Daniel H. Pink has written five best-selling books and is highly in demand as a speaker on motivation, sales, and other workplace issues. He gave one of the most-viewed TED talks of all time, and last year was the host of a National Geographic television show, Crowd Control. His latest book is To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, which uses social science and fascinating stories to offer a fresh look at the art and science of sales.
I helped Dan with some of the background research for To Sell Is Human, and in the process got a close-up look at the writing habits that have made him so successful. In this interview, you will learn:
- How to choose the right topic for your book
- The importance of a book proposal
- A simple way to organize research and see the big picture
Dan: It was a mix of self-recognition and frustration. The self-recognition came when I looked at what I’d done during a two-week stretch and realized that much of what I was doing was selling. I wasn’t always selling in the traditional sense (trying to get people to buy my previous books) but in the much broader sense of persuading, influencing, convincing other people — from editors to airline gate agents to business partners to my own family.
The frustration came when I looked at books on selling and persuasion. With the exception of Robert Cialdini’s classic, Influence, most of the books were pretty bad. They were either devoid of serious content or, worse, were largely about how to hoodwink people. So I decided to write a book about sales that I’d want to read myself — indeed, a book about sales for people who might never read a book about sales.
HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?
Dan: I began as I always begin — with a book proposal. I wrote a proposal, about 45 pages long, that described what the book was, who it was for, and why it was different than anything else on the market. For me, writing a proposal is always essential. It forces me to think about an idea deeply, to wrestle some of the concepts to the ground, and to assess whether what I’m noodling is really a book — rather than just an article or a vaguely interesting, vaporous idea. That’s hugely important.
A few years ago, I sent my wife and kids to my in-laws for two weeks so I could write a book proposal. Ten days later, I called my wife and said that I had both good news and bad news. The good news was that everybody could come home now. The bad news was that I realized in trying to write a proposal that what I was envisioning wasn’t a viable book. Painful as that was, it’s much better knowing it before committing to write a book than after.
HDYWT: How do you organize your research?
Dan: Think of a tortoise, not a hare. And think of a pretty analogue tortoise at that.
For this last book, there were two main sources of material. One was the interviews and reporting I’d done. The other was a giant collection of academic research. For the interviews, I recorded them digitally, but read through and highlighted each transcript on paper. For the studies, I read nearly all of them on paper, marking them up with a pen. Then I took this massive collection of dead trees and sorted it into old-fashioned file folders, on which I affixed an old-fashioned label made with my trusty labeler. After that, I methodically went through each folder, page by page, harvesting the best material.
To keep an eye on the big picture, I use giant post-it notes on which I scribble key concepts and begin trying out skeletal outlines of the entire book and of individual chapters. It’s a bit laborious, but it’s a way to “see” what I’m thinking.
HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?
Dan: It really depends. When I’m working on a book or a long article, I take a pretty workmanlike approach. I get to my office, which is the garage behind my house, by about 9am. And I give myself a word count to hit — say, 500 or 750 words (which doesn’t sound like a lot, but for me is always difficult). Then I stay in my office, with occasional breaks, until I reach my word count. Sometimes that happens quickly. Many times it takes a long while. But I don’t check email or answer the phone or do anything else until I hit my number. Do that over and over and over again for many months and you can actually produce a first draft of a book.
HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?
Dan: I’m a pretty simple guy. I cover about 90 percent of what I do using Word, Dropbox, and some manila file folders.
Bonus question: How do you decide what to write about next?
Dan: The most important question is: Is this topic interesting enough to me to live with for many years and perhaps for the rest of my life? That’s a pretty high bar. And it has disqualified many topics.