Over the years, I probably have read most of the self-help books that have taken the business world by storm. Speechwriters were almost required to do this, if for nothing else than finding a topical quote to use in an executive’s speech. In Search of Excellence. Who Moved My Cheese? The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The One Minute Manager. Reengineering the Corporation. Crucial Conversations. The Tipping Point. On Management. First, Break All the Rules. Made to Stick.
Many of these books had interesting ideas. However, the impact on me was nil, or close to nil.
But I did read books that changed my day-to-day work, transformed my work life, and made me think about work in a completely different way.
Most of them weren’t actually business books, however, or what we think of as business books. Many were about communication, which is no surprise because that’s the field I’ve worked in for my entire career. Some were academic works. Others weren’t.
Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (first published in 1964) is the source of the famous, almost clichéd statement “the medium is the message.” What that means is that the medium is as important as the message; some media are better for some kinds of communications than others. In this contemporary culture of the mania for “message points,” no one remembers what McLuhan said about the media themselves.
Eloquence in the Electronic Age: The Transformation of Political Speechmaking by Kathleen Hall Jamieson (1988) came at the mid-point of my speechwriting career. Jamieson’s focus was politics, and how the television sound bite had transformed political speech (and by extension, corporate speech). She did not see this as a good thing. She was right. Look at Washignton, D.C., where discourse has become all but impossible.
Poet David Whyte published two books that approximate “business books” – The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Corporate Soul in America (1994) and Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity (2001) that had an enormous impact on how I thought about work, and what I understood work to be. (I also like his poetry.)
Walter Ong was a Jesuit priest who taught at St. Louis University. In 1982, he published Orality and Literacy, which in a sense continued the discussion started by McLuhan but broadened it to what was happening in human communication generally. I didn’t read the book until the mid-1990s, in the throes of just having started a (revolutionary-at-the-time) email newsletter and the company’s first web site. Ong helped me understand why I seemed to intuitively grasp electronic communication – it’s closer to an oral culture than a print culture (words encouraging to a speechwriter).
The late Neil Postman wrote two books that served as serious warnings in the rush to all things electronic: Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1987) and Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1993). He wrote a number of other works as well (all of which I read) but these two provided the watch outs for embracing the internet and (later) social media.
More recently, and one closer to a traditional business book, Chris Brogan and Julien Smith published Trust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation and Earn Trust (2009). It shaped my entire approach at work to using social media. It still does.
Other books had an influence, but none like these eight. I still go back and read highlighted sections. And I remain surprised at how up-to-date they’ve remained.
Over at The High Calling, Jennifer Dukes-Lee is asking for what business books have influenced you the most. Check The High Calling to see what others are saying.
Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.