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How to Generate Great Content Marketing Ideas

Today we have an awesome guest post from super-star student and entrepreneur Alex Kehaya. Alex has been with us for a long time, and he’s taken quite a few of the classes at One Month. He’s an entrepreneur, a writer, and an all around kick-ass human. We’re excited to have him joining us today to teach more about how to build an audience, generate content ideas, and find your early users.

How to use your business contacts to generate content ideas

Hey One Month, Alex Kehaya here! I’ve taken a bunch of the classes here and recently finished Sarah’s course on Content Marketing. Right now I’m taking time to focus on my audience: first-time entrepreneurs (building startups and/or small businesses) and I set out to come up with ideas for content that would appeal to this audience.

I’m a market validation and product launch expert, and I take tons of coffee meetings each week with entrepreneurs who need help getting started with their ideas. I started to see a pattern in the types of questions that they were asking, and decided to follow up with a couple of them to find out what kind of value I’d created for them.

Create maximum value and leverage existing networks

There is a lot of literature on the process of customer development: in essence mapping out your idea and gathering evidence to prove out your business model. But, there’s not a whole lot of business specific and actionable advice for how to actually execute the process of customer development. This is the type of guidance that I’d been giving entrepreneurs at our coffee meetings.

I needed specific scenarios to write about. I set out to discover as many problems faced by real entrepreneurs as I could. In less than 24 hours, from this research, I also generated what will probably be at least a month’s worth of content.

Here’s how I did it.

1: Leverage an existing network

When finding and testing new ideas, it’s always good to look for existing platforms and networks with built-in audiences. I’m a huge fan of the subreddit R/Entrepreneur, and it’s where I’ve learned a ton from others on the forum. I know there are a lot of first-time entrepreneurs there, so I decided it would be a good place to test the waters.

WARNING: being spammy and not adding value is not well received on reddit, so avoid this at all costs. Adding value is very welcomed (more on this later).

To test whether my posts would be well received, I tried posting on the weekly thread in R/Entrepreneur dedicated to people seeking help. My screen name is gtgug8 (I don’t care about the anonymity thing) so take a look at the first post that I wrote:

I meant every word. I’ve had so much help as an entrepreneur and think it’s really important to give back.

2: Create as much value as possible

I was blown away by how many people sent me private messages with very long, very detailed questions. These were the themes of most of the questions:

  • “How do I find my first customer?”
  • “How can I monetize my site?”
  • “What are some things I should watch out for when validating my idea?”
  • “How do I start?”

My goal with the post was to add as much value as I could for the other redditors. This is a really important point when leveraging an existing network. You want to be authentic in your approach, otherwise no one will want to follow you or interact with you.

My goal with the post was to add as much value as I could for the other redditors.

3: Engage thoroughly and add value (yes, it takes time)!

I considered the first post a success, so I decided to open it up to the main forum with a repeat post:

Note how long my responses were. This might seem like a lot of work (it was) but I was able to repurpose all of this content for my blog, medium account, and other channels. I’ll also be turning much of this content into a screencast series.

Finally, make sure you record all the ideas and feedback you get. I’ve kept notes in a google doc of all the interesting stories and questions that I read for future reference.

4: Ask yourself: What networks exist that my audience visits regularly?

How can I create value for them in a place where they’re already interacting? How can I use conversations as fodder for blog posts and additional content? While it may seem like a lot of work in the beginning to write personalized responses to each question, you’ll notice over time that these become great resources to build out blog posts, screencasts, and tutorials. Instead of staring at a blank screen, asking “What might my customers want to read about?” you can figure it out by engaging with people first, and using your conversations as building blocks second.

Content Marketing Isn’t The Dirty Word You Think It Is

People call me a “content marketer” often (not sure if it’s a compliment or insult), so let’s talk about how you can use the articles you write to sell the products or service you’ve got.

Too often, clients, friends, and confidants (i.e. people I talk to on Slack) tell me that they don’t have time to write articles that support their business. Then, in their next (digital) breath, they tell me how their business could be doing much better. When I mention to them that useful content could support and grow their business, and they could do a lot better if they made time for writing, they reply that they don’t have time to write.

This, my friends, is known as a total logic fail.

Let’s start with what content marketing isn’t.

It’s not simply blogging. Otherwise, there’d be thousands of teenagers on Tumblr who could put “content marketer” on their resume (although I’m sure some do, those pesky teens!). If you’re writing entirely for yourself, that’s a journal — there’s nothing wrong with that, but it won’t be effective for selling anything.

Content marketing is the intersection of where the writing you do serves the audience and you, the creator, equally.

Your audience wants value from timely, useful, and engaging information. You need your business to grow (whatever growth means to you), make money, and be continually exposed to new audiences.

With this type of writing, there’s always an intended next step. Buying something, signing up for a list, registering for a webinar, sharing something socially, ranking in a search engine for a term, etc. There’s some explicit action that happens after someone has consumed what they just read. Because they made it all the way to the end, they’re finishing reading now, and are looking for what to do next.

The reason I’m called a “content marketer” is because my weapon of choice for selling what I create is writing.

The reason I’m called a “content marketer” is because my weapon of choice for selling what I create is writing. I choose this weapon because it suits me the best, and aligns with what I like do and how I like to show up in the world.

As a writer, I know I can write. Whereas if I had to make cold calls or give speeches, I’d be a sweaty mess of “uh’s” and “hmm’s.” Writing has consistently and strategically grown my product business (books, courses, online events) to make up more than 50% of my income in less than three years.

So maybe you want to be a content marketer, too? Maybe it’s not such a dirty term after all. And maybe, just maybe, it’s not as much work as you think.

Here’s how you can maximize a small amount of time to use content to help both your audience and your business.

Start by always having a list of ideas for topics you want to write about. What do you add to this list? Questions your audience has asked you, related content to your most popular existing articles, using apps like BuzzSumo to analyze topics/competition, even articles you’ve read that you have a unique or opposite take on.

Have ready access to this list of ideas (either in a physical notebook or a text file that you can access from your computer or phone). Add to it constantly and be on the lookout for new ideas to add to the pile while reading, watching TV, scrolling on social media, walking in the park, or even eating breakfast.

Now, look at the list and pick the first idea that stands out to you. You’re going to write a content marketing article on this idea!

Write down the following items in a spreadsheet (and we’ll use this article as an example):

  1. What’s your goal in writing about this idea? Ex. “I want to teach people that content marketing is easier than they think it is.”
  2. What’s the reward your audience gets for consuming an article about this topic? Ex. “They learn how to use content marketing to drive revenue and exposure in their own businesses.”
  3. What’s the main point of the story? Is there a secondary point? Ex. “PRIMARY: Content marketing is easier than most people think it is. SECONDARY: Writing consistent content takes less time than people think, too.”
  4. What makes those points valid? Is there data, a unique personal story, research that backs it up? Ex. “50%+ of my revenue is now coming from products — all because of content marketing.”
  5. What is the result a reader would see if they, too, acted on the main point you’re making? Ex. “Better/more business if they used content marketing correctly.”
  6. What are 5–10 headlines you could use for this post? Ex. “Content marketing isn’t the dirty word you think it is” “How I use content marketing to generate more than 50% of my product business revenue” “Why content marketing can work for you, in less time than you think” “If you’re too busy for content marketing, then you’re too busy to grow your business” “Get out of your own head about content marketing — it can help drive business”
  7. What’s the next action you want a reader to take after reading the post? Ex. “NEW READERS: Sign up for my mailing list. EXISTING SUBSCRIBERS: Download the XLS worksheet and actually use it.”

Guess what? In answering those simple questions, you’re now 80% (or so) of the way finished your article. No staring at a blank screen for hours or life hacks required, just asking yourself a few simple questions for each idea you’ve got. Let’s put the answers to those questions together a little better:

  • [A6 — Pick your best headline or A/B test the strongest ones.]
  • [A2 — Use the reward your audience gets to illustrate a pain point — what happens if they haven’t taken action.]
  • [A1 — Spell out what you are illustrating.]
  • [A3 — Clearly explain your point(s).]
  • [A4 — Back the points up with data or stories.]
  • [A5 — Describe what the outcome looks like if your reader acts on this.]
  • [A1+A2 — Reiterate your goal and why your audience cares.]
  • [A7 — Give a concrete next step now that they have the information. Bonus content, buying, signing up, sharing, etc.]

Without writing the article by staring at a blank screen, you’ve just written the entire outline, now all you need to do is make the sentences flow together in your own style. If you’re just starting out with writing, remember that writing is basically a muscle — it gets stronger the more you exercise it. So don’t be discouraged if things at first are slower than you expect. You’ll get faster the more consistent you are with your writing practice.

If you’re just starting out with writing, remember that writing is basically a muscle — it gets stronger the more you exercise it.

“Now Paul,” you might be thinking, “That sounds so formulaic and boring! And not at all like the creative person you are or — more importantly — that I am!” But here’s the thing. The formula may be … well … formulaic, but the key is all in how you apply it. How you take the information and make it into a flowing story for your readers. It’s like saying, “Oh, I don’t read fiction because they’re all stories of a character who starts out, goes through some things, and ends up in a different place.” The high level stuff IS formulaic — it’s what you do, what data that makes it interesting, and what makes it you.

With a bit of practice and consistency, there’s no reason you can’t spend an hour each week writing at least one of these articles. That way, you can get your words, ideas, and brand in front of your audience on a regular basis, and the more you write, the faster and easier it becomes. There’s no excuse not to carve out a bit of time each week if you have a business.

There’s no excuse not to carve out a bit of time each week if you have a business.

One extra thing I’ve figured out by doing this for a few years is that it’s easier to write a bunch of articles at once than it is to write just one, wait a week, then write another. Once you get into the rhythm and flow after writing one, you may be able to crank out another couple right after it. This helps you stay a few weeks ahead of your publishing schedule, which leads to less stress (also known as, “Oh shit! I have to release an article tomorrow?!”)

Staying ahead of your schedule can also help you commit to only publishing your best content. The formula above doesn’t guarantee greatness, it just helps frame content quickly. So you may find that some posts just aren’t that awesome. However, if you’re head of your publishing schedule by a few weeks, you can throw the bad ones away and keep the best for sharing.

I’ve used the above ideas to sell books, drive mailing list signups, sell courses, and keep my brand top-of-mind. It works for me because I get to share in a way I feel comfortable with: writing and teaching.

Using content to engage, teach, and inform your audience is a powerful sales tool.

Using content to engage, teach, and inform your audience is a powerful sales tool. It helps define you as an expert as well as a helpful person, which leads to trust, which then leads to sales. All done in a non-slimy, non-sales-pitchy, really honest way. You help the most important people to your business (your audience), and reciprocation from them helps your business. It’s a win-win.

For those of you paying attention (which I assume is everyone who has read this far), this post was written using the formula I just outlined. I took an idea from my list of topics and went through each question, then put the answers to those questions in a order that gave me an outline. From there it took a little while longer to turn it into the article you just read.

26 Ways To Attract And Grow Your First 1000 Subscribers

Here are a few ways to attract and grow your first 1,000 subscribers.

The hardest part of growing your product or business can often be the first part. How do you get your first few subscribers? How do you go from zero to one… to 10, 100, or one thousand?

Before I go any further, I have to reiterate what I say in my class and other places: the most important part of content marketing is creating content that is exceptional — valuable, useful, helpful, and share-worthy. If you don’t have great content, then the strategies below aren’t going to work.

At One Month, we ask ourselves, “would we share this?” This is part of our metric for whether or not a post is great. We don’t always get it right, but we’re learning as we go. We want to deliver extremely valuable, useful, intriguing, thoughtful content that helps you get more of what you want. If we wouldn’t share it with our friends, then you probably won’t share it with yours.

Once you have great content, however, how do you share it?

How do you get your first 1,000 subscribers? Here are some of the tactics and tools that have worked for us across many of our projects:

1. Tell your friends and colleagues about it.

You would be surprised how many people build something and then… expect people to show up. You have to invite them to come see what you’re doing. Send people personal emails or messages telling them exactly what you’ve built, why you think it’s useful for them, and what you’d like them to do with it.

You probably are connected to at least 100, if not 300 people that you can reach out to and let them know what you’re working on. Don’t spam everyone over and over again, but definitely tell them once about what you’re working on.

The trick? Ask people directly to sign up. Don’t expect them to sign up. Write a note to them that says, “I’m starting a newsletter about [TOPIC] and I think you might enjoy it. I’d love it if you signed up!”

2. Ask your friends and network to share it.

Email them and say, “I’m building this new thing, and I’d love to reach more people who would find this useful. Would you help me spread the word by reaching out to 5–10 people who might find this really helpful?”

Email and referrals are two of the best ways to grow signups. One email from a trusted resource to 5–10 people will generate far more signups than a random Facebook post that most of your network misses.

3. Comment helpfully on related blogs and other posts with similar questions.

Content marketing is about creating relevant conversations, not about shouting from the rooftops. Join the conversation by finding active voices and contributing wisdom and ideas to the community.

4. Become an active member in existing communities doing similar work.

Want people to comment on your blog post? Go comment on other people’s work!

5. Use paid advertising (Google, Facebook).

It’s fairly easy to set up a Facebook or a Google Ad, and for a few hundred bucks, you can drive signups. Make sure that you’re driving traffic to a page that has a big sign-up button. Don’t drive traffic to get more “likes” on your facebook fan page or to your website generally, however. Drive them exclusively to an offer (that they sign up with by email) or a place to sign up directly.

6. Make subscribing really easy to do.

It always surprises me when I go to a site and I have a ton of trouble finding out how to subscribe. Add a link in your website’s header, footer, sidebar, at the end of blog posts, in a feature bar, in the middle of blog posts, in the author bio, as a pop-up, as a hello-bar, etc. (You don’t have to do all of them, but do at least 4 different places and test which one is getting the most signups.) Add a page exclusively for signing up.

Start growing your audience today!

7. Add a link to your social profiles.

Add a link to your newsletter or mailing list across all of your social profiles: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Quora, Google+, Reddit, etc.

8. Add the site to the footer of your email, and invite people to sign up.

Use every single email you send as an opportunity to tell people about your projects.

9. Build a landing page exclusively for getting subscribers.

Dedicate a landing page exclusively for signups, like The Merchant Home does here:

10. Before you launch have only a landing page, dedicated to getting subscribers.

Put up a landing page before you launch.Create mystery and intrigue. Invite people to sign up before you’re ready. Use LaunchRock or another service to help you build this.

11. Force people to enter their email address before they get any content.

I don’t personally recommend this (in fact, I typically hate it), but it works for many people. I’d be remiss to not include it in this list. Use sparingly. People might hate you because of it.

12. Add urgency or a deadline.

Tell people what they’ll miss out on if they don’t sign up right now.

13. Host a webinar or a free event.

People love getting free stuff, and we love seeing what’s happening behind the scenes. Set up a free webinar to share what you’re working on (or your “10 best strategies for X”) and have people sign up with an email address to be notified when the webinar launches and when you do similar things in the future.

(Case in point: we’re hosting a free webinar on Growth Hacking on June 3rd, by the way. Join us!)

14. Make the offer really clear. What do they get for subscribing?

Make a compelling offer for what people get by signing up. “Great content” isn’t a compelling offer. What, exactly, are you going to give to them? Why should they spend their precious time with you, and let you into their inbox? Today’s inboxes are analogous to our living rooms. We don’t let just anyone come in. We invite people in that we want to have a conversation with. Why will they let you in?

“Your email inbox is like your living room. You don’t let just anyone in. It’s your online home, and you protect your space.”

15. Give away a free incentive for subscribing.

Make an offer that people can’t refuse. Some of our best signups come from our free offers — some of the experiments we’ve run here at One Month: we did a month of free writing prompts, offered recordings of our best webinars, and currently have a Growth Hacking Crash Course that people can sign up to for free.

16. Get really clear on who you want to connect with.

Why do you want to connect with them? What is their pain point? And why what you have to offer is different, better, and crazy-useful to the people who need it?

17. Add exit intent popups/offers.

Sumo is a great way to add a smart pop-up to your page, and PopUp Ally is also a great tool. An “exit intent” popup only shows up when the reader demonstrates an intent to leave your page (like moving their cursor to close the window or type in a new URL in the browser). You can “capture” people who are leaving with a bright, colorful exit-intent popup like this:

18. Get people to write for you.

Ask people to guest-post and publish with you. A great way to have people share your website is by asking them to contribute to it. Build your audience by utilizing other people’s existing audiences. They’ll share your site when they share links to their work that’s published on your site.

19. Syndicate your content.

Most of the content in the world, wide, web (that big old place) is only seen by a few thousand people, at most. Get your content shared by distributing it broadly. The same piece of content can be used in 10 different places — syndicated as a column, a blog, excerpts on LinkedIn, re-posts on Medium, etc. Content isn’t precious; you can share it in many, many locations.

Put a sign-up link in each of those locations!

20. Guest post, publish, and write for other people’s websites.

The best way to grow your audience is to play off of other people’s audiences that they’ve already built. Submit awesome content to sites that already have medium-to-big-audiences and watch your traffic grow.

21. Write a monthly column not on your own website, but a well-known website.

HuffPo, Forbes, and many other websites are often looking for monthly columnists and contributors. Build your web presence by writing for someone else — and capturing emails with a freebie on your own website.

22. Join social conversations.

Chime in helpfully in conversations and share your knowledge freely. Respond to and upvote other people’s work. This builds trust and reciprocity and people notice it when other people pay attention to them.

23. Use LinkedIn.

LinkedIn has often one of the best referral sources for our content and for business-related sharing. Use it to syndicate your content. Write blog posts on LinkedIn on a different publishing schedule from your regular content release schedule.

24. Go to conferences, online events, and join chats (like Twitter Hashtag chats) to meet more people in your target market.

25. Write an email newsletter.

Give people someething new to read every month, or a round-up of your favorite stuff on the web. You don’t have to write original content to have a compelling newsletter; if you link up the top 10 reads each month related to your subject area, that can be a great read. Email marketing is about connecting with people over email; it’s up to you to figure out what way you’ll use email to fit your businesses needs.

And this brings us back to where we started, which is worth repeating:

26. Write amazing content.

This goes without saying, but can be very hard to do. Give people a reason to read, use, and share your stuff. It’s worth the time — and it’s what builds your audience for the long-term.

25 Essential Books on Storytelling, Copywriting, and Marketing to Read

25 storytelling books

How do you teach yourself about storytelling? Why is it that some copywriters seem to nail it, while others flounder?

These were the questions I asked myself when I started first started my CAD drafting job in architecture. Fresh out of graduate school, far too many dollars in debt, and stuck behind the drafting table, I listened as clients and ideas moved in and out of the office.

I started to notice the same patterns happening over and over again: I saw brilliant designers and creative urban planners come up with strategies for re-designing cities — tools to change the ways buildings breathed and moved, how people interacted, how our public park systems worked — and I saw those ideas crushed, time and time again, under a lack of understanding.

The same things kept happening: during the presentation, ideas weren’t communicated in a way that resonated.

The same things kept happening: during the presentation with the client, the city, or the public agency, the ideas weren’t communicated in a way that resonated — and persuaded. Some people would get caught up in tiny details; others would miss the big picture. Sometimes a great idea got buried under the weight of myopic details.

In addition, your audience has different styles of decision-making. Some leaders make decisions immediately, swept up in ideas and willing to go along. Other leaders need to ruminate and process. Some folks want to believe that they’ve been the ones to come up with the idea.

The art of persuasion and conversation is its own art, its own field.

Knowing how to explain your idea in a way that is compelling, clear, and persuades others to adopt it (and give you money for it!) is no easy task.Tired designers kept arriving at brilliant solutions, and then faced the challenge of explaining themselves. Communication is the art of getting your ideas heard, shared, understood, and adopted. Designing and communicating are separate, but highly related fields.

I began to research communication, persuasion, and storytelling.

Over the past eight years, I’ve read more than 100 books on storytelling, persuasion, copywriting, content marketing, and designing presentations. From Edward Tufte’s books on information design to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, to the neuroscience behind storytelling. This year, I’ve compiled the top 26 books that I think every leader, communicator, thought leader and business owner should read.

This year, if you want to get better at communicating your visions, positioning yourself as a thought leader, and sharing your work in the world, you’ll need to elevate your storytelling, copywriting, and persuasion skills.

“If I ask you to think about something, you can decide not to. But if I make you feel something? Now I have your attention.” — Lisa Cron

If you want to up your game and grow your business, elevate your platform, or become a better storyteller — read these books. 

BOOKS ON PERSUASION + COMMUNICATION: 

1: Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert Cialdini. Influence is a science — it’s not magic; and Cialdini outlines six principles for how people relate to each other, socially, and why tools like reciprocity, scarcity, and liking affect how we interact with each other. It’s also delightfully fun to read.

2: HBR On Communication, by Harvard Business Review.  I haven’t picked up an HBR series book I haven’t liked — dense, packed with the latest research, yet distilled into essential tips, Harvard Business Review’s “10 Must Reads” lives up to its name. With essays on persuasion, influence, and understanding conversational style, I learned more about understanding gender dynamics and understanding leadership styles in 40 pages than I have browsing hundreds of internet click-bait links.

3: The Elements of Persuasion: Use Storytelling to Pitch Better, Sell Faster, and Win More Business. Stories might seem simple, but understanding how to do them effectively is a skill to master. Maxwell and Dickman show examples of storytelling across every industry, outlining five basic components — passion, a hero, an antagonist, a moment of awareness, and transformation — that form the critical elements of a persuasive story, pitch, or speech.

4: Trust Agents, by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith. Destined to be a classic. How do people become online influencers? They do more than provide content: they establish valuable relationships, reputations, and utilize media to build trust relationships as leaders and agents in an increasingly interconnected, complex world.

5: How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie. “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.” ― Dale Carnegie.

“Often we don’t realize that our attitude toward something has been influenced by the number of times we have been exposed to it in the past.” ― Robert B. Cialdini

BOOKS ON WRITING:

As a writer, my favorite books on writing lean towards the introspective, the habit-building, and the people who devote time to this craft. Here are my favorites:

6: The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron. Want to tap into your inner voice? Julia Cameron leads a 12-week program that takes you through all the feelings you have while becoming a maker, a creative, an artist. Yes, you’ll get frustrated. Yes, you’ll get mad. Yes, stuff from your childhood will surface up. Cameron is here to guide you — and to remind you to play, because play is the outlet and source of creativity. Her “Artist Dates” remind me that exploring the world and documenting my thoughts is exactly what I should be taking time to do.

7: The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks & Win Your Inner Creative Battles, by Steven Pressfield. What holds us back? Ourselves, of course. This pithy and succinct book details the enemy that we all deal with — inner resistance. Resistance shows up in every form, from convincing to conniving to flattering to maddening. How do you overcome Resistance? Simple: show up and work, bit by bit, day by day. Great on a shelf for a little reminder every few days.

“If you find yourself asking yourself “Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?”, chances are you are.” ― Steven Pressfield

8: Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury. Here are three quotes from this book by legendary Ray Bradbury: “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” ― “Every morning I jump out of bed and step on a landmine. The landmine is me. After the explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together.” — “Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”

“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” — Ray Bradbury

9: Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. A book on writing and life, and all the zany-crazy-personality quirks in between. Fluttering between self-deprecation and frank honesty, Lamott tells the story of the difficulty of writing and getting out of our own way. Humorous at times and painful at others, I have owned this book for more than 10 years and refer to it readily whenever I experience my own writers’ block.

10: Still Writing, by Dani Shapiro. Practical, wise, clever, and funny, Shapiro takes her 20-odd years as a writer and a teacher and tells the story of what it’s like to write. Each chapter is a new essay, a piece of advice, a glimmer into what she’s done. Wise and brilliant.

11: On Writing, by Stephen King. Writers writing about writing is so wonderful — you see their tools, ideas, and childhood and work, all mixed together in a story well told. Stephen King doesn’t disappoint.

12: Show Your Work, by Austin Kleon. This book is about making things, just making them — and about sharing them. It’s time that you promoted yourself in a way that’s authentic and normal to you, and that’s related more to you sharing the work that you’re making (however discomfortable) than it does being a master promoter.

“But now I realize that the only way to find your voice is to use it. It’s hardwired, built into you. Talk about the things you love. Your voice will follow.” — Austin Kleon

STORYTELLING:

13: Resonate, by Nancy Duarte. This book is a foundation for designing visual presentations that have emotional clarity and pull. She diagrams (beautifully!) the Hero’s Journey and the structure of moving speeches, from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Bill Clinton. I’ve read and re-read this book dozens of times and keep a copy at my desk for close reference.

14: Winning the Story Wars, by Jonah Sachs. A lot of books on storytelling are stuffy and academic; this is not. Sachs shows how mass media and brands are failing to tell great stories, and why it’s now a race for businesses to reconnect with the vital ingredients of storytelling — or risk being left in the dust. This book is a clear look at how marketing, business, and storytelling are all tied together.

15: Joseph Campbell: The Hero’s Journey. A seminal work on storytelling, Campbell created the Hero’s Journey, which dissects the structure of great mythologies across religions, contexts, and time. Each Hero has a call to action and proceeds around the mythological clock (or circle) through a number of steps on an adventure from the known world to the unknown world.

16: Wired for Story, by Lisa Cron. “The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence”—Lisa Cron maps out how storytelling works and why we’re wired to listen closely, from hook to structure to finale. Stories ignite our brains in predictable patterns, and knowing the science behind why storytelling works will change your writing faster than any other writing advice might.

17: Improving Your Storytelling, by Doug Lipman. This book looks at the oral history of storytelling and places stories in the context within which they were born. I learned exercises of imagination, detail, and adding environmental cues from this book — and even dabbled in understanding the stand-up, performative aspects of storytelling (whereas most of the other books in this list are focused on narrative and written stories).

18: The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, by Jonathan Gottschall.  Humans spend as much as four hours a day in lands of make-believe (if not more). We make up fantasies, read novels, enjoy plays, and live in dream-lands most of the time. Gottschall combines neuroscience, psychology, and storytelling to explain what it means to be a human animal — and what stories have to do with instincts, decision making, survival, and behavior change.

19: A Million Miles in A Thousand Years, by Donald Miller. How do you live a successful story? How does a life become more than a set of random experiences, many of which you don’t seem to have any control over? Donald Miller sets out to write a book about stories, and realizes that his life isn’t very interesting — and doesn’t follow the narrative structure of a story. In this tale, he decides to make his life worth telling, and reveals how story structure works, one lesson at a time.

“And once you live a good story, you get a taste for a kind of meaning in life, and you can’t go back to being normal; you can’t go back to meaningless scenes stitched together by the forgettable thread of wasted time.”
― Donald Miller

MARKETING + UNDERSTANDING MEDIA:

20: Tested Advertising Methods, by John Caples. A primer on all things copywriting and advertising. Originally published in 1978, this book is still a standout example of how to write great copy, headlines, and advertisements. He breaks down the components of advertisements and why some ads sell three times as much as other ads. This is one of the most useful books on advertising, and, if you’re a copywriter, content marketer, or sales person — you’re in the business of writing headlines every day.

21: Breakthrough Advertising, by Eugene M. Schwartz.Did you know that there’s an urban legend about an elusive book known for it’s legendary advertising copy? Apparently it’s considered a special gift bestowed upon newbie marketers and copywriters. It’s in such demand that this book retails for $300 or more with used copies, and sometimes can be found for over $900 on Amazon! Called one of the best books in advertising and recommended by most of the top internet marketers out there today, it digs into the art and mastery of great copywriting. It’s not formulaic — it’s an evolving art, and one that you have to pay attention to and constantly adapt in order to do well.

22: Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, by Ryan Holiday. Blogs, tweets, and social media distort the news like never before. A single malicious rumor can cost a company millions. Products, celebrities, attention? It’s all a game. Ryan Holiday, Marketing Director for American Apparel, takes you behind the spin cycle of creating news, and shows how he consistently and deliberately changed the news cycle and created stories in his favor. Eye-opening and sometimes disgusting, it’s best to know what you’re getting into in today’s media landscape.

23: New Rules for A New Economy: Kevin Kelly. Kevin Kelly, editor of Wired, wrote this book in 1999 — and I still pick it up and re-read it. Offering wisdom about the changing connected world, Kelly suggests that communication is what drives change. Today, connectivity is everything, and “success flows primarily from understanding networks, and networks have their own rules.” He details ten principles of the connected economy and how they play out in business, economics, and life.

24: Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind, by Al Ries and Jack Trout. Considered the father of advertising and a guru of branding, marketing and product management, Trout brings together elements of psychology and user experience to show how to describe things to the people that matter to your business–your customers. It’s not how you understand what you do; it’s how well you explain it to others, in a way that stands out.

25: Oglivy on Advertising. One of the premier advertising and sales books of all times. Oglivy is a genius. “Ogilvy’s writing is captivating. His work, legendary. His ideas, timeless.” I’ve only begun to dig into the genius in this book, and fully expect to have it dog-eared, flagged, marked, highlighted, and re-read multiple times over.

“Where people aren’t having any fun, they seldom produce good work.” ― David Ogilvy

BONUS — FAVORITE FICTION + NARRATIVE NON-FICTION BOOKS:

I think all great writers need to be great readers. If you’re feeling stuck on technical books, or like banging your head against the subway door when you’re heading home from work late, then toss the technical books to the side and pick up a great fiction book. The point of a story is to become absorbed in it, and we can pick up great habits by reading good works. (Although a few of the books above, like A Million Miles, Bird by Bird, Still Writing, and On Writing read like narratives).

Some of my recent favorites in fiction and narrative non-fiction are:

  • Americanah
  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers
  • Bend, Not Break
  • Brave New World
  • The Cuckoo’s Calling
  • Ender’s Game
  • The Fault in Our Stars
  • Fahrenheit 451
  • The Fear Project
  • The Glass Castle
  • The Kite Runner
  • Life of Pi
  • The Longest Way Home
  • The Signature of All Things
  • What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
  • The Year Without Pants