I work on a certain kind of business book. It’s about a shift in the world, and the shift in strategy that companies and people need to make in response. There is a best way to write a book like that, and Jay Baer and Daniel Lemin’s Talk Triggers is the best example I’ve seen in a long while.
I am not talking about impassioned screeds or talky books that make you feel good. I’m not talking about business memoirs or basic how-to books. Those are all either entertaining or useful, but while they may make you feel good, or make you more productive, they won’t change the trajectory of your company.
I’m talking about the book that tells you that the world is not the way it used to be, describes the new state of the world, and tells you what to do about it.
In this post, I’ll describe all the things a book like that has to do, why you should do them, and how Talk Triggers does all of those things very well. It is the platonic ideal of the kind of book you should be writing if you want people to see some insight that you have had and act on it.
ROAM for business books
The are four things you need to know before you write anything: Readers, Objective, Action, iMpression. That’s ROAM. For a business book, here’s what they are:
Readers. Typically managers, directors, and executives of companies. A business book may narrow that down — for example, appealing to marketing executives, or executives in life sciences companies. But recognize that an audience like this is impatient, wants to see proof, and has the power to make decisions that matter.
Objective. Get that set of readers to recognize that the world is different from what they thought in a significant way.
Action. Follow a plan to take advantage of that shift.
iMpression. Admire the author, become a fan, and spread the word.
What’s in the ideal business book
With this set of characteristics in mind, we can analyze the elements of this kind of business book.
A title and subtitle that represent an idea
In an ideal business book, the title is a memorable phrase that connects to an important idea in the book. It is your brand. The subtitle has to be sufficiently explanatory that you’d want to read more.
Talk Triggers is about the things that companies do that make people want to share positive word of mouth about the company. It’s ideal to have a special word that encapsulates your idea and is easily understandable (“The Tipping Point,” “The Long Tail,” “Groundswell”). Baer and Lemin did this.
Their subtitle is The Complete Guide to Creating Customers with Word of Mouth. This is easy to understand and attractive. Now you know what you’re about to read.
A first chapter that rocks your world
Chapter 1 is crucial. It has to introduce an idea, make it compelling, tell some stories, and suggest what’s coming. It has to set the hook.
And you don’t want to attenuate its impact with introductions and prefaces.
Baer and Lemin start Chapter 1 with the story of the Cheescake Factory’s talkably long 5,940-word menu, and show how it is crucial in spreading word of mouth for the restaurant chain. They prove their case with consumer survey statistics and social media posts about the menu. They then explain why word of mouth is crucial in a short but compelling section, and continue with the story of DoubleTree and their warm cookie. The whole thing takes 20 pages including graphics.
There’s a foreword, but it’s only three pages long. It’s there to get a bit of endorsement from big name Ted Wright of Fizz.
This is the right way to start a book.
Three to five magic words
A good business book has magic words and acronyms that bolster the main idea and subsidiary ideas. These are the things you describe in the speech or write on a postcard — they are the touchstones for readers as they understand and implement the ideas in the book.
In addition to the title, Talk Triggers features “Same is Lame,” The 4-5-6 System, and The Triangle of Awesome. That’s four powerful ideas with clever names, and that’s about the right number. Three is ok, so is five. But if you have only one or two ideas, you don’t have a book, you have an article. If you have ten, no one will be able to keep track.
The small but powerful set of ideas support the Objective in ROAM — it tells you what to think. It also supports the Action — it tells you what to do.
A business book should speak directly to the reader in clear terms. There are variations, but the tone is consistent. It should be in active voice with lots of commands (“Do this, don’t do that.”) It should not be academic or filled with impenetrable jargon and sentences intended to impress. The most important word is “you.”
When I write, ghostwrite, or edit, I strive for this tone. Others have told me this is a mistake — every writer needs their own voice. That may be true, but the voice of a business writer is a smart person with an idea telling you what to do, and there is an ideal way to do this.
Here’s an excerpt that shows the tone in Baer and Lemin’s writing:
Being remarkable is so effective that it encourages people to talk about you even when those same people fervently believe being remarkable has no impact. This is like a Michael Jackson impersonator disavowing Michael Jackson as a stylistic influence; he may believe it to be true, but his behavior indicates othewise. . . . So don’t be afraid of the skeptics. They might say that they don’t like you, but they’ll still talk about you — even when your product isn’t flashy.
This is not stuffy. It is hard to ignore. It is a coach telling you to get moving, and why. And it is persuasive.
Why are there chapters in your book? They can’t just be a convenient way to divide up the babbling you’re doing. They need to make sense. That takes structure.
In the ideal business book, after you’ve laid out the idea in Chapter 1, you explain it in a short chapter or two, then explain the elements of it in the parts and chapters that follow. That gives the reader an idea of what they are reading, how it fits into the whole story, and what’s coming.
Baer and Lemin structure their book around The 4-5-6 System.
Section 2 is about the four talk triggers requirements: remarkable, relevant, reasonable, and repeatable. (The four R’s make it easier to remember.)
Section 3 is about the five types of talk triggers. Section 4 is about the six steps you need to follow.
There’s a cute graphic that they carry through the book to keep you in touch with where you are in The 4-5-6 System.
Notice also how this structure carries you through the story. After you complete the “requirements” section you have a set of criteria. In the next section, you figure out what kind of trigger you want. And in the section on the steps, you see a systematic process to suggest some triggers, evaluate them, test them, and socialize them with your management. It’s a complete set of instructions, but not pedantic.
Compelling and diverse case studies
Business books are stories. They must include descriptions of people and how they solved problems. We need people to identify with. This means you really need case studies if you are going to succeed. Ideally, those case studies come from first-person interviews with the principals you are describing.
In addition to Cheesecake Factory and DoubleTree, Talk Triggers includes case studies from a lumber company, a bank, a locksmith, a theme park, a software company, another chain of hotels, another restaurant chain, Penn & Teller, a collection agency, and an oral surgeon. And a bunch more.
The case studies make the book relatable. You read what they did and think “I could do that.” And the diversity means you’re more likely to find somebody like you, whether you’re a dentist, a car repair shop, or a software company.
What do you know that nobody else knows? It had better be something interesting, or else why should we listen to you?
The best way to gain that knowledge — and to prove it is not just an interesting story — is to do primary research. This can consist of interviews or analysis of existing data. One of the most powerful types of primary research is survey data. Surveys are expensive, but properly analyzed, reveal things that you can’t find any other way. They go a long way toward proving you’re right.
Talk Triggers features surveys of consumers and identifies, for example, what they remember about the brands in the book. It classifies people according to their reaction to word of mouth. It also features analyses of social media chatter. These add significantly to the credibility. They win over skeptical readers, and they help readers to win over the skeptics in their companies.
An awesome web site
Baer and Lemin tell you throughout the book to email them. And their website for Talk Triggers is filled with resources. They also have a Facebook group. So they’re connecting with their readers, helping them, and energizing them.
Consider this a checklist
This isn’t everything you need, but it’s a hell of a start.
If you’re starting a business book, you’d better get this stuff together — at least if you want it to be as successful as the books Jay Baer writes.