Top-Drawer Business Books of 2016

Too many business book lists are narrow in definition. As Robert Weider said, “Anyone can look for fashion in a boutique or history in a museum. The creative person looks for history in a hardware store and fashion in an airport.” The Top-Drawer list is less traditional. That is why the list includes, and is sometimes dominated by, books not categorized purely as “business”.

We always avoid books promising four-hour workweeks because they are fables, over-simplified and prescriptive how-to works that are vacuous and dangerous, and so-called inspirational books that are trite, lite and ineffectual. These are all tossed aside when one experiences the blunt adversities found in actual commerce.

There are no shortcuts or magic panaceas in business. We have to do the work even when reading. As John Locke stated, “Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.” We encourage you to read the selections here and make the knowledge yours.

The list includes books released in 2016 that are top-of-mind, notable, relevant, well written, applicable, thought-provoking, and innovative. Our last bit of criteria makes the selections tougher to determine and that is timelessness of content. We love sharing the Top-Drawer list because so much of success in business is predicated on great storytelling and these selections exemplify that skill.

This year 13 make our list and are presented in no particular order. For the first time, fiction efforts are included for the amazing lessons they carry if one is open to the education. For fun, we have included a separate list of 8 timeless business novels.

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2016 Top-Drawer Business Books

It is that time again. We are happy to share our annual business books picks. Welcome to the 9th edition of the Top-Drawer Business Books of 2016. Too many business book lists are narrow in definition. Our list is less traditional and duplicative to others. That is why it includes, and is sometimes dominated by, screen-shot-2016-11-03-at-3-32-04-pmbooks not categorized purely as “business”.

We always avoid books promising four-hour workweeks because they are fables, over-simplified and prescriptive how-to works that are vacuous and dangerous, and so-called inspirational books that are trite, lite and ineffectual. These are all tossed aside when one experiences the blunt adversities found in actual commerce.

There are no shortcuts or magic panaceas in business. We have to do the work even when reading. As John Locke stated, “Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.” We encourage you to read the selections here and make the knowledge yours.

The list includes books released in 2016 that are top-of-mind, notable, relevant, Famous_Nathan_jacket_revise_new_trim_size.inddwell written, applicable, thought-provoking, and innovative. Our last bit of criteria makes the selections tougher to determine and that is timelessness of content. We love sharing the Top-Drawer list because so much of success in business is predicated on great storytelling and these selections exemplify that skill.

This year 13 make our list, 4 more than last year, and are presented in no particular order. For the first time, fiction efforts are included for the amazing lessons they carry if one is open to the education. For fun, we have included a separate list of 8 timeless business novels.

Remember, life is too short to drink cheap scotch or to read books that are not Top-Drawer. So keep these selections within easy reach for repeated reference. Access the list here, topdrawer2016final.

The High Cost of Poor Business Writing

Hello dear reader. It is important for you to know that I labored over every word in this post. Oliver Wendell Homes said, “carve every word before your let it fall.” For tone-of-voice I strove for “friendly academic and passionate advocate”. Then I asked, “What do I want the reader to remember?”

I love to connect with people through writing. I do a great deal of business writing and have been encouraged of late. This skill and practice is under scrutiny. Its poor quality leads to inefficiency and ineffectiveness. I am encouraged because we are beginning to recognize the magnitude of the problem.

Josh Bernoff recently wrote in The Daily Beast a piece titled, Bad Writing Costs Businesses Billions. Bernoff has been a writer for 30 years and just published, Writing Without Bullshit: Boost Your Career by Saying What You Mean. The article grabs with an amazing statistic. It seems that bad writing is costing American businesses close to $400 billion every year. That is a staggering number.

Bad writing is costing American businesses close to $400 billion every year.

Bernoff writes, “Think about it. You start your day wading through first-draft emails from colleagues who fail to come to the point. You consume reports that don’t make clear what’s happening or what your management should do about it. The websites, marketing materials, and press releases from your suppliers are filled with jargon and meaningless superlatives.” The last sentence resonated with me. I am on a mission to ruthlessly, creatively and intelligently improve my own writing. This is a demonstration for to do the same.

American workers spend nearly a quarter of their day reading. Much of that is wasted because the material is poorly written. Bernoff has done the math, “American workers spend 22 percent of their work time reading; higher compensated workers read more. According to my analysis, America is spending 6 percent of total wages on time wasted attempting to get meaning out of poorly written material. Every company, every manager, every professional pays this tax, which consumes $396 billion of our national income.”

The websites, marketing materials, and press releases from your suppliers are filled with jargon and meaningless superlatives.

Bernoff illustrates the problem with this mind numbing job description example: “The Area Vice President, Enterprise Customers will develop and manage a sustainable strategic relationship that transforms the current commercial model by creating joint value that results in the ongoing reduction of costs, continuous process improvement, growth and profitability for both partners with the ability to export key learnings.” Such language is poor and embarrassing but it also grates.

Kaleigh Moore wrote an article on business writing in Inc. earlier this year. It examined a related aspect of poor business writing. She makes the case that communication “is an essential skill for any business”. This seems obvious even fundamental but apparently it is not given the sad state of the skill in the business world.

She cites a study from CollegeBoard, a panel established by the National Commission on Writing. It shows that “businesses are spending as much as $3.1 billion on remedial writing training annually. Of this budget, $2.9 billion was spent on current employees–not new hires.” This is not attributed entirely to our early years in the education system because “even a college degree doesn’t save businesses from the effects of poor writing skills.”

A report from the Partnership for 21st-Century Skills notes that 26.2 percent of college students had deficient writing skills. These educated folks “also lacked proper communication skills across the board.” This should come as no surprise. Writing makes you a better reader and conversationalist. It can also improve your presentation skills. Writing, reading, conversing and presenting all contribute to knowledge and confidence. That makes for a much resilient, more innovative and efficient workforce.

Carolyn O’Hara is the Managing Editor of The Week and tackled the subject of business writing in Harvard Business Review. Her piece, How to Improve Your Business Writing, is practical. She paraphrases Marvin Swift who said, “clear writing means clear thinking.” Swift wrote a touchstone essay on business writing in a 1973 issue of Harvard Business Review.

Kara Blackburn, a senior lecturer in managerial communication at the MIT Sloan School of Management is quoted in same piece, “You can have all the great ideas in the world and if you can’t communicate, nobody will hear them.” That is so true. I have witnessed too many of my clients making the mistake of not only assuming they have been heard but that they have also been understood. Too frequently, neither has taken place.

Too many of my clients making the mistake of not only assuming they have been heard but that they have also been understood.

O’Hara lays out sound advice:

Think before you write: don’t start writing on the spark of an idea. Talk it through in your own mind before words flow on paper.

Be direct: make your point right up front. It will guide everything after. I think of this as a thesis statement to be proved or disproved.

Cut the fat: avoid the unnecessary and build up the necessary but not with more words. Do it with more emphasis…there is a difference.

Avoid jargon and $10 words: I used to believe I was paid by high-sounding words. I know now it is about being convincing and not trying to impress.

Read what you write: I agree but recommend reading it out loud. I am often embarrassed when I hear the words. Equally so, I am happy when they are edited for greater impact.

Practice every day: We write something every day but I also advocate walking away from that book, article, blog, or report. After all, athletes do not train the same muscles each and every day.

Josh Bernoff has his own advice for better business writing. He suggests “The Iron Imperative” where you “treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own. To embrace it means that every time you send an email or write a document, you must take a moment to structure it for maximum readability and meaning. We are lazy; we’d rather save our own time than someone else’s.” That is very true. It is far too easy to press “send” than to edit again.

It is far too easy to press “send” than to edit again.

He recognizes that smartphone or computer screen reading “reduces attention spans and concentration” so it “demands a radical rethink of the way you communicate in writing. In this environment, brevity must become a core value.”

I am not a proponent of this in a strict sense. Most social media is soundbite-like but exists to compel people to investigate and learn more. That eventually demands long-form business writing. Bernoff’s mantra of ‘clarity, brevity, and plain language’ misses the opportunity to be creative, inject personality and tell a rich story.

Let me summarize what we have covered in hopes of compelling and convincing you of my thesis. First off, poor business writing costs businesses big dollars in inefficiencies and lost sales. Second, everyone needs help to be a better writer.

This means you. You can always improve and if you do you will be contributing to your career, your company’s success, and the entire economy. If that was not enticing enough, you will be incredibly proud when you press send on that next e-mail or text or when your article appears in Fortune or Bloomberg BusinessWeek or when your marketing materials convince a customer to try your offer.

Famous advertising professional, David Ogilvy, had it right, “People who think well, write well… Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well.” We are taking writing for granted. It is just something we do, not do well. That has to change.

on-writing-well

What’s Happening in Brand Storytelling?

Storytelling has its sceptics and detractors in the business world. I fear the word and practice is both being overused and misapplied much like “business design” and “branding”. The only way to conclude its effectiveness is to give it a try. That starts with understanding by reading the latest thinking on the subject.

Moving From Fiction to Non-Fiction
Many brand and product stories “are just pretty commercials made to wear beat up sweatpants to try to boost authenticity and believability”. Jay Baer recently admonished such efforts saying, “Storytelling has to shift from an emphasis on the story to an emphasis on the truth.” He goes as far to suggest that this “will be the big content and social story in 2017.”

The Resurgence Of Storytelling
Devishobha Ramanan writing in The Huffington Post suggests that oral storytelling is needed in company leadership. Her introduction is an eloquent example of storytelling, “Stories are powerful. imageThey can teach us to be moral or immoral. They can help us cut through a situation analytically. They make us cry for someone else we didn’t know. They make us happy for someone we only wished we had met.” She calls for business leaders to draw on ancient practices. India’s Harikatha is an oral storytelling tradition with a primary storyteller and two other storytellers in support. China’s Shuosh and Japan’s Rakugo are other examples whose use can motivate and educate audiences.

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“Hang in There, Baby!”: The Tao of Motivational Posters

Do you remember the company Successories? It was responsible for the cheesy posters that hung in offices all across North America. Successories was founded in 1985, by Mac Anderson who, as a hobby collected quotations and motivational writings. Mac took these quotes and added them to a vaguely relevant stock photo. Close your eyes and picture a soaring eagle (setting goals), synchronized rowing crew (teamwork), sharpened pencil (ideas) or mountain climber (perseverance).

These were incredibly popular and at one point the company had stores in malls selling all manner of imagemotivation and inspiration accessories. I saw a lineup to get into one in a Galleria in Dallas. It did not take long for wags to mock the format. This gave way to a wave of de-motivational posters that brought people back down to earth. In some cases the mockery was so well done that it was difficult to tell the two camps apart. This proves that imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but parody is envy of the original idea.

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but parody is envy of the original idea.

If you spend two minutes on the Internet or thirty seconds on any social media, you will see Mac’s original idea is alive and well. Instagram and Tumblr is replete with motivational quotes and writings artfully arrayed on various backdrops. Hundreds, if not, thousands of blogs are dedicated to these positive provocations. People the world over on Facebook share these encouragements in hopes of connecting with like-minded souls or, by doing, give themselves a little lift. Twitter’s 140 characters pump out imagethousands of pithy expressions every minute that encourage and cajole.

The original intent of motivational posters was to make people achieve more, or to think differently about the things that they may be learning or doing. It was about challenging beliefs and looking at the world in a fresh way. CBS News concluded that modern motivational posters “are geared more toward things that need to be done than things that are good to believe”. In other words, motivation has become a task or bucket list of things to do or buy versus a perpetual state of being.

Motivation has become a bucket list of things to do or buy.

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Chief Marketing Officer Turnover Persists

Spencer Stuart, a global executive search and leadership consulting firm, first brought attention to the short tenure of Chief Marketing Officers. In 2004, they reported that CMO’s lasted less than two years (that number now is now four years). Spencer Stuart’s work prompted McKinsey, Bain, and other consultancies to examine the role in papers and articles. All this analysis could be Screen Shot 2016-08-04 at 9.29.27 AMboiled down to two primary reasons for short tenure: too-high expectations and poor cultural fit.

There was a fad-like quality to the early rounds of hiring CMOs. It was like CEOs looked around and said, “Hey get me one of those!” I recently interviewed Chris Hummel, CMO at United Rentals, for my upcoming book, Needs and Wants: The Universal Truths of Marketing. Chris has been CMO at Unify and Schneider Electric prior to his current position. He believes the hiring company often defines the position too broadly or may not know what they really need so it is critical to be specific in what the role is to deliver while ensuring solid chemistry with the company and fellow executives.

Executive Search consultants, Russell Reynolds, recently added to the discussion with their own report on marketing executive turnover. You can access the PDF here: RRA Marketing Moves Q1-Q2 2016 or read it below. You will find that being a marketing leader is not for the feint of heart.

MARKETING MOVES
To better understand current trends in the appointment and turnover of marketing officers, Russell Reynolds Associates tracked and analyzed 175 notable, publicly disclosed marketing-leadership moves in the first two quarters of 2016.

Key Findings

Record turnover. So far, 2016 has witnessed the highest level of marketing-leader appointments and turnover since Russell Reynolds Associates began comprehensively tracking all major appointments four years ago. In the first six months of this year, we recorded 175 marketing-leader appointments, compared to 147 in the prior six months and 134 in the same period of last year.

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Write On with this Advice

God I love writing. Too bad the ‘Gods of Writing’ can be so demanding even cruel. That is why it is important to draw on the experiences of others. Take Ernest Hemingway who said, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” There is both comfort and terror in that observation.

Enid Bagnold captured my own sentiments of writing, “Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it’s the answer to everything. … It’s the streaming reason for living. To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain, to make something, to make a great flower out of life, even if it’s a cactus.”

Here are other quotes on writing that may cause you to slap your forehead and say to and for yourself, “That’s it!”

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” George Orwell

“Making people believe the unbelievable is no trick; it’s work. … Belief and reader absorption come in the details: An overturned tricycle in the gutter of an abandoned neighborhood can stand for everything.” Stephen King

“To defend what you’ve written is a sign that you are alive.” William Zinsser

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“We’re past the age of heroes and hero kings. … Most of our lives are basically mundane and dull, and it’s up to the writer to find ways to make them interesting.” John Updike

“The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.” Samuel Johnson

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.” Elmore Leonard

“Write. Rewrite. When not writing or rewriting, read. I know of no shortcuts.” Larry L. King

“There are no laws for the novel. There never have been, nor can there ever be.” Doris Lessing

“Style is to forget all styles.” Jules Renard

“One thing that helps is to give myself permission to write badly. I tell myself that I’m going to do my five or 10 pages no matter what, and that I can always tear them up the following morning if I want. I’ll have lost nothing—writing and tearing up five pages would leave me no further behind than if I took the day off.” Lawrence Block

“Plot is people. Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other until finally there’s an explosion—that’s Plot.” Leigh Brackett

“When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.” Stephen King

“Long patience and application saturated with your heart’s blood—you will either write or you will not—and the only way to find out whether you will or not is to try.” Jim Tully

“I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide.” Harper Lee

“Geniuses can be scintillating and geniuses can be somber, but it’s that inescapable sorrowful depth that shines through—originality.” Jack Kerouac

“Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.” Ray Bradbury

“Keep a small can of WD-40 on your desk—away from any open flames—to remind yourself that if you don’t write daily, you will get rusty.” George Singleton

“There is only one plot—things are not what they seem.” Jim Thompson

“The most beautiful things are those that madness prompts and reason writes.” Andre Gide

“When I say work I only mean writing. Everything else is just odd jobs.” Margaret Laurence

“Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.” Annie Dillard

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A Collection of Business Storytelling Stories

We share a collection of business storytelling articles that offer value. These are both recent and go back a few years but all support the effectiveness of telling the right tale right.

Why Storytelling Will Be the Biggest Business Skill of the Next 5 Years (HubSpot)
“Those who tell the stories rule the world.”

The Irresistible Power of Storytelling (Harvard Business Review)
A Strategic Business Tool.

Why Companies Need More Novelists (Fast Company)
Leaders, take note (and MFA grads, take heart): acclaimed novelist Mohsin Hamid on the most quote-Tim-OBrien-storytelling-is-the-essential-human-activity-the-135637important tool you’re not using enough.

Product Narrative: How to Use Fiction to Get Your Story Straight (Inc. Magazine)
David Riemer of the Haas School of Business explains why story telling is so powerful.

The Inside Story (Psychology Today)
Success in the information age demands that we harness the hidden power of stories. Here’s what you need to know to tell a killer tale.

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22 Bits of Narrative Wisdom

A few years back on Twitter, Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats shared 22 bits of narrative wisdom. Emma’s job is to marry words and pictures to make a complete story. Here is the text but scroll further for visual takes on these “rules”.

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.

#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at 30-Buzz-Lightyearthe end of it. Now rewrite.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

#8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

#9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

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What Happened To Advertising? What Would Gossage Do?

A review of the book: What Happened To Advertising? What Would Gossage Do? by Massimo Moruzzi and Roberto Grassilli

While there are quite a few misdirects in this book, its frenetic pace and desperate tone are highly entertaining. That along with its short length has it come across as an impassioned speech for change. These short excerpts give you a sense:

– “Hype and B.S. are nothing new in the world of advertising, but things are getting out of hand.”

– we need “to end the delusional thinking and start doing creative work that actually sells products”

– “That’s when I learned that stuff that doesn’t work…that’s code-named ‘branding’.”

– “When and why did the absurd idea that you can create a brand just with ads – worse, with vague ad empty ‘branding campaigns’ – come to pass”

– “Mediocre agencies found it simpler to babble about values, positioning, branding, etc. than to do the hard creative work necessary to say something interesting enough about a product to help move it off the shelves.”

What-Happened-To-Advertising

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