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 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