In an effort to slow my reading down and think deeper about what makes for effective writing, I’m taking notes on what makes for an effective passage. Here are the first few paragraphs from How to Win Friends and Influence People. Note that this reads more like ad copy than a book. It works.
During the first thirty-five years of the twentieth century, the publishing houses of America printed more than a fifth of a million different books.
Carnegie opens the first sentence of the book to give us some sense of scale. Even if we’re not overwhelmed by the scale today (I would not be surprised if 200,000 books are published per month today), we are mulling over our reaction to that figure.
Most of them were deadly dull, and many were financial failures.
And then he hits us with his left. Carnegie just converted a quantitative assessment into a qualitative assessment, and a pretty harsh one. He’s not afraid to express an opinion. And it seems that he values two things in particular: entertainment and profit.
“Many,” did I say? The president of one of the largest publishing houses in the world confessed to me that his company, after seventy-five years of publishing experience, still lost money on seven out of every eight books it published.
Carnegie is an insider – he has bigwigs “confessing” to him. A priest of a sort.
Why, then, did I have the temerity to write another book? And, after I had written it, why should you bother to read it?
Carnegie is setting up his own authority, by way of recognition that it needed to be established at all. He’s setting himself up for success.
Fair questions, both; and I’ll try to answer them.
He’s going to answer his own questions. He’s a fair guy! Notice the modesty of “try”.
I have, since 1912, been conducting educational courses for business and professional men and women in New York.
He appeals to his authority from longstanding practice, and from the valor of those whom he is helping: professionals from the big city.
At first, I conducted courses in public speaking only – courses designed to train adults, by actual experience, to think on their feet and express their ideas with more clarity, more effectiveness and more poise, both in business interviews and before groups.
Here, he establishes authority by showing he only endeavored to bite off only as much as he could chew. And notice what he proposes to help people with – these are timeless skills, just as vital today as ever. We should endeavor to have the same focus.
But gradually, as the seasons passed, I realized that as sorely as these adults needed training in effective speaking, they needed still more training in the fine art of getting along with people in everyday business and social contacts.
We have some sense that people need these skills, but Carnegie makes it clear these skills are “sorely” needed – and he is the perfect person to supply them. In the process, he makes a commercial discovery.
I also gradually realized that I was sorely in need of such training myself. As I look back across the years, I am appalled at my own frequent lack of finesse and understanding.
Now we have reached an existential discovery. He has the modesty and self-awareness to notice he needs to get better at handling people. No better way to validate a business need, right?
How I wish a book such as this had been placed in my hands twenty years ago! What a priceless boon it would have been.
This is a masterful sentence. You can feel yourself turn greedy. A person who has established himself to have power now shows you his weakness. You feel a sense of superiority. What a fool, handing off such valuable material to you. Your new life begins today.