Michelle: You are a world renown author of “Selling the Invisible,” one of the top ten bestselling business books of all-time, and other bestselling books. What led you into being a writer?
Harry: I was fascinated by Dr. Seuss. He made music with words. I wondered how. And he understood two things you learn in marketing and in story telling: the power of the unusual—all those wild Seuss names—and the power of surprise.
In fifth grade, I learned that kids enjoyed what I wrote. After I wrote an entire fifth grade school newpaer paper, four sixth grade guys ran up to me wide-eyed at lunch and said they loved it. I had similar experiences in the years after, including when I won a national award for sports writing in my first year of college, and again at age 40 I submitted an article to Minnesota Law & Politics. The following day, Steve Kaplan, the magazine’s editor, burst into my office as if I had just written the Great American Novel. So I kept getting strong signals.
So I loved writing, and was intrigued by the spells words can cast, and got enough praise to push me to keep writing. I like how changing a verb or rearranging a sentence can totally change its affect. I love the craft and act of writing and the work of skilled writers, and I marvel at some sentences the way I wonder under a full moon.
I would have been a singer-songwriter. But I cannot read music or play it well on anything, and my singing voice is no better than average. I have written several songs that have been recorded but never sold.
I chose to practice law because it seemed to involve using words to persuade others. When I discovered that law and I don’t get along—I dislike rules and having to negotiate anything—advertising seemed obvious, because it involves the same skill: writing to persuade. In each profession, you take a complex set of facts about a client, distill them into a story, make the story clear and convincing, and try to win over an audience with it. The rules of those professions differ, but their games are much alike.
The book came about in early 1995. A local literary agent, Jonathan Lazear, read my article on marketing services in a local publication, Twin Cities Business Monthly, and called. “I think you may have a book here,” he said. We combined heads and then that article with another I’d written, and submitted a proposal to several publishing houses. Time-Warner offered us a near minimum wage sum to publish it in paperback. But when they reviewed the final manuscript six months later, they decided to go with hardback.
We all were rewarded for that. It has sold over 700,000 copies in the United States and Canada, and perhaps another quarter-million in dozens of other languages. Remarkably to me, it was the tenty best selling nonfiction book in Argentina one year—odd, because it’s among the few South American countries where I have never been invited to speak. The book still sells in hardback today—about seven copies a day in this country—more than 18 years after it first appeared.
Michelle: You used to work for a Minneapolis marketing agency. I’d love to hear more about how this experience shaped you as a creative thinker, and brilliant business mind?
Harry: It forced me to learn how people make buying decisions. But that in turn tells you much more about people—our motivations, values and characters, and the very unexpected, only minimally logical ways we make decisions. I’m not sure what other impact it had, other than to give me thousands of hours of experience writing persuasive words.
My mom and dad taught me how to think, encouraged me to always give my best, and financed my very expensive, and very good, education.
The names of other influential writers and thinkers that jump out first are Robert Townsend, the former CEO of Avis Rent-a-Car; Theodore Leavitt, the legendary Harvard marketing professor; Peter Drucker, the legendary business thinker; and several Stanford history professors—David Kennedy, Robert Horn, and Paul Robinson—who taught me how to look at, and find the patterns in, past events. Stanford turned my brain inside-0ut.
But Daniel Kahnemann, the Nobel Prize-winning expert on cognitive biases, has influenced my work more than anyone. His work strongly affected Selling the Invisible and everything I’ve thought or written since.
Michelle: As a writer, who are some of the people, or what are some of the things the most inspire your writing and your work?
Harry: I am most inspired by musicians, particularly the ones with great songwriters: The Killers, First Aid Kit, Mary Chapin Carpenter, the later and little known Dion, Lana Del Ray, Kacey Musgraves, Bob Dylan, The Waterboys, and Roger McGuinn stand out. Stay Gold, by First Aid Kit, floors me; I was listening to it walking home one night and had to stop, sit, and call a friend.
Roger was so generous in explaining his process to me, and it forever has shaped my thinking on creativity. When I see him perform, I want to hug him.
John Lloyd Young, who played the Four Season’s Frankie Valli in the stage and film versions of Jersey Boys, also has inspired me. Weeks after I learned I was his favorite writer—he’d posted it on his website—I flew to New York to meet him after one of his Broadway shows. When he finally came outside, 45 minutes
after the show’s ending, the crowd outside that theater must have thought I was the star. I never will forget that.
John McPhee seems without peer as a writer of non-fiction. I reread The Great Gatsby every couple years; perfect story telling compressed into so few words. And for decades, William Zinsser’s On Writing Well has been my bible; it’s on my bedside table.
And some passages of writing have never left me. Lolita’s opening could convince any writer to choose some other line of work, and the last page of Gatsby can do that, too, although you can see Fitzgerald trying too hard in parts of it. And then he just fell apart—well, he kept on that downward arc.
John Kennedy’s speeches affected me, too, Ich Bin Ein Berliner particularly. He hired great writers, but was much smarter than anyone seemed to recognize. But his brother Bobby, who I met six days before he was murdered, meant more to me. I see every detail of that horrid night at the Beverly Hilton and of the morning mom woke me to say Bobby had died. As she knew would happen, the tears cascaded from me. Bobby had soul; no one in public life since has come close to that.
Great athletes also inspire me. They demonstrate the rewards of great effort and of committing to a goal. My participation—competitive baseball, golf, football, basketball, track, and marathoning, and now working out six days a week—has reinforced those lesssons. The biggest is that nothing worthwhile comes easily, and that hard work—provided it’s smart, hard work—works. Misguided hard work in life is like misguided speed in football; it just gets you to the wrong place faster.
Michelle: I know you travel throughout the world regularly speaking at business conferences. What are some of your favorite things about Minnesota, and why you choose to live here?
Harry: Friends. It took years to make them, and they cannot be replaced. I dedicated my new book to seven of them, whom I call The Circle.
I also like that we are a small city with a bigger city’s culture, but without much pretense. At the same time, I’d like to feel more comfortable wearing my red suede loafers, but perhaps they really aren’t me and perhaps I never would wear them anywhere else but Rome and Milan—and maybe not even there.
Michelle: Where are some of the favorite places you’ve visited in the world, and why?
Harry: Mumbai. Indescribable. I was driven 30 minutes through that city my first night there, and could not stop staring out the car window. The downtown teems with people and nothing in Mumbai looks newer than 70 years old. And people everywhere live on both sides of the streets, in lean-tos with just a cot and, very often, a tv set. You must see it to even try to comprehend it. It’s like a Fellini movie.
I love great food and there’s no better city for it than New York. I love the variety, the energy, and all the history that is made in that city. But it is odd to think that it no longer is the center of American business. My third home, the Silicon Valley, has seized that spot. And in 100 years, people are likely to think of New York—which, again, I love—the way moderns think of former epicenters like Rome, London, and Constantinople. The future is digital, and New York could not be more analog. The reason for New York City as a business hub is disappearing fast. As a center of fashion, art, and culture, however, it should be able to hold on. The West has no desire to assume that role; it’s too busy changing the world to stop and smell any flowers—or marvel at any paintings of them.
Of the less well known places, I was captivated by Ecuador, partly for the remarkable changes of climate you can experience on just a 40-minute drive. And I loved their food and wine, too. In heaven, the food and wine has to be exceptional.
My favorite people are the Irish. They’re so welcoming and fun-loving, and I love their doors; all those vibrant colors.
For beauty, my choices are Italy’s Amalfi Coast and the drive from Cape Town, South Africa to the Cape of Good Hope. Jaw-dropping views of more ocean than you will ever see unless to grow wings and learn to fly with them.
And I love the northern Oregon coast where I was born and raised. There are few places as beautiful as Indian Beach and Short Sands Beach on sunny days. and the view from my childhood home is as good as anything you ever will gasp at in Architectural Digest. Growing up amid all that beauty must have had more influence on me than any other single thing; I think life is miraculous. I might not think that if I had grown up with a view of a six lane highway; I’d probably just think life was loud, fast, and dangerous—which, come to think of, it is.
Michelle: What are you working on now, and where can people go to find more information about your current projects?
Harry: I am finishing my sixth and last business book, over 50 pages beyond my goal. I started the project as an update of Selling the Invisible, but it has ended up as a incendiary device instead; it’s blown up that book. I feel certain that so many of the familiar themes and buzzwords in marketing—features and benefits, positioning, value propositions, branding, thought leadership, best practices— simply do not apply, if they ever did, to services. I didn’t set out to be provocative or shake the rafters. And I hate all those books that insist they are turning the old rules upside down, because those books take old wine, pour it into a new bottle, and shout “Wine breakthrough! This book wil change how you think about marketing forever!” P.T. Barnum would be proud.
But what I discovered is that we’ve been using the wrong langauge and principles for marketing non-tangibles. We have just applied product marketing principles. But other than the fact that both are sold, services have only a little more in common with products than lions have with lemons.
The new book is far more original—assuming the original was original at all, which it may not have been—more detailed, more convincing, more helpful, more surprising, and more interesting—and so much better organized. But organization is not my strength, as I bet you realized more than once reading my books. And if my reactions to it mean a little, this new book is much more fun.
I also have finished one novel—set on the Oregon Coast in the watershed summer of 1964—and have almost finished a second, set throughout Western Europe in 1967, which was the famous “Summer of Love”. When I am done with this last business book, I will start pushing those two novels toward publication, and I hope to do screen plays for both. My son has started on a screenplay on the first, and I’ve assembled a compelling case to Clint Eastwood for directing the movie. He spent summers in my home town in 1964, played the same golf courses I played, and suffered the same near-death experience of one of my novel’s characters. And he directed my biggest fan, John Lloyd Young, in Jersey Boys, and acted with and directed one of my best friend’s best friends in Play Misty For Me. As you can see, I’ve done my homework on this one.
When I finished that first novel, I was convinced it was much better, by every measure, than any of my business books. But my work on those novels has improved all of my writing.I’m better at showing, rather than telling, and at setting up a story, and at finding the telling detail that makes a scene vivid to a reader. I’m not Tolstoy or Twain or even who knows who else, but I am better.
Unforunately, reading this new book also makes me regret the others. The Invisible Touch, for example, embarrases me. It is too wordy and self indulgent, and badly organized—despite, damn me, having a terrific setup. Selling the Invisible never gets a narrative flow and is so thin in parts. As Business Week described it, it’s bite-sized pieces, which I am willing to say means “not a meal.” And I failed to set either book on solid footing; each of those books argues its cases but does too little to prove them. What Clients Love did better at that, but added very little to the first two books; it just corrected many of their deficiencies.
The new book is far more convincing, which also makes it more interesting to read.
I like Unthinking, which came out in 2011, but it was not designed to be useful or inspiring. A business book that is neither isn’t likely to find a large audience, as that book helped prove.
I ofen update my work on Facebook and Twitter. Several of my fans on those sites are reading parts of the manuscript and offering suggestions. I will update those two sites often as these books near their publication dates.
Michelle, thanks for this. Your questions caused me to think, and to appreciate some things I had not thought about recently. And I always encourage people to write, because you never merely write about what you know; you write about what you figure out as you are writing. I experienced that with this interview. That, and your and Matt’s kind friendship, are two more blessings I am counting today. So thanks times three.