Helping Readers Succeed at Behavior Change: What Writers Need to Know

Many business, self-help, and “how-to” books have a single purpose: guiding readers to life-changing insights and lasting behavior change.

This usually means giving instructions for acquiring a skill — for example, reducing stress, responding constructively to an unhealthy craving, or speaking assertively.

If you plan to write such a book, then this post is for you. It summarizes my key take aways from three decades of experience in this genre.

Writing for the whole person

The challenge as we write instructions is to appeal to the whole person — our human capacities to think, feel, and take action.

Besides knowing what to do, readers want to know why they’re doing it and how to start. When our writing touches people on all these levels — instruction, insight, and next action — our odds for success improve.

Following is a guide for doing this. I’ve used these ideas to create workbooks on a variety of topics. However, you can apply many of the following suggestions to creating instructions in other media as well.

Embed your main topics in a table of contents

State the purpose of your book in one sentence. For example: The purpose of this book is to help readers double their productivity by doing a regular weekly review of their current projects.

Restate your purpose as your “big question”: How can readers double their productivity by doing a regular weekly review of their current projects?

Next, list smaller questions implied by the big question:

  • What is productivity?
  • How do we measure productivity?
  • What is a weekly review?
  • How does a weekly review boost productivity?
  • How can I build the habit of doing a regular weekly review?

Finally, arrange your questions in a logical order and restate them as chapter headings:

  • Chapter 1. A Definition of Productivity
  • Chapter 2. How We Measure Productivity
  • Chapter 3. What a Weekly Review Includes
  • Chapter 4. How a Weekly Review Boosts Productivity
  • Chapter 5. Making Your Weekly Review a Habit

Limit chapter content

Don’t overwhelm your readers. Limit each chapter to a handful of key points. To make them obvious, include points as subheadings within chapters.

Remember that divisions — chapters and subheadings within chapters — allow readers to take breaks between major chunks of content and enjoy a sense of accomplishment as they progress through your material.

Start with an engaging introduction

Begin with an introduction that briefly describes:

  • Pain points experienced by your readers
  • A better future that is possible for them
  • How the content of your book can help readers create that future
  • Why the author is qualified to write this book

Create clear chapter structures

Make sure that each chapter includes:

  • A preview of what’s included
  • Clear transitions between sections
  • Summaries at the end of each section and the end of the chapter

Also flag the key points in each chapter with design elements such as:

  • Boldface headings
  • Lists
  • Charts, tables, and diagrams
  • Illustrations, photos, and cartoons
  • Icons that signal major points and recurring elements
  • White space between sections

For more ideas, see this post by Francis Miller.

Illustrate key points with examples

Immediately follow each new point with at least one example and prompt to practice. Include non-examples as well — errors in applying a concept or performing a skill.

For a complex skill with many phases or steps, include running examples and one long example at the end of a chapter to demonstrate the whole process.

Include effective stories

Turn some of your examples into stories, remembering the power of stories to entertain, inspire, engage emotions, and make your material relevant to readers.

The best stories include the elements of good fiction — compelling characters, realistic events, authentic dialogue, and gritty details. This does not mean that you have to become a novelist. Just remember to:

  • Write stories in present tense and first person.
  • Use real-life examples and verbatim dialogue in your stories whenever possible.
  • Avoid stories that are flat, simplistic, sanitized, jargon-laden, or thinly veiled lectures.
  • Avoid stories that are too complex or contradictory to support your key points.
  • Alternate brief anecdotes with longer stories that reflect a variety of situations and continuing events in a character’s life.
  • Structure longer stories around key characters who reappear at various times to reinforce key points.

If possible, offer stories in several media — text, audio, and video.

Include prompts to practice new skills

Invite readers to immediately apply what they read. You have many options here:

  • Ask readers to restate the key points in a chapter and provide relevant examples from their own lives.
  • Present summary case studies — stories that demonstrate how a process works, followed by questions that direct readers to the key points.
  • Present problem case studies — stories that leave the main character with a problem to solve, followed by questions that invite readers to suggest solutions.
  • Offer sentence completion exercises that prompt readers to restate key points, offer examples, and plan their next steps.
  • Provide checklists that include your key points and specific ways to apply them.
  • Provide scripts for what to say or do in specific circumstances — for example, how to defuse conflict with “I” statements.
  • Guide readers to create their own scripts for behavior change, such as Tiny Habits.
  • Suggest that readers rehearse their scripts in the presence of other people (peers, instructors, counselors, mentors) and get immediate feedback on their performance.
  • Suggest that readers practice a new behavior, observe the outcomes, and share their insights with another person.
  • Help readers troubleshoot their behavior plans by listing potential problems and ways to solve them.

Above all, remind your audience to act as scientists who carry out experiments and collect data without self-judgment. Encourage readers to plan specific behavior changes, act on those plans, and simply notice what works and what does not.

End with a call to action

Summarize your book with a checklist of key points. Then issue a call to action that explains what readers can do immediately after finishing your book. Finally, point readers to more resources on your topic.

Keep your conclusion brief. Don’t introduce any new content at this point.

Revise for completeness and concision

Review your material to make sure that all the key points are:

  • Previewed
  • Made obvious to the reader
  • Illustrated with examples
  • Summarized
  • Followed by prompts to practice

At the same time, be alert for material that you can leave out. Many drafts can be improved simply by making them shorter. Save anything that you cut for possible use in the future.

Revise for clarity

Use a vocabulary that’s already familiar to your audience. Cut unnecessary technical terms and jargon.

Write many simple sentences with a subject-verb-object structure and a minimum of internal punctuation. Arrange sentences into concise paragraphs that start with a clear topic sentence, focus on one idea, and move from general to specific.

Express each action step in specific and concrete language. Describe visible, physical behaviors that readers can actually do in daily life.

Revise for authenticity

Write with an informal style, including contractions and any slang that will engage readers.

Review examples and stories to make sure that they demonstrate key points and “ring true” with readers. If you discover any motivational pep talks that ramp up enthusiasm in a phony way, delete them.

Be careful about quoting experts in support of your ideas. A certain amount of this supports your credibility. But too much can lead readers to distrust your instructions as too academic and removed from “real life.”

Write to the reader in second person, as you — except when it might come across as confrontational. In general, avoid references to yourself. If you do refer to yourself, do so in the first person, as I.

Revise for consistency

If you’re creating instructions in several media — print, audio, video, online — then create a style guide to ensure consistent content, structure, terminology, voice, and design across the entire program.

Bottom Line

Whenever possible, test your draft by asking members of your target audience to use it and give their feedback. Then keep revising until you can answer yes to this question:

Will my readers — with their current knowledge, attitudes, and skills — be able to carry out my instructions and achieve the intended outcomes?