Thought Readership #3: What’s wrong with “chocolate fireguard” books – and what to do instead

by Liz Alexander on March 12, 2012

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!

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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