Posts in ‘Communication’

Thought Readership #20: The GOODREADS Challenge

by Liz Alexander on January 21, 2013

GaneshaWhen you get to a certain age you think you’ve seen everything, right? But no, I logged onto LinkedIn recently to find a “Can you recommend me?” request from an “award winning fiction author/top client” I’d never heard of (although I was obviously daft enough to accept a previous request to connect) whose 76-page novel was compiled by a self-publishing services entity called Infinity Publishing. Currently ranking 797,095 on Amazon, her various reviews point to the “terrible” writing, “disjointed” plot and a comment, from someone giving four stars, that “I wish it had been edited a little better.” So where did the “award-winning” part come in? (And, no surprise, I declined her invitation!)

In a world in which anyone can (and does) claim “best selling” or “award winning” status for their book I thought about how, when talking or writing about thought leadership, I remind people that this is a term that’s meant to be bestowed on you by others, not something you get to adopt just because it sounds cool. So in that vein I went searching for last year’s Best Books lists. Who gets on them, anyhow?

After giving up on the undoubtedly worthy but dull-sounding (and long!) lists of nonfiction books I’d never heard of, produced by the likes of Publisher’s Weekly, NPR, and the New Yorker, and stopping briefly by the business-specific books reviewed by strategy +business plus the December 2012 best-sellers offered up by 800-CEO-READ, I decided to wander over to Goodreads to see what had shown up in their Choice Awards nonfiction category for 2012. Why? Because what we want for our books (or, at least, I do) is approbation from a mainstream audience—people who typically read rather than get paid to review. And who do so NOT because of the “I’ll-offer-you-entry-in-a-drawing-for-a-free-iPad-if-you’ll-write-me-a-five-star-review” tactics of some self-published authors that increasingly taints the comments seen on Amazon.com; in genuine appreciation of good quality writing.

The following observations will (hopefully) spark some spirited discussion about what still constitutes successful nonfiction (at least as far as unbiased readers are concerned) in an era when it sometimes feels that we are being drowned in mediocre dross.

Among Goodreads’ Top Ten (books garnering 1,000 votes or more)

–          Despite (I’m assuming) no discrimination against self-published books, ALL of these books were published by major houses—Random House; Little, Brown; Free Press etc. Not a single CreateSpace original among them!

–          All were written by journalists or self-proclaimed professional writers (with a sprinkling of academics).

–          None was the author’s first book and several had appeared on the New York Times’ bestseller list.

Of Goodreads’ Top Three:

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo.

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg.

Common praise for these three very different books covered many of the themes I’ve discussed in this column over the past year:

–          Quality writing.

–          Well researched, providing not just the author’s experience and opinion but third party “science” or other content.

–          Entertaining, strong on storytelling.

–          Addressing topics that haven’t been done to death already.

–          Interesting conversation starters.

So what’s the point I’m making? Am I suggesting that, if you’re not already an award-winning, professional writer who has nothing else to do but research and write then you should give up the goal of ever crafting a book that could inspire readers to consider it (as one did for Boo’s book) “an impressive achievement”?

Not at all! But that’s where the bar is set, so it behooves those who are supporting the self-publishing revolution to rise to the challenge, not drag standards lower.

How?

  1. Stop thinking of your book as a spare-time project. Get into the mindset of a professional writer. Make regular “appointments” with your book when you do nothing but write it!
  2. Write every day—quality prose, not informal email exchanges, tweets, or stream-of-consciousness blog posts. Writing well comes from writing well a lot.
  3. Leave aside your opinion and personal experience and do some objective research. Who is supporting or rejecting the premise of your book? How can you weave this into your manuscript?
  4. Become a better storyteller. There are no end of books, articles, and blog posts (my favorite site being Copyblogger) on this topic. Take a screenwriting or novel-writing course to learn the rudiments of crafting a powerful, emotionally engaging story.
  5. Do your due diligence before you begin writing your book. There’s a reason why publishing houses (big and small) ask for a competitive analysis when you submit a book proposal: you need to be aware of what’s already been written about your topic (even tangentially connected topics) in order not to simply repeat what’s already out there.
  6. For goodness sake, hire a professional editor to help you craft a quality manuscript before self-publishing. At the very least, one who will help you avoid readers’ comments like: “terrible writing” and “I wish it had been edited a little better.”

Your thoughts?

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 League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Atonement, Hancock, Bonfire of the Vanities…I guess we’ve all got our “sour grapes” list of movies that should have been good, but were not.

As Hollywood has long since shown us, there is no such thing as a sure-fire hit. The potential for creating a product with great characters, an exciting and emotionally gripping plot, and top talent is one thing; executing on it is quite another.

The same applies to books. This thought came to me as I began reading Into the Storm: Lessons in Teamwork from the Treacherous Sydney to Hobart Ocean Race, written by the CEO and Director of Client Services of consulting firm, The Syncretics Group.

On the face of it, this book had it all:

A sexy topic (ocean racing) linked to insights for succeeding in today’s rough and chaotic business world.

A fresh angle on a newsworthy story; as the authors point out, the media focused mostly on the tragedy of the 1998 event—of which more shortly—rather than celebrate the “David vs. Goliath” winning crew.

A “bad guy” in the form of loud mouth, “Ugly American abroad” Larry Ellison, the CEO of Oracle.

But less than a dozen pages in I began skimming the book, and put it down before things (presumably) got exciting. There was nothing intrinsically wrong with it; the book is well written, offers sound advice and promises a great adventure story. But it just wasn’t engrossing.

The first couple of paragraphs of the Preface began promisingly, pointing out that in the fifty-three years leading up to the 1998 Sydney to Hobart offshore ocean race—held every December 26th—only two out of the 35,000 total participants had lost their lives. But in 1998 all that changed: five boats sunk, “seven were abandoned at sea, twenty-five crewmen were washed overboard, and fifty-five sailors were rescued in an operation involving twenty-five aircraft, six vessels, and approximately 1,000 people.” The event had moved way beyond “extraordinary” to become “extraordinarily dangerous.”

Like a Hollywood screenwriter handed a best-selling novel, this was the fabulous material that Perkins and Murphy had to play with. But they ended up writing a book I wasn’t motivated to skim-read, let alone finish.

Which begs the question: Just how engaging do business books need to be these days? Well, I guess that depends on the purpose for writing them. Some books are written to add “author” to a CEO’s other titles, to help generate business for a consultancy, to have something to sell during events, or to gift to clients at holiday times. Perhaps their writers aren’t really looking beyond that level of success.

Whereas those authors looking for a more widespread, general business readership need exemplary storytelling skills. Some writers have this instinctively: Pink, Gladwell, Johansson to name just a few. Great orators like Steve Jobs and former President Bill Clinton share this ability also.

Sadly, by starting their book with a run-down of the America’s Cup and the Sydney to Hobart race, then introducing us to race veteran Bill Psaltis then his son Ed, the skipper of the winning vessel, then describing how the found their boat, then telling us about various crew members…well, by that time I’d decided it was time to take an alternative journey and go back to the YA novel I was reading. At least that plot had grabbed my attention on page one and wasn’t going to let me go until I got to the end of the book!

As I’ve hinted throughout these columns during the year, knowing how to tell a compelling story is not just essential for business book authors (at least, those who want a sizeable readership), it’s a vital business asset these days. As the author, I would have been inclined to start this book at the height of the excitement, then used back-story to fill in the gaps. As a reader, I would have cared much more about Ed Psaltis and the crew of AFR Midnight Rambler had I met them in the context of doing something extraordinarily courageous, stupid, or crazy, rather than the gentle run-up to the key events that Perkins and Murphy offer.

Which leaves me with just one question for you. What nonfiction book did you have high hopes for this year, that turned out to be a disappointing read?

This is the last Thought Readership review for 2012. Thank you to all those who have read and commented (you’re a rare bunch!) throughout the year. I look forward to sharing with you the good, the bad, and the ugly in books published in 2013. Meanwhile, happy holidays to you and yours!!

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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Call me fifty shades of confused! Why is it that so many books have numbers in their titles?

This question popped into my head the other day, sparked in part by the response by many independent bookstores to Amazon’s publication of Tim Ferriss’ latest book in his “4-hour” franchise: first workweek, then body, now chef. So I went over to the Amazon site and searched for books listing the numbers one to ten and found Ken Blanchard’s classic One Minute Manager; several “fives” (love languages, dysfunctions of a team; and a whole slew of “sevens” (habits, principles, spiritual laws, myths, steps, pillars, wonders….). Other than some books about the management approach known as “six sigma,” that number doesn’t appear to be hugely popular—or 2, 3, and 9 for that matter. But the trend doesn’t stop with the number ten. What, I wondered, would be the outcome if John Kador’s 301 Best Questions to Ask on Your Interview got together with Vicky Oliver’s 301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions?

Author Vicky Oliver has established quite a “numbers” trend with her books over the years, moving up from 201 smart ways to handle tough people to 301 smart answers to give during interviews, and now 301 Smart Answers to Tough Business Etiquette Questions (by Skyhorse Publishing, who more recently published a book of hers with an even bigger number, “millionaire”).

Having had cause to read a number of business etiquette books recently, I agree with what’s alluded to on the back cover of Tough Business Etiquette Questions: Most of them are as topical and fun as a Victorian tea party! What Oliver has going for her is a witty take on 21st century etiquette concerning topics such as “Casual Friday,” handshaking when abroad, and who gets mentioned first when introducing your ex-boss to your current boss. She’s right, they probably don’t teach this stuff in business school (any school, come to that) and more’s the pity!

There’s not just wit but wisdom too within the book’s 370 pages (and Skyhorse has done such a great job of the layout, it’s a very easy and accessible read…the kind of book you can dip in and out of as circumstances crop up). I especially liked what Oliver wrote about that annoying habit of some folks to respond in a different medium every time, as in “You leave your client a voicemail message. He replies with an email. You email him back. He responds with a text message. You text him back. He sends you an IM. The two of you have had six communications yet still can’t find the time to meet in person. What’s going on?” As Oliver rightly points out, “Your relationship is strong” (otherwise you would have gotten zero response!), “but your closure skills are wobbly.” Perhaps it’s time to break the project down into parts that can be dealt with electronically, given that a face-to-face meeting looks unlikely any time soon, Oliver suggests.

But back to my original question. Why are we (authors and readers) so enamored with having books with numbers in the title? What is it about the “ten rules for…” format that nine out of ten blog posts and a significant number of magazine and newspapers articles offer these days? Is it, as Jillian Steinhauer bemoaned in a recent article, that “We risk becoming masters of our own triviality,” because of this seeming obsession with lists? Then again, maybe having “42 Rules for Your New Leadership Role” makes a honking big responsibility feel more under your control and less chaotic. And knowing you can become a 10-Minute Virtuoso for the instrument you have always longed to play, feels more manageable and accessible.

There’s the potential for an interesting debate here, but it’s one I don’t have the time or space to address. Suffice it to say, in the spirit of offering you—as an aspiring nonfiction author—pointers to making the book development process as clear and successful as possible, the “numbering” format is a very useful one. From what I continue to see when consulting with writers who are attempting to write their first book, it’s organization that scuppers them every time. Their material tends to be all over the map, with no discernible route for readers to easily follow and understand.

So, even if it ends up not being the way your book is finally structured, it’s always useful to come up with a list of core principles, steps, habits—or whatever is most appropriate—when brainstorming the content for your nonfiction book, and use those to organize your chapters. After all, it worked very well for Stephen Covey, Deepak Chopra, and Napoleon Hill. And given all those book awards, it looks like it has too for Vicky Oliver!

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 #17: Rock Your Business by David Fishof

by Liz Alexander on November 19, 2012

I’ll come right out and say it: The ideas that most first-time authors’ have for their books suck. Because they’re derivative, unimaginative, and pedestrian. So it’s hardly surprising that most of these uninspiring books die an early commercial death, relegated to a few purchases during that self-employment staple, the “back of room” sale. Now, that’s just fine and dandy if you simply want to say you’ve published a book. Or you’ve bought into the “book as the new business card” hypothesis.

But what if you want to write a good book? One that truly differentiates you?

Well, you might not like me harping on about David Fishof’s Rock Your Business: What You and Your Company Can Learn From the Business of Rock and Roll (BenBella Books). But it’s for your own good.

Forget the fact that for the past 25 years Fishof has been a music industry mastermind, the man who founded and is the CEO of Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy Camp.

Look beyond his ability to count on the likes of Roger Daltry (The Who), Vince Neil (Mötley Crüe) and former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms to write advance praise for his book.

Stop thinking that if you only occupied the glamorous world of rock ‘n’ roll, rather than consulting to rubber manufacturers, that writing a compelling book would be a slam dunk.

Because while it certainly helps to be able to share the story of how he came up with the idea for Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band to celebrate Pepsi’s twenty-fifth anniversary, that’s not what elevates Fishof book out of the Amazon swamps.

It’s because he incorporates simile, cleverly leveraging the comparisons between rock ‘n’ roll and other forms of business.

For example, Fishof (with co-author & professional writer Michael Levin), does something very cool with the Table of Contents. Each one of the 14 chapters is linked with a song title. Want to know how to barter your way to business (Chapter Six)? Their musical theme is the Bill Withers hit Lean On Me. Keen to stand out in a crowded marketplace (Chapter Eight)? They’ve tied that in to the Eagles’ New Kid in Town. And what’s the perfect anthem for dealing with the competition (Chapter Eleven)? Of course, it has to be the Queen classic We Will Rock You.

Throughout this book Fishof draws parallels between the music entertainment industry and the world of business. In Chapter One he shares how, needing to find a million dollar tour headliner for the previously mentioned Pepsi bash, Fishof’s response to his own question of “Who are some of the greatest musicians of all time?” brought to mind The Beatles. Trouble was, that more loveable member of the Fab Four, Ringo Starr, hadn’t toured since the band’s break up in 1970. But what, thought Fishof, if you took inspiration from the Beatles hit song “With A Little Help From My Friends” and teamed Ringo with classic greats like Nils Lofgren, Dr. John, and Billy Preston? In that flash of inspiration, Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band was born.

And the guidance that Fishof provides for readers in relation that story? How to find a big idea!

Yet it was a fairly lame and considerably overdone idea that one aspiring author presented to me recently during a consulting session. As part of my pre-discussion research on his topic of relationships, I discovered (because you can’t copyright a book title) three competitive books all entitled How to Treat a Woman. And nothing that I read in his treatment led me to believe that this guy was offering material that was much different. Interestingly enough, he did have a cool metaphor he could have leveraged (which I discovered mid-way through our conversation), but there was no sign of it in his proposal or sample chapter. He had absolutely no clue that to successfully market and sell this book he needed a strong, uniquely distinguishable “hook.”

On the back cover of Rock Your Business the reader is asked if they would like:

  • To burst into public awareness like Lady Gaga?
  • To have the long-lived success of the Rolling Stones?
  • To demonstrate the creativity of the Beatles?

To which I would add:

  • To come up with a book idea that truly deserves publication?

Read Fishof’s engrossing book and you just might find the big idea that could rock your reader’s world. Otherwise the chances are they’ll just Go To Sleep (Radiohead, 2003)

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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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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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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In the days before the Internet and photo-sharing sites like Flickr, Photobucket, and SlickPic, you could rarely escape the post-holiday season without someone inviting you to look at their vacation pictures. If you’re anything like me, I’d rather have root canal work than sit through another presentation documenting the minutiae of a friend’s or family’s fortnight in Venice, or wherever. Call me anti-social, but seeing endless pics of said vacationers with “that great couple we met up with from South Africa” would invariably leave me cold — and wondering why it is that human beings believe that others are as interested in their lives as they are.

That thought occurred to me as I read Gary Wimmer’s A Second in Eternity: The true story about a voyage beyond time and space and into the Infinite (The Lithomancy Institute, 2011), a book I would not normally review here but which highlights an issue of relevance to many aspiring authors – including those planning to write business books.

This memoir relates experiences the author had in 1977 that involved some profound psychic realizations. Not that I have an issue with that, given a spiritual encounter of my own (Sevenoaks, Kent, England; 1999; in the bath. Enough said!). But in reading Gary’s book I reflected back on what Trevor Blake  (whose memoir-type book I reviewed for Thought Readership #12) had written in Three Simple Steps (BenBella Books, 2012): that he had focused on the process, not the person. Hence that author used personal stories to provide a narrative framework for the “three simple steps” he has used to achieve monumental business success. In Gary Wimmer’s case the only take-away was a recounting of his spiritual experience, and I couldn’t help but think that you would have to know and like him to be that interested.

As a rule of thumb, when it comes to your book it’s always about the reader. For novelists the challenge is to “entertain me.” For non-fiction authors, it’s typically to “inform or enlighten me.” Which means that even if your book relies heavily on your life story to “show” rather than “tell,” the needs and interest of your desired reader must remain foremost in your mind.

Why do you think Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love was such a huge commercial success if not for the fact that zillions of women could relate to her relationship issues at the beginning of the book and desired, vicariously at least, to journey to contentment as she did? Similarly, people are more likely to read Daniel Smith’s Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety if either they’ve experienced anxiety themselves or know someone they care about who does, and are looking to better understand and share insights about this condition.

Regardless of the genre or scope of your book, ask yourself why you are writing it, from the reader’s perspective not your own, and specifically what’s in it for them — before you begin.

It’s a fact — even in this so-called age of community, crowdsourcing and the like — that most people care less about you than they do about themselves. Which makes marketing and successfully selling copies of your memoir as a relatively unknown person a mighty challenge. And in Gary Wimmer’s case, writing a well-received spiritual memoir is, as this Daily Beast post points out, extra difficult.

I suggested to Gary that instead of simply writing a chronological account he might have highlighted the link between psychic abilities and mental illness so that readers who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, as he had, might regard their situation differently. Or he could have illuminated us on the difference between these spiritual experiences and his former drug use, injecting plenty of humor into the telling.

Many people believe that there’s a book within each one of us. I don’t dispute that. What I do question, however, is whether there is a sizeable market for most of them. If you start out by thinking more deeply about whom you want to read your book and why they would do so, you’re part way to achieving the commercial success most of us are seeking when we write.

Otherwise your book is likely to be as welcome as forcing a complete stranger to review your holiday albums!

WIIFM: What’s in it for Me!

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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Consider how many things we’re familiar with that come in “threes”:

Tenors. Magi. Bears.

Fates. Virtues. Graces.

Snap. Crackle. Pop.

There is something magical about the number three, which permeates writing just as much as anything else. This is perhaps why we have three-act plays; a beginning, middle, and end for stories; and sayings that come in three parts – from Julius Caesar’s “Veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered)” to Thomas Jefferson’s “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Next time you review your favorite nonfiction books, look to see how many of them are written with three sections. Examples from my own library include: Daniel Pink’s Drive; Blue Ocean Strategy by INSEAD professors W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne; neuroscientist Andrew Newberg’s How God Changes Your Brain; Book Yourself Solid by Michael Port; and Alan Weiss’ mega-bestseller Million Dollar Consulting.

For serial entrepreneur, Trevor Blake, the decision to structure his book this way is immediately apparent from the title: Three Simple Steps: A Map to Success in Business and Life (BenBella Books, Inc., 2012). Part One: Escaping the Quicksand offers three chapters (there it is again!) on how to “reclaim your mentality” by focusing your thoughts more on what you want than what you are against. Part Two: Staying Out of the Quicksand – again, three chapters – offers one simple yet timeless and universally applied (at least by extremely successful folks like Henry Ford and George Washington Carver) technique for creating more winning ideas. And Part Three: Beyond the Quicksand articulates how to transform those ideas into achievements.

Written in the style of many of the truly great “self-help” authors of the early 20th century, Blake’s book is as much a memoir as anything – one you would advised to put on your reading list above books written by people whose only claim to fame and source of wealth has come from writing – well, self-help books. Contrast that with Blake who, like so many successful entrepreneurs, came from nothing to create businesses that were eventually sold for hundreds of millions of dollars. As the back cover blurb by Drew A. Graham, managing partner of Ballast Point Ventures states: “Finally, a book about how to succeed by an author who has actually achieved something before writing about it!” Not only that, I found Three Simple Steps to be a compelling read.

But back to the theme of this post: how to structure your nonfiction book. Oftentimes the biggest issue I see with manuscripts has to do with the way the author has organized their material – or, rather, not. Typically these books read like streams of consciousness with no discernible structure.

If you know what you want to write about but have no earthly idea how to set it out in a book, consider what I describe to my clients as The Power of Three. Of course, it’s easy if – like Trevor Blake – you have a three-part process to describe. But what if you don’t? Let’s go back to some of the other examples I gave earlier.

Take Blue Ocean Strategy. Part one outlines the philosophy and explains what it means to create a “blue ocean”; part two clarifies the strategy behind the concept; and part three explains how to execute it. Alan Weiss’s Million Dollar Consulting, on the other hand, begins by identifying what you need to do to prepare to be a million dollar consultant, then goes on to the tactics you would need to employ, and dedicates the final part of the book to ways to grow into the role.

One final example: Daniel Pink’s Drive first considers why we need to look at motivation in a different light; secondly he looks at what are the three elements of “Type 1” motivation; and thirdly shows you how to implement what you learn in his book.

So, even if you don’t find yourself with a neat “three-act play” as Trevor Blake did with Three Simple Steps, you can still find a way to make this structure work for your book. Part one might offer the philosophy behind your concept, why it’s important, or some foundational issues for the reader to consider. Part two could lay out the strategies for success and what planning needs to be put in place to use the book’s material successfully. Part three would then offer “how tos” or tactics to employ to help the reader successfully implement that learning for themselves.

What favorite book of yours is structured this way? Please let me know in the comments below. And for more about this topic, I invite you to go to Episode 6 of my audio series.

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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Innovation. Barely a day goes by without some piece of content related to that topic dropping into my e-mailbox. Are you finding that?

And what about the 385 billion links that Google provides for the search term “innovation”? Or the fact that Amazon lists over 52,000 books on the topic (without getting into sub-categories and associated terms such as “creativity”)?

Sounds like innovation has been well and truly covered, doesn’t it? So why would anyone in their right mind write another book about it – aside from the fact that “the ability to innovate” remains a top concern and priority for CEOs?

Well, let’s employ one of the tactics commonly used by innovative individuals. Let’s ask a different question. Imagine that like Scott D. Anthony, author of The Little Black Book of Innovation: How it works; How to do it (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012), you’ve “been focusing exclusively on innovation for more than a decade.” How might you resolve the dilemma of writing on a topic that’s already swollen with content? You would ask yourself: How much of what’s currently available truly serves readers’ needs?

When Anthony reviewed what was already out there he came to the conclusion that, “Academics and leading practitioners have generated a huge amount of insight – but it’s not readily accessible. In addition, there isn’t a lot of practical information about innovation.”

Hence his Little Black Book  — an odd title choice given an association with the likes of Hugh Hefner and Tatler’s annually produced “shallow compilation of the 100 ‘most eligible’ below-thirty-somethings in London.” But I digress!

One of the most valuable services that have emerged in the era of information overload is “content curation.” Consider, for example, that every 60 seconds there are over 1,500 new blog posts available, more than 168 billion emails sent, and goodness knows how many presentations made. And if you’re an executive, entrepreneur, project manager, or consultant and want to know how to boost the innovative capacity of yourself or your team – well, you have over 52,000 books to choose from.

Who on earth has the time (or energy) to wade through all of that material to find which nuggets can actually help you be innovative?

Enter Anthony who (as many delighted Amazon reviewers attest) has distilled all of that otherwise confusing, conflicting, or unintelligible “wisdom” into a single book that is accessible, practical, and immediately implementable. And it’s an approach that can be “stolen” by any of you looking to write a book, whose core expertise lies in a similarly over-written area.

Instead of trying to figure out what you can say that’s new, think instead of how you can curate information that readers can use. Why not produce a “primer” that makes your topic understandable and shows people what they can do with that material to achieve their goals? Anthony does this by including, in Part Two of his book, “The 28-Day Innovation Program” offering four weekly sets of daily questions to ask, one-sentence answers to those questions, as well as how-to action points. There’s plenty of meat in the book too, including my favorite way of sharing information: stories.

How do you craft the kind of book that is truly useful in an over-populated arena where, in Anthony’s case, you’re competing with luminaries including Jim Collins and Clayton Christensen? Start with the end in mind, as the late Dr. Steven Covey outlined. What would you need to do for future reviewers to say, “If you read only one book on X, it has to be this one”?

Here are three suggestions:

  1. Make it simple: Distill what readers need to know – and no more.
  2. Make it practical: Give them a roadmap to follow.
  3. Make it readable: Write in a conversational style (as opposed to how some Amazon reviewers described Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book That Will Change the Way You Do Business (HarperBusiness, 2011): “The book reads like a Ph.D. thesis written by a lobotomized 3rd grader” and “This book was as compelling to read as a college quantitative analysis text.”)

What business book have you read recently that offers all three of these must-haves? Share them by commenting 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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