take your best advice and give it away

The other day, I mentioned a problem to an acquaintance. For the purposes of this story, let’s call my acquaintance Sesquipedalian, “characterized by long words; long-winded.” Pleasingly euphonic, incontrovertibly gender-fluid, and entirely appropriate for the Maven Game.

“I can relate,” said Sesquipedalian. “Have you heard of the such-and-such technique?”

Indeed, I had not. According to Sesq, the such-and-such technique was quick, easy, and surprisingly effective for my problem. There were YouTube videos to get me started. And, of course, there was a best-selling book: The Such-and-Such Technique: An X-Step Method for Easy, Breezy Solving of This Problem You’ve Been Having.

Naturally, I now own The Such-and-Such Technique.

I did not make this example up just to make my point. It actually happened, and it actually happened “the other day,” which, since today is Sunday, refers to this past Monday. (That’s how it works. Look it up.) Still, it happens to offer an object lesson in how these books sell: not by luring readers in with a mystery but by tying the best ideas up with a bow and giving them away.

Think about your own experience. Whether it was the colleague who told you about Getting Things Done, the fellow parent who told you about The Happiest Baby on the Block, or the former slob who told you about The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, the sequence of events is usually the same:

  1. You mention a problem.
  2. The other person shares a simple, memorable technique to address that problem.
  3. You learn that any necessary details about the technique can be absorbed from a short, free YouTube video, but that it happens to originate in a book (that has probably sold millions of copies).
  4. You give the technique a try and get results.
  5. You buy the book.
  6. Before you’ve even read the book, you start recommending the same technique to others with the same problem.

This cycle repeats itself with every new bestseller, and yet the vast majority of experts subscribe to a series of fallacies in direct opposition:

  • I need to bury my advice deep in my book so that nobody can steal it by browsing the Kindle sample or skimming at Barnes and Noble.
  • I need to build up to the techniques in my book with pages and pages of sales copy about how awesome the techniques will be…once the reader gets to them.
  • I need to weave the advice throughout the text in bits and pieces so that it can’t easily be extracted by all those book-summary vultures—no bullet-points!
  • I need everyone to sign an NDA before reading my proposal so nobody steals my amazing techniques.
  • And on and on.

Are you writing a textbook to train up the next generation of experts, or are you trying to change the world? This is how ideas spread. Yes, of course you can cover your subject in exhaustive depth and detail in your book, but first you’ve got to give your readers what they want: a solution, something to put into practice now.

It’s scary to hand out the prescription before all the context and caveats, but time and again we see that, yes, people are willing to buy the book, the course, the training, the consulting, but only after they’ve gotten results.

You don’t hear about successful books because they’ve sold so many copies. They’ve sold so many copies because you’ve heard about them, because they lend themselves to being shared.

If your work-in-progress doesn’t contain a handful of simple, memorable, and effective techniques that can be described in a sentence or two, back to square one. Whether it’s Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages, Tim Ferriss’s Slow Carb Diet, or simply eating that frog as suggested by Brian Tracy in Eat That Frog!, the life-changing magic should be in plain view, if not in the title itself. Take your best advice and give it away.

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