Improspectives

Improv skills lead to success

You Might Not Have a Book in You…Yet

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A book with your name on the cover is a badge of honor. Many individuals find writing anything longer than an e-mail too painful to contemplate, with good reason: writing your first book-length manuscript is hard.

I’m preparing for some upcoming speaking engagements, so I took the time to re-read Million Dollar Speaking by Alan Weiss. Weiss has made a very (very, very) good living as a speaker and trainer and came highly recommended from a friend who makes a very (very) good living as an entertainer on the college and corporate circuits. In his book, Weiss explodes the myth that says “if you have a speech, you have a book”:

This should be restated as follows: if you have a speech, you have an excruciatingly tiny book. Speaking and writing are discrete skills, sometimes synergistic but not at all equal. Don’t give the published work short shrift: books require extensive research; tight, Jesuit-like logic; brilliant metaphors; and immaculate construction. If that sounds like it doesn’t resemble a lot of books out there, that’s because most books are not very good.

Improspectives runs 126 small-format pages and, according to the word count feature in Microsoft Word, contains 28,807 words. Most business books are 250 pages in length; at 350 words per page, you’re looking at 87,500 words. That’s a lot of information. Consider this: if you speak for an hour at a rate of 150 words per minute, you will have spoken 9,000 words. The spoken word and, by extension, video, are low bandwidth when you’re not presenting graphical content. it’s easier for you to talk for an hour than to write 9,000 words and, yes, video can be more fun to watch (though Weiss gives the example of a speaker whose video showed him writing on an easel pad), but you’re trading your convenience for the amount of information you deliver to your audience.

I dislike giving bad reviews to books, but I did want to give a real-life example of how having a speech or, in this case, a workshop doesn’t mean you have a book. Red Thread Thinking, by Debra Kaye (with Karen Kelly) describes Kaye’s “red thread” approach to finding connections between ideas for profitable innovation. I’ve been in and led enough corporate training sessions to see the value in her approach and believe her workshops would be valuable to many businesses. Unfortunately, so much of the good that comes out a workshop is unspoken and difficult to quantify. Many workshop leaders walk into the room with at most five or six pieces of paper with their outline and rely on the participants to provide the fuel for the day. Even success stories, if you can share them because of confidentiality concerns, can get repetitive when they rely on the same methods.

That’s where Karen Kelly comes in. I don’t know for sure, but I would guess the main author, Debra Kaye, had difficulty generating a manuscript that met the 250-page ideal for business books. The “with” credit on a book indicates the secondary author took on a significant role, which in this case meant lengthening the book by pumping the main author for more talking points, stories, and supporting research. Using that additional input, the professional book doctor can remix material, restating it in slightly different ways to change the emphasis and illustrating the points with new examples. If you add in a prologue and appendices and trim the target page count a bit, you reduce your writing burden from 87,500 words to around 70,000.

Once the first draft is in place, the developmental editor flags obvious repetitions and incongruent material so the “with” author can adjust the manuscript as needed. As an experienced author, I can see where Karen Kelly helped the Red Thread Thinking manuscript along. I think she did a great job, both due to her professional skills and because Debra Kaye’s basic ideas are sound.

My advice to anyone who wants to create intellectual property to support your work and sell in the back of the room? Don’t be afraid to write a series of short pieces at first. A 10-page white paper or 30-minute podcast is far better than a book that’s 90% fluff. Build your material gradually and, when you have enough of it for the type of book you want, bring it together into a coherent whole.

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