John Butman on Stories, Methods, and Metrics—Three Staples of Nonfiction That Can Backfire on Authors

breaking-outAuthor John Butman got a daily email from TED—the organization dedicated to “Ideas worth spreading.” This got John to wondering: “Are these really ideas? Are they truly worth spreading? Who is trying to spread them and why, and to what end?”

In a talk at the Chautauqua Institution’s Hall of Philosophy, John Butman shared his answers. Before you make plans to write a nonfiction book, set aside an hour to watch the video at the end of this post. It’s essential viewing.

Two Key Terms

First, a bit about John and his wonderful book Breaking Out: How to Build Influence in a World of Competing Ideas, which I’ve posted about here and here. He coined two terms that turned my head around.

One is ideaplex, which John defines as “all the activities by which we create, we distribute, and we consume ideas.” This includes publishing and other media, academia, consultants, think tanks, conferences, and events such as TED. John describes the ideaplex as “an enormous idea generation and consumption industry in this country like never before seen on the face of the Earth and like none that exists anywhere else on Earth besides the U.S.”

Second is idea entrepreneur—a “new kind of cultural player” who emerges from the ideaplex and fuels it. These people don’t primarily sell products or services. They sell ideas about “how other people might think differently and behave differently and act and make decisions differently.”

Meet the Idea Entrepreneur

So who are the idea entrepreneurs? Stephen Covey was one. So was Gandhi. So is Cesar Millan, Sheryl Sandberg, Atul Gawande, Al Gore, Reid Hoffman, Malcolm Gladwell, and even Eckhart Tolle. If you want more examples, just check any list of best-selling non-fiction books and look for the authors, especially in the “advice” and “business” categories.

“They’re all sort of hybrid characters,” says John about idea entrepreneurs. “They come from very different backgrounds. But they bring together aspects of the educator, the entertainer, the practitioner, the evangelist, the entrepreneur—and, yeah, there’s a bit of huckster in most of them.”

Three Key Methods

So how do successful idea entrepreneurs cut through the vast noise of ideaplex and actually change people’s beliefs and behaviors? According to John, idea entrepreneurs rely on three methods that are “seductive—and fraught with complications”:

  • Personal stories, which can be gripping—and apocryphal.
  • Methods—instructions for how to do things, which can be useful but not cover every contingency.
  • Metrics—measure of success that can yield valuable feedback or meaningless data.

Check out John’s talk for the details.

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