There’s a simple, ironclad chain of logic that tells you everything you need to know about writing a business book.
Start with why. Why are you taking on the challenge? It’s going to take a lot of your time and effort. It will require an incredible commitment of creativity and energy. So why bother?
The only realistic reason to write a business book is to
boost your own business. It’s a major effort to produce a book – you don’t have
time to do this just for fun. Unless you are very lucky, you won’t get rich off
of the sales. Sure, it will help you get speaking gigs, but in the end, the
justification to write a business book looks like this:
From this perspective, a business book is basically a big
lump of content marketing. Content attracts customers and makes them ready to
work with you.
What this means for audience and content
As with any writing, start with your audience. In the case of a business book, your audience is decision-makers who are interested in your products or services. There are secondary audiences, like critics, analysts, bloggers, podcasters, investors, and “influencers,” but they’ll evaluate the book from the perspective of the business decision-makers.
Why are the decision-makers reading your book? Because they
have a problem. Your book should help them frame and then solve the problem.
Notice the two words “help them.” The purpose of your book is to help. If you can help your audience, the
book will be a success. To the extent that you stray from helping them, your
book, and your efforts associated with it, will fail.
For example, is your book is a book on sales strategy, your
audience is salespeople, and your job in the book is to help salespeople to
The formula is simple. But the discipline it requires is
not. This means you should not spend time or words in the book talking about
how great you are, your incredible experiences, or how superior your product
is. None of these things will help your audience to succeed.
On the other hand, time and words that are valuable to the audience include defining the problem, describing the problem, explaining the solution, laying out elements of the solution, and advising the audience how to implement that solution. The more of this you do, and the more effectively you do it, the more valuable the book will be to the readers, and the more it will impress your potential customers.
The structure of business books
The purpose and content that I just described dictates a particular structure for any given business book.
Chapter 1 is the scare-the-crap-out-of-you chapter. Anyone reading Chapter 1 should have experience either fear or greed. For example, a fear chapter might say if I don’t change the way I safeguard data, I will suffer data breaches and lose my job. A greed chapter could say that if I properly adopt artificial intelligence, I will save costs and improve my approach to customers. (These are not exclusive – you can often generate fear and greed together.) Either way, at the end of Chapter 1, you lay out a brief description of your solution as a nugget of hope for the reader. This primes the reader for what follows.
The next few chapters should lay out the elements of the solution.
You define your terms, describe your process, and build the structure of your
solution. If you have done your job well, then once the reader has read this,
they will think “Ah, I see the outlines of what I need to do here, and it is
The remaining chapters lay out the solution in detail. For
example, you may have a chapter for each step in a process, or a chapter for
how this applies to different industries such as retail or pharmaceuticals.
Finally, since your idea is so powerful, the last chapter should reflect a view of what will come next. For example, you might show a view of the future after many people have adopted your solution, or a description of how it will change the customer’s life.
How to write and structure a chapter
Every chapter in the business book has a job to do. If it is the first chapter, its job is to scare the crap out of you. Other chapters may be about a specific element of a solution, or how to gather support among executives, or just about any other element of the topic you’re describing. But the point is, each chapter has a job to do.
You should be able to write that chapter to fulfill an objective for the reader.
Here are some examples:
After reading this
chapter, readers will know how social media is helpful in customer service and
how to set up a social customer service program.
After reading this
chapter, readers will understand the five types of corporate data and how to
catalogue them in preparation for generating value from them.
After reading this
chapter, readers will know how to organize their email inbox to improve their
time effectiveness by 20%.
If you are writing a chapter, you must keep this objective
in mind at all times.
The other thing to remember is that book chapters are
narratives. They are stories. That means they have threads, which are reflected
in the sections within the chapter. For example, here are some story threads.
Passive voice makes
business writing muddy. Here’s what passive voice is. Here are some example of
how it causes problems. Here’s how to recognize it in your own writing. Here’s
how to change your passive voice habit. Here’s how to rewrite passive sentences.
Each of those sentences is a section.
It’s great to start a chapter with a case study, since case
studies involve the reader. But soon after the case study, you need to get on
with explaining the moral of the case study, followed by sections in a logical
Within each section, you need to be consistent. If the
section is about a concept, explain the concept. If the section is about a
series of steps, show the steps with examples. If the section is about how to
measure the results, concentrate on measurement. The reader can follow what is
going on because the sections connect in a logical sequence. In fact, at the
end of each section, you should include a sentence connecting it to the next
section (unless the connection is obvious).
Avoid going off on tangents. Remember, the reader is there
to understand what to do. They have very little patience for extended
soliloquies on other topics. They don’t want to be impressed by your brilliance
and encyclopedic knowledge of the topic. The way to impress them is to use that
knowledge to focus them on the most essential elements of the topic. If you
feel there are more details that must be in the chapter, put them aside in a
table or sidebar.
Once you have organized the material, you can write the chapter. Just deploy the elements and connect them with prose. (I know, easier said than done, but it’s a lot easier to write with all that material assembled and organized.) If you keep the objective in mind, you can related each of the sections to that objective. Then, once you get to the end of the chapter, you will have proven your points and helped the reader to accomplish that objective.
But, but, but . . .
You may think what I have written here for instructions is too rigid and simplistic. You’re saying “But I want to do this differently . . . ” So let’s take a look at your objections.
But I want to write my story. Good for you. If your story is incredibly fascinating . . . if you were the first woman to start a billion-dollar company, or the guy who solved Fermat’s Last Theorem, maybe we wan to hear your story. But for most people, the story of your career is not enough. You’ll have to boost its value by drawing lessons for the reader. Those lessons will drive what you write. And you’re back to “I want to help people” and an objective for each chapter.
But my book is a big idea book. That’s great. People love big ideas. Big ideas move people. So write about the big idea in chapter one. Then write about why the idea is true. And a big idea is not interesting unless it suggests that readers do things differently in view of the big idea. You’re back to “I want to help people” and an objective for each chapter again.
But my book is a manifesto. Good for you. Shake things up. But let’s be honest. You wrote this manifesto to change things. Changing things demands that you move people. Having moved them, now you have to tell them what to do. Objectives again.
But I just want to tell people what I know. How self-indulgent of you. Unless you are a storyteller as talented as Malcolm Gladwell, people won’t read your book and they won’t share it. If you’re an academic, this might be enough for you, but if your objective is to boost your reputation, your book will fail.
Go ahead. Disagree with me in the comments. Tell me your “But I” statement if you want.
Or, you could just get to work trying to change how people think and help them. That’s probably a better way to get started.