Estimated reading time: 14 minutes
A look at seven powerful ways to structure a business book.
Writing business books can be challenging, for there is no such thing as “the” business book.
The broad and deep genre called “business books” includes biographies and autobiographies; books that criticize and books that analyze; how-to books, inspirational books, and handbooks; books that teach, plus those that preach; and more.
There are numerous types of business books, which means that there are many ways to structure one. That raises a question: Which approach is best for your book?
How to Structure a Business Book
Here are seven powerful approaches. We’ve delve into the details of each below.
1) We’ve Got Trouble! – You explain a problem in depth, but offer relatively little in the way of a solution. Example: The Paradox of Choice, by Barry Schwartz.
2) Smashing the Paradigm – You explain why the current way of thinking or doing something is seriously wrong. Although your book rips the old model to shreds, it need not offer a fully-developed new paradigm. Example: Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell.
3) Presenting the New Idea – You offer a new way of thinking or doing something, a novel mode or model. Example: Made to Stick, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.
4) Telling a Story or Fable – You tell a story that illustrates both problem and solution. The story is typically invented and sometimes takes the form of a fable. Example: The Energy Bus, by Jon Gordon.
5) Borrowing from Other Fields – You take ideas or approaches from non-business areas to teach lessons that can be applied to business. Example: Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun, by Wes Roberts.
6) The Encyclopedic Approach – You present a detailed look at, or a comprehensive resource for, a process, situation, or field of endeavor, with each topic presented individually. Example: The Economist Guide to Financial Markets, by Marc Levinson.
7) Topic 101 – You lay out the basics, teaching readers everything they need to know about the topic to get started. Example: the Dummies books.
Now let’s take a closer look at each structure.
Structure #1. We’ve Got Trouble!
In a nutshell: Explore a problem in depth, without offering much in the way of a solution.
This approach is very useful when describing a problem the readers don’t know they have, or one that is more serious than they realized.
Barry Schwartz uses this structure in his The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, which explains “how the culture of abundance robs us of satisfaction.”
It’s not immediately obvious why having a wide range of choices when purchasing food, clothes, and other items is such a problem, so the author begins with a personal example:
About six years ago, I went to the Gap to buy a pair of jeans.
I tend to wear my jeans until they’re falling apart, so it had been quite a while since my last purchase. A nice young salesperson walked up to me and asked if she could help.
“I want a pair of jeans—32-28,” I said.
“Do you want them slim fit, easy fit, relaxed fit, baggy, or extra baggy?” she replied. “Do you want them stonewashed, acid-washed, or distressed? Do you want them button-fly or zipper-fly? Do you want them faded or regular?”
I was stunned. A moment or two later I sputtered out something like, “I just want regular jeans. You know, the kind that used to be the only kind.” It turned out she didn’t know, but after consulting with one of her older colleagues, she was able to figure out what “regular jeans” used to be, and pointed me in the right direction.
Schwartz devotes the bulk of the book to explaining why we should be concerned about having way too many choices. In fact, he spends 217 pages discussing the problem, and only sixteen pages talking about the solution.
The intriguing part of We’ve Got Trouble is the presentation of the problem, which is designed to surprise, anger, disgust, thrill, or otherwise evoke an emotional response. The solution, which is brief and not very detailed, is not really the point of these types of books.
Structure #2. Smashing the Paradigm
In a nutshell: Explain why our current way of thinking or doing something is seriously wrong.
Smashing the Paradigm is a bigger, more urgent version of We’ve Got Trouble, and smashes the current model to shreds. It touches upon solutions, but the emphasis is on the problem.
This approach is put to excellent use in the New York Times bestselling Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell’s thesis is that we totally misunderstand why certain people become incredibly successful in business, sports, music, academia, and other areas of life.
The long-reigning paradigm holds that success is due to certain personal characteristics. As the author points out, when thinking about very successful people, “We want to know what they’re like—what kind of personalities they have, or how intelligent they are, or what kind of lifestyles they have, or what special talents they might have been born with. And we assume that it is those personal qualities that explain how that individual reached the top.”
But Gladwell insists that the great successes “are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot. It makes a difference where and when we grew up. The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine. It’s not enough to ask what successful people are like, in other words. It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t.”
There is “something profoundly wrong with the way we make sense of success,” Gladwell tells us, offering numerous stories of truly successful—and some not-so-successful—people to demonstrate why our understanding of success, and therefore our ability to replicate it, is so unsuccessful.
While the ideas and details in a Smashing the Paradigm book can be fascinating, these books typically do not make concrete suggestions for change.
Structure #3. Presenting the New Idea
In a nutshell: Present a new way of thinking or doing something—a new model or mode.
The new idea is usually broken down into several parts, each of which is explored in a single chapter. Each of the parts stands on their own, and together they create a unified approach.
The first chapter (or introduction) lays out a problem or situation and introduces the new solution. Each of several chapters that follow discusses one aspect of the new solution. Then, everything is neatly summed up in a final chapter or epilogue.
The authors present their argument in the introduction, asserting that the reader can “transform the way people think and act” and get customers to buy more products by communicating via “sticky” ideas. The authors then present the six principles of “stickiness:” simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotions, and stories.
These two authors also used the Presenting the New Idea approach in their Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. However, their discussion of each individual principle is spread over a couple of chapters, rather than confined to a single chapter.
In the first chapter of Switch, called “Three Surprises about Change,” the brothers Heath argue that successful change requires that a leader do three things: change the situation rather than the people; understand that people resist change because they are emotionally exhausted and need fresh motivation; and recognize that people must be offered “crystal-clear direction,” since what appears to be resistance to change is often a lack of clarity.
When reading a book that uses the Presenting the New Idea approach, readers should get the feeling they are having an interesting chat with a friend who’s telling them about a wonderful new discovery or idea. The sky isn’t falling and paradigms aren’t being ripped apart. Instead, the readers are having a very pleasant learning experience.
In a sense, Presenting the New Idea is the flip side of We’ve Got Trouble, for the emphasis is on the solution rather than the problem.
Structure #4. Telling a Story or Fable
In a nutshell: Tell a story that illustrates a problem and a solution.
With this approach, most of the book is devoted to the telling of a story, which is typically invented and conveys a moral. Animals are sometimes characters in the story, and any required set-up material is presented in an introduction.
This approach is used in the Wall Street Journal bestselling The Energy Bus, which tells the story of George, a burnout in the making, whose life is turned around by Joy, a bus driver he meets when his car has a flat tire. To quote from the book’s jacket flaps:
It’s Monday morning and George walks out of the front door to his car and a flat tire. But this is the least of his problems. His home life is in shambles and his team at work is in disarray. With a big new product launch coming in two weeks for the NRG-2000, he has to find a way to get it together or risk losing his marriage and job. Forced to take the bus to work, George meets a unique kind of bus driver and an interesting cast of characters who, over the course of two weeks, share the ten rules for the ride of his life. In the process, they help him turn around his work and life, saving his job and marriage from destruction.
The Telling a Story or Fable approach was famously used by Spencer Johnson in his New York Times bestselling Who Moved My Cheese? Johnson uses the fable of two mice and two “little people” who live in a maze and search for cheese to teach the readers that change can be a blessing if you approach it with the proper attitude.
Books using this approach are designed to be easy and enjoyable to read, and offer readers a single concept or solution.
Structure #5. Borrowing from Other Fields
In a nutshell: Apply lessons learned in other fields to business.
We normally think of Attila the Hun as a power-mad brute; it’s hard to imagine that his exploits could offer worthwhile lessons to the modern business leader. But as author Wes Roberts points out, Attila learned how to survive and thrive in desperate circumstances. Relying on loyalty, decisiveness, courage, and unquenchable desire, he rose from tribal leader to master of a huge empire, defeating the Romans and everyone else who stood in his way. These traits, argues Roberts, can be put to good use by modern business leaders.
The same approach is used by Itay Talgam in his The Ignorant Maestro to show “how great leaders inspire unpredictable brilliance.” Talgam, an orchestral conductor who has wielded the baton for the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra and other great ensembles, urges leaders not to shove their ideas down the throats of their underlings. Instead, they should present their general ideas and have faith that the talented people they have hired will do the right thing.
According to Talgam, great leaders must be masterful conductors of people. As he writes in the first chapter:
One thing all conductors, great and small, have in common: We all use the same musical aid that makes no sound and requires no expensive carrying case—a stick. Yet in some hands this silent and dead piece of wood, the baton, can be exceptionally potent. An old proverb says: “If you look at zero, you see zero. If you look through zero, you see infinity.” Our baton is that zero, in itself of no use to an orchestra even if we wave it elegantly. Only when we are able to make our musicians look through the stick and see the full scope of artistic and human achievement embedded in music—only then have we touched the true essence of the conductor’s art.
Structure #6. The Encyclopedic Approach
In a nutshell: Present a comprehensive look at the subject
The Encyclopedic Approach book is an in-depth resource for readers already knowledgeable about the topic, but need additional information or explanations. Its logical layout makes it simple for readers to find the answers to their questions. It is not designed to be read cover-to-cover.
This approach is utilized in Essential Economics, which consists of a brief opening chapter titled “The Joy of Economics,” followed by an alphabetical list of economic definitions and descriptions spanning 267 pages.
The Encyclopedic Approach is also used in The Economist Guide to Financial Markets: Why They Exist and How They Work. Although not arranged alphabetically, the book is a compilation of definitions and descriptions of one subtopic after another, as evidenced by the book’s Table of Contents:
Chapter 1 – Why Markets Matter
Chapter 2 – Foreign-Exchange Markets
Chapter 3 – Money Markets
Chapter 4 – Bond Markets
Chapter 5 – Securitization
Chapter 6 – International Fixed-Income Markets
Chapter 7 – Equity Markets
Chapter 8 – Commodities and Futures Markets
Chapter 9 – Options and Derivatives Markets
Books that use The Encyclopedic Approach are reference books designed to sit on readers’ shelves for years and be flipped through as questions arise.
Structure #7. Topic 101
In a nutshell: Teach the readers everything they need to know to get started.
Typically aimed at those who know little about the subject, the Topic 101 book presents a survey of an idea, field, or situation, and points to resources for further study.
This structure is used in the popular Dummies series, teaching readers about investing, small business, personal finance, penny stocks, marketing, starting a business, and many other business topics.
The Table of Contents for Investing for Dummies illustrates this approach. The book is divided into five parts, each of which is broken down into several sub-chapters. The parts include: investing fundamentals; stocks, bonds, and Wall Street; growing wealth with real estate; starting or purchasing a small business; investing resources; and three lists of tips at the end. The book includes just about everything a would-be investor needs to know.
Topic 101 books are meant to be “introductory courses” in a particular subject. The difference between Topic 101 and The Encyclopedic Approach has to do with the target audience. For Topic 101, readers are assumed to be relative novices in the subject matter, while in The Encyclopedic Approach, material is geared to those already knowledgeable about the topic who can benefit from further explanation and resources.
Seven Approaches to Writing Business Books
These seven ways to structure a business book can be used to present a variety of business ideas, stories, and adventures.
Sometimes it’s obvious which approach is best for your book, and sometimes you have to experiment a bit, arranging your ideas in different ways to see how to best structure them.
Always remember: These approaches are tried-and-true and popular, but the needs and tastes of the reading public continue to evolve. New ways to structure a business book will arise, and old ones will fall away.
For more on the art of writing business books, see our “Writing a Business Book” page.
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