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Where do you find stories for your book? (Ask Dr. Wobs)

Business books are made of stories. Where do they come from? Here’s today’s question:

Dear Dr. Wobs

 I am writing a business book and want to supplement my own experiences with relevant business anecdotes. (Google is virtually useless, although maybe I’m just doing it wrong.) Any suggestions?

— Jack

Finding stories

We’re hard-wired to remember stories, Jack, so you’re right to want to seek them. Business books are made of stories — stories sell them, stories make them come alive, and stories are what people share.

So where do the stories come from? Here’s a list of all the places I could think of — and I’ve used all of these techniques at one time or another.

  • Your own experience. Obviously, if it happened to you, you’re set. But unless your book is a memoir, first-person stories can get tedious. Readers are automatically skeptical, and we can only take so much of hearing about the author’s heroic deeds.
  • Your clients’ experience. The best case studies come from your best contacts, especially if they’ve done something iconic. Clients who trust your counsel will also likely trust you with their stories. This is why authors whose companies have a lot of clients have an edge. If they’re publicity-shy, you can offer to tell the story with the name changed.
  • Case studies from vendors. Who sells technology or services in the area you’re looking in? Check out their press releases, case studies, and white papers — even if they compete with you. But don’t just stop with writing up what’s in their releases. In these accounts you’ll often find the names and positions of the people who did great work. Reach out to them and mention where you read about them — if they’ve gone on the record already, they’re likely to be willing to talk about their work.
  • Stories told online. As Jack points out, Google can help you find stories. But some things are easier to Google than others. I used this technique in a recent book, where I was looking for case studies about chatbots — I searched on “customer service chatbots,” “intelligent agents,” and “virtual agents.” Then I looked for article and blog titles like “The 10 best corporate chatbot applications.” You will often need to follow links in articles to other articles or stories — the story you seek may be three or four links away. This is research, and it is work. (Sometimes it helps to contract with a researcher — someone else will find stories that you missed just because they think differently from you.)
  • Books. You can often find stories in other people’s business books. You can quote one or two, with attribution. Just don’t overdo this, or your reader will wonder why they’re reading you and not your original source.
  • Watchfulness and networking. Once you’re attuned to what kind of stories you’re looking for, you’ll start to pick up examples all around you. Check your daily news feeds in the trade publications you follow. Go to conferences and attend relevant sessions. Go to networking breakfasts. If you live every day with your antennae alert to what you’re looking for, you’re likely to find it.
  • Trusted friends. You probably have five to ten mentors or colleagues who do the same kind of work you do; often they’re former coworkers with whom you share a trusted bond. Email them and tell them what kind of stories you’re looking for. It’s easier to interview people if your friend has already recommended you.
  • Your social network. I’ve sources stories with Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn — I just tell folks what I’m looking for, and ideas pour in. Most of these ideas will be useless, but if you get 20 suggestions and can only use two, that’s two stories you didn’t have before. As with email outreach, you’ll be able to use your contact as a reference to get the interview.
  • Hypotheticals. Sometimes you just have to make things up. So you tell the story of Sally, who tried everything to pitch her business, but then figured out the problem was in how her Web site presented her. Or Fred, who could never get his sales calls returned until he found the secret formula for making the connection. So long as you make it clear that Sally and Fred are composites, not real people, you can plug holes in your book with hypothetical stories.

Two principles for story seekers

Finding stories is not the same as telling stories. If you want your stories to resonate, I suggest adopting two core principles.

First, whenever possible, interview actual participants and tell their stories from their perspective. It’s fine to have some examples you’ve cribbed from online or other people’s books, but a firsthand interview will generate a far better narrative, because you’ll ask questions no one else has thought of.

Second, pursue variety. A mix of your own stories, your clients’ stories, stories found online, and hypotheticals will come across as fresh and interesting. If it’s all about your experience, or all hypothetical, or all cribbed from a few sources, your book will feel stale and lack credibility. Seek diversity in industries as well — unless your book is about financial services, it shouldn’t all be banking stories. Geographical diversity is also ideal — if you have stories from China and Germany and Brazil along with American stories, you expand your market — but unless you’re a world traveler or part of a global company, it’s the most difficult to achieve.

Looking at all this, one thing is clear. If you’re out in the world networking, serving clients, going to conferences, and connecting online, you’re much better situated to write a business book. If you’re sitting in your office thinking deep thoughts about your own situation, your stories will be flat and repetitive. Be open and ever-curious, and you’ll automatically be gathering the material you need ever day.

Do you have a question about writing or books? Submit to Ask Dr. Wobs. Anyone whose question I select will get a free signed copy of Writing Without Bullshit.

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  1. The definitive source for secret information, according to Graham Greene (Our Man in Havana) is ‘make it up. “you alone will know it and it will be truly secret”.

  2. And don’t forget research librarians. Academic institutions have them. Large public libraries often have highly skilled business librarians – and the librarians in your local public libraries are also excellent resources. Many corporations have librarians. Use them.

  3. Josh, thank you for your thoughtful and comprehensive reply. It reminds me of one more technique: ask an expert!
    I especially like your suggestion to do the work to track down links in articles down to multiple levels. It’s hard to do, but I guess that’s the point; if it were easy, you would just be recycling the same stuff everyone else has probably already heard.