Nonfiction takes many forms. There are how-to books with step-by-by instructions, guidebooks with questions and spaces for answers, biographies, historical portraits, inspirational and motivational guides, personal memoirs, creative nonfiction, travelogues, books that cast a vision for society, cookbooks, photo books, political satire and more. While there are many different types of nonfiction, the most powerful writing includes a human element. They engage the reader with stories that dig beyond the surface of the subject to get to the essence of people – how they think and feel and act in the world. Use the human element to give your writing life and meaning.
How do you achieve that feeling?
Weave interviews or vignettes throughout the book from others in your field, users of your product or service or people who have a problem you are solving. Give them your perspective and experience. Share not only your successes, but your failures, as well. Your readers hear themselves through stories in the book and see themselves overcoming the obstacles and achieving the solution. Our readers are moved into action and engaged in the book when facts are made real with stories.
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When writing a memoir or an inspirational book, focus on a single purpose. Find a thread to weave throughout the book to create continuity and meaning for the reader. It may not reveal itself easily at first. In order to find the thread or theme of your book, bestselling author Julia Scheeres suggests:
Tell someone your story. Note which parts arouse their curiosity and the questions they ask. The more you talk about your memoir, the clearer your theme will become in your mind.
In an Writer’s Digest guest post, Ember Reichgott Junge speaks to the importance of connecting the main points in our books with values. She uses the backdrop of trying to pass legislation in Congress to illustrate her point. She notes that facts and figures don’t sway people. By creating an emotional connection with her fellow legislators and the public she gained support and understanding.
Key values might be opportunity, equality, leadership, compassion, community, abundance, inclusivity, integrity, or excellence.The root values are pretty clear. Choice. Opportunity. Empowerment. Innovation. Partnership. Collaboration. Persistence. Independence.
Successful memoirs and other nonfiction link to a universal truth or a common understanding. According to Tony Robbins, we all have six universal needs: Certainty (to gain pleasure or avoid pain), Uncertainty (to keep it interesting), Significance (be important in some way), Connection (love), Growth (of knowledge or ability), Contribution (make the world better).
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The spoken memoir
Constructing memoirs and TED (and TED-like talks) are similar. I recently did a talk titled “Juggling in the Business World” (I am also a professional juggler). The theme was overcoming obstacles to find success. I weaved the qualities of successful entrepreneurs and business professionals throughout the talk. The purpose was to inform, entertain and motivate attendees to tap into these qualities to break through the obstacles we face in order to help our businesses grow.
I recounted the failures of my first juggling performance and how I could have and maybe should have quit. I talked about pushing through the distractions of an otherwise full life in order to consistently practice and the doubt I had after a dreadful start. I used what I know about juggling too many things, balancing work and life and dropping the ball to create a talk that was uniquely me, but on a topic about which every business owner could relate.
My stories supported the purpose of the talk, but the talk focused on a theme of particular importance to my audience. The same is true for how we write our books. Themes make sense of the stories and leave your readers with a satisfying takeaway. Read titles of TED talks and watch several videos to gain understanding about how these speakers soften science, numbers and research with stories.
Paint me a picture and I’ll stick with you until the end.
To experience stories in action, read well-written articles in magazines like The New Yorker as examples of presenting the human side of a story and in books like On Writing Well by William Zissner to experience it for yourself.
How are you using your story to support your theme?
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