I’m a couple of days late posting my thoughts on Richard Besser’s plenary talk of Sunday morning (I think it was Sunday – the days are running together), but I did take notes and I have a few spare minutes before tonight’s closing party, so I’ll catch up now.
I’ve heard several comments and read the twitter reaction to the talk. Many folks seem to feel that while he was interesting and his stories important in terms of health, his message was pretty irrelevant to our profession. I, however, would like to argue differently. I found several relevant points in his words, as well as a really applicable model for librarians today in the example of his own career.
First, I felt that he hit upon a topic that we hear over and over and over again, probably because of the very fact that we don’t do it well, i.e. the importance of communication. I know that this is a relevant topic for us because I heard it repeated in any number of session talks by our peers and colleagues. His example of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking him to define the difference between pandemic and seasonal flu was a spot-on reminder of how we so easily talk and talk and talk about things with (1) an assumption that people understand us and/or (2) the fear to explain (or ask, if we’re on the receiving end) the basics. I have a researcher friend who says, “Nobody knows what the hell I do!” I hear so many of us say the same thing often, too. Bottom line, we have to accept a good bit of responsibility for this fact. Unless we learn, practice, and then regularly use clear communication in our work, this isn’t going to change. I took from Dr. Besser the really great example that we can learn to say an awful lot in just 1 minute and 7 seconds.
Next, I thought the message that we need to learn to engage our audience was also said pretty clearly in Dr. Besser’s talk. I appreciated his reminder of the importance of telling stories ad using narrative to connect with the people we’re talking to. I know that I listen much better when the speaker offers some sort of hook, something that I can relate to. Put yourself in your patron’s position. Do you understand what you’re saying? Are you interested in what you’re saying? I think these are great questions to ask ourselves whenever we’re preparing to teach, speak, give a report, or any number of tasks we do on a daily basis.
I also felt like Dr. Besser’s talk – and his work – is an example of of finding one’s voice, one’s microphone, and/or one’s podium. For him today, it’s a national television network. At another time, it was as the interim head of the CDC. At still other times, it is/was as a physician. I found it interesting that a couple of the comments from the floor were asking for him to be a voice for medical librarians. I’m sure he could do that, but sometimes I believe we need to stop looking to others to speak for us, and do more speaking up for ourselves (something that was echoed in both Dr. Marshall’s Janet Doe Lecture and in Dixie Jones’ presidential talk).
Finally, I really believe that Dr. Besser is for us a terrific model for how we can (and perhaps should) approach our own careers and work. He never set out to be many of the roles he’s assumed in his career. Remember what he said his reaction to being asked if he was interested in assuming the interim role at the CDC? He said, “I just thought it was a great opportunity to see what it might be like to do such a thing.” He took it as a chance to just try something, realizing that the risk was minimal (relatively speaking, of course). Kind of like thinking, “I wonder what I’d do if I ran the library,” and then being given the chance to do so for a couple of months. Seeing work as a testing ground holds some possibility for new and different thinking.
Another thing that his career trajectory shows is that it the straight path is not always the best way. “Every five years or so I assess where I am and look for how I can best fit,” is a paraphrase of a comment he made. Can we learn something from this example? Rather than planning out where we want to be in so many years, can we make it a practice to look at where we are every few years in context of our environment? Personally, I think doing so could help us maintain relevance a lot better than sticking to some drawn up plan. Things change to quickly and we fall behind by not working within the changing times. “Working within” is different than “reacting to” our environment. In my opinion.
And lastly, Dr. Besser uses multiple venues to get his message out. He’s on the news, he’s on Twitter, he hosts a regular tweet chat, he writes books, etc. In other words, he’s out there. The message to me… I need to do the same. I need to reach out to the people that I serve in multiple ways, I need to meet people where they are, and most importantly, I need to work at building an audience. And it IS work. But I (we) really can’t afford to not do this work anymore.
So, I found some takeaways in the message. I hope that if you didn’t on Sunday, maybe this post has helped you see a few after the fact.