Readers like success stories—and, boy, do we need them now. What are the elements of success? Foremost, hard work. Success is generally considered an impressive achievement when something turns out as planned or intended, and someone attains wealth, fame or power.
Outliers, the bestselling book by Malcolm Gladwell, is about people who have excelled, and how they got that way. Gladwell says that geniuses are made, not born…a version of that old maxim, the harder I work, the luckier I get. He writes about the Beatles, whose hard-day nights consisted of hundreds of engagements in Hamburg’s red-light district before they recorded a hit. “By the time they had their first burst of success in 1964, they had performed live an estimated 1,200 times,” observes Gladwell. “Do you know how extraordinary that is? Most bands today don’t perform 1,200 times in their entire careers.”
Outliers suggests that there is a competitive advantage for companies that recognize the importance of the work environment in nurturing (or suppressing) talent.
“People don’t rise from nothing,” writes Gladwell. “They are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.”
I was in the audience at a Folio: Show in New York City back in the 1990s when IDG founder Patrick McGovern gave a prescient address on “Publishing for Profit in the Electronic Age.” “What business are we in?” he asked the gathering of editors and publishers. “Many of us would answer that we are in the publishing business, but that is only the starting point, and it’s not the best guidepost for navigating new media. In fact, each of us is in the business of making our readers successful—in their careers, in their families, in their hobbies—wherever we can add value to their lives.”
How can we do this from the editorial front lines? First, your mission statement should make it clear that you are all about making readers successful on the job. At Waste Age, for instance, the mission is to help its readership (solid waste professionals) “do their jobs better—more safely, more efficiently, and more profitably —through editorial that is both analytical and topical.” Thus, contributors know from the point of assignment that they must dig out success stories.
Second, success comes in many formats; therefore, package for variety. Like victories in the NCAA “March Madness” Tournament, stories can be buzzer beaters, Cinderella tales, or narratives about dominating individual performances.
In business parlance, this comes down to three types of success stories:
1. Best Performances. These can be profiles of high achievers—either a person or a company—ideally against the odds. A recent issue of Portfolio reports on little successes in the midst of the era that is now crashing to a close with profiles of 10 people who have “somehow managed to profit during the turmoil”—from real estate flippers and poker players to a man who made a fortune selling comic books.
2. Cinderella Stories. We like these tales of little-known long shots, subjects who are household names only in their own households. In The New Yorker last fall, Calvin Trillin’s “By Meat Alone” tells the story of “the best Texas BBQ in the world,” Snow’s BBQ in Lexington, Texas, a homespun enterprise “open only on Saturday mornings, from eight until the meat ran out.” It is also the story of a successful come-lately pit master, 73-year-old Tootsie Tomanetz. Ya gotta love it.
3. Comebacks. There may be a limit to the benefits of hard work and honesty, and bad things can happen to good business people. Success is always more interesting when it has been tested by failure. Thus, readers like to read about comebacks, second acts in business lives. Lee Iacocca would be of little interest if he had not been fired at Ford, and resurrected from the ashes at Chrysler.
Finally, a cautionary word for the editor in search of success from hotelier Bill Marriott. The key to success is not to get complacent, he observed in Fortune recently. “My father used to say, ‘Success is never final,’” added Marriott. “And now I often repeat it.”
John Brady is visiting professional at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, Ohio University. He is a partner at Brady & Paul Communications, a publishing consultancy, and conducts editorial workshops for professionals. For information on his workshop text Magazine Editing: The Practical Approach and his Interviewer’s Handbook: A Guerrilla Guide for Reporters and Writers, his web site is johnbrady.info, or you may e-mail him at Bradybrady@aol.com.