Why fear and greed are essential to your business book

Chapter 1 of your business book should be the “scare the crap out of you” chapter. There are two ways to do that: fear and greed. Which should you use?

Why “scare the crap out of you”?

Business books intended to create action must include an idea or an insight that matters to the reader.

So let’s go through the reader’s process.

Why is the reader interested in the book? Because they think it might benefit them or their company.

Why did they buy it? Because they think it has practical value.

Why did they begin to read it? To find that value.

When will they see that value? When the book convinces them there is a problem or opportunity and includes advice that they can actually follow.

You must create a change in the mind of the reader — a change that leads, at least potentially, to action.

And ideally, the value of that action should be so clear and effective that the reader tells others, “You should read this!”

Businesspeople are busy. More importantly, they are creatures of habit. So even if they become interested in a book, buy it, and read it, they will most likely fail to change.

To create an actual change in behavior, the reader must think, “My worldview is missing something. This is a new way of looking at things. I better act on this!”

That means the reader either believes that (1) If they don’t act, bad things will happen, or (2) If they follow your advice, good things will happen. That’s fear and greed, right there.

Why “scare the crap out of you?” Because it’s a world crowded with advice, and people resist it. Unless they are convinced that acting is urgently necessary, they won’t do anything — they may not even read the whole book, and they’re certainly not going to tell anyone else about it. You need to shock them with a startling truth that matters to them. “Hmm, interesting,” is not a sufficient reaction to make people act on a book or talk about it to others.

There is one exception. Some business books are so entertaining that they don’t need to include advice. That includes humorous books, “insider” business narratives, and memoirs. They spread because they’re fun. But for most of you reading this, the point is to create advice that generates action. And that requires scaring the crap out of people.

Fear vs. greed

Let’s compare fear and greed as motivational strategies. (Don’t be intimidated by the words — they’re just a shorthand. You don’t actually have to mention fear or greed in your book. You just need to think about them.)

A “fear” book basically says, “There is a problem, and if you don’t address it, you’re in big trouble.” For example, a book on cybersecurity would typically be based on fear. So would a book on climate change. The point of the fear book is to draw a scary picture of the world you’ll live in if you fail to act, and then tell you what to do about it.

A “greed” book basically says, “There is an opportunity, learn how to seize it and you’ll succeed.” Such a book might explain a new trend and how to take advantage of it. It might tell you how to be more productive with your time. It might explain a new business strategy, a new way to hire, or a way to be more in touch with modern methods for, say, software development, management, or finance.

All fear books include a little greed, and all greed books include a little fear.

A fear book that holds out no hope is basically a horror story, and businesspeople need hope. So after laying out the disastrous consequences of inaction, you need to share some positives as well. “Here’s how climate change is threatening our world. We need to act. But luckily, acting also will have some positive consequences.” Without that little taste of hope — or greed, if you want — the fear book is just too much of a downer.

A greed book also inherently incorporates fear. The fear is, basically, “If you don’t seize this opportunity, and your competitors do, you’ll fall behind.” No businessperson wants to be on laggard side of a trend. So while greed books are mostly positive and hopeful, they do use a bit of fear to motivate people to act.

The archetypal fear book: Crisis Ready

Melissa Agnes’ Crisis Ready is a perfect example of a fear book. It basically says, if you don’t have a public relations plan in place for when your company has a crisis, you’re in for a huge amount of pain. It’s full of examples of people who were caught flatfooted in crises, whether those were natural disasters, data breaches, or social media embarrassments. You cannot read these descriptions without a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach. That’s fear.

Of course, Agnes is not just out to scare you. Most of the book is about how to prepare yourself and your plan so you are ready when disaster hits. It’s full of practical advice, and that advice holds out some hope.

A fear book needs to start with a terrifying scenario or case study. In Crisis Ready, it’s a train derailment. Your scenario will be different. But you cannot create an effective fear book without that scenario. And to be effective, the fear book will include a bunch of other fear-based case studies and scenarios throughout the book to remind you of the stakes.

The reader of such a book gets a constant message of “Jeeze, I better do something, I don’t want to end up like those guys.” That creates action, which is how the fear book succeeds.

The archetypal greed book: Talk Triggers

Jay Baer and Daniel Lemin’s Talk Triggers is a good example of a greed book. It basically says, unless you find a way to get people to talk about your company, you will be forced to compete on being ordinary, which is expensive and unsustainable.

Talk Triggers opens with a case study about the notably huge menu at The Cheesecake Factory. And the rest of the book is full of awesome examples of organizations large and small who found ways to add a feature to their business so unusual that you’d tell other people about it.

The greed here is explicit. I don’t mean that Baer and Lemin are always saying “money, money, money” on every page. I mean every chapter includes case studies that you read and say, “Wow, that is sure working for those guys. I wonder if I could do that.” And the book then tells you exactly how to do it.

The fear is subtle, but it’s there. It’s expensive to be ordinary. You need to pay for advertising. You need to compete on price. That may not be as scary as a train accident, but for a businessperson, it’s certainly not a place you want to be, because it’s harder to sustain profitably.

Relatability and audience are crucial

Whether you focus on fear or greed, two things are essential.

You need your audience to relate to your stories. That means focusing on a specific audience who will read what you write and say, “Ah, yes, that could be me.” Melissa Agnes is focused on PR staff and senior executives. Jay Baer and Daniel Lemin are focused on marketing and customer experience executives. Those are the executives who will read these books and say, “That could be me.”

And you need to give your audience advice. Once you have put them in the emotional state of mind to relate to the fear or greed in your case studies, you need to tell them what to do about it.

Strike the write note of fear or greed and they’ll act — and tell others. Fail to generate emotion, and you’ll have put a lot of time into a book that goes nowhere. And that’s an awful waste of your talent.

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