making jokes, not planned jokes, just off the cuff remarks that get a chuckle and keep people listening. How does one teach that? You can’t teach funny, at least not in just a few lessons.

  3. While you can’t necessarily teach funny, you certainly can teach effective presentation and speaking skills. When I worked in sales, we had to “role play” potential sales situations and practice both the message and the delivery with a colleague who provided feedback. To a person, we all hated role playing more than anything else about that job. But we all learned how to overcome our own idiosyncratic communication styles and deliver information in a compelling way, too. So I believe that those skills can be taught — it’s just a question of whether we as librarians think it’s worth our time to master them.

  4. I suspect a lot of librarians don’t think it’s worth the time. It’s a lot less effort to just bore everyone.

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