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How an Academic Turned Innovation Expert Created Massively Successful Books

Tendayi Viki on sounding pretentious and other mistakes authors make

By Rob Fitzpatrick and featuring Tendayi Viki


In this Useful Books meetup, we’re joined by Tendayi Viki.

Tendayi has a background in academia as a Research Fellow at Stanford University and Research Assistant at Harvard University. He taught at the University of Kent but after 12 years made the switch to the business world. Now Tendayi is an Associate Partner at Strategyzer, an expert at corporate innovation, and an award winning author.

All of this, while very impressive, pales in comparison to his warm personality and groundedness. Tendayi could’ve easily been arrogant with that resume but instead, he’s extremely down to earth. In this conversation, you’ll learn about the mistakes Tendayi has made and sees other authors make, and you’ll have a great time.

So let’s get to it!

A FEW TAKEAWAYS

 

WHAT DOES YOUR WRITING PROCESS LOOK LIKE?

I developed the habit of waking up at 05:00 a.m. to write. That gives me two hours of writing time before the world wakes up and interrupts my day. I used to try and carve out a time in the middle of the day but that just didn’t work at all. There are so many things that come at you in the middle of the day. Like the other day, my wife called that my son was sick and had to be sent back home. I’m distracted now, there’s no chance I’m gonna write anything useful.

I found that in the morning, nobody is up and everything is quiet. That’s the best time for me to write.

 

HOW DO YOU THINK ABOUT THE BOOK AS A PRODUCT?

In my line of work, credibility is very important. I can’t cold call companies and be like “Hey, you know that those innovation programs are very important? Well, we have the best one. You can buy it now for three easy payments of 599.” Reputation matters a lot. It’s so much easier if someone comes to you. If they already respect me before we start the conversation.

Now, there are two ways to do that. You can deliberately be the snake oil salesmen. But that’s why those books don’t work because it’s so obvious what the person is trying to do. They write a book so they can say “I wrote a book”.

Or, you can say “I actually have something authentic to share and let me share that.” That’s the approach I’ve taken. I know I need to build a reputation but I don’t want to build it on nothing. If people pull back the curtains, they can see substance.

 

MANY PEOPLE HAVE GOOD INTENTIONS YET STILL FAIL. ANY GOOD ADVICE THERE?

Do you know the story of how Intuit tried to recruit innovation coaches and failed massively? What they did is get people who’re really interested in lean startups, design thinking, etc. People who’ve been to every conference, read your books Rob like five times, and they recruited those people, gave them the role, and the whole thing failed.

They had the best people and the whole thing failed.

So they came to the conclusion that it’s not enough to have the best people. They need to be good teachers as well. If you’re gonna recruit an innovation coach, they need to have equal interest in teaching.

It’s almost better to have a person who’s mediocre at innovation but a good teacher, than a person who’s really great at innovation but hates teaching.

Have you ever met those people that are more interested in looking clever than in teaching? That’s the problem authors face.

(Btw, you might recognize this as failing to bridge the air gap between the knowledge an author has and the reader understanding it. See this article for more The Bad / Good Design Pattern for nonfiction that teaches.)

And I’ve made that mistake too. One of the pieces of feedback I got was, “Your blog is so cool. Your book is so pretentious. Why don’t you just write your book in the same way you write your blog?!”

And that’s because when I’m writing the book I’m like, “Yeah, man I had a crappy day today… The head of legal needed me to do XYZ and this is a barier to innovation because…” In the book I’m like, “Once upon a time, the head of legal and compliance appeared into my office…”

I was putting this formal tone to it. I just started from scratch and rewrote everything in that conversational tone. That made it much more useful for readers in the end.

 

OTHER NOTEWORTHY REMARKS

  • The more I’m interested in impressing the people I’m talking to, the worse I perform. The more I’m interested in understanding what they need and help them accomplish that, the more I resonate. I’ve stopped worrying about what people think of me and I’ve started “worrying” about how I can be of use to them.
  • I think of my work as a service. Once you start thinking like that you become less self-conscious and you’re more likely to resonate.
  • I think it’s a myth that a traditional publisher can get you more buzz. You have to pay for, and do everything, yourself. It’s just a label and then take the vast majority of your money. I don’t think consumers care.

 

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Focus on helping the reader solve their problem. Not being perceived as smart.
  • Writing the book is 50% of the work. The rest is making sure that the book solves a real problem and provides value, and also promoting it.
  • If you don’t really have an audience, leverage other people’s audiences. Speaking at other conferences, and giving away a few hundred books to kickstart it. If it’s useful, word of mouth will take over.

 

MORE INFO

TendayiViki.com

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