Launching a book successfully takes more than writing well (although obviously it helps if you aren’t trying to flog your audience a load of drivel they have no interest in buying). But, as anyone will tell you, writing and talking are two very different things and the art of seducing someone who has a mild to non-existent interest usually comes down to how much they like you on the day.
And by ‘you’ I mean ‘you the product’ – as in your book plus your ability to sell it.
As with all things in life, content and process go hand in hand. And, while this may sound blindingly obvious I regularly encounter otherwise intelligent individuals (particularly in Brussels) – who frequently give presentations or make impromptu speaking appearances without giving a thought to how they are going to get the audience on side.
Jonathan Powell, on the other hand, has done his homework on how to tell a tale both on and off the page. I saw him launch his most recent book ‘The New Machiavelli’ at The Centre in Brussels a few weeks ago. For those who haven’t read it, it revisits the lessons contained in ‘The Prince’ and how they can be applied to modern leadership in general and the Blair Government in particular.
Much as it annoys me to say it, Mr Powell was riveting (there wouldn’t be much point to this blog if he weren’t). As Tony Blair’s former Chief of Staff, he clearly has some inherent advantages when it comes to snaring an audience. Firstly, the controversies of the Blair era pretty much guaranteed even the most hostile of bums (of which there were a few) were on seats.
Secondly, under Mr Blair Mr Powell had the chance to learn first hand from one of the world’s slickest political communicators.
Here is my take on his performance:
1) Powell neither read from nor mentioned his book
I counted and he never actually said: ‘In my book, I…”. Rather, whenever he was asked a direct question he answered it with a comparison from Machiavelli. This is clever strategy: it allows him to communicate the book’s core message while simultaneously portraying himself as an expert rather than a player. Audiences like this – they don’t feel like a sales transaction to be naked – so entertainment and information are essential.
2 Soundbites – some his, some recycled – were rolling off Powell’s tongue.
I got a sore hand trying to get them all down but here are just a few:
‘Tony Blair once described power as a shiny Rolls Royce without keys’.
‘The civil service used to be like a monastic order which boys would enter upon leaving university and only quit on retirement’
‘Bill Clinton once said he wanted to come back as someone with real power – a member of a focus group’
‘We were desperate to be re-elected’ (in 2001)
There were tons more like this but the picture they painted of Downing Street life was vivid and compelling.
3)Anecdotes – always humanise your point with a case study or example
This is something Machiavelli was good at too. In Powell’s case the stories are also used to illustrate a wider point, but they are also told to be make people laugh and show people what life was like behind the scenes: e.g. the former Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok gate-crashed a private Downing Street dinner and they didn’t have anything to feed him because he was vegetarian.