I’m going to share my favorite books that have ultimately made me a better marketer. But here’s the funny thing: none of these books are directly about marketing.
If you want to rise to the top, you can’t do the same thing everyone else is doing. You have to stand out somehow.
Every marketer out there is reading Ryan Holiday, Robert Cialdini, and Seth Godin. And don’t get me wrong, those authors are fantastic. They really know their stuff. But all the gold and treasures aren’t limited to that cove at all – there’s a ton to discover in the surrounding ocean.
When you really start to get serious about marketing, you can either explore every nook and cranny that is traditional marketing, or you can go for a swim and discover something truly new and invaluable.
So without further ado, here are my favorite marketing books that have nothing to do with marketing!
My Story Can Beat Up Your Story – Jeffrey Schechter
This book is about how to write a kickass screenplay. How does screenwriting help you be a better marketer? Well, as Seth Godin and Simon Sinek say over and over, stories move us. All of us.
I read this with the intention of understanding what makes a good story good, and what makes a bad story bad. The keys are meaning and depth.
A good story has lots of layers that unravel. Everything is connected and unfolds at a determined time for a specific reason. There are three layers that drive Star Wars “A New Hope”:
- The outermost layer: “Will Luke be able to destroy the Death Star?”
- The middle layer: “Will Luke be able to save the princess?”
- The innermost layer: “Will Luke ever be the jedi his father was?”
When tackling product descriptions or branding, I obviously can’t deliver a major Hollywood blockbuster to prospects. But I can take the principles of depth (layers) and meaning (outermost vs innermost) to try to craft a compelling landing page.
The things I pulled from My Story Can Beat Up Your Story were similar to the lessons I learned in Simon Sinek’s Start With Why. But I enjoyed the former much more. It gave me an opportunity to try to form my own connections between raw, powerful stories and my work.
How to Shoot Video that Doesn’t Suck – Steve Stockman
Video production is such a valuable skill to have as a marketer. Learning yourself gives you the opportunity to take total control of the videos you produce (and you should be producing videos!).
But that aside, How to Shoot Video that Doesn’t Suck was still valuable to me as a non-video-producing marketer. The first reason being it inspired me to ignore all the things I don’t have and focus on what I do have.
At the beginning of the book Stockman emphasizes that you don’t need a fancy camera to shoot good video. You can use your phone no problem. The real key to shooting video that doesn’t suck is following the principles of good video production and storytelling.
Talk about inspiring. I took that principle and applied it to my work – I don’t need a nice graphics tablet to make snazzy Facebook ads, I don’t need a huge AdWords budget to hunt down leads, and I don’t need an SEO wizard to start optimizing the website. I can just work with what I have. And that’s way smarter than waiting around for “the perfect opportunity/equipment/budget/coworker”.
Additionally, for similar reasons as My Story Can Beat Up Your Story above, How to Shoot Video That Doesn’t Suck gave me a new way to think about and tell stories.
The three takeaways about videography in the book that I got were:
- Tell a story.
- Don’t move the camera around while it’s recording – pick an angle and sit there.
- Less is more.
These all apply directly to marketing too. Stories are king (as we know). You should keep your pitches, sells, and touches as focused and determined as possible. And don’t waste your audience’s time.
A lot of the lessons I got from this book were similar to the things I learned in Ryan Holiday’s Growth Hacker Marketing. But this book really sold me on the ideas. I started to see that these principles are so foundational that they apply to other fields than just marketing – so I should be intentional about following them.
Semiotics: The Basics – Daniel Chandler
My intention for writing this post is to give people non-marketing marketing books that are accessible and valuable. So with that said, this book may not be accessible to you if you don’t know anything about linguistics.
I wrote a post a while back about Semiotic signs. But if you missed it, know that semiotics is the study of meaning. As a field it’s like a mixture of neuroscience, the philosophy of language, and sociology.
There was a lot of theory in this book. For example, at the beginning, this thing called “double articulation” is explained. Language itself is a manifestation of double articulation: the individual sounds we use to create words are meaningless – but the words (meaning-sound units) we create with those meaningless sounds are meaningful.
When you add more and more steps between meaningless and meaningful, things start to get slow or muddied. Reading is an example of this. Most people “hear” the words in their heads when they read. This adds a small “translation” obstacle that slows down understanding. So naturally, some semioticians then wonder about whether we have similar obstacles to overcome when we watch videos or look at photographs.
Clearly, this book is much more abstract than the rest of the books I’m recommending. But it was extremely stimulating and thought-provoking for me as a marketer. It got me thinking about how we process visual and auditory media, and how videos, photos, audio clips, and the written word all have their own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to communication.
Take a look at the first few pages of this book. If you get hooked, I definitely recommend give it a thorough read!
Lessons in Typography – Jim Krause
Typography impacts user experience. A lot. It’s nothing you are ever consciously aware of though. And that’s what makes it so commonly overlooked.
This book started me off on my journey to understanding and appreciating type and how type affects how much we enjoy interacting with apps, websites, and articles.
As marketers, we’re limited by which typefaces we can use on our webpages, ads, and infographics. Type is set by your company’s branding, after all. But there are a lot of little things you can do (for example, vary font weights, sizes, and decorations) to make things more enjoyable for your audience. This book made me aware of my options for using type in a palatable way.
It also got me started on creating depositories for things I see around the web that I like. Krause recommended several times throughout the book to keep a file somewhere of references and type designs you find inspiring. And this has really changed my process for coming up with designs.
First, it made me more aware of how type is used across the web. I started taking screenshots several months ago and storing them in an Evernote notebook of things I found particularly clever or nice. Now whenever I need to design something and I don’t know where to start, I just scroll through the notebook until something catches my eye.
Additionally, this advice compelled me to spend 10 minutes at the end of every day downloading a couple new typefaces and sorting them into folders by style or potential use.
I currently have somewhere around 200 manually installed typefaces on my computer (all sorted by style and use), most of which are available for commercial use. And not only does this give me a great starting place for freelance designs, but it gave me this intuition for which typefaces I should use for which kind of project. All it took was 10 minutes a day for a month.
You can easily replicate this with Facebook ads or landing page copy or anything. Pick something you want to become intuitively acquainted with, and spend 10 minutes a day looking at and saving examples.
How Art Made the World (documentary)
Okay, this isn’t a book. But it’s still flippin’ awesome!
Good marketers are able to understand and connect with real people. So understanding storytelling is important, but so is understanding psychology and sociology. This 5-part BBC documentary on art in the ancient world was an awesome introduction to the foundations of human nature and community.
“A documentary about ancient art” sounds boring as hell, doesn’t it? But truly, this series was riveting. Exceptionally well done.
Images dominate our lives. They tell us how to behave, even how to feel. They mould and define us. But why do these images, the pictures, symbols and the art we see around us every day, have such a powerful hold on us?
One of my favorite parts was about how all compelling art is actually exaggerated in some way or another. The best art is never an exact reproduction of reality.
Translated to marketing, this doesn’t mean that you should lie about your products or services. Obviously. Instead, I see this recurring need to exaggerate as an indication of our innate and human desire to be something more. We’re dreamers. We imagine better ways. We chase the impossible. And that feeling of “hmm I wonder!” is what we have to awaken in our audiences as marketers.
Another part of this documentary I found fascinating was the story of how Emperor Augustus ultimately won the love and loyalty of the Roman people.
The Roman Empire was going through some major shit around 50 BCE. There was a social split between the old-money republicans and the monarchists. Augustus came from an old, well-known republican background, and in order to gain the trust of the monarchists, he had statues of himself made where he carried himself and was dressed in a noticeably “monarchist” fashion.
His operation was quite successful. He gained the loyalty of both groups of people and became the first Emperor of Rome, in fact.
This thing Augustus did is in line with what Seth Godin talks about in his book All Marketers Are Liars. He told a story the people wanted to believe. As marketers, we have to tell stories that people want to believe.
Honorable mention: The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism – Bertrand Russell
This is a runner up because the book itself didn’t inspire me so much as the man who wrote it.
Bertrand Russell was a philosopher, mathematician, political theorist, and social activist. He wrote over 70 books in his lifetime. Fun fact: he also spent some time in jail because he publicly “subverted” Britain’s war efforts in 1918.
Russell is my favorite historical figure because of his commitment to his principles and beliefs. He was courageously authentic. And he didn’t throw himself in a bubble or let Resistance get the best of him – if something came to light that clashed with how he believed the world to be, he adjusted. He didn’t bullshit.
The Theory and Practice of Bolshevism was written when the Soviets invited ol’ Berty to take a tour of how the Soviet Union operated under Bolshevik rule. Bertrand Russell was an outspoken advocate of socialism during his lifetime. He was intrigued by the Soviets and interested to see what the Bolsheviks were doing.
But he left totally unimpressed and uninspired. Even a bit horrified. He still held onto his beliefs that socialism was a worthwhile socio-economic system, but he didn’t let his beliefs and expectations taint what he saw when he visited the USSR. He saw the chaos and graft for what it was.
People who cling to their ideals and belief systems are often tempted to ignore reality when there’s cognitive dissonance, but not Bertrand Russell. He was a man of principle, and he let reality shape his views and beliefs as it would.
The coolest thing by far though? So he was personally invited by the Soviets to visit, and he was treated really well. He even got to meet with Lenin one-on-one. And again, he identified as a socialist. And yet… he got back to the UK and wrote about all the crap he saw and all the things that made him uncomfortable. And published it.
And that is exactly who I want to be as a marketer. I want to have theories and hunches and principles. I want to be confident and work to prove my theories. But I don’t want to love my theories so much that I’m blind to reality.
And I want to have the courage to tell the Soviets and the world as a whole that Bolshevism is sketchy as hell.
Sometime soon I’ll write about my favorite marketing books that are actually about marketing. But I think there’s a lot of value, especially for a new marketer, in trying to draw connections between storytelling, human nature, and sociology and marketing.
There’s no need to limit yourself to what’s explicitly “about marketing”. In fact, if you want to stay ahead of the curve, you’re going to want to get in the habit of gleaning wisdom from things that seem unrelated at first glance.
If you feel inspired, take a look at that book about art or political theory. Pull out the principles that you think are universal. Apply them to marketing. In doing so, you’re taking the first step in forging your own path as a marketer.
This post is a part of The Budding Marketer’s Guide to Marketing.