Are Self-Help Books Too Long?

Good to Great by Jim Collins is one of the most well-known business success books ever written. It’s also roundly mocked for saying common-sense things in a long-winded way.

Individuals have no problem grasping a point when it’s clearly stated.

As the critics tell it, it took Collins several hundred pages and years of research to make points such as “have the right people in your company” and “do what’s best for your company first, not your ego.”

Whether or not this book deserves that criticism, it’s not the only book in the self-help genre that could communicate its main points in a few pages. Time and again I’ve spent days on books that force me to wade through dozens of anecdotes and chapters just to get a bit of intellectual meat.

One of my friends suggests that self-help and business books should just be written as short blog posts. I have to agree.

Issue solved, right? Now the self-improvement industry can save itself a lot of time and put out a few articles every now and then.

There’s just one problem.

Human beings respond very well to storytelling.

It’s well and good to say that these books should get to the point. Humans have no problem grasping a point when it’s clearly stated. I just have very little faith in their ability to follow through on clear instruction.

Your parents cut straight to the point when they told you to save your money after you saved all that dough up from cutting grass that one summer. You spent it all anyway.

Humans don’t respond well to instruction. We’re also extremely forgetful, and we’re typically bound to forget even the most direct good lessons if they’re just learned as facts or moral commands.

I think self-help writers have realized this. That’s why they find a need to sugar coat truth and create books with 5% insight and 95% filler. If they’re smart, that filler content is made primarily of stories and use case studies, as in Good to Great.

Humans respond very well to stories. If we can see directly how a way of living helps someone (even someone fictional), our minds are bound to return to that way when it becomes relevant to us. We use stories as “free trials” of ideas – test simulations of how ideas work. When we have them, we can both trust and remember advice all the better.

So while I think that most self-help books take too much time to get to the point, I can understand why they need to belabor the journey. We may never find the right balance between directness and wastefulness in this genre, but it’s useful to know what works to help you learn and apply wisdom.

Reprinted from James L. Walpole.