Inside the Ideaplex
Over the last two days, we have been caught up in a storm of social media mania. It started when we sent out an eblast to our entire contact list (basically everybody we knew or had ever met or might ever want to meet) informing them about our activities surrounding my new book, Breaking Out: How to Build Influence in a World of Competing Ideas (Harvard Business Review Press). The email carried two bits of what we considered to be exciting news. First, that the Kindle edition of the book was available on Amazon.com. Second, that my first HBR blog post, "How to Influence People with Your Ideas," was live on the HBR site. We, of course, accompanied the email with a tweet about both the Amazon availability and the HBR post.
Within minutes, possibly seconds, I felt the first drops of social media rain in the form of email replies of greetings and congratulations and promises to purchase the book, along with, of course, a number of automatic "out of office" replies ("travelling with limited access to email" — really?) and a few bouncebacks from abandoned addresses. Then a gust of tweets blew through. The early ones carried good wishes, and they were followed by messages commenting on the blog post. Then we saw retweets and forwarded tweets, and, hot on their heels, tweets commenting on the blog that were not sent to me at all, but that we could see by entering the title of the blog post into the search window.
Meanwhile, the Amazon ranking of the Kindle edition of the book began to drop, falling from its pre-release ranking of around 600,000 to somewhere in the 30,000s by the end of the day. At the same time, our website visits started to climb and, by the end of the day, we had experienced almost ten times our normal daily traffic. Next came a flurry of new followers on Twitter, a phone call from my agent at the speaker's bureau about a possible opportunity, several invitations to create guest blogs on other sites, and a crank-up of views of our YouTube video.
By this morning, of course, two days later, the social media storm had largely passed. Looking at our analytics, we can see the spikes in traffic and activity leveling off and looking more like little mounds. The Amazon ranking is slipping back a little. The tweeting and retweeting and new following activity has subsided a bit. But we experienced a prototypical and quite delightful viral event in the ideaplex, with each element feeding into and amplifying every other, with the result that we had made some 21,000 countable, potential impressions with the ideas contained in the blog, sold some number of Kindle editions of the book (Amazon doesn't reveal those numbers, but we can check BookScan at week's end), and hopefully gained a bit more voice in the public conversation about ideas and how to take them public. A nice meta quality to that.
I should mention that I did not receive a single phone call.
A story in the New York Times this weekend described the walking journeys that inspired several great writers of the past, and that put me in mind of all the writers who do their work in the local Starbucks, on the plane, or even while ambling along at their new treadmill desks.
Then I happened across the novelist Neil Gaiman, and in the preface to his book American Gods, he describes how he wrote it while traveling, in various homes and hotels, in a cabin, and on a train. That made me think of Jack Kerouac and the (later) famous way he constructed On the Road, by taping together a stack of sheets into a long roll and madly tapping until he was done. Not to mention my friend and colleague, Bill Birchard, who writes in the passenger seat of his car, while his wife drives from their home in New Hampshire to their cabin in Calgary. All of which made me ponder myself and my tedious habit of writing while sitting at a thing called a desk and my constant urge to not do that. Which reminded me of the standard recommendations from various health experts and advisors about how to keep your body from accumulating sludge along its lower edges while seated, advice which always includes getting up and walking around, even if only for a few yards every hour or so.
I'm writing this while sitting on a train, pinned against the arm rest by a large dude who wedged himself in the middle seat saying, without a great deal of sincerity, “excuse me, excuse me” as he stepped over my feet, and took up his throne, along with his big bag, large coffee, and phlegmatic cough. He proceeded to sit there, coughing periodically, not trying to write.
Anyway, my point is that there is very likely a correlation between the physical act of writing and the style of writing that results. My guess, based on nothing more than reading and thinking about it, is that an in-motion, peripatetic, public process yields a more high-velocity, short-segment, external kind of writing, while a more cloistered, seated, prolonged process results in something more inwardly-focused, slower on the page, and with a longer arc.
I write tweets and emails on the train, not books. But, for my next book, I am going to try to write it standing up, walking, talking to voice recognition software, in the car, in public spaces, on airplanes, trains (without large guys wedged next to me, because my right arm is trapped) anywhere that will infuse my writing with action, motion, brevity, and a sense of being hurtled, harried, and a member of the social network. Which means I probably won't write another book, or at least not a long one. Maybe a very long series of tweets.
Having been in on many conversations between would-be authors (often first-timers) and potential publishers, the pattern of what will be asked and what will not has become clear. Recently, I had dinner with one of my (beloved) authors, prepping him for the publisher call planned for the next day. Knowing the questions, and having time to think about the answers, he performed superbly on the conference call.
The questions are basic, obvious, predictable — and incredibly hard to answer.
Five Questions Publishers Will Ask
- Why did you write this book? The answer must not be about personal fame and fortune, but rather about passion for the subject, dedication to a cause, and a desire to bring something of value to others, and the world. If it isn't, perhaps self-publishing would be a better route for you.
- What is the book about? You might think this one would be easy to answer, but it isn't. Try practicing the answer with a member of your family, such as a spouse, if you have one. They will not let you get away with blather.
- Why is the book important now? As a wise professor once said to me about poetry, "You're modern, or you're nothing." Your subject can be ancient (as most subjects are) but it has to connect to and be relevant now. Figure it out.
- Who is the audience? No one really knows who their audience is, but you need to have an answer to this. Usually you have a real person in mind who you are writing to and at. That person may represent a larger group. That's a place to start.
- How is this book different from the XX thousand other books on the same topic? Your book will probably not be dramatically different from the many other books on the subject of superfood or decision-making or dark matter, but it will (and must) have a distinct difference that you can articulate. It may have a particular bit of content, a point of view, a new finding. A book without some news is little more than a school thesis.
And the one question that publishers generally will not ask, but are looking for, deep down: What does this book mean to me, personally?
It makes sense that a publisher wants to feel a personal connection to any project he or she will be taking a bet on and devoting a significant chunk of energy to. This will take some bold probing to discover. But, in my experience, if you can make the subject relevant to the publisher's experience and situation, they are much more likely to buy it.
I was delighted to give a keynote talk yesterday evening at The H(ult) Factor—a personal elevator pitch competition. My associate (not my assistant!) Anna Weiss and I went along to the Boston campus of the Hult International Business School, which is housed in a stylish building at 1 Education Street. Its techy, office-like teaching and seminar rooms look out over North Point Park, across the Charles, to Beacon Hill and the expanse of Boston.
This was the inaugural H(ult) Factor event, and it was designed with a singular purpose: to give its students the chance to present themselves and their capabilities to a panel of judges brought in from the "real world" of business, as a kind of intense warm-up for the job interviews and self-presentations they will soon be making in earnest. Since Hult’s establishment in 1964 (its roots are as the Arthur D. Little School of Management) the school has grown to become the largest graduate business school in the world, with over 2,000 students. (Harvard has about 900.) The school confers a one-year MBA as well as other business-focused masters, and about eighty percent of the students hail from outside the United States.
Participation in the event was optional and forty-five of the three hundred Boston students opted in. There were three tracks (sales and marketing, operations management, and finance and accounting) and each student had three minutes to make their personal elevator pitch to the judges. This is who I am, what I have to offer, what I have done, what I want to do. After the initial round, four students in each track were chosen to advance to a round of "cross-examination" by the jury. Then the entire group gathered for wine and cheese and listened as Dean Henrik Tötterman announced the winners, as well as an audience favorite, in each track.
Listening to the students, it struck me how useful the exercise was for them and how tough it is for anyone to present themselves, especially in three minutes. I certainly struggle with it. It is perhaps the most difficult presentation to make and the one that people come up against in all kinds of endeavors, in organizations and communities, when they want to advance an idea, start an initiative, get a job, further a cause. Who am I, what do I want, what do I offer, what is the essence of my message, why should anybody care?
Before the cross-examinations got under way, I was asked to give general feedback to the students on their personal elevator pitches:
Suggestions for Creating a Personal Elevator Pitch
- Find and express your fascination. What genuinely engages, excites, and animates you about your idea? People are attracted to attraction. If you’re not truly, personally intrigued by your idea or what you do, why would anybody else be? Make a connection between your fascination and your idea and your goals for yourself. If you demonstrate that you care, other people will, too.
- Support your general points with personal stories and examples. A general claim about your skills or fine qualities doesn’t really carry any weight until it is illuminated with a story. You need not create an heroic narrative, just relate an incident or even a moment in which you accomplished something, learned something, or had some kind of realization that is relevant to your pitch.
- Try to generate “respiration.” This simply means that you want the idea to breathe. You want people talking about it to each other, engaging with you to try to understand it more completely and in their own way. That’s why, at the H(ult) event, the personal elevator pitches were followed by a cross-examination of the finalists. Do not think you have to defend yourself or convince the questioner that you are right. Listen and try to incorporate their thinking into your own.
- Don’t think you have to be something you are not. It’s tough to deliver a succinct pitch, without notes or slide support, to a group of experienced judges, especially when you want to connect with them and have them take your ideas onboard. You can easily lose track of your pitch if it deviates from who you really are. Don’t make assumptions about what your listeners are looking for or what they expect you to be. Put your best foot forward, but make sure you’re wearing your own shoes.
- Present with “calm assertiveness.” Take a tip from Cesar Millan, the “dog whisperer”, and deal with your human listeners as he recommends people interact with their dogs: calmly and assertively.
If you can really nail a three-minute personal elevator pitch, excellent, you will surely get response. Make sure to listen carefully to the reactions you hear, because they will help you boil your message down even further. One minute is great. Fifteen seconds is even better.