When I read a nonfiction book it gets mentally shelved—in terms of how well it engages me from page one—as “truly dreadful,” “worthy but boring,” or “absorbing: do not disturb.” These are what I call my “three tiers.”
Tier three typically is populated by self-published “go it alone” authors whose books are little more than poorly organized streams of consciousness. Certainly not the place any self-respecting professional would want their book to reside. So far I’ve been lucky enough never to buy one of these, although I’m frequently “gifted” quite a few.
Tier two is the home of many respectable business books. Well-written, reasonably organized, nevertheless you’re inclined to put them down within the first few pages (if you even get that far). The problem? The writing lacks any kind of engaging quality.
It’s often the case that when a first-time author begins to write, they fall into what I call “text book” mode. They’re so earnest about telling you what you need to know that they overlook what Tier One authors know about crafting compelling books. (Which is why, even though Tier Two books may sell reasonably well with a lot of marketing effort, they’re rarely going to hit the big time).
Authors who approach me, who have already written part or all of their book, tend to fall into the Tier two category 🙁
Top tier books pique our interest right from the get-go. They largely do that in several ways that you can emulate, depending on the topic of your book and the style you’re most comfortable with. All of them highlight the approach of “showing” rather than “telling,” which is the hallmark of superior communication.
The first set of examples drop readers right into the middle of a compelling story, as these authors have done:
When he woke up on May 1, 2007, Kevin Rose had no idea he was about to have the most interesting day of his life, courtesy of an uprising of his own customers. Groundswell, Charlene Li & Josh Bernoff, 2011, HBR Press.
A large division of a Fortune 50 company experienced sales growth from zero to $100 million in eighteen months. The executives weren’t quite sure why they had grown so quickly; they were concerned that the business could vanish just as fast. Harnessing the Power of Project Management, Wes Balakian, 2009, Brown Books.
In the dense fog of a dark night in October 1707, Great Britain lost nearly an entire fleet of ships. There was no pitched battle at sea. The admiral, Clowdisley Shovell, simply miscalculated his position in the Atlantic and his flagship smashed into the rocks of the Scilly Isles, a tail of islands off the southwest coast of England. First, Break All the Rules, Marcus Buckingham & Curt Coffman, 1999, Simon & Schuster.
Three very different stories, spanning more than a decade—all of them page-turners. And the advantage of gripping your readers at the beginning of the book is that you’ll have earned their forgiveness if you need to expose them to heavier material later. Just be sure that your story directly relates, and leads seamlessly, to the overall theme of your book.
But there are other ways to open your business book, such as painting a very clear picture, phrased in highly motivational terms:
Imagine being able to explain your leadership philosophy on one piece of paper—a simple 8.5 by 11-inch summation of all you are and all you want to be as a leader. How powerful would it be to have a discussion about that single page with the members of your team? One Piece of Paper, Mike Figliuolo, 2011, Jossey-Bass.
Imagine that a friend has invited you to accompany her to an invitation-only special event. You arrive and approach the door, surprised to find a red velvet rope stretched between two shiny brass poles. A nicely dressed man asks your name, checking his invitation list. Finding your name there, he flashes a wide grin and drops one end of the rope, allowing you to pass through and enter the party. You feel like a star. Book Yourself Solid, Michael Port, 2006, John Wiley & Sons.
The best-known thoughtleaders of today are megastars. You see them on the covers of their books; you see them on TV. They are quoted and profiled and spotlighted incessantly—not just in the business pages of newspapers and magazines, but in gossip columns and society pages and on celebrity TV newsmagazines as well. They are beyond famous—they are gargantuan glitterati, celebrated personalities, ubiquitous, razzle-dazzle, neon-escent. The Expert’s Edge, Ken Lizotte, 2008, McGraw-Hill.
The authors of these books are going to show you how to craft a compelling leadership philosophy one a single piece of paper; attract more of the clients you want; and become a thoughtleader. After reading each of their Chapter One openings, I’m excited enough to gladly continue my reading journey with them. Do you feel similarly?
Finally, you could do what these co-authors have done and establish empathy with the reader’s key issue—the reason why they’re reading your book in the first place. In this example you’re seeing another picture painted that compels you to nod your head in agreement:
Everyone has a customer experience horror story. The cable company technician who never shows up. The parts supplier that you have to call repeatedly for an update on a spare part order. The support person who cannot help you with your billing question, even after you have waited on hold for an hour. The building materials supplier whose late delivery costs you thousands of dollars in lost labor and causes you project delays. The Customer Experience Edge, Soudagar, Iyer & Hildebrand, McGraw-Hill, 2012.
It’s probably no surprise to hear that human beings have an innate response to stories. Novelists, filmmakers, and playwrights have leveraged this for eons. Take a leaf out of their book (pardon the pun!). No matter what picture you are painting in your readers’ minds when they turn to Chapter One of your book, make it vivid, intriguing, and relevant to your topic.
Most of us have had enough of textbooks in college. Don’t make the mistake of writing your book in that vein. Especially if you have aspirations to be a thought leader, a title others attribute to you–you don’t give to yourself. That won’t happen if your book is so tedious we stop reading at page one.
- What business books do you think do a fabulous job of engaging you right off the bat?
- How might you embed this learning into all your written communications? How compelling, for example, are the beginnings of your white papers, articles, or even blog posts?