How to balance the 5 key elements of a business book
Business books are made out of case studies, idea frameworks, proof points, argumentation, and advice. The key is to balance the amount of each element that you include. Here’s a short description of what each piece is, why it’s important to use the right amount, and how to adjust it.
If you write business books, you have a challenge: how to create 40,000 to 70,000 words of useful information that will stick with readers and spread. The best business books are fascinating to read, because they balance stories and arguments, proof points and advice, all under the framework of a powerful idea. The remaining 90% fail because they lecture people, don’t seem credible, are hard to follow, or lack relevance. The problem is balance; too much of one element, and not enough of another, makes your book fall apart.
So here’s a handy guide to the five elements of a business book and how to fix problems in the balance among them.
Ideas and frameworks
What is your book about? You’d better be able to answer that in one sentence. For example, The Tipping Point is about how ideas spread, and Writing Without Bullshit is about why and how to create bold, clear business writing. Every book needs a main idea; the best books have a set of frameworks, concepts, or elements one level below that enable you to support and implement the idea.
If you overdo it: Too many ideas leave the reader confused. You’ll have to pick the one that matters more than the rest. Then organize the other ideas logically into a framework beneath the big one. Diagrams can help here; try whiteboarding it. And don’t be afraid to leave a few ideas aside for the next book.
If you underdo it: Without a big idea, your book cannot succeed. You need to figure out what you really mean and what’s important. If you’re stuck at this point, conduct an idea development session with a trusted colleague or coach. Your objective is to create a single idea and a framework beneath it that will become the guiding principle for your book.
Case study stories
Every business book needs stories that reveal how the idea of the book makes sense in real-life situations. These stories also help the book to be entertaining and interesting, since people would rather read stories about other people than dry statistics. Every story should have a point, showing how the protagonist’s experience reveals a key insight.
If you overdo it: Stories are addictive. It’s fun to collect them. But if your book is nothing but a collection of stories, your readers won’t know what to make of what they’re supposed to be learning. If you’ve collected too many stories, organize them into the main points you want to make and select the ones that make the point the best. As for the rest, you can turn them into one- or two-paragraph supporting vignettes or hold them aside for blog posts and speeches.
If you underdo it: A business book without stories is dreary as a winter day in New England. Stories take research. Normally, a business writer writes about her experience — her clients generate natural examples and stories. Search news items about your topic; contact the people those items quote or profile. This activity is called research, and it is a big part of every writer’s job.
Why should we believe you? Stories are all well and good, but to back up an argument you need more than anecdotal cases. You need statistics, data charts, illustrative examples, and quotes from experts.
If you overdo it: Too many proof points turns your writing into a research report — very convincing but not so easy to read. If you tend to over-research, then you’ll need to cull your proof points, using only the ones that are most pertinent, startling, and believable.
If you underdo it: There’s this thing called the World Wide Web. Search it. And contact a few experts; they’re often happy to share their insights in exchange for a quote or two.
You need a logical argument to prove a conclusion. Good writers take you through the reasoning so wittily and deftly that you can’t help but believe them. Argumentation is the glue that holds business books together: it binds the proof points and case studies to the ideas and frameworks.
If you overdo it: Argumentation is what less experienced writers fill the vast empty spaces in their books with. They think that the more the talk about why they’re right, the more likely you are to believe them. In fact, overfilling your book with argumentation comes off as self-indulgent rambling and makes the reader’s mind wander. Your arguments will be shorter and more persuasive with case studies and proof points to back them. So research more and ramble less.
If you underdo it: Flatly stating your perspective wins over only fellow fanatics. Imagine a skeptical reader. Win him over by reasoning clearly from research, data, and analysis that support your main points.
Books that fail to offer advice are simply descriptive. That might fly for a history book or a novel, but a business book has to teach you something you can use.
If you overdo it: Advice is great — in moderation. If every third sentence is a recommendation on what to do, the book becomes preachy. Figure out the best prescriptions and leave the rest on the cutting room floor. A great way to wrangle advice points is to organize them into a short section or chart at the end of each chapter.
If you underdo it: Nothing frustrates me more than a great business book without advice; it’s like a movie without an ending. Fixing this is simple. Determine what the main conclusion of each chapter is. Then figure out what a reader should do based on that conclusion.
Here’s a chart that sums all of this up. Feel free to share it.
Hi Josh. Love this article. I edit and ghost write self-help books — and this is great stuff! Write more about writing. When I read your BS book, it tightened my writing style and helped see the next step in clarity.