4. What are you saying?

Public libraries are inclusive spaces, offering services to all kinds of people equally. Library audiences are diverse. If you want to reach them, you need to know a lot about them. The more you know about your audiences, the more accurately you can tailor what you write and how you communicate.

Listening to library users is really important. There are lots of ways of finding out what people want and how they like to access information: consultation sessions, user panels, feedback systems, chats over a cup of coffee… Canny public libraries use all of these methods, and more. For more on this, see pages xx-yy.

There comes a point, though, when you have to decide what you are going to say in your information leaflet or on your website, and how you are going to say it. There are three main things to consider:

  • message
  • tone
  • format

and lots of questions you need to ask yourself.

One question, though, is essential, and that’s

                                                                          the Magic Question.

Most public library staff, in common with most people in most situations, never ask this question. You need to be able to answer the Magic Question very clearly before you do anything else. A clear answer might be “to explain our new service to our regular users”. Alternatively, it might be “to introduce our new service to the general public”. Those are two very different responses, which imply different approaches, content and formats.

Asking the Magic Question can make you more effective and can also save you time and money. You might decide to do things in a different way than the obvious one you thought of first. You might change your target. You might decide not to produce the information at all.

The Magic Question implies two more questions:

  • Who is it for?
  • What do you want them to do or think as a result of getting the information?

It’s important to ask the Magic Question first, and then the other two. That’s because the purpose will lead you in to thinking about the audience and the hoped-for actions. If you start from the other end your purpose can stay woolly.

If you look at some of your less successful leaflets or information campaigns, you can generally trace their shortcomings to lack of clarity about purpose. Your most successful efforts are usually the ones where:

  • you were clear about the purpose
  • you presented the information simply, clearly and in a way that your target audience could access, understand and use easily
  • you said the things that people needed to know, in a way which encouraged them to take action
  • the target audience did what you hoped they would do (attended the event, filled in and sent back the form, registered online, used the new service, whatever).

Public libraries are part of the public service, but they also have lots of competitors. Shops, online retailers, internet search engines, television, colleges, friends down the street – there are all sorts of sources of information and entertainment out there.

Public libraries are competing with some sophisticated operators. So you need to realise that when you write even the simplest library leaflet you are actually, consciously or unconsciously, engaging in marketing. Go “off message”, or put out unclear information, and you miss your target and start losing custom. It’s as simple as that.

To be seen and heard, you need to be offering something the others aren’t. Marketing is essential. Every interaction, every leaflet, every text message, is a small marketing tool. You need to be sure you are “on message” all the time.

Luckily, it’s not hard to keep on target. The Magic Question will start you off in the right direction. With the two other questions you can:

  • hone your message – simplicity and clarity are paramount
  • cut out what isn’t relevant – so that other details don’t get in the way of your core message
  • make sure that you include everything that is relevant
  • figure out how to entice your audience into doing what you want them to do – using humour, colour, pictures, prizes, flattery, valued outcomes – whatever works
  • ensure that the form and format fit your purpose.

The principles of delivering an information message are the same whether the information is a leaflet, a verbal exchange, a piece of signage or a tweet, so make it:

  • clear (easy to find, easy to access, easy to understand)
  • concise (short, simple, to the point – cut out the waffle)
  • consistent (no mixed messages or alternative approaches).

Ambiguity is fine in a thriller, but ambiguous information confuses people and makes them uncertain. You can of course present choices and alternatives – just do it simply and clearly.

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