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Why can’t I get an instruction book that tells me what to do?

Recently, Naomi Dunford sent out a query to her email list (which, if you are a small business owner, you should be subscribed to. You should also be reading her blog, though you’ll have to ignore her potty mouth) discussing the Amazon reviews for The $100 Startup. Quoth she:

    Anyway, it seems that other than a Kindle glitch, the main issue that readers had with the book was that they wanted more details.

    This is interesting to me because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a business book that DIDN’T have this as the major complaint.

    So people who are buying business books, often LOTS of business books, say that the authors aren’t giving up the good stuff.

She gives some examples of that type of review, and notes that this is a very common request/complaint, but then continues…

    But for me, today, I don’t know what to do with this information.

    One of the biggest things people ask for from us, and I would imagine from other training companies as well, is they want STEP-BY-STEP. They want DETAIL. They want as granular as possible.

    But as a trainer, it seems to me – and I am COMPLETELY willing to be wrong here – that the super granular details are boring, case specific, and about as interesting as watching paint dry.

    It seems to me – and again, I’m willing to be wrong here – that if I tell you all of the details of how I, or any of my clients, built their companies, I’ll get hundreds of emails from readers saying,

    “Yeah, but how would it work for me?” or “OK, well that would work in THAT situation, but…”

    People ask all the time for a step-by-step guide to building a business.

    OK, I can do that.

    But it would start with things like, “Create a way for people to get in touch with you.”

    And people would respond with, “MORE DETAIL!” And I would say, “Um, OK. Well, get a website.”

    Then they would say, “Yes, but HOW?!?!?! I’m so overwhelmed!!!”

    So I’d say, “Fair point. OK, first figure out a budget. Then research some web designers. Then hire one. Then go through whatever their process is. Then, uh, make your final payment?”

    And then they would respond, “I knew THAT. Sheesh.”

    I promise I’m not being cute here, but I’m not really sure what other step-by-steps people are looking for. Like, as far as I can see it from my perspective, those ARE the steps.

    And I could write an article or a book called The 100 Steps To Starting A Business. But I promise you, whoever you are, 90 of those steps would not be applicable to you. And then you would be disappointed and think that my article or my book sucked. But what I’m trying to figure out is, how can I make it NOT suck?

So, first off, if you have an answer for her, please go to and let her know. (And subscribe to her blog and newsletter while you’re at it. And try to ignore her potty mouth).

But here are my thoughts on the situation:

There are Knowledge Skills, and there are Practical Skills

In most tabletop roleplaying games, as you develop your character and figure out what you want them to be good at, you can give them skills, knowledge skills, or both. Knowledge skills ensure that your character knows things about the topic; plain old skills (we’ll call them Practical Skills) allow you to actually do the things related to that topic. So a knowledge skill in Chemistry would let you know what components are necessary to make nitroglycerin; the Chemistry Practical Skill would let you actually mix it up. The Music Knowledge Skill would allow you to list the notes in a D-flat-major scale and what the fingerings for it are on the flute; a Music Practical Skill would let you actually play the flute.

And the thing is, knowledge skills are very easy to transfer from person to person. I can tell you that a D-flat-major scale consists of D-flat, E-flat, F, G-flat, A-flat, B-flat, and C… and now you know it. That’s all there is to know. Knowledge skills are easy to learn from books.

Practical Skills are different. You can’t just memorize some information and call it good – you have to actually do it. I know of no roleplaying system –even fantasy games – that will let you learn skills without practicing, usually for at least a month. It would be like trying to improve your free-throw percentage by reading; some understanding of biophysics might help, but sooner or later you have to spend time on the court with a basketball.

This makes it very hard to write a book that will teach skills. About the best you can do is to give people a step-by-step guide of what and how to practice (see Darren Rowse’s a href=””>31 Days to Build a Better Blog for a great example of this).

The devil’s in the details

One of the major things that practice gets you, in addition to the muscle memory to shoot a free throw or play Flight of the Bumblebee at speed, is experience with all the little nuances and variations that occur any time you do something in the real world. You could call this the “Oh, when…” knowledge – you get it from experts in the form of things like “Oh, you’ll want to use a sans-serif font; they’re easier to read on a screen” or “Oh, if you hold the glass at this angle, it doesn’t foam so much” or “Oh, if you hit the case about 2/3 of the way down, it’ll pop back into place. “

Whatever field you’re learning, the experts have this kind of knowledge. But they don’t think to mention it until you approach them with a specific problem. And let’s face it, you wouldn’t want to read a book that lists every possible way that every single transaction can go even slightly wrong, and what to do in each case, because…

Knowledge is fractal

Mandlebrot Spiral
For those who know fractals only as “those pretty paisley things on math posters”, the actual concept of a fractal is something that doesn’t change in form as you zoom in or out. Some things, it turns out, are just as complex and thorny when you look at microscopic details as when you look at the whole thing in its entirety. And learning is one of those things.

Obviously one could write an entire book on running a business. One could write an entire book on marketing. One could write an entire book on e-marketing. One could write an entire book on social media marketing. One could write an entire book on using Twitter. One could write an entire book on using Twitter to incorporate customer feedback into product development.

And even so, you’d still be leaving out most of the “Oh, when…” advice.

We don’t like theory, but we need to understand it

So there’s no way to write a book that contains All the Detail, because there’s just too much of the detail. You’d end up spending all your time reading about stuff that is almost certainly irrelevant, like this guy:

So a fully-detailed granular book isn’t going to work.

What you might be able to teach, though, is why and how things change from situation to situation. A computer technician who knows what each component does can figure out how to replace the part they need; a musician who knows how to transpose to a different key doesn’t need 12 different sets of sheet music. If you understand the concepts behind social media marketing, you can easily transition from Twitter to Pinterest.

But that involves learning stuff that feels boring and irrelevant. Someone trying to incorporate Twitter into their small business doesn’t want to hear about the psychology of social connection and the economic value of relationships and the history of social interaction in business. They’re gonna be all like “Don’t give me this touchy-feely feel-good flower crap. Just tell me what to post.” And it’s possible I could write a step-by-step guide to posting stuff on Twitter (although probably not; see Naomi’s point about case-specific and 90% irrelevant to you), but if I did, you’d be SOL when your audience moves.

Although you probably wouldn’t actually be SOL, because…

We know more than we think we do

One of my assignments, when I was getting my MBA, was the teacher gave us some information on the business for whom we were going to make a marketing plan, and then our homework was to write up a Competitive Analysis and PEST (business environment) Analysis for that business.

And you know what? It turned out we could all do it. When I had tried to do a PEST analysis for my husband’s business, I had frozen, and freaked out, and was all whiney like “I can’t find any information on the legal situation!!” But it turns out that what it actually was… was fear.

Is this what they meant? All I did was Google it. What if I’m supposed to be doing something different? Is there a place to look this up? Am I doing it wrong?

In the context of an assignment, none of that mattered. I did the best I could, and if it was wrong the professor would tell me, and then I’d know.

And it wasn’t wrong. I knew exactly how to do the assignment. I just needed to know that someone was looking over my shoulder and would prevent any disasters.

And I’m not downplaying the value of that. It’s one of the most important parts of training – maybe the most important part of training. It was well worth my tuition money. But I can’t put it in a book. There’s just no way to make my book look over your shoulder and say “Yep, that’s it! You’ve got it!”

And that gets us back where we started: Naomi’s not willing to charge someone for the advice “Find a web designer and do what they tell you to.” But people want someone to tell them that their initial inclination (find a web designer and do what they tell you to) is correct.

So what do we do about it?

Whoo, boy.

I dunno. If it were just one problem, we might be able to come up with a single answer. But it’s actually about half a dozen interrelated problems, each of which might require its own solution, and some of the solutions to one problem might make the other problems worse.

An easy to solution for all of it (or almost all of it anyway) is to stop trying to learn things out of books. I suspect that this is part of why Naomi has programs and consultations for sale instead of books – consulting, mentoring, training… whatever you want to call it, it’s a much more effective way to learn stuff.

The problem with consulting is that, in order to be effective, it has to be interactive. You have to be able to call (or text, or email, or whatever) someone and say, “Dude, such-and-such just happened, what do I do??” – that’s how training deals with the “Oh, when..” problem and the “Is this right?” problem. But if it’s interactive, that means you’re paying someone for their time, and time is really expensive, and that puts this option out of the price range for many people.

To deal with the fractal problem, my husband suggests making a website (or, possibly, ebook) that will let you dig as deeply as possible – every time you say “OK, how do I do that?” you click a link and it takes you into paint-dryingly-boring detail. You stop when you’re comfortable, and you skip the sections that don’t apply to your situation. This is a great solution, but is a shitload of work, and I can’t think of a way you could get paid for creating this thing that would be commensurate with the effort you put into it. (But if you have ideas on that, I’d love to hear them. Or do the work yourself, and get stinking rich.)

To deal with the Practical Skills Vs Knowledge Skills problem, I think there’s a market for workbooks to accompany any popular business book…something modeled on 31 Days to Build a Better Blog, with daily action steps on how to apply the stuff explained in the book. I’m pretty sure that Six Pixels of Separation: HOW to Connect Your Business to Everyone or Permission Marketing: The Workbook would sell like hot apple cider on a crisp fall day.

What do you think?

So those are my ideas; what are yours?

I would like very much to write a book that works for you, and will be as helpful as possible. So please, share your ideas, your concerns, and your experiences.