Lee Thayer, professor and leadership author, says all communication is based on interpretations. He will tell you, as he often tells me, that the listener or reader interprets whatâ€™s said or written according to how she understands the words, the sentence structure, and even the underlying message or description. You can read his theories on the subject at his blog. (Feel free to disagree–I often do.)
On the road to interpretation, fiction writers have it easy. Fiction writers create worlds out of sheer imagination, and readers are allowed to contribute their own imagination at will. Fiction writers are happy to nudge the creative centers of the readerâ€™s brain and engage them in the story to the point that readers lose themselves in the narrative.
Not so with non-fiction. In non-fiction, especially business books, readers are looking for facts, statistics, and concrete evidence. People who buy business books expect writing based on truth and reality, not invention or fabrication, not mystery or innuendoâ€”just the facts, maâ€™am. Tell me what I need to know. Show me charts. Cite government stats or university research or company surveys or experiments. Make me believe you know what youâ€™re talking about through concrete evidence.
Letâ€™s look at two non-fiction books, one about the environment and one about marketing.
Diane MacEachern recently published her â€œgreenâ€ book, Big, Green Purse, about saving the environment. Itâ€™s about teaching others to embrace shopping methods that are environmentally friendly. Her tagline explains it well: â€œUse your spending power to create a greener world.â€ Diane also writes a blog, where she connects to her readers on a personal level, communicating her real-life, personal story in a more engaging manner. This book is fact-filled, butâ€¦waitâ€¦itâ€™s also personal and engaging. The â€˜storiesâ€™ are real, about real people and real events, shared to bring the reader into the writing. The window for â€œmisinterpretationâ€ is small.
And MacEachernâ€™s book is written in first person, mostly: â€œIâ€™m not advocating we stop cleaning our houses,â€ MacEachern says. â€œWhat I am suggesting is that we need to live in our homes, not sterilize them. Just as important, we shouldnâ€™t upset natureâ€™s sink in order to clean our own.â€ (Chapter 7, p.188) She wants the reader to read carefully, she wants her to participate in the message, all the while crafting supporting content that satisfies the readerâ€™s need to believe what sheâ€™s reading is truth, not fiction.
On the other hand, Michele Miller and Holly Buchanan, in The Soccer Mom Myth, create character personas to help the reader relate to their business book. For instance, in Chapter 16, â€œThe World Inside Your Door â€“ How Personas Help Create Powerful Customer Experiences,â€ they showcase different, specific personality types. And each type or persona they discuss is based on women that you have likely encountered/will encounter in your own mission to sell to the female market, complete with intimate details on how they dress, their age, even how many children they have, and whether or not they are â€˜working mothers.â€™
To make the reader feel at ease with the factual content, their writing uses storytelling the same way a fiction writer uses storytelling. Character development of personas is a routine part of fiction writing, the better to invent believable scenarios that the reader can relate to. In this book, personas are introduced to help the reader connect to real concepts of marketing to real womenâ€“not just any women, but specific types of womenâ€”described in specific details that are easy to visualize and to relate to. In other words, personas are another technique for keeping the “misinterpretation” window small.
This tells us that with fiction and with non-fiction, the author can engage the reader by providing emotional details or by startling her with a clear, detailed description or by providing a set of interesting, vivid facts. By borrowing some writing styles normally associated with fiction to pump up your non-fiction book, you bring more correct interpretations, more life, and more excitement to the dullness of â€œjust the facts, maâ€™amâ€ writing that too often invades business books.
In The Soccer Mom Myth, Miller and Buchanan show the reader how women feel and think and how they react to marketing. Miller and Buchanan personalize their message with insight and sincerity. â€œAh, yes, I know someone just like thatâ€¦â€ the reader says to herself as she reads about the different personas of women described by the authors.
Allowing yourself to embrace fiction writing styles and concepts in your business book can lessen the chance that your reader will misinterpret your message. Clarity does not have to mean just dull or boring facts. Leave that to scientific journals.
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