Recently I’ve been learning about story. Specifically, using story architecture like a Trojan Horse: getting people to pay attention and disarm resistance, so that you can give them enough information to start liking (sympathy) and trusting (credibility) you. Because if they don’t like and trust you, they won’t keep reading – but unless you start with story, they won’t pay attention enough to like and trust you.
Update: I just use these tips to outline my nonfiction book, watch the video.
Think and Grow Rich is a masterful example of how to write a winning non-fiction book introduction. Remember, just because they’re reading the introduction doesn’t mean you’ve sold the book yet – they might just be browsing. So your introduction is still sales copy!
#1 HOOK – “What do YOU want most?
The book starts with the reader and promises, whatever they want, this book is the shortest and most reliable vehicle EVER, for any goal. Then it sets up a challenge by saying, even though the book is short, that doesn’t make it trite or meaningless – because to be used properly takes a great amount of time. Hill also recommends setting up a private reading group (which is brilliant, so people will be talking about the book with friends to try and set up such a group, and also because it makes it more social).
This initial section also includes a whole bunch of laudatory reviews and some case studies, before ending with a promise:
If you follow this plan persistently you will be almost certain to uncover and appropriate the secret formula by which Andrew Carnegie acquired his huge fortune, as referred to in the author’s introduction.
This does two things: first, he’s trying to get you to do the work and pay attention. Second, he’s name dropping famous rich guys and success stories to boost credibility.
#2 STORY – make it vivid
Napoleon Hill begins with a story of Andrew Carnegie, and creates a “mentorship” scene where Carnegie “passes the torch” to him. He claims he got this mission directly from Carnegie – even though Carnegie, and most of the rich people in Napoleon’s book, claim they’d never heard of him and these meetings did not take place.
He also talks about a “secret” and a “magic formula” but doesn’t reveal what exactly it is. He’s keeping the big idea behind the curtain and just talking it up. This preface continues with credibility claims and case studies… shared with a hundred thousand. A clergyman who got rich. A college grad who go into congress. An almost bankrupt tailor.
He’s using these case studies to show this will work for everybody, because the main question most readers will have in the introduction is “will this work for ME?” But what is the actual secret? It’s a mystery! IF YOU are ready for it, you’ll find it, even though it’s not named directly. You must LOOK for it. By telling readers there’s a life-changing secret inside but not telling them exactly what it is, they’re going to read everything carefully and come away with an important secret that changes THEIR lives. You see what you look for. Tell your readers what to look for and they’ll find it!
#3 FOCUS – give them a task
That said, he doesn’t want people to feel like this is homework or inaccessible, so he says his own son casually found the secret in chapter two, and immediately got a high paying job. In other words, you can get massive benefit even if you don’t have a lot of time or don’t want to dig too deep. He also is aware this hyperbole will cause skepticism, so he addresses that by pointing it out (you might think it over-delivers, but you’ll learn differently when you read it).
#4 THIS IS DIFFERENT – if you’ve failed before….
Then he shifts into the “if you’ve tried before and failed, it’s not your fault.” This is basically the “Perfect Webinar Formula” online marketers recommend so I was surprised to see it in this book from 1937.
He drops some more big names and success stories, then this:
A peculiar thing about this secret is that those who once acquire it and use it, find themselves literally swept on to success, with but little effort, and they never again submit to failure! If you doubt this, study the names of those who have used it, wherever they have been mentioned, check their records for yourself and be convinced.
I love how he uses “peculiar” – it’s like the clickbait titles “lose 19 pounds in 5 days with this one weird trick” or “experts are enraged as unknown author sells millions of books in bookstores”. This is outside the box, surprising stuff that’s not mainstream yet.
#5 CREDIBILITY – it worked for THEM
Also, he’s including a whole bunch of famously successful people who are not endorsing his product, but he’s including them as social proof. They may or may not have said similar thing, but Hill probably went through a book of “success” quotes and is including anyone he can.
NOTE: I don’t recommend lying, or even making yourself look like you’re being endorsed when you aren’t. Things can catch up FAST on the internet and I’ve seen people ripped apart for stuff like this… I’ve also seen it work ridiculously well. One guy has worked with a ton of famous people and actors, so his Facebook ad / video starts with a picture of him and Will Smith. Even though Will Smith isn’t really relevant, he’s a famous, high profile, easily likeable and recognizable figure, so there’s a kind of instant brand transference. Personally I don’t do stuff like this. BUT it is a super good idea to include as many other people into your book, hopeful by getting them involved, but even linking to or quoting from their blog or website.
Hill is a little too comfortable namedropping: he literally just makes a big list of famous people and puts them in in all-caps.
All these people, and more – he claims – prove that those who know the “Carnegie secret” reach high stations in life.
#6 NO SPECIAL SKILLS – anybody can do this
Even better, you don’t need ANY special skill or training!
#7 “PICTURE YOURSELF getting value”
Then Hill does something really clever: he reminds us to keep a look out for the secret, and when we find it, turn over a glass. Getting people to take a physical action that marks the discovery plants a vivid image and goal in the mind of readers, something they can picture themselves doing, a homework task, a reason to keep reading – with a huge benefit: the “most important turning point of your life.”
#8 OVERCOME OBJECTIONS
There are two other important parts of the introduction, but interestingly they fade out (even though they’re in all caps!)
First, Hill says there’s no such thing as something for nothing. This is what separates him from modern day proponents of the secret, or manifestation, who believe in just thinking and magic money coming from nowhere. Hill is focused on providing value in equal measure. Fix your mind on the money, believe you can do it, but figure out the business. What PRODUCT or service are you going to sell?
Second, Hill says only those who are ready to learn will receive the great universal truth (so if you don’t find it, that’s on you, not him) and also you’ll learn not only WHAT to do, but also HOW to do it… and receive as well the needed STIMULUS to make a start.
Those are bold claims, and I’m not sure how much the book actually fulfills on these promises… but it’s important in the introduction to SAY they will, because he’s basically disarming the last objections readers might have: will this tell me what to do and how to do it? What if I don’t have time or energy to do the work? And also, if it doesn’t work, it’s because they didn’t try hard enough, or because they weren’t ready, or because they didn’t have the right offer. In other words, it ALWAYS works, as long as YOU do.
All that stuff is just the PREFACE… then we’re on to chapter one – which is actually just another introduction! This is where we get the famous stuff:
Truly, thoughts are things, and when mixed with definiteness of purpose, persistence and a burning desire for riches.
#9 PERSISTENCE – just keep at it until it works
Here Hill focuses on Perseverance by telling more stories. The guy who quit and sold the mine, just 3 feet away from gold. He externalizes failure as “a trickster with a keen sense of irony and cunning. It takes great delight in tripping one when success is almost within reach.”
He does all this in the introduction to keep people reading, and doing the work. Because he knows if they read and don’t act, his book won’t have as much influence, and MOST people give up or don’t do the work. So before teaching anything, he strengthens their resolve. (The externalizing of failure was taken to new heights in The War of Art.)
#10 VALUE ANCHORS
He also continues to stress that one great idea can fix everything, and that he’s spent 25 years researching and analyzing 25,000 people to get this information (a persuasion tactic to increase perceived value is to mention how long it took you and how hard it was to make). And that THIS book will help you get that important idea.
The principles described in this book, contain the best, and the most practical of all that is known, concerning ways and means of creating useful ideas.
How exactly? You’ll know it when you see it, though it may take different forms.
Then the chapter goes on to say “anything is possible” and that YOU TOO can achieve this. And he starts warming up to the REAL principles, principle number one. “You will find it easy, not hard, to do.”
And another promise:
Before we read the next chapter, I want you to know it conveys factual information which might easily change your entire financial destiny.
#11 THIRD PARTY PROOF
He concludes the chapter with a LONG letter and quote from someone, talking about the need for this book, especially as the economy was recovering from the great depression: “There are thousands of people who would like to know how they can convert ideas into money, people who must start at scratch, without finances, and recoup their losses.”
(It’s such a perfect letter, I actually wonder if it’s real… but the idea is, add a testimonial or 3rd party endorsement).
The perfect introduction
You probably don’t need a preface and an introduction, but the important part is just how hard Napoleon Hill works to convince you of the book’s worth before you even start reading:
- Big promises
- Works for everyone
- Fast and easy
- But also the BEST ever
- Physical actions and scenes
- Organize a book club
- Everyone famous, credibility boosters, quotes
- Famous people stories
- Inspiration focusing on RESULTS/facts
- Motivation focusing on “don’t give up!”
- A treasure hunt: read this book and find ONE magic idea
All this, and Hill doesn’t really say what’s in the book or what it’s about, at least not clearly. You don’t need an exact chapter outline with all the steps and benefits. People don’t need specific, until you’ve got their attention and commitment. Pull them IN and make them pay attention and read carefully.
There are 13 principles, but he doesn’t say much about them or tell us what they are (which can be tempting to do in the intro or back cover…) Remember those clickbait titles? “13 amazing ways to lose weight in 4 hours…. you’ll never believe #7!”
Get them to figuratively “click” – to buy the book and keep reading.
How many of these can you include in your nonfiction book?
PS. If you want to make a living with your writing, check out our tribute to N. Hill: Write and Grow Rich.
I’m a philosophy dropout with a PhD in Literature. I covet a cabin full of cats, where I can write fantasy novels to pay for my cake addiction. Sometimes I live in castles.