Stories, Methods, and Metrics — Three Staples of Nonfiction That Can Derail Your Big Idea

Author John Butman got a daily email from TED — the organization dedicated to “ideas worth spreading.” This got him 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, Butman shared his answers. If you’re planning to build a platform for your ideas by writing a nonfiction book, then this video is essential viewing.

Pressed for time? I understand. Check out the following summary of John’s main points.

Behold the ideaplex

Butman coined this useful term. It refers to “all the activities by which we create, we distribute, and we consume ideas.”

The ideaplex includes the whole of book publishing, broadcast media, and the Internet. It also includes the activities of academics, consultants, business leaders, think tanks, and people who participate in idea-based events such as TED.

What matters most about the ideaplex is its staggering size. Butman describes it as an “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.”

Enter the idea entrepreneur

The idea entrepreneur is a “new kind of cultural player” who emerges from the ideaplex and fuels it. These entrepreneurs often offer products or services, but that’s not their main business. Their mission is primarily to sell ideas about “how other people might think differently and behave differently and act and make decisions differently.”

So who are some examples of idea entrepreneurs?

Stephen Covey was one. His big idea was about the habits of highly effective people.

Atul Gawande is another idea entrepreneur. He wrote a book about the life-saving power of checklists, especially for health care professionals.

Eckhart Tolle is an idea entrepreneur as well. The Power of Now brought his big idea to the world.

Daniel Goleman built an idea platform based on emotional intelligence.

Gandhi, who introduced the concept of militant nonviolence, was a classic idea entrepreneur.

If you want more examples, just check any list of best-selling non-fiction books. Look for the names of authors, especially in the “advice,” “how-to,” and “business” categories.

“They’re all sort of hybrid characters,” says Butman 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.”

So how do successful idea entrepreneurs cut through the vast noise of ideaplex and actually change people’s beliefs and behaviors?

Well, timing and luck are key factors. In addition, says Butman, idea entrepreneurs rely on three more:

  • Stories — especially about the origin of the entrepreneur’s big idea
  • Methods — instructions for how to implement the big idea
  • Metrics — measures of success

Make sure your stories are true

Idea entrepreneurs often talk about iconic moments in their lives — especially events that led directly to the creation of their big idea.

In the Power of Now, for example, Eckhart Tolle recalls an experience of near-suicidal depression:

“I cannot live with myself any longer.” This was the thought that kept repeating itself in my mind. Then suddenly I became aware of what a peculiar thought it was. “Am I one or two? If I cannot live with myself, then there cannot be two of me: the ‘I’ and the ‘self’ that ‘I’ cannot live with.” “Maybe,” I thought, “only one of them is real.”

Tolle was stunned by this thought. His mind stopped. He felt drawn into a “vortex of energy” and experienced an “intense fear.” Then he heard the words “resist nothing” as if spoken inside his chest. Suddenly the fear disappeared, and he spent the next five months “in a state of uninterrupted deep peace and bliss.” The Power of Now grew out of conversations he had about this experience.

Not every author has such a dramatic origin story. Some simply cannot recall the key events. And even if they do, they might fear to reveal intimate details about their lives.

In addition, idea entrepreneurs who finesse or falsify their personal narratives can also get into trouble. This happened to Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace — One School at a Time.

Mortenson wrote that he got lost while climbing a mountain on the border of China and Pakistan. According to Three Cups of Tea, he was nursed back to health by local villagers and later returned to start a school for girls in the community.

Three Cups of Tea went on to sell several million copies. But then Jon Krakauer wrote an article titled “Three Cups of Deceit,” which revealed that Mortenson’s account was fabricated.  Mortenson’s reputation was ruined and the coauthor of his book eventually committed suicide.

Does the accuracy of an origin story really matter? The ideaplex for the most part says no, according to Butman. Mortenson’s defenders say that his mission to educate girls in developing countries is still sound — even if his origin story is not true.

“It is every effective to link iconic moments to the development of your ideas,” Butman concludes. “But it is also very, very tricky and dangerous.” Be sure your account is accurate. And remember to be skeptical when you hear such stories from other authors.

Offer methods that people can actually use

“American like practical ideas,” says Butman. “We don’t like abstractions or Ivory Tower idealism.” This creates a market for books with frameworks, processes, methods, how-to’s, and tips.

Giving instructions is tricky, however. People who get busy carrying out a numbered list of steps can forget about the underlying principles. Plus, no set of instructions can cover every possible contingency.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People offers a reasonable middle course, says Butman. Covey’s practices are “porous.” That is, they offer useful direction while still leaving room for personal interpretation.

Offer meaningful metrics

We love data even more than ideas, Butman says. Authors, for example, are coached to increase their followers on social media and design websites to maximize page views.

But here again it pays to be skeptical. Not everything that truly matters can be measured. And, an author’s numbers might be dubious.

Butman offers Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success as a case in point. This book promoted the “10,000 hour rule” as the amount of practice time required for mastery of any skill. Yet that number is based on only one academic paper about chess masters. And, the authors of that paper only estimated that chess masters spend anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 hours playing the game.

Butman says that the best idea entrepreneurs offer accurate data and relevant metrics. Atul Gawande, for instance, can count the number of hospitals that adopt his checklists and reduce medical errors afterward.

Remember also that book sales do not always correlate with influence. People who rush to buy a bestseller might never read beyond the first chapter — let alone apply any of the author’s ideas.

What to consider before you tackle the ideaplex

If you’re an aspiring author, then the prospect of entering ideaplex might thrill you. Butman suggests that you slow down and ask these questions first:

  • Why do you want to influence the world with your ideas? Are your motives to make a contribution, make money, or some combination of both?
  • What outcomes do you want to achieve? Why are they better than the status quo?
  • What is your personal commitment to promoting your big idea? How will this effort affect you and your family?
  • Who is the specific audience for your big idea? And how will you know that you’ve truly influenced them?

Remember that backlash to your ideas is actually useful. Criticism forces you to refine your argument. It also encourages your supporters to speak out. If you don’t get backlash, Butman says, then you’re not saying anything out of the ordinary.

I’ve posted in more detail about Butman’s work here and here. I also recommend his book Breaking Out: How to Build Influence in a World of Competing Ideas. Please read it before you make a commitment to go public with your big idea.