Business books are stories. Here’s how to write one.

Most business books are boring because there are no people — just endless rambling on about strategy. You need people and stories to make them come alive.

I wrote my first business book proposal in 2005. It was for a book called “The End of TV as We Know It,” and it reflected my decade of research on changes in the television industry, much which had been published in research reports at Forrester Research. It was, basically, a long and well argued research report about the future of television.

My agent Ike Williams, whom I had inherited from another author at Forrester, sent the proposal back. “It’s not a business book,” he told me.

“Why not?” I asked. I was upset. I had poured all my considerable insight into a strategy book on a timely and exciting topic, and I had a great title. What could possibly be missing?

“Business books are about people and stories,” he told me. “Your book proposal has no people and no stories.”

That one piece of advice completely changed my career.

Stories, I thought. I can tell stories. And I can find people — I know plenty of people whose stories would make sense in this book. So I resolved to write books made of people and stories, although I had never done that before.

It worked. Not for that book which, alas, got rejected by all 13 publishers that considered it. But for the next book, Groundswell, and for all the books I wrote and edited after that.

The best opener I ever read

This is the beginning of Chapter 1 of Harley Manning and Kerry Bodine’s customer experience book Outside In, which I edited. Harley wrote this opener. I just read it and said “Wow.” It became the opening of their proposal, which sold for a big advance, and the opener of their book:

Chapter 1: You Need Your Customers More Than They Need You

Kevin Peters sat alone in his car in the rain, watching the entrance of an Office Depot store. He was wearing a baseball cap and well-worn pair of jeans.

Over the course of the last hour he’d watched one customer after another emerge from the store. None of them carried a shopping bag. On their way out, they walked past an Office Depot employee leaning against a wall under the awning, smoking a cigarette out of the rain.

Kevin was torn. On the one hand, he didn’t want anyone to know he was there. As the president of Office Depot’s North American retail division, he’d come to this parking lot in New Jersey on a gray, dreary day to get a firsthand look at how customers experienced one of his stores. His method, already followed at dozens of other locations, was to observe customers coming and going . . .

How can you not be sucked into that? What did Kevin Peters learn and what does it mean for me? And what happened to the guy smoking in the rain? (The answer is quite surprising, actually.)

How to write a business book chapter

Chapter 1 of a business strategy book has to lay out the premise, and often starts with a sort of cri de coeur — but sometimes with a story. First chapters vary.

But the rest of the chapters, in my experience, are similar in structure. Here’s how I write them. (Obviously this is a template or schema, not a real chapter).

Chapter X: An insight about strategy

Business person (whom we’ll call “BP”) was upset. BP had a problem.

BP decided to do things differently.

It wasn’t easy. BP’s colleagues were all used to doing things the old way. So BP had to get clever and canny/start small/find out more.

BP’s company/department tried to do thing BP’s way. They immediately learned something new. It was encouraging.

BP measured the result. Amazing statistic: x% increase in sales/decrease in costs/increase in leads/decrease in time to market.

Management realized that BP was onto something. They tried it different places. They learned something important: counterintuitive insight.

Counterintuitive insight

You can learn from BP. Because counterintuitive insight.

Here’s why counterintuitive insight is true.

Here’s why it’s hard to get people to see. But you can see it.

Statistic that supports counterintuitive insight.

Paragraph about how somebody else does it. (Not about Apple — Apple examples prove nothing, because no company is like Apple.)

Structure for thinking about counterintuitive insight

This is a new way of thinking.

Here’s a diagram about how to think about it (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Two-by-two matrix, flowchart with boxes and arrows, venn diagram or something similar

Now you can see how this applies. Breakdown.

  • How it applies in one industry, department, or type of company.
  • How it is different in another industry, department, or type of company.
  • Continue like this.

One of the problems is additional challenge. That’s what other business person (OBP) had to deal with

OBP’s challenge

OBP had a problem. He solved it just like BP did.

But things were different for OBP, because OBP was in a different industry/department/type of company.

OBP’s story, with revealing details and statistics

The key insight about this

As you can see from OBP’s story, it’s not so simple. But the same principles apply.

Think differently about strategic insight. Measure your results. Convince your colleagues.

It won’t be easy. But the world is changing, and you have to change. So it will be worth it.

Want to write a chapter like this? Here’s what to do.

The first step is not to write. Instead, do three things:

  1. Figure out what the main point of the chapter is. What do you want to prove? What is the “strategic insight”? Keep that clear in your mind as you do everything else to create this chapter. That point should support the point of the book (the book has a point, I hope) and extend it.
  2. Determine what case studies will prove that point. Then line up those interviews. Make sure to get evocative details you can include (like what Kevin Peters was wearing, and what he was thinking). Remember, case study interviews take a while to set up.
  3. Flesh out the main point of the chapter with insights and structure. The material between the case studies should drive home that point. That means working out the elements of the insight — the sequence, the structure, and the sub-points. What’s the framework for explaining that? That’s the rest of the chapter.

If you’ve done that prep work, completed the interviews, and done Web research to back up your points, you’ll have all the ingredients to write a chapter. I gave you the formula. So go do it!

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