Don’t Get Caught Without a Comeback

When it came time for me to write this post, I had so many possible topics in my mind that I couldn’t choose one. So I looked at the other recent posts here and found serendipity. The latest one, by Elizabeth Neill (May 10), mentioned the challenge of having elevator speeches ready. I often counsel people in my workshops, “You need to have elevator speeches and snappy comebacks on the tip of your tongue so you’re ready to defend libraries at every opportunity.” So I thought I’d pick up that thread here.

businessman_tapeovermouthWe’ve all had those situations where someone asks a challenging question or makes a statement that we really want to pounce on. But often, in the heat of the moment, we come up short. How many times have you thought of a comeback hours later and been mad at yourself for not being able to make your point when it mattered? The key to avoiding that scenario is preparation. We can’t all be smart-alecs who effortlessly dish out the perfect, snappy response in seconds flat. But we can all be intelligent people who think ahead, prepare, and practice.

Let me share some tips and tricks.

Tip 1: Find one quick fact that you love. Commit it to memory and practice using it on people you know. Then when you need it for someone else, you’re ready.

My personal favorite is, “Did you know there are more public libraries in the U.S. than there are McDonald’s?” That came straight from ALA’s list called Quotable Facts About America’s Libraries ( For most laymen, that one is a jaw-dropper. While your listener recovers from the shock, you get a few more seconds to think about what to say next.

Another favorite from the same list is “Americans spend nearly three times as much on candy as they do on public libraries.” It’s perfect for the people who whine that libraries are too expensive, and they don’t want to pay taxes.

Tip 2: Find one snappy comeback that you love. Memorize it and practice using it. Take that zinger you thought of too late the last time and write it down for next time. Or note another favorite you heard someone else use.

One of my go-to phrases is something I first heard from the outspoken presenter Stephen Abram many years ago. He was telling a story about a corporate executive who had the gall to ask, “Now that we all have the internet on our desktops, why do we still need the library?” Abram responded in kind: “Well, we all have calculators on our desks too, so why do we still need the accounting department?” This opened the discussion about the internet being a mere tool (like a calculator), and the chance to explain that people still needing the expertise to use that tool and to sift through the information.

That’s such a good comeback that you can adapt it to fit many “Why do we still need libraries” questions. For instance, “Why bother going to a doctor when you can diagnose yourself with WebMD?” Or even, “If everything’s on the internet, why do we still have schools?” A library is more than a repository of materials; much of its value comes from having experts who know how to navigate all those items.

Tip 3: Think of one fact or statistic from your very own library and play with it until you can express it in a quick, pithy way. Use it liberally until you’re tired of it, then find a different factoid to share. Using local facts makes a vague point more meaningful.

Here’s an easy example: See how many people use your public computers in a week or a month, then match that number with another stat that people can relate to. You’ll end up with something like this: “Every week, at least 2,500 people use our computers to access the internet. Only 2,100 attend school baseball games every week. So we’re more popular than baseball!” Or maybe, “We have 560 DVDs in our movie collection. If you borrowed just one every week instead of renting from Netflix, you’d save $150 a year.”

While full-blown elevator speeches take a little more work to put together and to perfect, working with phrases like these is a great way to start. Choose something simple that you believe in so you can remember it, and practice it on friends or colleagues until it rolls off your tongue. This will build your confidence for taking on four- or even five-sentence pitches.

I think this preparation is vital for everyone—from directors to pages to trustees. It’s so important that I included a six-page section of “snappy comebacks” in my book, The Accidental Library Marketer. Choosing your own favorites is easy and fun. It can also help you avoid the “I wish I’d thought of that sooner!” regret. But more importantly, it will enable you to be an effective spokesperson who can support libraries at every possible opportunity.

Kathy Dempsey is the founder of Libraries Are Essential, a business where she offers advice and consulting on library marketing, promotion, and public relations. She’s been the editor of the Marketing Library Services newsletter for 19 years, and she blogs at The ‘M’ Word: Marketing Libraries.

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17 Responses to Don’t Get Caught Without a Comeback

  1. This is a great article! Thank you! And funny, I created a graphic about Libraries & WebMD back in April! It’s Creative Commons, feel free to snag it! Cheers!
    ~Gwyneth Jones
    The Daring Librarian dot com!

    • Thanks for the link! I love the sentiment, tho feel the point would get across a little better if the font & background were more simple. However, I’m not into steampunk, so others might love it! I should share it over on my LAE Facebook page.

  2. I just read an article from The Atlantic that actually opens with the Quotable Fact about McDonald’s! It also illustrates that fact with a map of public libraries throughout the US. How about that!

  3. Pingback: The elevator speech, and don’t get caught without a comeback. | GraemeO28 Librarian and biker

  4. Pingback: What’s Your Quick Comeback? | Julia C. Huprich

  5. Julia says:

    This is a great article! It’s time for me to work on my own quick comeback. And I have to share – I once talked to a newspaper reporter who said, “I didn’t know people still used libraries! I thought they were going out of business,” and I thought – although I didn’t say – that the same was true for the printed newspaper. Bless his heart. I did tell him he should visit us more often.

  6. Kathy, I think your analysis of how to use elevator speeches is wonderful in so many ways.
    For one thing, I’m so grateful that you mentioned the ALA “Quotable Facts,” something I just found out about a few weeks ago from a colleague. I love it; and I know folks will find it handy.
    The “snappy comeback,” especially to the argument that everything is already on the Internet, is something I’ve been talking about with other librarians since my first paid library job. Finally, I think it’s really important to have an answer for folks who think that libraries are going away. Kudos!

    • Thanks so much, Elizabeth. One of the first rules of PR is to “communicate clearly with one voice.” If the thousands of librarians all started delivering snappy comebacks, maybe we could get the point across.

  7. Don Peters says:

    Kim, don’t know if you saw this. I thought it was pretty good. Don

  8. Cris Cigler says:

    Every time I attend an event – a senior group luncheon, a chamber of commerce meeting, I ask a question – can you guess how many people visit our library every day? and then award a giveaway to whoever had the closest answer. Always gets people talking.

  9. Shelley Campbell, West Chicago Public Library District says:

    Always insightful – thanks, Kathy!

  10. I love the comment about why we need libraries – definitely going to remember that one. Another comeback I heard was with a patron complaining about paying fines for overdue material and using the logic that he was was a taxpayer and shouldn’t have to pay any fines. The response was – you pay taxes to the police, also, but you can’t use a police car to get to and from your job.

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