Posts in ‘Writing for Business’

Have you ever attended a writing workshop were one of the participants doesn’t want to publicly share their book idea because it’s so good someone is likely to steal it? Yeah, right!

As avid readers of Acknowledgments pages know, (take a look – they’re incredibly instructive), professionals never think that way. Well-known novelists will tap the resources of numerous experts to research their plots; leading non-fiction authors discuss, share, and ask for feedback on their ideas before they begin to write.

It appears to be the mark of the amateur writer to fear “giving away the store.”   Which is probably why so many of them are incredibly stingy with the insights they’re prepared to give in their books. This seems to be especially true of consultants, who fear that if they put all their knowledge into a book no one will need to hire them!

If that thought has concerned you in the past, I highly recommend Gihan Perera’s excellent Fast, Flat, and Free: How the Internet Has Changed Your Business (First Step Publishing, 2011).

What Perera has produced is that rare find: a high quality, self-published book whose content is vastly more valuable than the cover price. Indeed, what stood out for me as I read the book was how generous Perera has been with his material.

How many business books have you read where you get to the end only to wonder, “How the heck do I put any of this into practice?” Particularly frustrating are those books that give high-level advice without any examples or a means of embedding true understanding (rather than just knowledge).

When I work with clients I always want to ensure that they’ve covered the “4 Es” – preferably within every chapter. By which I mean:

  • Give a clear Explanation of what you’re talking about.
  • Offer reputable Evidence (from other books, scientific papers, respected articles etc) to back up your claims.
  • Provide relevant Examples so readers can see how others have applied the advice you’re offering.
  • Follow this up with ways that readers can achieve Empowerment, by suggesting practical exercises: things they can think about and do.

It’s rare to find a book that embraces all four of these reader “must-haves” – and even rarer in a book that’s self-published – which is why, hands down, Perara’s book is so outstanding in its accessibility and usefulness.

Here are just two examples of what this author did that any subject matter expert worth their salt should be able and willing to do:

  • In the Introduction Perera identifies one of the biggest challenges for small businesses today: how to compete with the “big boys.” He relates the issues faced by owners of small wineries in the region of Western Australia close to his home town of Perth, then outlines 18 specific on-line marketing and positioning actions that these wineries could take (two for each of the nine strategies highlighted in the rest of the book) – which could be adapted by any reader.
  • In the section cleverly headed Familiarity Breeds Content, Perera mentions a prospective client who wanted to position herself as an expert in selling Belgian chocolates. He reminded her that she should think instead of becoming an expert in solving her customers’ problems and goes on to mention three concrete ways in which she – and other readers – could do exactly that. (Unfortunately the silly woman decided she just wanted to be an expert on Belgian chocolates!).

There’s a valid complaint about this book in one of many testimonials on Perera’s website, and it’s one I agree with: this isn’t a “dip in, dip out” book. It’s a book that compels you to sit down, pen in hand and take copious notes. It’s choc-full of amazing advice – the kind, I imagine, that Gihan the Consultant offers to his clients for large sums of money.

Why isn’t he concerned about “giving away the store” as so many author-consultants do? Because once you’ve read his book you’d hire him in a heartbeat!

In this Fast, Flat and Free world we now live in there are – as Perera points out – so many “passionate amateurs” who will share their expertise with you for nothing. They’re all over the place, including online bookstores, where you can often get suckered into buying their ill-conceived, poorly written works full of superficial thinking.

Authors like Gihan Perera (and you, if you follow his example) have nothing to worry about in the era of Fast, Flat and Free…because they deliver those rare, superior experiences that savvy business people will always pay for!

Note: For an interview with Gihan Perera and some of the other authors featured in the Thought Readership series, please visit my AG page.

Thought Readership #9: Title Fights

by Liz Alexander on July 2, 2012

It begs the question. If human beings are so smart, how come it took us so long to combine the wheel (invented circa 3500BC) with the suitcase (first believed to have been used by Roman legionnaires traveling the then-known world)? Yet once Bernard Sadow arrived at his “aha” moment in 1970 and began manufacturing luggage that could be pulled along with castors, incremental innovations followed suit. Only to be expected, right?

For example, by 1989 Northwest Airlines pilot Bob Plath had come up with something better than pulling along luggage horizontally on four castors with a strap, as Sadow had proposed. Plath’s Rollaboard® creation was a vertical bag with two wheels and a “telescopic” handle. Compare that today with the even more advanced 360 degree swivel wheeled versions…or the further evolution known as the Climbing UP suitcase, that can be pulled up stairs and inclined surfaces because it exchanges fixed wheels for all-round rubber tracks.

The modern, wheeled suitcase is just one example of how iterative innovation works. Why don’t we see much of that with books that directly contradict an earlier concept?

A rare example is Harvard Business Professor Deepak Malhotra’s book I Moved Your Cheese: For Those Who Refuse to Live as Mice in Someone Else’s Maze (Berrett-Koehler, 2011). Now, you’ve probably just done a double take on the title because, yes, it’s almost identical to Spencer Johnson and Ken Blanchard’s 1998 classic bestseller Who Moved My Cheese? Which was precisely the point.  (Did you know, by the way, that you cannot copyright a book title – which is why you often see so many same or similar ones appearing – such as this example of my own 1999 book?).

The point Malhotra is making is that the way we need to deal with change has, well – changed in the ensuing 13 years since Johnson and Blanchard’s classic was first published. He addressed that head-on by challenging the premise of WMMC and offering up a fresh way to look at how to handle situations where the goalposts (“the cheese”) keep shifting.

How many other classic business titles can you think of that could benefit from a 21st century overhaul? So why don’t more authors do what Malhotra has done? We certainly expect, with respect to everyday products, that original innovations (like Sadow’s roll-along luggage) would soon be superseded by better iterations. So why do we leave it only to the original authors to update their books? Most of the time that rarely happens and is unlikely to lead to any radically different thinking in any event (largely because experts don’t like to be seen to change their minds, at least not in public).

I raise this point because you might be a business expert who wants to write a book, and need an attention-grabbing idea. My challenge to you is this: what “classic” bestseller is there in your space that you could contradict, overhaul, and bring up-to-date? What was written years ago that everyone in your industry continues to reference, when you know there’s a much better way to do things? And do you have the chutzpah, as Malhotra obviously has, to use the (slightly tweaked) original title?

If everyone in your world is still metaphorically lugging along honking big leather suitcases with makeshift castors fixed to the bottom and your business offers clients the equivalent of ones that glide on jet packs – why aren’t you writing a book like that?

As I pointed out earlier, we humans like to think we’re smart, but how many companies do you know where processes remain in place only because “this is the way we’ve always done it.” Similarly, how many business book concepts are still being embraced today, despite there being a better approach that you could share?

Next time you read an industry “standard” and think to yourself: I know a better way than this, why not bring attention to your book by directly challenging the old one? Let’s see more iterative innovation with respect to book ideas! After all, moving “cheese” around was just ripe (if you’ll forgive the pun) for an overhaul. So whose business classic would you like to give 2013/14 “makeover” to, and what would you title it? Email me with your suggestions and I’ll compile them into a future article. Best one will receive an (as yet undetermined) small but highly covetable prize!

Avoiding The Teenager’s Folly

Back in the days when I was young and foolish I’d be arguing (as I frequently did) with my mother about some relationship or other. Mum was pretty open-minded, but it always seemed to me as if she didn’t really understand what I was going through.

I remember her looking at me on one occasion with an arched eyebrow and saying, “You know, Elizabeth, you’re not the only person in the world who has had this experience. We were all young once!”

I was reminded of that conversation as I read Phil Simon’s Kickstarter-funded book The Age of the Platform: How Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google Have Redefined Business. 

Simon’s thesis is this. We live in The Age of the Platform, a time requiring “a completely different mindset.” One in which companies “must not only exist but they must thrive in a state of constant motion.”

Okay – nothing new there. What else?

Well, Simon says, the “Gang of Four” (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google), “are following an entirely new blueprint and business model.” Basically, I gather, by fostering “symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationships with users, customers, partners, vendors, developers, and the community at large.”

But wasn’t that what chocolate manufacturer, Cadbury, did back in the 19th century? And the Ford Motor Company in the early part of the 20th century?

Cadbury founded a model village for its employees, so were both business and community oriented. Its collaborative efforts were particularly appreciated during both World Wars when the company not only paternalistically looked after the male employees who fought on the front during WWI but converted part of the Bourneville factory to produce parts for fighter planes during WWII.

And while Simon credits today’s supposed “Platform Age” with engendering a business and consumer focus, I couldn’t help remembering that Henry Ford paid his employees enough money so they could become consumers, not just producers of his motorcars.

In their day, the assembly line and mass production were groundbreaking technologies. Between 1911 and 1920 the number of cars coming out of the Ford plant increased 1,433 per cent. And the “ecosystem” that Simon attributes to today’s Platform Age was surely evident in one particular Ford innovation: establishing brand-loyal, franchised dealers!

As my mother used to point out, just because “oldies” have lost their edge, doesn’t mean that they weren’t like today’s “youngsters” once.

If the platform is indeed a new business model and not simply another empty buzzword, one could argue it was also around in the days of the Medicis — the 14th century banking dynasty.

Through a series of clever strategic activities, including marriages of convenience, the family significantly increased their social network in a way we now describe as “stickiness.” And innovation? The reason why Frans Johansson named his book on creative breakthroughs The Medici Effect was in honor of the way the family sponsored an ecosystem of scientists, philosophers, and artists, breaking down long-established barriers in order to herald one of the biggest explosions of innovation in history.

Did the Medicis, Cadbury, and Ford do extremely interesting and innovative things in their day, “especially with respect to emerging technologies?” Check!

Did they (once) adapt extremely well and quickly to change? Check!

Did they (once) routinely introduce compelling new offerings? Check!

Did they (once) work with partners in very exciting ways? Check!

Every era has its own form of what Simon calls a platform; this is not a new concept. Which begs the question: is the way that Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google do business so very different from yesteryear? Or are some so bedazzled by technology that it blinds them to historical truths?

This is where the “ecosystem” vital to crafting superior books comes in. The problem with self-published books like this one is that the author no longer has to go through the rigorous vetting process required by commercial publishers. One in which an acquisitions editor will query (and probably reject) spurious arguments and superficial thinking.

As an author, being provoked to think deeper and harder about your material either produces a superior product or reveals the unsettling fact that you don’t have much to say that’s new, so would be better off not publishing a book at all.

The best time to do this kind of thinking is early on in the project. Otherwise send your manuscript to honest, discerning readers (not your mother!) for their feedback before you go into print.

Here’s the issue with many of the books that are written in the space of a few months. If it’s that quick and easy, you’re not really thinking! Take a look at what Daniel Kahneman writes in his book Thinking Fast and Slow about the two kinds of thinking: System 1 is effortless, automatic, intuitive – and error-prone. It’s what most people do most of the time.

Which is why authors who wish to be taken seriously need to establish a habit of System 2 thinking, which is reasoned, slow, and takes so much more effort.

A clue to how to develop that can be found in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s wonderful book The Black Swan. In the Acknowledgments section he points out the value of finding detractors to your argument. “One learns most from people one disagrees with,” Taleb says.

An important piece of advice for any author not wanting to appear like a teenager who thinks they’ve discovered something new when they haven’t.

Daniel Markovitz’s A Factory of One

Imagine you’re a performance coach or consultant who wants to write a book. You’re aware of the “competition” in the form of well-known efficiency experts including David Allen, Julie Morgenstern, and Tony Schwartz. You also know that the basic advice of scheduling rather than constantly checking email and keeping your desk organized has been done to death. What can you contribute to the conversation that’s not only new – but truly transformative for the reader?

What would you do when faced with that challenge? Throw in the towel?

Not necessarily. You could do what Daniel Markovitz has so deftly done in A Factory of One: Applying Lean Principles to Banish Waste and Improve Your Personal Performance (CRC Press, 2012). You could turn your topic on its head and ask: If it were that easy, why aren’t we all more efficient? Maybe it’s not more tools that people need, but a different strategy? One that’s focused on the root cause of poor performance, not just its effects.

Markovitz has successfully illustrated one of the approaches every nonfiction author needs to consider today, unless you’re content to languish among the “me-too” authors whose books are gracing the remainder tables; combine your core topic with something no one else would think of associating with it.

In the case of A Factory of One, it’s Lean principles, a concept that originated in Japanese manufacturing to “dramatically boost quality by reducing waste and errors.” As the back cover of Markovitz’s book states, “(U)ntil now, few have recognized how relevant these powerful ideas are to individuals and their daily work.”

By cleverly combining personal performance, Lean principles, and self-awareness exercises inspired by the Japanese concept of gemba, this author has succeeded in offering a compelling read that actually works. Shortly after closing this quick and entertaining book I was eagerly on the hunt to spot “waste” in my own working day. And, yes, there was plenty – which otherwise would have remained invisible had I not reviewed this book.

You may already be familiar with the international best seller, Blue Ocean Strategy, which focuses on ways to make the competition irrelevant. This is an issue for all thoughtful authors, many of whom worry that with so many books being published these days it’s becoming harder to produce anything truly unique.

Not so! For a start, most authors (self-published or otherwise) have no clue how to market themselves, so their books don’t even come to their target audience’s attention, which reduces the competition somewhat. But by taking the approach that Markovitz so powerfully illustrates, you need never worry ever again about someone else duplicating or even “stealing” your book idea.

This question is part of my 7-step book development process: What other idea(s) could you combine with your basic concept to strengthen your book and make it uniquely yours? When you think of the permutations, you’ll realize there are endless opportunities for anyone creative enough to do this.

Just think of the ways in which this approach has produced innovations in daily life:

  • Journaling + computer technology = blogging.
  • Coffee + Italian café culture = Starbucks.
  • Wizards + school + and childhood rites of passage = Harry Potter series.
  • Ginger + chocolate + wasabi peas = Terry’s Toffee Asian Accent.™
  • The Roman republic + Montesquieu’s checks & balances + John Locke’s philosophy + English common law (Magna Carta) = The US Constitution.

If you want to avoid worrying about whether someone, in your industry or field, is writing a book identical to yours, you need to adopt a “Blue Ocean Strategy.” Which means going that extra mental distance to come up with unusual concepts – as Daniel Markovitz and others have done – that will make your book uniquely yours.

Next Up: The Teenager’s Folly: The author who only thought he had something new to say, and how to avoid making the same mistake.

To read interviews with many of the authors I’ve reviewed for this Thought Readership column, please go to my Articles page.

Think back to your days in college or high school. You’re sitting in a lecture hall or classroom. The speaker is droning on and on using confusing vocabulary. Your mind drifts. You know you should be paying attention but you can’t.

Remember what that was like?

Then hold that experience in mind next time you write. Especially when you sit down to write a book. Because you can’t mandate that your readers will, like dutiful students, force their way through to the end like they had to in those interminably dull college lectures. They’ll shut your book and be done with it.

How do you avoid what I call “textbook creep” – the tendency of new authors, especially, to write incredibly worthy but dull prose?

For a start, you could study a book like Social Media ROI: Managing and Measuring Social Media Efforts in Your Organization (Pearson Education Inc., 2011).

A quick bit of “back story,” first. This was not a book I had intended to review. I bought it only because I was developing a program that covered the metrics of strategic communications and thought it would be especially interesting to my participants to learn about how to measure social media effectiveness.

Thinking that this was going to be a painful but necessary exercise on my part, I dove in to the book – and was pleasantly surprised.

What does author Olivier Blanchard do that so many folks, writing these kinds of instructive books, don’t? Three things.

Before I tell you what they are, however, look at these examples from Chapter One:

“Building a social media program for an organization is hard. I won’t try to convince you otherwise.”

“What do people do on social media all day?… At its core, what people do on the social web is communicate and interact.”

“Now that we have touched upon what a social media program is, let’s discuss what a social media program does.

In the first example, I feel like Blanchard is talking to me — human being to human being. Not expert to novice or lecturer to student. That endeared me to him straight away (remember Know, Like, and Trust from Thought Readership #2?).

A line like “I won’t try to convince you otherwise,” is very conversational. When you read that you already get a sense of Blanchard as a down-to-earth guy who isn’t going to try and pull the wool over your eyes.

In the second example, the author anticipates the kind of questions that his readers will be asking as they read the book. I mean, what do people do on social media all day, for crying out loud? Again, this is a conversational sentence that also conveys that Blanchard is having a two-way dialog with his readers, not offering a soliloquy.

Oh, and if you’re wondering why I chose the word “soliloquy” and not “monologue,” it’s because a monologue is where one person dominates or monopolizes the conversation, and a soliloquy is where they are talking solely to themselves.

Neither are good ways to write a compelling book. Never forget that there is a person reading your words that might not agree with you or have questions of their own. If you can anticipate and address these, as Blanchard does skillfully throughout Social Media ROI, then you’ll score major Brownie points with them.

Thirdly, like all good presenters of information, Blanchard throws in lines that move us deftly from one set of information to the next. Again, that third example above is very conversational and natural – the kind of thing you would say if the person you are writing for were sitting down with you.

So how do you develop a more conversational tone in your writing, if this is something that doesn’t come naturally? One tip that was useful to a client of mine – let’s call her Brenda – was to speak and record.

It was the oddest thing. When I’d ask Brenda a question about her subject matter expertise during our sessions, she was incredibly articulate and natural. But ask her to write something by herself and it was a whole other ball game. Her prose was stiff, full of jargon, and read like it was coming from a textbook.

What we ended up doing most of the time was for me to ask her questions that I believed her readers would want answered and to record her responses. Now that Brenda is working on her second book, she’s doing this for herself.   

Even if you’re not planning to write a book, bear in mind how tortuous it is when “experts” start pontificating about their material, almost forgetting that there is a human being on the other side of the interaction. You don’t want your book (or any business communication) to have the same reputation as the Medicare legislation – over-written gobbledegook – do you?

Make sure your book is as “user-friendly” as Olivier Blanchard’s Social Media ROI. Otherwise, guess what? You’re likely to find you don’t have any users!

Mind Mapping Goes Mobile

by Roger Parker on April 20, 2012

Good news for authors and marketers: Mindjet’s MindManager mind mapping software, the indispensable writing tool I frequently referred to in my ActiveGarage Author’s Journey series, is now available for iPhones, iPads, and Android mobile devices.

Mindjet’s MindManager app for the iPad has quickly become an important part of my workflow for all types of writing projects…saving me time and helping me get a head start on my projects before I begin to write, no matter where I am.

Mind mapping on an iPad is a liberating writing tool that far exceeded my expectations

Background

Perhaps like you, I was initially doubtful that mind mapping on an iPad. I was happy with the mind maps I created on my home and office computers, plus my laptop. I was comfortable carrying around yellow legal pads and felt tip markers which I’d use to plan my articles, blog posts, and client marketing materials.

I was used to the ritual of deciphering my handwritten notes and recreating my hand-drawn mind maps on my computers when it was time to get down to work. In addition, I couldn’t see how it would be possible to use the iPad’s virtual keyboard to type extended amounts of text.

I also couldn’t imagine how large maps would fit on the iPad’s relatively small screen.

Planning versus writing

What I was overlooking, of course, was the difference between planning and writing.

Although I recognized that the hard work in most writing projects is planning what you’re going to say, I was overlooking the fact that mind maps don’t have to be large and detailed to provide an efficient guide to writing an article, blog post, or book.

Edit Topic screens

Mindjet’s use of Edit Topic screens also played an important role in my transition from yellow legal pads to MindManager on an iPad for planning my writing projects.

The issue of type size and readability on the iPad (or iPhone) screen is not an issue. This is because, when you select a topic or subtopic by tapping it, MindManager opens a large Edit Topic screen that provides all the space you need to enter topic and subtopic text.

The Edit Screen not only is large enough to make it easy to add subtopic and topic information, you can also add Notes—as much text as you want, if sentences and paragraphs occur to you during the planning stage that you want to immediately jot down—as well as links to URLs.

Using MindManager’s Edit Topic screens also allow you to insert icons indicating category and priority, as well as photographs and graphic images. You can also format topics and subtopics to indicate category and importance.

Workflow

Without a doubt, mind mapping on the iPad is a here-and-now reality, one that has saved me well over 100 hours during the past 3 months—and, probably, a heck of a lot more. I now spend less time planning my articles, blog posts, and books, and, I know from my time logs, that I’m spending less time writing them.

There’s no duplication of effort, no wasted time trying to decipher my handwriting, and I can include as many links to blogs and web pages while planning. Using the Notes feature, I can copy and paste text from online resources into my maps, saving me time later on.

Mind mapping on an iPad has given me more freedom than I’ve previously had. I spend less time tethered to my computers than before. As a result, I’m fresher and more relaxed when I sit down at my computer for an extended writing session. I now spend more time planning time in a Barnes & Noble café, at my favorite window table at the Dover Public Library, or riding the Downeaster toBoston.

And, for better or for worse, more blog posts have been planned in bed or in front of a television than ever before.

Where this is all going

My experiences mind mapping on an iPad has not only energized me, but it’s helped me realize just how basically inefficient desktop and laptop computing can be.

I reluctantly came to iPad ownership, but was amazed at how quickly I’ve adapted to using my fingers to select, zoom, and move around a mind map. I loved the fact that I didn’t have to “read” any “documentation” to get things done.

Most of all, I quickly grew to love the freedom from having to worry to save files and go back and forth between programs to share files between computers and send them as email attachments to clients.

The future, of course, is in the cloud, and I’m quickly getting used to backing-up and files using MindJet Connect or Dropbox which eliminate the need to Zip-compress and e-mail mind map templates with clients and webinar attendees.

The future, of course, is “hands-free” syncing of mind maps between computers. Syncing is a fast-approaching reality. Already, I can end my day reading a book on my Amazon.com Kindle, then pick-up my iPad the next day…and it will open to the page I was reading on my Kindle!

Soon, I’ll be able to begin to plan an article on my iPad, edit it on my main computer, finish it on a client’s computer, and all copies will be seamlessly updated.

Getting started

Currently, Mindjet’s MindManager for the iPad is still available for free for Apple iPhones, iPads, and Android mobile devices. This offers a great opportunity for you to discover the power of mind mapping as a writing tool.

  • If you’re already using mind maps for writing, downloading one of Mindjet’s mobile apps for the iPhone, iPad, or Android device, will add capabilities and convenience and pave the way for enhanced file sharing and syncing.
  • If you’re not yet using mind mapping for writing, the free mobile apps provide an easy way to get started.

Either way, once you get started, I invite you to download my free (no registration) 3-Step Writing Jumpstart Map or 20 Questions to Ask Before You Write a Book mind map templates to explore mind mapping’s contribution to your writing success.

Thought Readership #5: Telling Tales

by Liz Alexander on April 16, 2012

If you’ve ever attended one of the Dale Carnegie introductory seminars you’ll be familiar with this “trick.”

A facilitator shows participants a list of 20 items – say, a pair of shoes, lampshade, ice cream etc. – and claims that in ten minutes or less they can teach anyone how to recite that list from memory, in the correct order.

And they do. When every participant is let in on the “secret” they discover that the way to instantly recall any number of otherwise disconnected items is to weave them into a story.

We’re all born with the ability to tell stories; it’s how we learn because the brain is an associative device. Storytelling is an essential skill for the novelist, but it’s also a powerful non-fiction tool.

Many writers of case studies could benefit from becoming more familiar with storytelling concepts; so could business book authors. There are three concepts in particular that are very useful in helping make your work more compelling.

ThirdRiver consultants, Ken Jennings and Heather Hyde, exemplify all of them in their business fable The Greater Goal: Connecting Purpose and Performance (Berrett-Koehler, 2012).

First, think of any classic “hero’s journey” movie. To capture the viewer’s attention, something happens fairly quickly that rocks the hero’s ordinary world and sets in motion the character transformation we see at the end. (That’s how you can identify the hero; it’s the person who changes the most.)

For example, in Gladiator, the catalytic event is the murder of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. In Star Wars, it’s finding Princess Leia’s message. In The Descendants, it’s the wife’s coma.

In The Greater Goal, the hero Alex Beckley is in a near-fatal car accident. This major, dramatic event helps to completely change Alex’s world, and it happens quickly – on page eight!

When we first meet Alex he’s a failing company president with a laundry list of personal and professional issues that he doesn’t know how to overcome. Cue essential storytelling concept #2.

In addition to moving the story along with a quick, dramatic wake-up call, every hero benefits from a mentor (think Harry Potter and Dumbledore). In Alex’s case, his mentor comes in the form of wise consultant Quinn McDougall.

Why does The Greater Goal work so well, not just as a business fable? Because it immediately gets right to the point. Alex faces a raft of challenges most of us can relate to: poor performance and low morale stemming from an obsession with results; job insecurity; no sense of work-life balance; the notion that what he’s always done isn’t working, but he doesn’t know how to change.

By page 13 Alex does what every hero must do before transformation can take place, he asks for help. Help in the form of mentor Quinn McDougall allows the authors to show the difference that comes from embracing five key practices for leading differently: Commit to the greater goal; Construct shared goals; Cascade greater goal coaching; Reinforce alignment; and Build on success.

Yes, there’s a happy ending (oops…should have said “spoiler alert” but you expected that didn’t you?), but what is handled especially skillfully in The Greater Goal is something often missing in business books and business writing generally – tension (storytelling concept #3). Like all good stories where you know the hero prevails, we don’t want that to be immediately apparent. Which is why it was wise for Jennings and Hyde to include naysayer Nate in their story.

Even if you’re not planning to write a business fable, any business book will benefit by:

  • Getting quickly to the challenge (i.e., don’t start out with a lot of “backstory”).
  • Ensuring there’s a build up of tension in the narrative.

The author taking the role of mentor (because if you’re playing the hero you’ve missed the point).

“Blogging isn’t writing, it’s graffiti with punctuation.” ~ Line from the movie Contagion.

You’ve seen them, haven’t you? Those pseudo-Successories posters that wags often buy to adorn their office walls?  One of my favorites depicts a capsized boat with the slogan: “It could be that the purpose of your life is to serve as a warning to others.” In the same spirit, we should be grateful to James Altucher for publishing I Was Blind But Now I See (CreateSpace, 2011).

His book plays an important role in warning aspiring authors of what can go wrong when you write a book in three days (one of the pieces of advice the author offers for improving your life!), upload it to CreateSpace, and think that there’s merit in sentences like:

“Over time these exercises compound and similar results as I describe will develop. What’s different below from my prior writing on this is the modifications.”

“Money is the most external manifestation of the spirituality that’s the 10th commandment above.”

Altucher’s book (which he calls “my best book ever”) is a bloody mess, if you’ll pardon my French. A hodgepodge that one Amazon reviewer succinctly sums up as having,  “no direction, no structure, is riddled with typos… The entire book is basically an angry rant.”

If only Mr. Altucher had been aware and taken note of freelance editor and literary agent Susan Rabiner’s sage advice from 2002 when she wrote, “A book that knows why it is being written, for whom, and most important what it wants to say is well on its way to successful publication.”

Of course, that was penned back in the days when “gatekeepers” largely determined what got to be published, successfully or otherwise. Now all we’re left with is our own judgment. Which is fine, but here’s a piece of advice:

Know what your book is about before you start writing.

One of the activities I commend to any author before they begin to write is to complete the following sentence: “The question I answer with this book is…” Then, as you gather your material, you can check to see what, if anything, that content contributes. No relevance? Then it’s extraneous to needs!

I have no idea the question that Mr. Altucher posed before cobbling together I Was Blind. He offers us The 10 Commandments of James-ism, essentially diatribes on religion, home ownership, a college education, the US Constitution, the FDA, and the Media, among others. There follows a string of reconstituted blog posts with titles like: Abolish The Presidency, It’s a Useless Job Anyway; 25 Dates Until I Met Claudia (his wife); and Why I Write Books.

I’m fond of that game where you take two or three disparate things and try to find a way to connect them. In the case of this book, I was stumped, although somewhere the author alludes to offering guidance on the meaning and pursuit of happiness.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt so low after reading (well, skim-reading largely) a book, and not because of the subject matter. When I see unsubstantiated claims like, “For every dollar you give to charity about 2 cents a year, give or take, goes to the actual charitable cause you wanted to support,” I suspect the author isn’t one for balanced, thoughtful debate.

My experience while reading I Was Blind was acute embarrassment for the author as much as anything. Mr. Altucher is perfectly at liberty to publish whatever he likes. And, yes, it’s unkind of me to think that the 20 people who’ve written him 5-star reviews on Amazon (many admire his “honesty”) need their heads examining. Some books are like a Rorschach test – one person’s meaning is another person’s ink splodge. But to spew out a stream of consciousness like this and proudly call it a book? I wouldn’t want to. Although take a look and then let me know — would you?

When it comes to the commonly espoused belief that a nonfiction book automatically confers credibility on an author, my feeling has always been maybe, maybe not. After all, surely it depends on whether the book is any good with respect to delivering on its commitment to the reader, and isn’t just a 250-page equivalent of what Steve Jobs called “fart apps.”

When aspiring authors ask for my opinion on what they can do to make their book more credible, my answer is always “research.” Because, as one Harvard Business Review blog post commenter (thanks, Mark Mccarthy, whoever you are!) creatively pointed out in response to an article by a couple of consultants, “…without the research data (this information) could be as useful as a chocolate fireguard.”

Before you go running for the hills at the sound of the “R” word, let me assure you it’s not necessary to go to the lengths of the three co-authors of The Customer Experience Edge: Technology and Techniques for Delivering An Enduring, Profitable, and Positive Experience to Your Customers (McGraw-Hill, 2012).

Having the resources of their employer SAP at their disposal in order to commission an independent study, Reza Soudagar, Vinay Iyer, and Dr. Volker G. Hildebrand might have been expected to come up with a credible book; but not necessarily so. It wasn’t just a question of doing research, but also the kind of deep analysis and organization of material that enables the average reader to immediately “get” the data’s applicability. If that doesn’t happen, all you end up with is another data-heavy, dry textbook yawn-fest.

Let me give you a brief backgrounder to how this book came about, before we look at how to scale-down their approach for the kind of credible book you might write.

The authors had taken notice of IBM’s Global CEO study, which found that getting closer to customers was the number one priority for the executives polled. So they commissioned Bloomberg BusinessWeek to research the topic by surveying their reader base and interviewing companies that had achieved significant transformations through a primary focus on customers. Deciding to weave those findings into a book didn’t strike them until the research was completed, 12 months’ later, co-author Vinay Iyer told me.

What the authors did was to break down that mass of information, extracting four essentials of customer experience: Reliability, Convenience, Responsiveness, and Relevance, which were validated by the real-world responses from 307 director-level and above executives at midsize and large companies. They then mapped these essentials onto three key technology-related areas (they work for SAP, remember) and used specific company examples to show how this framework results in the “customer experience edge.”

What can those of us do, who don’t have the resources to support this kind of large-scale research or want to wait 12 months before getting started on our book?

Why not personally interview a sample of industry or business experts to gather their perspectives about your topic, using that material as a key feature in your book? At the same time you’re gathering advocates to help market the book when it’s published.

Or you could develop a short Wufoo or SurveyMonkey questionnaire, promoting that through your social media channels, to gather relevant data.

Certainly there’s nothing wrong with writing a book based only on your opinion—although preferably if it’s been honed and refined over many years and tested against a wide range of situations. But without the added credibility of research, as the man said, your book could end up as useful to the rest of us as a chocolate fireguard.

Coming Next on Thought Readership: A Legend In Its Own Lunchtime: What A Developmental Editor Could Have Done For This Book!

Thought Readership #2: Er, Who Did You Say You Were?

by Liz Alexander on February 20, 2012

We all know the three pillars of marketing, right? Know, Like, and Trust. Then why do so many non-fiction authors, many of whom intend to use their books as marketing tools, ignore this when they write? They dive straight into their material as if that’s enough for us to trust what they have to say.

Sorry, but it isn’t.

Perhaps such authors think that back cover blurbs or page upon page of “praise” from third parties will do the trick. But that’s like asking me to do business with someone because they’ve come highly recommended, without being able to discover for myself whether we’re a good fit.

Superior nonfiction authors never segregate themselves from their topic.

Mike Figliuolo accomplishes this skillfully in One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach To Powerful, Personal Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2011). This book takes you through a series of provocative questions from which you can express your leadership philosophy – not in a document the size of War and Peace – but on a single sheet of 8.5- x 11-inch paper. And in a way that not only makes that philosophy unique and easy to remember but ensures it more effectively engages your audience.

The “leadership maxims method” that Figliuolo shares was something he says he “stumbled upon” after graduating from West Point and serving in the US Army as a combat arms officer.

To establish his leadership without resorting to meaningless jargon that inspires nothing in no-one, Figliuolo learned to communicate two clear expectations to his soldiers: work hard; be honest. He further developed his approach as a rookie consultant with McKinsey and Co., before launching his own professional services firm specializing in leadership.

It didn’t take me long (by page 10, actually), to get a clear sense of who this author is (know) and to admire his openness and honesty (like). Certainly, the clarity and confidence of his writing style helped engender a sense of trust, but also the way he shared his own development story.

The author could have limited referencing his military career to the dust jacket and simply focused on telling me about his extensive consulting experience. That wouldn’t have been anywhere near as interesting or engaging. To successfully differentiate yourself as an author these days, when so many coaches and consultants are publishing books, it helps to have something to share that goes beyond bog-standard professional knowledge.

For example, in Chapter 6 of One Piece of Paper, Figliuolo explains that one of his maxims (and to get a full appreciation of their power either read the book or someone’s review) is “What would Nana say?” (Nana was his grandmother). He relates the story of how, as a young platoon leader, he discovered his unit had “lost” a tank tool that would have cost $2,600 to replace. But this isn’t the usual whitewashed story; Figliuolo reveals that he didn’t follow Nana’s example of integrity but opted instead “to reinforce a culture in which barter and white-lie extortion were acceptable behaviors.”

It’s that kind of human frailty, and admissions of such, that endear us to others because we recognize the same tendencies in ourselves. That’s what makes the method Figliuolo shares so authentic and motivational.

Know. Like. Trust. That model works for marketing products so why not use it to better engage with your readers? After all, if I don’t know who you are, I can’t determine if I like you or not. When I do, I’m of a mind to forgive authors a heck of a lot more than if they never bothered to introduce themselves at all.

Coming Next on Thought Readership: What’s wrong with “chocolate fireguard” books — and what to do instead.

Stay tuned.