A look at five bestselling ways to begin a business book.
How should you begin your business book? With a story? Some startling facts? A review of the problem you intend to solve? An explanation of why you wrote the book?
There are no hard-and-fast rules, as no one has conducted a scientific study to determine the best business book beginning. But you can look at what the most successful business book authors have done, and take note.
I studied the opening paragraphs of the 10 books that appeared on the October, 2015 New York Times Best Sellers list for business books. These books are:
- Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell
- Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security, by Lawrence J. Kotlikoff, Philip Moeller, and Paul Solman
- Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahnemann
- The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg
- Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, by Ashlee Vance
- The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight In the Age of Information Overload, by Daniel J. Levitin
- Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, by General Stanley McChrystal
- Money: Master the Game, by Tony Robbins
- Think Like a Freak, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
- The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, by Malcolm Gladwell
I discovered that the openings in these bestsellers all fall into one of five categories:
- A story, either about the book’s topic or illustrating it (The Tipping Point, Team of Teams, and The Power of Habit)
- A story about why or how the author(s) wrote the book (Think Like a Freak, Get What’s Yours, and Elon Musk)
- A demonstration of the phenomenon or situation the book examines (Thinking, Fast and Slow)
- An explanation of something the readers need to know (Money: Master the Game)
- A dictionary definition (Outliers)
Let’s look at these five ways of beginning a business book, with examples from the bestselling books listed above.
Time needed to read: 6 minutes.
5 Bestselling Ways to Begin a Business Book
- Begin with a story, either about the book’s topic or illustrating it
People love stories, and are much more likely to remember them than they are facts. That’s why beginning with a story is a powerful way to draw readers into your world.
The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference begins with a story about very small actions that created major change—in this case, with out-of-fashion shoes:
For Hush Puppies—the classic American brushed-suede shoes with lightweight crepe soul—the tipping point came somewhere between late 1994 and early 1995. The brand had been all but dead until that point. Sales were down to 30,000 pairs a year, mostly to backwoods outlets and small-town family stores. Wolverine, the company that makes Hush Puppies, was thinking of phasing out the shoes that made them famous. But then something strange happened. At a fashion shoot, two Hush Puppies executives—Owen Baxter and Geoffrey Lewis—ran into a stylist from New York who told them that the classic Hush Puppies had suddenly become hip in the clubs and bars in downtown Manhattan. “We were being told,” Baxter recalls, “that there were resale shops in the Village, in Soho, where the shoes were being sold. People were going to the Ma and Pa stores, the little stores that still carried them, and buying them up.”
Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World rivets our attention with a chilling story of danger:
Five muscled silhouettes, midnight blue against the sand-colored sunrise, moved down an otherwise empty street on the outskirts of the El Amel neighborhood in Baghdad. The morning call to prayer had just ricocheted through the urban sprawl and faded into the thick heat. A few blinds opened, then quickly closed; residents knew when to stay hidden. The door of a small house on the corner swung open and the men shuffled inside. It was September 30, 2004, and one of the biggest operations they would ever conduct was about to begin.
- Begin with a story about why or how the author(s) wrote the book
Invite the readers to begin thinking like you do by explaining what prompted you to take pen in hand.
Think Like a Freak opens by explaining how questions from readers of previous books prompted the authors to write this one:
After writing Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics, we started to hear from readers with all sorts of questions. Is a college degree still “worth it?” (Short answer: yes; long answer: also yes.) Is it a good idea to pass along the family business to the next generation? (Sure, if your goal is to kill off the business—for the data show it’s generally better to bring in an outside manager.) What happened to the carpal tunnel syndrome epidemic? (Once journalists stopped getting it, they stopped writing about it—but the problem persists, especially among blue collar-workers.)
Some questions were existential: What makes people truly happy? Is income inequality as dangerous as it seems? Would a diet high in omega-3 lead to world peace?
….rather than trying and probably failing to answer most of the questions sent our way, we wondered if it might be better to write a book that can teach anyone to think like a Freak.
Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security begins by recounting a conversation between the authors:
This book was born of a simple question—How old are Paul and his wife?
Larry and Paul were taking a break from what they call tennis, shooting the breeze, since talking is easier than running after errant shots. Larry launched into a harangue, as he often does; this one was about Social Security’s impossible complexity. Paul was listening, as usual, with his skeptical journalist’s ear. Or, maybe, since it was Larry, just half-listening.
Then Larry asked, How old were Paul and his wife and when were they planning to take their Social Security benefits?
The story continues, with Paul explaining that he and his wife planned to wait until they were 70 years old and could apply for maximum benefits. Larry suggests they do otherwise, and launches into an explanation of the very confusing Social Security rules.
The Paul and Larry in the story are, of course, the same Paul and Larry who wrote this book.
- Begin by demonstrating the situation or phenomenon the book examines
Bring the readers’ attention to the topic of discussion, immediately. For example, Thinking, Fast and Slow begins by inviting the readers to feel how the brain works, fast and slow:
To observe your mind in automatic mode, glance at the image below.
Your experience as you look at the woman’s face seamlessly combines what we normally call seeing and intuitive thinking. As surely and quickly as you saw that the young woman’s hair is dark, you knew she is angry. Furthermore, what you saw extended into the future. You sensed that this woman is about to say some very unkind words, probably in a loud and strident voice. A premonition of what she was going to do next came into mind automatically and effortlessly. You did not intend to assess her mood or to anticipate what she might do, and your reaction to the picture did not have the feel of something you did. It just happened to you. It was an instance of fast thinking.
- Begin by explaining something the readers need to know
The approach briefly describes a problem, then offers a key insight. Money: Master the Game begins with an explanation about the true nature of money.
Few words have the power to provoke such extreme human emotions.
A lot of us refuse to even talk about money! Like religion, sex, or politics, the topic is taboo at the dinner table and often off-limits in the workplace. We might discuss wealth in polite company, but money is explicit. It’s raw. It’s garish. It’s intensely personal and highly charged. It can make people feel guilty when they have it—or ashamed when they don’t.
But what does it really mean?
For some of us, money is vital and crucial but not paramount. It’s simply a tool, a source of power used in service of others and a life well lived. Others are consumed with such a hunger for money that it destroys them and everyone around them. Some are even willing to give up things that are far more valuable to get it: their health, their time, their family, their self-worth, and, in some cases, even their integrity.
At its core, money is about power.
- Begin with a dictionary definition
Using a definition to open a business book is a simple way to focus the readers’ attention, especially when you’re defining a word that’s not well known, or defining it in a not-so-standard way.
Outliers: The Story of Success, opens with a definition of a word most of us are not familiar with—outliers—the title and subject of the book.
Out•l•er \-,lī (ə)r\ noun
1: something that is situated away from or classed differently from a main or related body
2: a statistical observation that is markedly different in value from the others of the sample
Choose the best opening for your book
Seven of the top 10 business books on the October, 2015 New York Times list of bestselling business books begin with a story, so story-telling is clearly a good way to begin a business book.
But remember: You can look at groups of books and discover successful ways of beginning a book, but your book is unique. Understanding how other books are constructed can be very helpful, but ultimately, you’ll have to determine what makes your book shine.
Perhaps the tried-and-true methods are exactly right for you, or maybe you’ll be the one who pioneers the next approach.
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