Use the “reader question method” to plan and organize your business book

Photo: Benson Kua

If you are writing a book as an expert on a topic, you may be having challenges with organizing your content. You should build your table of contents around the questions your reader will ask.

The wrong way to organize your book

I was recently helping a consultant who was planning a book on a trendy business topic. His knowledge was vast and broad, covering all sorts of aspects of his topic. He’d organized that content into a detailed table of contents, which spanned 13 chapters and ran to eight pages.

The book would be a comprehensive perspective on his topic. It was neatly organized, because he’d classified all of his knowledge very precisely.

And it was likely to fail.

Why?

Because it would be too long.

His book, if it followed the outline, would end up at about 100,000 words, or around 350 pages. Publishers don’t want a business book that long. Readers don’t want to read it, either. A book that long would have to be priced at around $35, which is an awkward price point for a business book. Most importantly, it would take him years to write a book of that length — he is, after all, busy serving clients — during which time much of the content would become obsolete. Excessive length causes multiple problems.

It’s not just the length, either. The content was organized the way it was classified in his head. This might work for a comprehensive textbook, but this was supposed to be a book of advice. The classification in his head was not aligned with how readers consume such content. They want to know what to do and why.

Reader questions: a better way to organize your book

Take a step back and stop thinking about how much you know and how smart you are. Think, for a moment, about the reader.

You must start any book project with a clear idea of who that reader is — a young person just starting out at work, a chief marketing officer, a voter unhappy with political parties, whatever. Don’t just define your audience, personify it. Think about Charles, who just got a new job at IBM, or Sally, who’s always complaining about the political parties.

What does that reader want to know?

Each chapter should answer a question that reader would be asking.

  • Chapter 1 should answer the question “Why should I care about this?”
  • Right after that, you should have a chapter that answers the question “Why should I believe you?” (Alternatively, you might include the answer to this question in Chapter 1.)
  • After that, you need an expository chapter or two that cover, “How should I think about this new concept?”
  • The chapters that follow should answer more specific questions like “What should I do first?”, “How can I convince my boss?”, “How can I persuade my staff?”, “How should I organize this effort?”, “How will I measure the results?”, or “How does this apply in financial services/retail/media/manufacturing?”
  • The final chapter should answer the question “If I accept what you told me, how should I think about the future?”

As you plan your book, write down all the big questions that your reader will have. Then organize them into a dialogue you might have with a reader.

For example, here’s the question-based organization of a book I ghost wrote on chatbots in customer service. The typical reader is a customer service executive. Each question represents one chapter.

  1. Why are chatbots important to companies now?
  2. How should I think about chatbots?
  3. How do chatbots apply in customer service?
  4. How do chatbots apply in ecommerce?
  5. How do chatbots apply to internal communication?
  6. How will new platforms like Amazon Alexa and Facebook Messenger change the rollout of chatbots?
  7. How can I convince my management to consider this new option?
  8. How will chatbots integrate with the rest of my technology?
  9. How can I analyze the needs of my customers to plan where to apply chatbots?
  10. How will chatbots transform the way we all interact with companies in the future?

There are a million things to say about chatbots, and the author for which I was ghost writing the book knew all of them. But we didn’t write all of them. We only wrote what we needed to answer the questions that the reader had. And notice how the questions lead naturally from one to the next — once you know what chatbots are, you want to know where to apply them and on which platforms, for example.

This book was 240 pages long, about 56,000 words. Making it longer would not have made it better.

What this means for the content of each chapter

Now that you know what question each chapter covers, you have a simple (or at least simply described) task: write the chapter to answer the question.

You’ll have to be convincing. Among the elements you’ll need are case studies, expert interviews, statistics, research, concepts, frameworks, and proof points. I recommend gathering all this material, then organizing it into a fat outline.

The, before you write, ask yourself: will this material answer the reader’s question? Is it organized in a way to make that question clear, and then make the answer clear?

If so, write. If not, gather more proof points or cases studies, reorganize, and then write.

If I’ve made it sound like this is easy — well, I know it’s not. It’s a lot of work.

But unless you know what question you’re answering, you won’t know where you’re going. And that’s not just work, it’s waste.

One response to “Use the “reader question method” to plan and organize your business book

  1. Great advice. I am in the middle of writing a business book and this post focused my thinking. I am reworking the chapters for better flow and, most importantly, answering likely reader questions.

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