Shining a light on the hidden
world of surrogate storytelling

Think you’ll write a book to promote your brand when you have the time? Think again.

April 15, 2017

Sometimes people considering self-publishing a book to position themselves as experts in their field say, “I’d write the book myself if I had the time.” I have no doubt they genuinely believe time is the only thing preventing them from writing a book that will win them clients, media attention and speaking gigs. But to be honest, I find their thinking puzzling.

The same people who would never dream of saying, “I’d conduct a cross-examination myself if I had the time” or “I’d do my own tax planning if I had the time” or “I’d make my own wedding cake if I had the time”, have no difficulty imagining themselves writing a book to promote their brand. Although they would automatically enlist the services of a professional for all their other important business or personal needs, for some reason they assume they can write a book, even though they’ve never written one before, let alone one with a strategic marketing purpose.

They seem to view writing a book as a DIY project – one of those tasks you can master by watching a YouTube instructional video. But writing a book – at least one that somebody other than your grandmother will care about – requires expertise. If you’re publishing a book to credibly and professionally establish your expertise, why would you let an amateur write it?

Lawyers and sales and marketing professionals often assume they can write their own books because they’re professional communicators. But a book isn’t just a longer version of a sales pitch, brief or report. Writing one comes with its own set of challenges. As is so often the case in life, unless you have experience dealing with those challenges, you don’t know what you don’t know.

Perhaps the best way for me to illustrate the absurdity of assuming that you already possess or can easily pick up skills it takes years to acquire and hone is to tell you a story writers love to tell, but that I suspect will also resonate with anyone who knows someone who underestimates the skill required to do what they do. The story goes like this: A writer and neurosurgeon meet at a party. The neurosurgeon asks the writer what she does for a living. “I’m a writer,” she says. “How interesting” says the neurosurgeon. “I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I plan to become one when I retire.” “What a coincidence,” replies the writer. “When I retire I plan to become a neurosurgeon.”

To be fair, some people are fluent writers. But it takes more than fluent sentences to make a book. You need a narrative. Not just any narrative. The ideal one to tell your story. And there’s always an ideal way to tell a story. Then you have to find the best way to structure the narrative. There’s always an ideal way to do that, too. You need a consistent point of view, which you have to express through the stories you tell and the words you choose. Do you use jargon? Do you even know when you’re using it? You’d better know because jargon is incomprehensible to anyone outside of your industry. And it alienates readers. You also need an understanding of the audience you’re trying to reach. How will they hear your story? Unless you know, they may receive a completely different message than the one you want them to receive – or think you communicated. You need an eye for optics, too: knowing what to include and what to leave out to ensure that you’re not perceived in a way that you don’t want to be perceived – something you’re not generally the best person to judge.

And don’t assume that a good editor can fix everything. A good editor can work wonders on a manuscript, but an editor needs material to edit. If you want a book that demonstrates your deep expertise, it will require substance, which means that someone who knows what they’re doing will have to spend time doing research and drawing material out of you to lend it the required heft. They’ll also have to put in thinking, writing and rewriting time to bring your story to life on the page. Without professional help, you’re bound to make rookie mistakes. The scary part is you may not even know that they’re there. But your audience will. As with any do-it-yourself project, if you lack the expertise, you get what you pay for.

I’ll leave you with a story about a Facebook post I saw recently that made me smile. It was a photo of a toilet in mid-repair with all the washers and bolts strewn on the bathroom floor. The comment? “This isn’t as easy as it looks on YouTube”.

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I’m an award-winning journalist, bestselling author and ghostwriter of business books, memoirs and speeches for special occasions. I like helping people talk about ideas that excite them and people they love. Many people are curious about ghostwriting. A lot have misconceptions about it. If you’re interested, I’ll be sharing my thoughts on the subject here from time to time.