I recently had dinner with a friend who ran sales for a major book publisher and asked him what the best business books are.
Him: “Not ours.”
Him: “Not anything explicitly branded as a ‘business book.’ That doesn’t mean that business books can’t be good, but the best business books don’t look like business books.”
Me: “Don’t people pay a lot of money for you guys to put out these books?”
Him: “Yes. And it works even when we put out mediocre books. They put out the books not to put out a good book — the last time a ‘business book’ made it into the mainstream was probably Zero to One — but they put it out to establish themselves as thought leaders in their industry. Imagine if somebody did it well.”
Publishing sucks. And for many people, writing sucks, too. So why would you set out on the publishing path with a stodgy, traditional publisher if you weren’t swinging for the fences and trying to actually tell a real story?
Most business books are the equivalent of dealing with a used-car salesman. You walk into a used car dealership and are immediately approached by the fast-talking man in the checkered sports coat. He immediately starts throwing out numbers and sweet-talking you with ham-fisted attempts at closing you on the car. All the information he presents to you may be accurate and fair but the way in which he’s presenting it just turns you off. You leave feeling like you wish you could get your time back.
Compare this with the masters of sales. Master-salesmen don’t even feel like salesmen. They often come in the form of lecturers and storytellers. You feel the itch at the end of engaging with them. That itch drives you to pick up their next book, to call their company, to schedule an appointment, or to go buy their product. Sure, they may be trying to sell the product but you are buying them and their story. You hunger for more. You look up interviews, podcasts, and articles with them. Their book or talk is a look inside their psychology and they’ve hooked you to yearn for more.
This is how the thought leadership works work. They look like business in name only. They are books of psychology, narrative, action, and philosophy.
How to Develop the Best Thought Leadership Today
There are 5 discernible traits all of the very best business books have. From The Four Hour Workweek to Zero to One to The Hard Thing About Hard Things to The 48 Laws of Power, the books that actually influence lifestyle, culture, and business capture and play on certain narratives that define the human condition.
1. Present an Arc — With a Transformation, a Journey, or a Conflict
The one thing most publishers should take out of hours of drawn-out literature classes is the universality of the narrative arc. There’s an exposition, rising action, a climax, and falling action to a resolution. This structure is universal because anything else is just boring.
But business books that ignore this rule (as many sub-par business books do) suffer a double whammy. Not only is ignoring a narrative arc boring but since the whole idea (in the mind of the consumer) is to learn lessons that can inspire and improve their own work, they want to know how you got to where you are today. People want to know that the playing field was relatively fair and that, if you did it, they could too.
Transformation stories (more on this below) are so popular for this reason. Tony Robbins went from a fat kid in a working class family & working as a janitor to a multi-millionaire in just a few years — but not before losing it all first.
The Hero’s Journey: Tim Ferriss went from unhappy sales development rep to living the four-hour workweek — but not before his online business nearly killed him. He felt the call of adventure in escaping his dreadful job selling mass storage, realized he could hack his job to be much more efficient, realized he could apply these principles to an online business. Then his online business nearly killed him while working 80-hour weeks. He snaps, takes a step back, travels the world, tangos, and the business doesn’t fall apart. He receives the Gift of the Goddess by learning how to apply these principles to different types of lives and different types of businesses.
The conflict narrative is the oldest story structure known to man because it works.
Man vs. Man: Any book that tells the story of one person taking on somebody else. Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power is full of this conflict narrative. Historical characters as diverse as Yellow Kid Weil to Thomas Edison to Talleyrand are couched as going up against others and struggling for power and control. Modern narratives of Company A vs. Company B also works — Facebook versus Myspace, Apple versus Microsoft, Tesla versus Detroit — and presents the narrative in an entertaining fashion.
Man vs. Society: Particularly apt for entrepreneurship and philosophy-based thought leadership, Man vs. Society narratives paint the story of the creator, innovator or writer taking on a world that is against her. Atlas Shrugged captures this narrative well of a small cadre of leaders and workers going up against a society bent on using them for its own ends. Zero to One urges the readers to look for “secrets” that the rest of society has yet to find and to exploit those. Given the nature of secrets, Man has to struggle against conventional wisdom and narrative to find it and will naturally be lonely on this path.
Man vs. Nature: Great for feats of technological prowess or stories of overcoming Mother Nature, Man vs. Nature narratives tell of an individual (or small group of individuals) taking on inhuman forces. Unlike other conflict narratives, this opponent isn’t easily anthropomorphized and is best for analogies of taking on a force totally inhuman or incapable of being reasoned with.
Man vs. Self: Sometimes the biggest obstacle to growth and success is oneself. The Man vs. Self narrative works particularly well for personal development and time management books. You are what is holding you back. Make it clear to the reader that they have it within them to take on this force and that you will provide them with the tools to do so in this book.
Transgression: There are plenty of books out there with objectively fantastic advice for organizing your life and turning your business around but that open immediately with the advice or at the climax. The author built a great business or an efficient life but gives little glimpse into what the path to building it was like. Not only is the reader bored by the entirety of the book being falling-action (or no action at all!) but their thirst for fairness and justice makes them second-guess the applicability of the content in the book. By leaving out your arc, you undermine otherwise useful information, bore the reader, and destroy opportunity to create rapport.
2. Give the Readers Incentive to Read, Deliver Obvious Value
The reason somebody picks up any kind of thought leadership story is to learn something and to apply it. You can have the best narrative arc in the world — your life may be the Hero’s Journey — but if you don’t give them reason to read past the title, your story will go mostly unconsumed. If they just wanted a narrative, they’d go read a piece of fiction.
You must deliver obvious value to them and give them an incentive to keep reading. This goes beyond promising a great outcome (more on that below) and goes towards understanding the psychology of the reader. People judge books by their covers and titles and you can get an idea of the kind of person who will pick up your book based on the title. “The devil exists in the whitespace on your calendar,” is a phrase most readers of The Four Hour Workweek would balk at but one that inspires somebody who picks up Be Obsessed or Be Average (from which the quotation is taken).
Here are some simple steps to deliver value to readers and guaranteeing that they’ll keep reading:
- Understand your audience. Know why they want to pick up your work.
- Flip the script. If they want to move towards working less, know that they want to move away working more. If they want to move towards systematizing their business, know that they want to move away from working in the business. If they want to move towards earning more, know they want to move away from living paycheck-to-paycheck.
- Paint a dark picture of ignoring your advice. Don’t be a jerk about it, but let the reader know that ignoring your advice could mean continuing on the path they live now. Compound what that looks like and make it clear that that’s something they don’t want. Most people are more motivated to avoid something bad than to achieve a promised land, so start here and milk this to the best of your ability.
- Paint a bright picture of heeding your advice. Now that the reader knows what happens if they put your work down, give them something bright to work towards. Your title should be part of this hook, but now you have an opportunity to elaborate on the bright future you provide.
3. Paint a Transformative Conclusion and Give them a Promised Land
Now that you’ve got them hooked and knowing you can provide something better, paint a compelling, transformative conclusion to applying your ideas. Paint a Promised Land.
When Moses led the Jews out of Egypt, he motivated them with a picture of a land where they were not merely not slaves but were masters. They had to traverse through a desert with little to sustain them but knew that, should they get to the end, they will be in a better place than they started. Even more, the landscape had transformed behind them after they started their journey. The pathway that had led them out of Egypt was flooded and return was not an option.
You must do the same. After delivering value to your reader and showing them that return to Egypt should never be an option, give them something to strive for through the reading. Paint a picture as vividly as you can. Give your readers something with which to empathize and engage their imaginations. Let them move from the realm of their fears into your world of opportunity.
Here are some tools you can use:
Role Modeling, by using examples of people who have followed this advice and lived out the Promised Land. The more they are like your target demographic, the better. The 48 Laws of Power and MASTERY by Robert Greene both use this tactic well by looking at specific characters from history who applied the ideas in the book to achieve power and mastery.
Nostalgia, by playing on a bright picture from the past. Zero to One laments that “we wanted flying cars and got 140 characters.” Nostalgia is a powerful Promised Land tool, too, because it combines the negative leverage of the fact that we haven’t achieved our goals with the positive value of the picture painted in the past.
Fantasy and Myth are the original storytelling tools. They’ve lasted so long because they work well. Nassim Taleb uses fantasy and myth for examples throughout his best-seller, Antifragile. This works particularly well if you are appealing to a highly educated demographic who will be familiar with classical texts.
4. Give Clear Action Items and Make Reading Feel Worthwhile
Clear action items need not be a checklist or a worksheet. Action items come in many forms — tools for self-improvement, thought experiments, mental models, and mantras by which to live — and run the gambit from explicit business content to self-help to philosophy.
What form these action items take depends on knowing your audience. If your book is titled Escape 9–5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich (Four Hour Workweek), then you’re readers expect much more solid and concrete action items than a book subtitled Notes on Startups, Or How to Build the Future (Zero to One).
If your readership is expecting something more abstract, give them mental models and psychological tools for thinking about the subject matter in your work. Charts and graphs are fantastic tools for concretizing abstractions.
If your work isn’t even explicitly a “business” work, you can still do this well. 48 Laws of Power presents each law with stories affirming and transgressing the law and then boils down the lessons of the law in a “Keys to Power” section. This provides easy-to-apply thinking for readers to glean from the content.
Any piece of content is an act of give-and-take. Consumers give their time and expect something in exchange. If your “something” is hidden in abstractions and deep within paragraphs of stories without being distilled, do not be surprised when the completion rate is dismally low.
5. Don’t Feel Bound to a Formula / Treat Your Thought Leadership as A Startup
Formulaic content is the worst.
All successful content has something in common, but that doesn’t mean that we can just plug what you want into a machine and generate something original, engaging, and empathic (yet…). Readers know what you follow a formula. If you try to push something out the door in a rush or just to get something out there, you resort to the path-of-least-resistance, which is often formulaic. You can start with a basic outline but be ready and nimble to pivot based on feedback.
Take a lesson from the startup world:
Test, test, test.
Use beta readers. Get your content out there early. Get feedback. Understand what works. Do less of what doesn’t.
Engage an email list. Publish on a prominent platform (like The Mission!). Teach classes and give lectures on the topic. Run a podcast interviewing people on the topic.
Write, publish, test, pivot. Use more than an editor. Editor’s don’t have skin in the game to make the content the best it can be. Those who enjoy your work have an incentive — to enjoy it and get their money’s worth! — so rely on them more than you do an editor for real content feedback.
The Best Thought Leadership is Not Just Timeless … It’s Antifragile
Thought leadership is more than just putting out a lot of blog posts and going on a few interviews. Interviews rarely age well. Podcasts and blogs come and go. Books are one of the few media that have proven, time and time again, to be timeless.
The thought leaders who put out books choose to do so not because of something inherently more valuable in a book but because the book is the perfect centerpiece for blog posts, articles, interviews, speaking engagements, and is a fantastic piece of collateral to send to high profile individuals whom you are trying to court.
The publishing process has typically been a nightmare, though. Editors have little skin in the game and publishers take people for a ride while putting the book out there. Authors think that traditional publishers will drive “exposure” for them but that’s rarely the case as publishers leave authors to mostly coast on their own reputations and then deprive them of using valuable tools like Amazon Marketing Services.
That’s why we’re excited to offer thought leadership services through The Mission: evergreen stories helping readers improve their health, wealth, and wisdom are our specialty.
We will help you craft your narrative, paint your journey, deliver value to readers, and set yourself apart as a leader in your industry. We have skin in the game, want to help you succeed, and want to create the best content on the web. Imagine publishing that is a pleasure — that’s working with The Mission.