Put Your Good Stuff Up Front

December 11, 2008

I was on the phone today with an author. We’re writing a book together. His original outline was structured in two parts: Part I taught a set of laws, and was called “Principles.” Part II was called “Practices.”

Aha, there was the problem right there: thinking that people would actually read Part II. They won’t.

By and large, people do not actually read books. This simple fact — grasping it, understanding it, accepting it — is a huge key to writing books that can change people’s lives.

Pop quiz: Have you ever read Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People? I mean, really read it, all of it, cover to cover? And (as the reporters say) a follow-up if I may: Do you know anyone who has?

I confess: I have not. I bought a copy when it came out, and read some of it. But I doubt I ever logged more than 100 of its 358 pages. I’ve been asking this question for years, and have never, not once, had anyone tell me that in all candor, yes, they had indeed read the whole book.

Granted, a lot of people bought it. Millions, in fact. But I don’t think anyone read it.

And yet that book changed the world. It got us all using the word (and concept) “proactive.” It got us recognizing the difference between leadership and management (think forest vs. trees). It taught us to “seek first to understand, then to be understood,” and to think “first things first.” It got us sharpening the saw. It put paradigm shift in our heads, with that touching story about the man in the subway with the annoyingly noisy kids – whose mother had just died.

Here’s something interesting: I just wrote that paragraph off the top of my head. No Google, no Wikipedia, no quick checking on Amazon. And I’ll bet you could have come up with most, if not all, of those points, too.

How can this possibly happen if you and I didn’t actually read the book? It happens because, while people don’t read books, they do read little bits of them. A chapter, maybe two. The back cover, the flaps. Maybe skim a bit here and there. They hear about them from other people who did read them, or at least little bits of them. Or excerpts. Reviews. Heard a lecture where someone else talked about them.

And somehow, miraculously, the book’s message leaks out into the world!

My dear friend and Go-Giver coauthor Bob Burg reads books. Man, does he read books: I think he’s read every business book, sales book, success-and-personal-development book there is, and what’s more, he remembers what’s in each one. The man is amazing.

And he is the exception to the rule, the rule being: people do not read books — at least not all the way through.*

If you are an author, this yields a potent magical formula for impact, the secret to effective books:

Put your good stuff up front.

That’s what Covey did, and it’s why the book worked.

Bonus point: this also works when you’re giving talks or presentations. Don’t save your best stuff for the punch line at the end. If you haven’t grabbed people in the first two minutes, they may still be sitting there smiling — but they’re gone. If you were a book, you’d already be back on the shelf, gathering dust.

Don’t wait. Give people your best stuff, and give it to them right off the bat. If they like it, they may even stick around to hear what else you have to say.

* P.S. I know people do read some books. A lot of people have truly read The Go-Giver, cover to cover. But that’s a story. And even if you’re writing a story, you better make sure you’ve grabbed your readers within the first few pages.


  1. Russell Mariani

    Hi John,

    I’ve read Covey’s book and this is a great post!

  2. jdmann

    Make that two: Bob Burg and Russell Mariani — any more out there? (And thanks, Russell!)

  3. Raymond E. Foster

    The very reason my co-author and I decided to write very concise chapters – magazine length – in the book – 52 of them, with overarching theme to connect together.

  4. jdmann

    I have not yet read Leadership: Texas Hold ’Em Style, but I’m delighted to learn about it and just ordered myself a copy! (I’m also delighted to know that the next time I need to do police research for a book, I have somewhere reliable where to turn.) Thanks, Raymond.

  5. Dixie Gillaspie

    You guessed it – I read it. Cover to cover, more than once.

    The first time was 16 years ago. I was a young consultant looking for anything in the world that I could bring to my clients that would help them (or add value as I would phrase it now) and the founder of the consulting company I was contracted to, when I shared my enthusiasm for the book, scolded me and told me I should not spend time reading anything except what he wrote or recommended. I began soaking up everything I could from that company right then, because I knew I would be moving on. I formed my own consulting business three years later.

    But I’ll readily admit I haven’t read every business book on my shelves – someday – like good friends, they’re just waiting for me to need them.

  6. jdmann

    I should have known! Okay, three: Bob, Russell, and Dixie. Anyone else? 🙂


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