Here is my theory, managers don't skim books because they are busy, they skim because most of the content is not useful to them. In my own case I usually skim books mercilessly but if I’m reading a genuinely deep book (e.g. The Secular Age by Charles Taylor) then I read each sentence very carefully; even re-reading pages that were particularly important.
How do we write for managers so they get value from every word?
A History of Bad Examples
I think part of the problem is our own experience with books. Many of the books we read are written for novices. A popular history book like Guns, Germs & Steel assumes you don’t have any real background in the subject. But if we are writing about management for managers then they are deeply immersed in that world and a style suitable for novices won’t work for them.
Another bad example is books written by one technical expert to other technical experts. In this case it’s natural to exult in the jargon, shared mental models and obscure references of the field. Imagine one computer geeks writing to impress his peers, there is no way he would stoop to writing in plain English that could be understood by the masses. Managers are expert in the practice of management but not RO. The book you write on RO for managers is not the one you would write for RO consultants.
So as authors we may be tempted to write for novices or for technical insiders because that is what we have seen before. We need to push those bad examples aside if we are to write a book managers want to read.
The Manager in Mind
The easy solution to writing for a say stratum IV manager is to have someone at that level in mind as you write. Think of the process not as writing but as explaining it to them. Think of it almost as a conversation where you explain something, imagine the question they’d ask, and then go from there.
You sometimes hear that someone writes in a ‘conversational style’; I’ve never seen that presented as being a bad thing.
Diversity of Readers
The challenge of course is that there is a diversity of readers and not all managers, even at the same stratum, will have the same background knowledge and interests.
Here are a few tips with dealing with a diversity of readers:
- Use sidebars. If you think most of your readers will know what time-span of discretion is then you don't want to waste readers’ time by explaining the idea in the body of the text. However, if you think there may be a significant number of readers who don't know, then put that information in a sidebar which expert readers can skip.
- Give a micro-explanation. Rather than chose between a complete explanation and no explanation you can use a micro-explanation. If you say "....time-span of discretion (essentially, the longest period within which a manager needs to juggle required tasks and often represented by the longest task in the role)...” then people who have no idea what time-span of discretion is are not thrown completely off track, they can carry on reading your argument.
It's worth remembering that the normal style of books evolved in a pre-Wikipedia era. Anyone who feels they need to know more about time-span of discretion can find it online—but it's nice if they have the micro-explanation so they don't have to drop your book right at that moment.
- Use lots of headings and sub-headings. Headings allow the reader to easily skip ahead. Don’t think this excuses the inclusion of tedious material in your book, but a section that is of great interest to one reader may be old hat to another and generous use of headings and sub-headings helps each reader get what they need.