Even in this fast, cynical digital age, one kind of person still commands respect. The title itself carries gravitas: author.
If your seminars seem to be a grind and you have to beg for attention, you can turn that around so that people come to you, eager to listen. Not only that, but they will already know your back story and want to hear more about you and what you do.
First, you have to write a book. That might sound daunting, but Michael Levin is a highly successful ghostwriter who can break down the process piece by piece so not only is it achievable but it can be an enriching exploration of your career and your business strategy.
Michael has written, co-written or ghostwritten more than 150 books, of which nine are national best-sellers. You might remember him from his appearance on the ABC-TV reality show, Shark Tank, early last year. Although they didn’t invest in his business, he is working on his second book with one of the sharks.
Michael has produced books with Simon & Schuster, Random House, St. Martin’s Press, Putnam/Berkley and other prestigious publishers. His works have been optioned for film and TV by Steven Soderbergh/Paramount, HBO, Disney, ABC and others. One of his own novels became Model Behavior, an ABC Sunday Night Disney Movie of the Week.
He has contributed to major newspapers such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes.com and the Los Angeles Times. He has taught writing at the University of California, Los Angeles and New York University. In short,
Michael knows the writing business intimately.
So, his generosity in describing how anybody can produce a book was a special treat in this discussion with Publisher Paul Feldman.
In this interview, you will see how to build a book the easiest way possible. In Part 2 next month, Michael will discuss how to market your book so that prospects will come to you, wanting to do business because they know that you are a perfect fit for their insurance and financial needs.
FELDMAN: Why does an insurance advisor need to have a book?
LEVIN: The biggest challenges for anyone in financial services are establishing preeminence and answering the question of why someone should do business with you.
The challenge is how do you get people to buy a product that they’d rather not even think about and when your basic tools as an advisor are pretty much the same as all of your competitors?
Maybe you have a really nice website. So does everybody you’re competing against. You might have a social media feed. But are people really deciding whom they’re going to buy insurance from based on what they see on Twitter or Facebook? I’m not convinced that that’s the case.
So when you have a book, you have a level of authority that nothing else in our society can confer upon you, certainly in marketing.
I had a client who sells long-term care insurance. It’s a complicated product. It takes a long time to explain. There are a lot of moving parts. She would do a lot of free client education and then at the end of the process the prospect would say, “I appreciate everything that you’ve told me. I am going to buy it, but if I don’t buy it from my brother-in-law, my wife’s going to kill me.”
Then she did a book on how long-term care insurance fits into the overall process of keeping yourself or your loved ones out of nursing homes. And once that book came out, besides making the Million Dollar Round Table, she no longer had the brother-in-law problem. Once people read the book, they realized, “This person really is the expert. I cannot go anywhere else.”
FELDMAN: What about advisors who say they don’t have enough time or who say they’re not a writer?
LEVIN: Well, that’s why God created ghostwriters. We work with people and get their books done for them in a minimum amount of time. But, I’ll walk you through a process by which your readers can create their own books without the need of a ghostwriter, and without spending a lot of money or time.
FELDMAN: Sounds great. So do you start by thinking about the subject?
LEVIN: The first step in thinking about a book is realizing that you could write not just one, but a hundred different books, because you know so much more than you realize about insurance, about life, about people, because you see so much as an insurance professional.
So the starting point is asking not what the book is going to be about, but whom do I want to influence? And with that, ask yourself, who do I want to be in the marketplace – the person I am now, or someone slightly different going after a different audience?
That’s an extremely useful exercise, because when you start with that, then everything else falls into place. Once you decide, “I want more of what I’ve got,” or “I want some different group,” you can then ask, “What is it that I know that would lead them to engage with me?”
FELDMAN: Do you need to start your book by knowing what you want your readers to do when they finish it?
LEVIN: That’s exactly right. You’re beginning with the end in mind, because otherwise, you can just kind of wander off into a haze of glittering generalities and nonspecific whatevers, and never get anything important done.
Once that’s done, you take that body of knowledge you’ve identified as the information that’s going to convince that group to take that next step, and you just chunk it down. And you say, “How do I break this down into six or eight steps or parts?” I always advise your first chapter should be “I feel your pain” – the famous Bill Clinton line.
Most people think that they should start by establishing their qualifications, but that implies that the reader really cares about them. In reality, the reader only cares about the reader.
Bring the pain, although not too much that they just can’t bear it, but enough that they’re feeling it in the 45 minutes to an hour it takes them to read the book.
Then chapter two is, “I am the solution. I’ve done this before. I’ve handled this for other people. I have enormous expertise.” This is where you bring your qualifications.
Chapter three is “what is your process?” Then the next several chapters – four, five, six, seven, eight – should be either different steps in your process of how you take care of people or different aspects of the problem that you solve. Then wrap it up with a call to action in the final chapter.
Then you don’t have to write a word to create a book. What you need to do instead is have someone on your team, or a trusted friend, or even a grad student in English or journalism from the local university interview you for an hour per chapter. And just do a file dump on them. Tell them everything you’ve ever known, believed, experienced, seen, all the case studies, war stories, anything about the topic in that chapter. And just do it chapter by chapter. Then hire that journalism student to edit the interview into a 12- to 15-page document, which we’re going to call a chapter. Do that eight times, and then you have a manuscript.
Then whether it’s to yourself or to the ghostwriter, tell the person who’s doing the interviewing, “I want each chapter back in my inbox within 10 days of our call.” Set a deadline so that it helps keep momentum up.
FELDMAN: How much time should someone expect to spend on creating a book?
LEVIN: If you’re diligent, you can be done with your book and have it in hand in four to five months.
FELDMAN: How do you keep your momentum after you’ve started?
LEVIN: That’s a really great question. I say that momentum is more important than quality when it comes to books. And people hate it when I say that. I taught book writing for 11 years at UCLA, three years at New York University and around the world at private seminars, and they all get outraged when I say that.
But I say, “Here’s my proof – have you ever bought a bad book?” And they all say, “Yeah, I guess so.” The simple reality is that every single bad book that anybody ever bought or read, they all have one thing in common: the author finished it and got it out there.
There are so many wonderful, useful, impactful, powerful, half-written books that are sitting in people’s drawers or on their hard drives and are creating no value for anybody.
So the way to achieve momentum is to just make sure you get that first draft finished. If you’re doing the book yourself, schedule all of the interviews with yourself that will be the basis for the book. Set deadlines to write each chapter. And make those scheduled times sacrosanct.
FELDMAN: Whether someone’s writing it themselves or having it ghostwritten, you talk about working through the process one chapter at a time.
LEVIN: We want to take the quality to that highest level not in the first draft, but in the second draft, and then in the revision process. So this piecemeal process takes all the pressure off because you’re no longer expected to get it right the first time.
FELDMAN: Does perfectionism kill momentum?
LEVIN: It is death for a writer, because once you start thinking, “I’m writing a book,” you start thinking Hemingway, Proust, James Joyce, John Grisham – whomever.
You get into this mindset of, well, my book has to be at least as good as the best book that’s ever been written. No, it doesn’t. It just has to be good.
You’re selling insurance. Let’s keep things straight. You’re telling a story about yourself so that you can help people and you can make sales. So when people get into perfectionism, they are worried that if every word isn’t exactly right, and if every turn of phrase isn’t just phenomenal, then people will laugh at them. And this thing is in print, and they can’t call it back, and so on.
The simple reality is that when you’re writing your first draft, a first draft is not the final draft. You will have time to revise. You will give it to other people, and they will point out the things that need to be changed.
I always tell my students and my clients the first draft is like a newborn. With a newborn, all you want is 10 fingers and 10 toes. You don’t expect it to come out of the womb and play Mozart right away. You just want it to be. And then you can give it piano lessons over time, and then it can play Mozart as a 10-year-old or whatever.
FELDMAN: Do people also have to get over being perfect in even talking about the ideas that will later be crafted into a story?
LEVIN: Yes. There are very few people who can actually speak in perfectly organized paragraphs. And those people are annoying. Nobody likes them anyway.
The serious point here is that a chapter is not a transcript of a call with some light editing. It’s got to be organized properly. There’s got to be a beginning, middle and an end. There have to be stories told in appropriate places. Get somebody good. It’s typically not the highest and best use of an insurance professional’s time to write his or her own book.
Your time is way too short and way too valuable, and if you’re going to spend the eight hours it takes to translate an hour of interview into a chapter, well, that’s eight hours that you could’ve been using to sell. The whole point of this process is to make your selling life easier, instead of giving you less time to do the thing that makes you money.
FELDMAN: How long should the book be? You talk about having eight chapters.
LEVIN: I had a kind of revelatory moment a couple of years ago. I’m a big admirer of Dan Sullivan. He has a program called Strategic Coach, and it coaches a lot of financial professionals, people in insurance, all kinds of entrepreneurs.
I heard that he had a new book out and I’m all excited, and it turns out it’s a download for the Kindle. And I go to buy it, and it’s 48 pages. And I kind of blinked a few times, and thought, “How can anybody say a book is 48 pages long?”
I read it and I realized that he only needed 48 pages in which to make all the points that he needed to make. Then it hit me: we’re living in an era where people’s attention spans have been shredded by technology, by texting, by tweeting, by social media, by surfing the Internet.
In the past six or seven years, since smartphones became predominant, nobody even wants to talk on the phone anymore.
The rules have changed. It used to be the biggest book wins. Whoever has the most footnotes, the biggest index, the longest “for further reading” section wins. Now, 50 to 100 pages are the book lengths that we’re primarily doing for insurance and financial advisors.
In today’s world, half the people are reading your book on devices, so the “book” is a thing that allows readers to check stocks, or see how the game is going and get scores, and check the weather for tomorrow – whatever. So the “book” is in itself competition and a distraction.
People don’t even want books. They want leadership packaged in the form of a book. They want it delivered in any form, actually, but the book is delivery of leadership in an easy-to-follow, inexpensive form. They’re looking for someone to follow. To become that person, all you have to do is put up your hand and say, “I’m the leader,” and then you’ll get your followers.
FELDMAN: How much editing should someone do if they’re not an editor?
LEVIN: It boils down to three words: fix what’s wrong. If there’s a fact wrong, if there’s a story that wasn’t caught precisely by the writer, fix that, but leave the grammar and the punctuation and all that stuff to the professionals. That’s not your job. If the client has to edit the writing from a quality-of-writing standpoint, then one of two things happened. Either the ghostwriter failed miserably, or the client is an over-controlling fuss-budget and needs to learn to let go.
Remember that the people who are reading these books are not reading them to their kids as bedtime stories. They’re not reading them because it’s the latest and greatest John Grisham novel that’s just come out. They’re reading it because they want to buy insurance, and they’re going to forgive you for things.
FELDMAN: Haven’t there been compliance issues with ghostwriting?
LEVIN: Compliance departments love us, because we know what they like, and we know what they don’t like. We don’t have sections that we just sort of plop down and put people’s names on, which compliance people don’t like.
We’re not creating your story. We’re listening to you and we’re telling your story in writing, the way you would if you had the time to do it. Maybe a little bit better, because we’re professional writers.
Our experience is that insurance advisors, or anyone who has any sort of responsibility to their clients in a financial sense, are all different with different life experiences and have different reasons for having gone into the profession.
Everybody’s got different personal stories about things that they witnessed in their homes, or with relatives or friends of the family, that could have been so different if the right insurance had been in place.
Everybody has seen different examples of the government getting millions and millions of dollars it really wasn’t entitled to because the family hadn’t planned properly. Everybody has different approaches to selling.
FELDMAN: So this is good for compliance and for sales, because you have this consistent story about you?
LEVIN: Yes. For prospects also, because from their perspective, they don’t have to tell their story over and over again. They can be comfortable with you after reading your book because they know you get them.
Insurance professionals typically look at things from their own perspective and they don’t often see that it’s no fun to be on the other side of the table either. Prospects are interviewing five insurance professionals when they’ve got 10 other things to do. Their kid has to go to Little League, they’ve got work to do and they’ve got 600 emails to deal with.
Well, they don’t want to have to do that. So when you create that intimacy through a book, they can say, “Ah, I can relax now. I found the right person.”
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