Archive for October, 2012

There are moments in our lives that change everything. One of mine occurred in 1997 as I was taking a coffee break and flipping through a newsletter from the UK’s Guild of Health Writers.

One of the articles mentioned that a boutique publisher was looking for professional writers to author some forthcoming books. One was on a topic I knew nothing about, wasn’t sure I believed in, and sounded like a job for a New Age nut rather than a serious journalist.

But I was unable to shake off the strong sense that this was a book I was destined to write. So I picked up the phone and persuaded the acquisitions editor that, with one book already under my belt and a reputation as a talented and reliable alternative health writer, I was the author they were looking for.

The result? The Book of Crystal Healing was published in 1998, went on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies worldwide and was quickly followed up with a commission to write The Book of Chakra Healing. Some 13 years later, that book is about to be republished as a Gaia Classic. Because of that one moment, I went on to fulfill a number of childhood dreams, not least becoming a full-time writer and consulting co-author whose 14 books continue to generate royalties.

Frans Johansson would call that early experience a “click moment,” which just happens to be the title of his latest book, subtitled Seizing Opportunity in an Unpredictable World. In it, Johansson clarifies something you may have wondered about (because I have): why is it that some activities require long hours of hard, focused effort in order to achieve success, while in some spheres a total novice can come in and enjoy instant fame and fortune?

According to Johansson, the “10,000 hours rule” that Gladwell cites in Outliers is necessary to succeed in rule-bound domains like chess or tennis, but isn’t required for more fluid arenas. Which is why folks can open a business like The Chocolate Room in Brooklyn, New York, having never “had any deep experience making chocolate.” Or first-time novelist Stephenie Meyer can score best-selling status with her Twilight trilogy.

Likewise, business success today is largely serendipitous, the result of greater complexity and chance encounters. But don’t shrug your shoulders and attribute it all to dumb luck. As Johansson discovered and reveals in The Click Moment, there are many ways to increase the odds of coming face to face with unexpected opportunities. Indeed, publishing a commercially and critically successful book seems like it has a lot to do with what Johansson calls “the purposeful bet.”

For example, scientists who publish many high-quality papers and low-quality papers (and aren’t necessarily smarter or more experienced than their peers) are the ones found most likely to write a groundbreaking paper. In Bird by Bird, nonfiction author and novelist Anne Lamott writes about the benefits of crafting “shitty first drafts.” She’s prolific – and her books sell. So do Stephen King’s, with each early success increasing the odds that readers will like the next book, and the next.

According to Johansson, Stephenie Meyer “broke all the rules…because she didn’t consider them.” But here is where I think many aspiring authors of nonfiction, as well as fledgling novelists, are misled. There are some generally accepted rules of storytelling that you must either learn or intuitively understand in order to write a compelling book. They are absorbed best, I believe, by doing a lot of reading — not least in the genre you wish to inhabit.

Johansson’s The Click Moment is a masterful example of great storytelling in action. In the tradition of Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Pink and others, he has the ability to grab the reader’s attention right from page one and never let it wander until the end of the final chapter. I don’t believe you can do that without considerable understanding and effort, not least writing plenty of “shitty first drafts” that never see the light of day (or maybe your blog)!

If one of the opportunities you’re looking to court involves writing a commercially and critically successful book, I strongly suggest you read The Click Moment. Not just for guidelines on how to create more defining moments, to place purposeful bets and harness complex forces, but to see how superior nonfiction is crafted.

Liz-AlexanderLiz Alexander is a prime example of how childhood passions are the best indicators of future careers. She’s been writing since she could pick up a pencil, was reading newspapers at age two, and Homer’s epic poems by the age of 8. As “Dr Liz” (granted after five years in the educational psychology doctoral program at UT Austin), she draws on 25 years of commercial publishing experience to transform subject matter experts into best-selling thought leaders. Instead of the usual bio blah, blah, you can find an infographic depicting her communications career here, as well as social media links. Liz loves mutually respectful, intelligent arguments; feel free to challenge anything she writes here, or on her website
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The last blog focused on pushing through the Peter Principle by building interdependence. The power to move the project forward radiates from this interdependence, which includes power being shared by key stakeholders.

That interdependence has a very short half-life. So, the obvious question is, “How is it kept alive and encouraged to grow?” The answer lies within the story. The story is what binds people together to work as a team and move the project forward. There are a few things to consider when generating and disseminating the story.

  • Honesty. This is foremost. The moment the team senses they are being played the project fragments. Honesty requires being open and vulnerable regarding the consequences associated with the project including big payoffs that some might get. Not that they have to have every detail. They just need to be included as to the consequences. If the team is put on a “need-to-know” basis the members can feel diminished and it puts the interdependent bond at risk.
  • Discipline. Emerging from the Peter Principle typically has a lot of positive energy but there also are few rules present that work. New rules need generated or the old ones need modified.  You must be able to deal with the ambiguities of the situation and rely on core principles in pushing through to create a new gestalt as to how the team will work and the project will move forward.
  • Energy. With the old rules sitting in a jumbled mess the team instinctively will look for leadership as to what to do next. Here is where a big challenge is present. You must substitute yourself for the policies and procedures that fell apart in order to hold the team together. This can be sustained only so long. A plan is needed.
  • Delegate.  You can’t do it alone. Having key people willing to pick of some piece of the power and hammer out new rules/guidelines/etc. will go a long way towards re-establishing order, building the plan, and lowering the demands on your personal energy. It’s impossible to stress too much the need for a critical mass of people who can commit to something bigger than themselves. Falling short of this critical mass by even one person can cause the situation to implode.
  • Clean House. This is a corollary to delegation. Those who are creating difficulties need to either turn around or be removed from the team. This may seem a bit harsh. It simply is the reality of the situation. I’ve worked on projects and organizational changes where inability to get rid of a key gossipmonger torpedoed the changes.
  • Know where you are going. All of the above comes together to support your moving towards the end goal. Know what it is and state it clearly.

By doing the above the story will unfold from within you. You’ll find it spontaneously arises and you will instinctively know when to pause and reflect, talk with others, or push forward. This may sounds crazy but you will become the story. Think of El Cid. The myth, the story overtook him to the extent it was bigger than his own death. (Not that you want to have your career die!) What works best is having the aura of the project’s story radiate from you. This sounds corny but it isn’t. You know it is happening when people take your lead, when they listen to you in meetings and suggest ways to achieve goals, when the team looks forward to the meeting, when the milestones begin to be met.

Who knows? Maybe someone will write an epic poem about you, too!

Gary Monti PMI presentation croppedThrough his firm, Center for Managing Change, Gary Monti has over 30 years experience providing change- and project management services internationally. He works at the nexus between strategy, business case, project-, process-, and people management. Service modalities include consulting, teaching, mentoring, and speaking. Credentials include PMP number 14 (Project Management Institute®), Myers-Briggs Type Indicator certification, and accreditation in the Cynefin methodology. Gary can be reached at gwmonti@mac.com or through Twitter at @garymonti
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A while back I was playing “dueling authors” with a guy who claimed to have written 16 books (meaning he won the game!) and said he had two that he wanted to give me as gifts. Initially embarrassed that I couldn’t return the favor, I was stunned to receive a couple of – well, let’s be kind and call them “pamphlets.” This is the same term The New Republic used recently to describe the TED Book Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization, which at least has 77 pages. The ones I was given were closer to 30!

It’s hard to know what constitutes a “book” these days, given that folks like my friend believe anything over a couple of dozen pages fits the description. And I guess it’s wise not to be too snobbish about this issue, since many famous works of fiction have been short and sweet, such as Samuel Johnson’s Rasselus, Prince of Abyssinia (97 pages) or Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (96 pages). In the realm of nonfiction, Deepak Chopra captured The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success in a mere 117 pages. And one of my favorite nonfiction books, Patricia Ryan Madson’s Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up, runs to just 159.

I had cause to think about quantity, not just quality, after completing my latest book #THOUGHT LEADERSHIP tweet: 140 Prompts For Designing and Executing an Effective Thought Leadership Campaign with co-author Craig Badings. We ended up with the same page count at Madson’s book (159 pages) for a word count of approximately 7,500 words. Which would take the average person, what – less than an hour to read?

Except that this isn’t a book that’s meant to be read cover to cover in a single sitting. And here’s where the issue of how long a book needs to be needs to take into account how the book is to be used, as well as what content it contains.

What we did with this book was to compile all the questions that aspiring thought leaders should ask themselves before embarking on a thought leadership campaign. Within the seven sections (each containing a short introduction followed by a series of relevant tweet-sized prompts then a couple of pages of examples under the heading ‘Putting Into Practice’), we provoke readers to consider: What it means to be a “thought leader”; What impact they want their campaign to achieve; How to measure its effectiveness; How best to discover their thought leadership point of view…and much more. We then close the book with a short Blueprint to guide readers’ actions and provide additional case studies and examples.

Would this have been a better book if we’d rambled on for page after page giving extensive details about each of these issues? We didn’t think so. In fact, to come up with the right questions to ask in 140 characters or less takes a lot of thought and relentless editing. In this case, less is definitely more – but it’s not necessarily easier!

As former President Woodrow Wilson is reputed to have told a cabinet member who asked him how long he took to prepare a speech: “It depends. If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”

When new writers ask me how long their books should be, my answer is always: As long as it needs to be and no more, which I accept isn’t all that helpful until you actually knuckle down and start to write. (Yet it’s amazing to me how many aspiring authors want to know exactly how many words they’ve got to write, as if this were the sole measure of a good book.)

Having experienced writing #THOUGHT LEADERSHIP tweet, I would add a further caveat: Think about how you want the reader to use your book. Is it to be read by a single individual, cover to cover? Will it be of most value if they dip in and out as the need requires? Or, as in the case of our book, is it meant to provoke conversations among a team of people tasked with implementing a specific initiative? In our case, Craig and I considered the comprehensive yet concise nature of our material – not least the highly focused questions – to be what offers the greatest value for readers, not all the fluff we could have wrapped around them.

What are your thoughts about shorter books? Do you think books are often longer than they need to be? To what extent might this be due to the pressure authors and publishers feel to create books that appear (at least in terms of the quantity of paper they use up) worth their cover price? Please contribute your comments below.

Liz-AlexanderLiz Alexander is a prime example of how childhood passions are the best indicators of future careers. She’s been writing since she could pick up a pencil, was reading newspapers at age two, and Homer’s epic poems by the age of 8. As “Dr Liz” (granted after five years in the educational psychology doctoral program at UT Austin), she draws on 25 years of commercial publishing experience to transform subject matter experts into best-selling thought leaders. Instead of the usual bio blah, blah, you can find an infographic depicting her communications career here, as well as social media links. Liz loves mutually respectful, intelligent arguments; feel free to challenge anything she writes here, or on her website
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Thought Readership #14: Toughening Up On Tighter Writing

by Liz Alexander on October 1, 2012

Call me weird, but I often turn to the last few pages of non-fiction books (although never novels!) before making a decision whether or not to read them; what I find is rarely creative.

Dan Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us is one exception. He signs off with a handy chapter-by-chapter summary, and even a discussion guide as they do in the Young Adult novels I’ve begun to devour.

Another is Dr. Jason Selks’s Executive Toughness: The Mental Training Program to Increase Your Leadership Performance. His conclusion is smartly crafted and, for any aspiring nonfiction author struggling with how best to scope and structure their book, could provide some much-needed inspiration.

There are several parts to Dr. Selk’s concluding chapter. The first poses two questions that help illustrate the characteristics of great people:

  1. What is one thing you have done well in the last 24 hours? (Because the greats “give themselves credit where credit is due.”)
  2. What is one thing you want to improve tomorrow? (They also “relentlessly pursue improvement.”)

Devising questions to ask your readers is one way to narrow down the scope of your book. In Selk’s case, his theme is mental toughness and how those of us who desire to be remarkable need to embrace accountability (doing what needs to be done), focus (prioritizing what’s important), and optimism (overcoming all obstacles). The two questions mentioned above speak directly to those key points, and presumably helped Selk keep his book tight and well organized.

The second part of Selk’s conclusion really drew me in. He offers a chart listing each of his ten “mental toughness fundamentals,” along with a brief explanation. It is here that the author intrigued me sufficiently to want to sit down and read his book cover to cover. He poses questions in those charts that are obviously answered and expanded upon throughout the book, as well as mentioning stories previously referred to that I wanted to know more about. Selk’s reference to acronyms and other terms piqued my curiosity sufficiently to want to check out the relevant, earlier sections: IAS (Ideal Arousal State); RSF (Relentless Solution Focus); and Gable discipline.

The third part of Selk’s concluding chapter summarizes three issues that neatly cover all obstacles to success: Apathy (lack of passion); Laziness (lack of motivation); and Fear (lack of confidence). This is a handy mental checklist to go through whenever you find yourself procrastinating.

Finally, Selk does what any good presenter would do: he encourages his audience to engage personally with the material. He gives the link to a free download work sheet – a clever way to include his web address and drive traffic to his site – and further intrigued me by pointing out that readers would have an opportunity to compare their takeaways with his.

How might such an approach help you write a better book? If you are a speaker, trainer or presenter you’ve learned the importance of summarizing your material in order to highlight for your audience the most important material to remember. Why not use that technique to formulate the scope and structure of your book? In that way you can avoid the mistake many new authors make, in publishing poorly organized material that frequently wanders off into the weeds.

Take a leaf out of Jason Selk’s book and know what you want to leave your readers with – the core takeaways – before you start to write or speak.

Liz-AlexanderLiz Alexander is a prime example of how childhood passions are the best indicators of future careers. She’s been writing since she could pick up a pencil, was reading newspapers at age two, and Homer’s epic poems by the age of 8. As “Dr Liz” (granted after five years in the educational psychology doctoral program at UT Austin), she draws on 25 years of commercial publishing experience to transform subject matter experts into best-selling thought leaders. Instead of the usual bio blah, blah, you can find an infographic depicting her communications career here, as well as social media links. Liz loves mutually respectful, intelligent arguments; feel free to challenge anything she writes here, or on her website
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