How to write a business book your readers will actually want to read
If all you want to do is write a business book, the statistics suggest that it is easy. After all, tens of thousands of people publish business books every single year. But, like actors, less than 5% of the growing multitude who claim the title of ‘author’ become celebrated, reviewed or held in high regard. The majority settle for being extras, shelf-decoration, mild claims-to-fame, or at best a lowly representation of a once glamorous dream.
You see, most business books today were never intended to be read. They were only ever designed to be a fancy business card or to justify placing ‘published author’ in a LinkedIn profile. Most business books are also-rans.
But what if someone of influence, a person whose opinion could impact a career, read one of these cheap books? What impression of its author’s true talent would they garner from its pages? Would they beckon that person to accompany them down a red carpet or to grace the silver screen?
Write a business book that your readers will read, reread and recommend
There are five key areas to consider when setting out to write an influential business book. Unsurprisingly, they mirror the basic stages of any marketing endeavour:
- Who: work out the distinct identity of your perfect audience – then pinpoint the questions your readers would like answered and the value that they might want from your story
- Why: engage with your own heart and write down exactly why you want to write this book and what it means to you personally (do not underestimate the importance of this stage of the process)
- What: unpack all the expertise, stories (yours and others), evidence, wisdom, education and thought leadership that you want to share with your perfect audience
- Plan: create the story or structure that will connect what your readers want to know with the riches that you have to share with them – this is where your why meets theirs (see stage 2 above)
- Write: break your plan down into small manageable chunks – parts, chapters, sections, and seeds – then design and commit to an achievable writing timetable – and stick to it
Three important notes on writing:
Style and why: your writing style should be flavoured by the reason that you want to write your book in the first place. That is the only way to make it reflect your personality and show that you are an authority in your field. Unless each page is laced with authenticity how will anyone know that you believe in what you are writing about and you know your audience? Connection is credibility!
Ability and syntax: I believe that everybody can write and those who worry that they can’t do so under the shadow of red pen-marks from long-gone perfectionist English teachers. If you can think, feel, empathise or speak your mind, you can write a compelling story. This absolute truth is best described in words attributed to two of the greatest writers to ever handle a quill:
Ernest Hemingway penned the line, “writing is easy – all you do is open a vein and bleed.” I call this free-flow or think-to-ink. Whereas Mark Twain wrote, “writing is easy – all you have to do is cross out the wrong words.” You can think of this as editing – and the good news is that someone who knows the rules can do that for you.
Books and pamphlets: going back to my earlier observation about how a publication represents an author’s qualities, reputation or brand. Most business books are around 35,000 words in length, and that is generally what you will need to create a substantial book that will look the part on the shelf. There is nothing wrong with writing a shorter piece of work (and clear and concise is certainly a smarter strategy than filler and fluff) but calling a pamphlet a book might also create the wrong impression. There are ways to market shorter books well, and classics such as The One Minute Manager, Who Moved My Cheese and The Lazy Optimist demonstrate this perfectly. But, while you can’t always tell a book by its cover, rightly or wrongly, most people will make an assumption.
Why most business books are boring
If you are anything like me, you will have a shelf full of business books lining your office wall – most of which you have barely got halfway through reading. There is one reason why most business books are boring and are cast aside causing an unseemly dent in the credibility of the author. These books are poor in a variety of ways, but there is only one ‘reason’ they fail to deliver. They have no story or structure to create that genuine reader-author connection that all good books (of any genre) are built upon!
If you go back to the five key secrets to writing a business book that will capture your reader’s ears (as summarised earlier), there is one of them that holds the others together. The four ‘Ws’ are massively important (Who, Why, What and Write) but it is the ‘P’ which becomes the glue, the magic dust and the difference between dull or distinctive. If you do not have a Plan, specifically one which is designed around a story, you are in danger of writing another boring business book.
If you care whether people read your book and believe that its author is someone worth listening to, believing in, or paying a premium fee to answer their ‘whys’, you must have a story-based plan.
The perfect Book Plan
People love stories. Whether they are verbal, written, visual or experienced first-hand (ironically the latter is often the least appealing) people love to get lost in a good story. And because a well-told story is such an emotive and engaging experience, it is when people are most open to learning, believing, connecting with and buying into the storyteller’s ideas or inspiration. The only way to truly get across your message is by telling it in stories.
All stories follow a framework or storyline. They have a beginning, an ending and a conclusion. They introduce you to their characters, plots, twists, turns, intrigue, romance, adventure, secrets, sadness and joy. And they should hold your hand and take you through their pages, as a friend or a fellow-traveller on a quest to see what delights you will find as you go.
Why should a business book be any different to a good story? Surely, if you want to share something of value with your readers, there is no better way? If you are in a position to be thinking about writing a business book, then I would have to assume that you are an expert in your subject – that you have been there and done that – well that sounds like the start of a good story to me.
Why are you writing a business book?
As I alluded to earlier. If you miss out the ‘why do you want to write a business book’ section of your planning, you are missing out on the key to turning your book into something worthy of your expertise. Your story should be flavoured by your connection with your material and the pain, sweat and years that you invested in getting to where you are today. If you don’t value that journey – no one else will. If you are not proud of what you have achieved – no one else will care either. And if you cannot tell your story with heart and soul – why would anyone else listen?
Your book plan should be the seamless fusion of the things that you want to teach and the reason that you are the right person to tell that story. Perhaps it might look a little bit like this:
- Introduction: a summary of who you are, who the book is for, why it exists and what to expect from its pages
- Chapter One: Things were different then… background to the subject matter (yours and/or generally)
- Chapter Two: Challenges and champions… first experiences and early influences that shaped your story
- Chapter Three: Foundation principles… a break from the narrative to establish your first key point
- Chapter Four: What Google taught me… drop in your connection with a celebrity (business or person) story
- Chapter Five: Learning while earning… go back to your story and your first big breakthrough
- Chapter Six: If you do one thing today… expanding the big win from your story with practical advice
- Chapter Seven: When plans go missing… lay your heart on the line here and describe a low point
- Chapter Eight: Fighting back from the brink… the victorious conclusion of the previous chapter
- Chapter Nine: This is your generation… prove to readers that following your strategy will work for them too
- Chapter Ten: Seven steps to mastery… lay out a step-by-step plan that your readers can follow
- Conclusion: the final challenge, invitation, summary or pulling together of all the loose ends
Clearly, the above structure would require fairly long chapters of around 3500 words each – and is just meant as an example of a story-driven plan. Generally, I would recommend a larger number of shorter chapters as experience suggests that readers prefer to digest smaller chunks and the transition between stories and practical summaries or education is smoother. This style also gives you more opportunities to establish a pace and rhythm that might help generate the magical ‘just one more chapter’ response that every storyteller is looking for. (And ‘yes’ why wouldn’t you want that from a business book?)
There are many other elements to writing your business book as a compelling story, some of which I will cover in other posts, but without the structure in place first, they are immaterial. Before leaving this part of this post, however, I would encourage you to study the chapter structure above once more. Compare its elements to some of your favourite adventure stories – a hero, a calling, outside help or mentors, struggles and doubts, overcoming, victories and the final triumphant return. Basic story elements and formula, like these, have won hearts for millennia and still hold the key to capturing them today. Add a little intrigue, a few surprises and a handful of magic dust, and you’ll have people queuing up for signed copies at your big red-carpet launch.
The alternative to writing your business book as a story
If you don’t agree with the storytelling model of writing a business book, as described above, then there is an alternative approach (although to be honest, if stories do not engage you, I’d be amazed if you’d even continued to read this far). The other way to write a business book is to imitate the textbooks that you were forced to read at school. That’s right – the ones overfilled with repetitive facts and figures that were designed to make you study hard and spend hours revising to even get a handle on what they mean.
If that is what you want to do, please go and reread the first of my key areas again – the one about ‘understanding what your reader wants’ before starting to plan your book. Because we all know how most successful entrepreneurs and business owners excelled at school and were rarely pulled aside for daydreaming about higher endeavours, don’t we? Go on, tell a story – give your audience what they want.
What are you waiting for? Make a plan and enjoy the journey.