Writing for Behavior Change — Helping Readers Gain Insight Through Stories and Structured Experiences

580488_623132987698607_278299478_nWe can take two different paths when writing books that help readers to change their behavior —process learning and insight learning. These exist on a continuum, and both kinds of learning are valuable. Good instructions for behavior change alternate between process (how to do something) and insight (why doing something will benefit me).

In the latter type of learning, insights are discovered by readers rather than taught through rules, examples, practice, and feedback. Effective stories work well for this purpose. In addition, you can include exercises, or structured experiences. Following are some options.

Making lists

One way for readers to make your key learning points more concrete is to list personal examples. If you’re writing about habit change, for instance, ask readers to describe times when they successfully changed a habit.

Readers could follow up with another list of times when their change attempts failed. Making both lists sets up people to reflect on which habit-change strategies worked well and which did not.

Telling my story

Sometimes people benefit by telling their story at length — with more scope and depth than possible in a brief list of examples.

This strategy is widely used in groups based on the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. For AA members, “telling your story” of hitting bottom with addiction and making the decision to get help is fundamental.

Exemplar cases

Create stories about how people succeed at applying a process in daily life. These stories can range from brief anecdotes to extended narratives. In any case, the purpose of these stories is to give examples of how your ideas actually work.

The trick is to make these stories vivid, credible, and authentic. Keep abstract theory and academic jargon to a minimum. Also remember that stories can be presented through audio and video as well as text.

Problem cases

Create open-ended stories (case studies). These leave the main character in the middle of the action with a problem to solve. Ask readers to suggest possible solutions and evaluate each one.

If you’re writing for recovering alcoholics about how to prevent relapse, for example, include a story about a person who ends up at a party where he feels strong urges to drink again. Then prompt readers to suggest relapse-prevention strategies.

Structured experiences

With these “outbound” activities, readers go beyond the page and take their learning into daily life. For example, they can:

  • Apply a process. Say that you’re explaining a process for decision-making. Ask readers to apply the steps in that process to a real decision in their lives and describe the results.
  • Practice a script. Write a model that readers can use to make an assertive request, say no to a compromising situation, or practice some other skill.
  • Carry out an experiment. Ask readers to pair with a partner or join a small group. They practice a new behavior, observe the outcomes, and share their insights with each other.

Prompts for reflection and further action

Stories and structured experiences gain power when they are modeled, debriefed and discussed. You can do this by providing:

  • Sample responses to exercises.
  • Questions that direct attention to key events in a story and points to remember.
  • Questions that guide readers to express their own insights and plan new behaviors based on their insights.
  • Reminders that readers share their insights and plans with a peer, group, mentor, sponsor, counselor, or coach.

You can also prompt readers to reflect by completing sentences. Therapist Nathaniel Branden offers many examples here. In the Master Student Series of books, we prompt students to follow up on stories and structured experiences with two simple sentence fragments:

  • I discovered that….
  • I intend to….

Note: This post is based on material from a company named Seward Learning Partners. I’ve tried to reach them for years. If anyone has contact information, please let me know.

Writing for Behavior Change — Helping Readers Gain Insight Through Stories

LP postTaking action is essential to learning. In fact, learning is often defined as a stable change in behavior.

At the same time, action is linked to insight. Readers can change their thinking in ways that support behavior change rather than undermine it.

While process learning concentrates on the how to dimension of learning, insight is concerned with why. Insight learning helps people define their values and build self-awareness. As a writer, you can use stories for both purposes.

Benefits of stories

Effective stories are dramatic examples that lead readers to conclude: This material is really about me. Stories lead people to this conclusion when they:

  • Make abstract ideas concrete by showing how a process actually plays out in “real life.”
  • Engage readers by adding entertainment and emotional force.
  • Provide readers with “experience, strength, and hope” (as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous) for overcoming daily difficulties.

Two kinds of stories

In instructional writing, stories exists on a continuum.

At one end of the continuum are gritty, concrete, realistic stories that “ring true” with readers. As in a good novel, the characters are people that we can identify with. They face the kind of problems that we actually face. They act like us. They talk like us. When these characters learn from experience, we learn along with them.

At the other end of the continuum are flat, generic, and sanitized stories. These lack authentic characters, details, and dialogue. Such stories are used transparently to illustrate a simplistic “right way” and “wrong way.” Actually, these are not stories so much as thinly veiled lectures. Some pompous ass is waving a finger at us and preaching about what we should do.

Writing effective stories

Writing stories is an art that calls for a lifetime of practice. We can learn a lot from good fiction writers. Some things you can do immediately, however, are to:

  • Write stories in first-person voice, where characters speak from the perspective of “I.”
  • Whenever possible, draw from real-life examples and verbatim dialogue.
  • Avoid academic terms, scientific terms, or jargon of any type that detracts from authenticity.

Note: This post is based on material from a company named Seward Learning Partners. I’ve tried to reach them for years. If anyone has contact information, please let me know.

Writing for Behavior Change — Helping Readers to Learn a Process

RAILTRACK 4A (1)Many nonfiction books—including those in the vast self-help and business genres—are about helping people to learn. And learning boils down to enduring change in behavior. When we’ve learned something, in short, we are able to do or say something that we could not do or say previously.

What people want to learn varies widely, of course—anything from how to get firmer abs to how to meditate. In any case, our job is to write instructions that work and make a lasting difference in readers’ lives.

I’ve been writing instructions for 25 years. The main thing I’ve learned is that they are tricky, tricky, tricky. Instructions can engage readers—or quickly turn them off.

In order to succeed, distinguish between two different kinds of instructions:

  • Using a process (usually a step-by-step procedure) to produce a specific outcome
  • Using stories and structured experiences to gain insight that supports behavior change

In this post, I’ll focus on process instruction.

Three elements of process instruction

Process learning is what usually comes to mind when we think about “teaching” someone to do something. Process learning helps people understand how to complete a task or take a series of actions.

Process learning draws on traditional elements of instruction:

  1. State a rule or principle.
  2. Give an example of how to apply the rule or principle (and sometimes a non-example as well).
  3. Ask the reader to apply the rule and get immediate feedback.

An example of process instruction

Recipes offer common examples of process instructions. However, process instructions can apply to any aspect of human behavior.

Here’s an example from the work of psychologist B. J. Fogg on habit change. He teaches a course about making small changes in behavior—“baby steps,” or tiny habits—that cascade into larger changes over time.

More specifically, a tiny habit is a behavior that:

  • You do at least once a day
  • Takes less than 30 seconds
  • Requires little effort
  • Is triggered by one of your current habits

The above bulleted list offers the first element of process instructions—the rule or principle.

B. J. also offers lots of examples of tiny habits, such as:

  • After I brush my teeth, I will floss one tooth.
  • After I pour my morning coffee, I will text my mom.
  • After I start the dishwasher, I will read one sentence from a book.

The final element of process instructions—giving readers immediate feedback on performance—is challenging: We’re not physically present with our readers, so we cannot observe what they do. With written instructions, however, we can describe things that might go wrong when people apply a rule and then suggest solutions.

Note: This post is based on material from a company named Seward Learning Partners. I’ve tried to reach them for years. If anyone has contact information, please let me know.

Lessons About the Writing Process From an Author of 400 Books (Part Two)

apple dictionaryIn a previous post, I highlighted Andrew Offutt, author of 400 novels. He wrote by creating small, independent units — anything from a single sentence to an entire scene — that he later combined into complete book manuscripts.

Most of Offutt’s work was pulp fiction, cranked out on a work-for-hire basis. Even so, we can distill useful insights from his creative process.

1. Look for the fundamental units of your published work

Fiction writers often structure their manuscripts as a series of individual scenes that are connected by transitions. Let’s apply this notion to nonfiction books and think of chapters as a series of “articles” that are connected by transitions.

By article I mean a single, coherent section within a chapter. In nonfiction books, these are often marked by a heading that appears in bold or italic type. Each article develops a single point about the topic of the chapter as a whole.

In addition to articles, your work might include interactive elements, such as exercises for readers to do. These are also fundamental units of your work.

2. Collect your existing units

Now review your published work—blog posts, white papers, books, and so on. Do you have final drafts of those in Microsoft Word or another text editor? If so, great. Do the following:

  • Duplicate those drafts.
  • Divide them into individual units.
  • Save each unit as a separate document with a descriptive title—key words that you’ll be sure to remember.
  • Throw all those documents into a single folder, searchable database, or commonplace book.

3. Create new units

After collecting your existing units, you’ll probably have ideas for new units. Start writing those now. Tackle them in any order that appeals to you. Then add add them to your collection.

4. Create new projects by combining units

Whenever you want to create a new project (presentation, blog post, article, or book), you never have to start from scratch. Instead, go to your collection of units and look for what you can use. Assemble the first draft of your new projects by copying units, pasting them in a logical sequence, and adding transitions.

I am not saying that this process will lead to a finished draft of your next project. However, it will lead to a rough draft that you can revise into something that really sings.

P.S. For examples of books that work well as collections of units, see the tables of contents for Rework and Remote by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson.

Lessons About the Writing Process From an Author of 400 Books (Part One)

IMG_0001I am fascinated by this article about Andrew Offutt, who wrote at least 400 books before he died in 2013. The majority of these were sexually-explicit pulp fiction, written under 17 pseudonyms.

I’m not advocating for this genre. But I do invite you to play along with me for a moment: Can we distill some lessons from Offutt’s prodigious output that will benefit our own work?

The Process

Offutt’s son, Chris, recalls his dad’s writing process:

Dad’s writing process was simple — he’d get an idea, brainstorm a few notes, then write the first chapter. Next he’d develop an outline from one to 10 pages. He followed the outline carefully, relying on it to dictate the narrative. He composed his first drafts longhand, wearing rubber thimbles on finger and thumb. Writing with a felt-tip pen, he produced 20 to 40 pages in a sitting. Upon completion of a full draft, he transcribed the material to his typewriter, revising as he went.

His goal was a minimum of a book a month. To achieve that, he refined his methods further, inventing a way that enabled him to maintain a supply of raw material with a minimum of effort. He created batches in advance — phrases, sentences, descriptions and entire scenes on hundreds of pages organized in three-ring binders. Tabbed index dividers separated the sections into topics.

Dad was like Henry Ford applying principles of assembly-line production with pre-made parts. The methodical technique proved highly efficient. Surrounded by his tabulated notebooks, he could quickly find the appropriate section and transcribe lines directly into his manuscript. Afterward, he blacked them out to prevent plagiarizing himself. Ford hired a team of workers to manufacture a Model-T in hours. Working alone, Dad could write a book in three days [italics added].

Applying Assembly Line Principles to a Creative Act

Do those paragraphs describe a literary hack — or a master of productivity? The answer is not so simple.

Consider the painter Chuck Close, who works by deconstructing his huge images into small grids that he completes one at a time. The parallels between this respected artist and Offutt are clear.

What we can take from them is the process of dividing large projects into smaller parts that can be created independently. Offutt actually created many of those parts prior to producing the first draft of a book.

We can take this idea and run with it. The goal is to save time and effort when creating a book manuscript.

In my next post, I’ll suggest ways to do this.

Are You a “Content Creator”? And Is That Enough?

Content vs SubstanceOne of the maladies of the twenty-first century is the ease with which we use the term content. We talk about content marketing and content management. We also describe ourselves as “content providers” and creators of “information products.” Yet our casual use of this term glosses over some key distinctions and might even undermine our work.

Maria Popova, creator and curator of the venerable Brain Pickingsdescribes content as:

… a term by which no self-respecting writer or artist would refer to what she makes, and yet one forcefully seared on to writing and art by the tyrannical vocabulary of commercial media, that hotbed of professionalized consumerism concerned not with the stewardship of culture but with the profitable commodification of it.

Maria is blunt. And she raises a fair question: What is content, anyway? Here we can easily go astray. There are so many questions to ask, such as:

  • If you write a book, are you creating content? Or is that something you do only when creating text, images, video, or audio to appear online?
  • What if you take text and images from your book and adapt them to appear on your website? Have you taken one thing and turned it into something else?
  • Is the New York Times a “content provider”? How about Shakespeare or other great authors, if you read their work online?

In an interview with James Altucher, Maria contrasts “substantive writing” with content. She riffs on the cliché that “content is king,” contrasting “substantive writing” with listicles and clickbait:

… content is not king. Content is currency. Substantive writing is king in the sense of that it really nourishes and inspires us and just makes us feel a little more alive.

In response, James points out that list-based articles on the Internet sometimes do convey useful ideas and information. Maria concedes this point, citing her wonderful post on Umberto Eco and lists as the “origin of culture.”

One path out of confusion is to remember the difference between what’s ephemeral and what lasts. Let’s distinguish text and images that are forgotten within minutes of publication from the human creations that turn into classics. If you’re creating a list that people will still be reading 100 years from today, then you’re probably creating literature—defined by Ezra Pound in the ABC of Reading as “news that stays news.”

When we raise our creativity to this level, then we can put aside the whole debate about content versus substance. Our ancestors will simply know that we created something remarkable.

Change That Lasts — Helping Readers Adopt New Habits

fitnessjogIn an earlier post, I outlined the problems we face as writers who create books and other materials to promote behavior change. This post is about a solution.

Three Paths to Behavior Change

The most exciting discovery I’ve made in the last five years is the work of B.J. Fogg — psychologist, researcher, and founder of the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford University. He pioneered the Tiny Habits program, which is based on the idea that three things lead to long-term change in human behavior:

  1. Experiencing an epiphany, or life-altering insight that resonates on a deep emotional level
  2. Changing your environment
  3. Taking” baby steps”—making small changes in behavior (almost absurdly small, in fact) that cascade over time into larger, enduring change

As authors, too many of us rely on #1. That’s unrealistic, says Fogg. Not only are epiphanies rare — they’re almost impossible to predict, create, or control. Our books might be good, but they’re not that good.

Though Fogg has a lot to say about #2 above, I’ll focus on #3. It has wide applications and is fun to boot.

The Nature of a Tiny Habit

Tiny Habits meet three criteria. They are behaviors that:

  • You do at least once a day
  • Take less than 30 seconds
  • Require little effort

These criteria are based on two unflattering observations about human beings. First, we resist change. Two, we’re lazy. We like to avoid discomfort and effort — especially when they relate to large-scale changes in our behavior.

BJ’s solution is to plan behavior changes that require almost no time, no effort, no ability, no motivation, and no friction. For example:

  • After I brush my teeth, I will floss one tooth.
  • After I pour my morning coffee, I will text my spouse.
  • After I start the dishwasher, I will read one sentence from a book.
  • After I pee, I will do one push up.

The joy of this process is that Tiny Habits naturally expand into bigger changes. When you successfully floss one tooth, for example, you’re more likely to floss other teeth. Over time, your new behavior can make your dentist very happy.

Easy? Not!

When designing Tiny Habits, people often start with behaviors that are vaguely defined and too ambitious. It takes serious editing to specify habits that are truly tiny.

Notice also the structure of the three examples listed above. Tiny Habits work when they’re triggered by a habit that’s already part of your daily routine (“After I….”) Pairing the new behavior with an old one takes practice.

Rewards are also key to forming Tiny Habits. These can be as simple as saying YES to yourself after doing your new behavior. Getting this part of the program to work takes practice as well.

Fortunately, Fogg offers a free e-mail course that will guide you through the intricacies of Tiny Habits. It’s all based on three words: Simplicity changes behavior.

Deconstructing Our Ideas Into Tiny Habits

Let’s take the big ideas that we champion and translate them into Tiny Habits.

When we recommend a goal, outcome, policy, procedure, or “best practice,” let’s help our audiences deconstruct it into a series of small behavior changes.

Let’s give examples of those changes. And let’s suggest ways to experiment with triggers, behaviors, and rewards until people emerge with change that lasts.

If we can’t do this, then it’s time to take another look at our our content. And if we can help our audiences design for behavior change, then we have a potent sign that our stuff actually works.

Let’s Face It—Readers Resist Behavior Change

stemarie_nativeyouthAlmost all of the books I’ve worked on shared a singular purpose—to help people change their behavior. Though I was usually excited about these projects, I seldom escaped the nagging fear that the published product would have zero impact on readers’ lives.

Behavior change is the core rationale for business, self-help, popular psychology, and “how-to” books of every stripe. These are often written by idea entrepreneurs with a mission to change the world (or at least a corner of it), to create a legacy, and to make a pile of money in the process.

Alas, those hopes are easily dashed on the shores of sheer inertia. We’re pitted against readers who seldom have a clue about bridging the gap between theory and practice, between intention and action.

At War With Ourselves

People stubbornly resist behavior change. Even after exposure to grand and sweeping ideas, we find ourselves sinking back into the same old safe and familiar patterns. This is often true no matter how mediocre or painful the results. Books come and go, but problems persist.

To understand this, remember that the part of us which processes ideas and information from a book is the conscious mind. And this is a pitiful player against the mighty unconscious mind — including the force of habit — that actually runs our lives.

We like to think that we are free agents, making conscious choices that take us in sure, incremental steps toward greater happiness. In reality, we act like automatons. Most of the time, we simply repeat stimulus-response chains that were forged decades ago. We’re robots just running our programming, and the whole drama plays out below the threshold of conscious awareness.

Helping Readers Design for Behavior Change

This problem will persist until we explicitly address it. And that requires some ego-deflation. Let’s begin by admitting that our precious, sparkling ideas — even those that seem so obviously powerful and right to us — are seldom enough to make most readers lift a little finger.

We’re called upon to add a crucial missing ingredient to our content, which is an explicit design for behavior change. I use that word design on purpose. For one thing, it’s a term that’s emerged in connection with some exciting recent research on behavior change. In addition, it reminds us that behavior change calls for planning as well as implementation and feedback. Most of us will experiment, falter, fail, adjust, and tweak our efforts until we experience a change that lasts.

In my next post, I’ll suggest a way to help your audience to do just that.

How Not to be a Self-Centered Jerk—What David Foster Wallace Teaches Us About How People Change

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

200px-David_Foster_WallaceSo begins David Foster Wallace’s timeless commencement speech to the graduating class of Kenyon College in 2005. His point: The things that seem the most obvious and self-evident are the hardest to think about. Why? Because they are as invisible to us as water is to fish.

If we want to avoid being self-centered jerks, however, these are precisely the things most worth thinking about.

I doubt that Wallace set out to write a “self-help” speech. Yet that’s exactly what he did—if by self-help we mean the effort to change our beliefs and behaviors in ways that reduce suffering. Wallace’s speech illuminates what we do when creating books for this purpose.

Three beliefs worth questioning

One of our primary challenges is to question the unconscious beliefs that are wired into us. For example:

  • I am the center of the universe.
  • Everything that happens is ultimately about me.
  • Everything that happens should satisfy my wants and needs first of all.

As Wallace said:

Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

In a line of reasoning that the Buddha would approve, Wallace argues that this natural lens of self-centeredness leads us to needless and near constant suffering.

Self-centered thinking takes us to hell

In a speech at a prestigious liberal arts college, Wallace could have wandered off into an abstract and purely academic discussion. He didn’t.

Instead, he reveals a homely secret to the robed and newly graduated students seated before him: Much of adult life involves dealing with petty frustrations such as traffic jams, crowded parking lots, and long checkout lines at the grocery store.

In situations such as these, one thing that can send us directly to an internal hell is the quality of our thinking:

What happens, for instance, if I regress to my default belief that I am the center of the universe? Then the primary fact about the traffic jam or crowded parking lot or long line is that it inconveniences me. This leads inevitably to anger that everyone else is in my way. And that is both an injustice and a tragedy.

Metacognition opens the keys to heaven

In any moment, however, we have another option. We can stand back from our habitual internal monologue, examine it, and even choose different thoughts. This is the essence of metacognition—thinking about our thinking.

Wallace explains how to use metacognition during a traffic jam:

The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.

What “learning how to think” really means

The punch line of Wallace’s speech is that metacognition is the whole point of a liberal education:

… learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.

When we do exercise this kind of choice, every little frustration becomes a chance to drop a dose of compassion into our collective consciousness.

After all, it’s not all about me. You and I are in this together. And if we choose, we can be a little kinder to each other.

Wallace’s commencement speech has been published as This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life.

Shane Parrish over at Farnam Street has some excellent posts about Wallace’s speech, including:

Writers Are Liars—And That’s a Good Thing

4101603579_eb62d6d022Writing is about discovering structure. We take streams of events, ideas, and information. Then we present them so that they have a beginning, middle, and end.

The problem is—they actually don’t.

Life, as someone said, is just one damn thing after another. Writers are paid to impose an artificial order on experience.

In other words, writers are liars.

But this is OK. In fact, it is a function of art.

Are you old enough to remember a 1978 movie called “The Tree of Wooden Clogs”? I sat through all 3 hours of it in a theater and walked away saying: This is not art. It’s life.

This film chronicled the mundane events of the characters’ lives, minute by minute. We see them grooming, cleaning, cooking, eating meals, washing dishes, and doing the hundred other things that make up the days of our life.

It was excruciating.

When I go to a theater, I don’t want life. I want the boring parts taken out. I want an extract of life.

More specifically, I want to see what happens when a character—someone I care about—faces a problem that matters (the beginning). I want to see what he does next (the middle). And I want to find out whether the problem is ever resolved (the end).

I have the same basic desire when it comes to bodies of ideas and information. I want a writer to explain a:

  • Problem that matters to me (the beginning)
  • Solution to the problem (the middle)
  • Plan of action for  integrating it into my own life (the end)

Again, our daily lives are not nearly this neat. People experience problem after problem that they never resolve. They run across tons of potential solutions and fail to recognize them. And the tragedy is that they often fail to realize they even have a particular problem in the first place.

The ultimate value writing in any genre is getting a clear grasp of complications, developments, and resolutions. Events and ideas gain some order and organization. For a moment, life stops being one damn thing after another. Of course, it’s a lie. But it’s a useful and compassionate lie.