If you’re contemplating writing a business book, that’s great. There are three fundamental rules to making it work, which I covered in my previous post. Here’s a quick reminder: 1. Clarity beats brilliance. 2. Promote your ideas, not your business. 3. Authenticity trumps authority.
If you’re done contemplating, if you’re now ready to write that book, put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, or voice to recording machine, there are three more things you must think about if you want to turn your thoughts into a great book.
The three keys to making a good book great:
- Keep it conversational.
- Keep it moving.
- Find the right shoe.
Let me explain.
1. Keep it conversational: Unless you’re writing a business case study or textbook, your book’s tone should be informal, much like a conversation. A conversational tone engages the reader and creates an unconscious sense in the reader’s mind that they’re being directly spoken to, one on one. Your goal is to entertain and inform and inspire—in as few words as possible, and as simply as possible—just like a friend. Don’t make your readers work. Do the work for them and they will reward you for your efforts. And keep it simple.
“Our life is frittered away by detail,” Thoreau wrote. “Simplify, simplify.” The editors at Time understood this. They instructed their writers to write to readers at no higher than a grade 8 level. Einstein took it a step further when he noted that “if you can’t explain [something] to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”
2.Keep it moving: No matter how well your book opens, no matter how great your ideas, your book must have a clear destination and the impetus to get there as fast as possible. The key to keeping a book moving is to create a structure and storylines and an overarching theme that keeps things on track and builds momentum through conflict and tension. Storylines are the events of the book; they are the energy that propels readers forward. Theme is the meaning behind the events in the book and reminds readers why they’re reading it.
Structure is the spine of the book. In its simplest form, it is the table of contents. But it is much more than that. Most readers only glance at the table of contents before diving in; whereas writers might spend days and weeks constructing it before beginning the actual writing. If you study the table of contents of successful non-fiction books chances are you’ll begin to see how the scaffolding works to hold everything together.
3.Find the right shoe: Writing is a process of discovery. But before you begin that process, before you settle on the right tone, before you create a structure that pins everything together, there’s something you must do first. Find the right shoe. I left this until last because it’s the most challenging step and the most personal one. If you want your book to engage readers, you need to put yourself in their shoes—which means you have to figure out what kind of shoes they’re wearing. As noted in my previous post, business books come in all shapes and sizes. Here are the most popular ones:
- How-to (The 7 Habits of Effective People)
- Case study (Good to Great)
- Exposé (The Big Short)
- Theory (The Innovator’s Dilemma)
- Big idea (The Power of Why)
- Allegory (Who Moved My Cheese)
- Business novel (The Goal)
- Memoir (Shoe Dog)
- Biography (Steve Jobs)
That’s a lot of different shoes. Which one’s right for you? The short answer is: The one that’s most comfortable.
What kind of book do you want to write? is a question I ask early on because it focuses the book and prevents us from slipping down the rabbit hole.
What kind of book you should write ultimately depends on three things: One, the type of industry or business you’re in. Two, the audience you wish to present it to. Three, the kind of form you want your book to take (see the nine forms of business books above.) Keep in mind, you can write any kind of book you want, there are no hard and fast rules, but you have to start somewhere. Here are some examples to help guide you in making a decision. (Please note, for space reasons I’ve limited the examples to four: personal finance, leadership, success and sales.) Even if none of these applies to you, they should help crystallize your thinking a bit.
Are you writing a financial book? Let’s say you’re a wealth manager or head a financial advisory firm. If so, your goal could be to increase your visibility (and credibility) by writing a helpful, non-promotional book targeted at potential and current high net worth clients. If that’s the case, you might consider writing either a how-to or a business novel. The how-to could be, for example, about a worry-free way to retire happy, or it could be about showcasing a new approach to building wealth in bull and bear markets. Or something else. If you chose to write a business novel (I do not recommend this if you’re a neophyte writer) you could create a cast of characters and put them in unique situations and conflicts that illustrate the points you’re trying to make.
Are you writing a leadership book? Perhaps you’re a CEO or a successful entrepreneur and you’ve built one or a series of companies and you want to share insights and lessons learned with a larger audience. If you’re a celebrity entrepreneur, your audience could be anyone, not just business readers. If you’re not as well known, however, you’ll need some sort of angle or hook to appeal to the business reader. For example, you might have made your millions despite never finishing high school. Or you might have fallen in with the wrong crowd and only found success after years behind bars. Or you did things that no one else did, and you want to tell us why they worked. Books like these always find an audience. But other hooks work as well.
Are you writing a sales book? Every one of us sells something in one form or another—the art of persuasion is not confined to the workplace, and each of us would like to be better at it. That said, if you’re a successful salesperson or consultant, for example, people are always looking to pick up new tips and techniques. Your book might be targeted at corporate salespeople, or it might be focused on selling to consumers. In either case, your book might generally fall into the how-to category. There are thousands of sales books out there, but how-to sales books that offer a fresh new perspective are always popular. Have you considered the allegory category? It’s much less common, which might make it an even more powerful alternative (provided you can pull it off).
Are you writing a success book? Motivational books never go out of style for a simple reason: the vast majority of readers want to improve their lot in life, even those who are successful. They either want to get out of a rut and change the way they do things, or they want to become even more successful. Business self-help books are written by entrepreneurs and business leaders and consultants in every industry, and what they have in common is they’ve carved out a unique niche or they’ve turned around a company and they want to share their wisdom with a larger audience. These kinds of books can be written in a variety of formats, from how-to to personal memoir to big idea to allegory to case study. Because the goal is to inspire through deep personal experience, they’re almost all written in narrative form.
Why do people write?
Why do people write books? Why do people write at all? Because writing helps us do three powerful things:
- Writing helps us articulate our thoughts in ways we couldn’t possibly do verbally. We always look smarter on the page than in the transcript. If you don’t believe me, just record a phone conversation (with permission) and read out a transcript of the conversation you’ve just finished. You’ll be appalled at how primitive you both appear. (The first time I tried it, it took me days to get over the shock.)
- Writing helps us go deeper than we would in conversation because writing is a process of discovery. Very few writers truly know exactly what they’re going to say before they start writing. This process of discovery is why writers write. Writing allows us to travel paths we never thought possible because new thoughts emerge as we write. (Note: structure keeps us from going down the wrong paths.)
- Writing helps us become more authentic. In retelling our experiences, we begin to realize how much of life is a struggle; that whatever success we now enjoy is the end result of frustration and hardship overcome through hard work and soul searching. For the vast majority of us, life isn’t peaches and cream, and we write and read to not feel so alone.
Forbes interviewed a billionaire named Clay Mathile back in 2011. He was asked what kinds of books he reads and I was fascinated when this highly successful man replied that his favourite books are about people who struggle. Why? Because he struggled for years and “because entrepreneurs are always struggling.”
If you’re ready to write your book, there’s never been a better time. People struggle. It’s part of life. That’s why they’re always searching for the truth, whatever that truth may be. And books offer that truth. Is it time to discover your own? If so, it’s time to start writing.