profile

Ravishankar Iyer

The books that didn't make the cut

published4 months ago
9 min read

​

A few quick reminders, announcements and updates about the next cohort of my flagship course on Data Storytelling:

- πŸ“† Dates reminder: The course begins on 7th May, early-bird registration ends 15th April and final enrolment closes on 30th April.

- πŸ“Ί Free Demo: I'm conducting a free 45-min Demo session on 15th April (9.30-10.15 AM, India time), where you can get a 'taster' of the course and clarify any niggling doubts.

​

- πŸ“§ 10 Emails that explain the entire context of the course: I went a little deep into the course marketing process this time (applying some lessons that I learnt in a marketing workshop that I am attending). One of the principles I learnt is to think deeply about user benefits.

If you would like to understand the fundamental reasons why you should consider taking up this course, you should read this longish email-series that I sent to those who expressed interest in the course. You may not decide to take up the program, but you might learn something about narrative structure :)

With that, let's dive in to this week's edition.

​


​

Welcome to Story Rules on Saturday - your weekly content recommendations from the world of storytelling.

Every once in a while I write about a book which I have loved. In fact I even wrote an #SOTD post with my 13 most recommended books to learn the craft of storytelling.

In my reviews, I usually bestow effusive praise for the book, the writer and the storytelling techniques used.

You might be thinking - gosh - how is it that every book that this guy picks up is pure gold?

Not true, ladies and gentlemen, not true. My Kindle Library is littered with the ghosts of books that are unread and partly read (with many in the started-reading-but-could-not-bring-myself-to-continue category).

In today's post I will share some of those with you.

But first up, the #SOTD Digest.

​


πŸ“† The #SOTD Digest

Here's a quick summary of the five #SOTD emails from the past week:

- #SOTD 36: Using mystery to unveil the answer: Most of the times you should 'start with the answer first', especially when presenting to busy executives. But sometimes it is more fun to take your audiences through the journey of discovery. In this post I profile an article by Tomas Pueyo which adopts this curiosity-generating technique. (The post explores the connections between the fall in fertility and political movements).

- #SOTD 37: Myth-busting using the right data and norms: It's fascinating how often narratives which have no basis in facts, capture the public imagination. In this post, I study an article by prolific writer, Derek Thompson as he debunks the myth of the 'Great Resignation'.

- #SOTD 38: Starting with a personal story: Rolf Dobelli (bestselling author) uses an engaging personal story to start his book 'Stop Reading the News'. A great case study of the key elements that a good personal story should include.

- #SOTD 39: Just look for the data!: I share a story narrated by Pramit Bhattacharya in my podcast conversation with him. A story in which he used simple data to disprove the negative narrative around GM cotton seeds

- #SOTD 40: The funniest writer in finance: How can you not love Matt Levine? In a week when Elon Musk had the global press in a tizzy following his 9.2% stake in Twitter, this is the funniest (and probably most plausible) take on the rationale behind the investment.

​

Those were the #SOTDs of last week. In case you would like to get these daily emails in your inbox (9.30 AM, India time), here's where you hop onboard:

​


πŸ“„ Books (not to be read) of the week

Before I share the names of books I abandoned midway, here's some context about my reading habits:

- I don't usually abandon books - I do have a strong 'task-completion' bias. (Even though many folks would advise you to stop reading if you aren't deriving value)

- I don't read fiction at all. When I read non-fiction, I expect one or more of three things (preferably all of them):

a. It teaches me something new and interesting about the topic (a fact I genuinely didn't know or a perspective that I had not considered)

b. It is entertaining to read

c. It offers a good exhibition of storytelling techniques

Very rarely a book manages to do all three. (I'm looking at Mark Forsyth, Bill Bryson, Chip Heath, Michael Lewis, Yuval Harari)

​

The four books that I am listing below fared poorly on almost all three parameters.

​

a. 'Presenting Virtually' by Patti Sanchez

I was eagerly looking forward to this book, given it comes from the house of Duarte. I've been a fan of their previous work, especially 'Resonate' and 'Data Story'. Plus this was released at a time when the entire world was presenting virtually. I was expecting to get a ton of counter-intuitive yet proven ideas to ace online presentations.

But I found this book to be very shallow. At least in the initial part that I read, there were no rich real-life presentation examples, no radically new ideas... nothing that made you go "ooh, that's interesting... I'm going to try that out".

For instance, consider this paragraph:

Our brains are always on the alert for changes in our environment. So, if you inject some element of change into your virtual presentation - include an image in your slides that’s unlike the others, alter your tone of voice, invite people to interact with you in a new way - your audience will be compelled to look again and listen more closely.

Ok, maybe I was expecting something much deeper. I just found the book really superficial... and stopped reading after going through about 15%.

​

b. 'Draft no. 4' by John McPhee

This book was recommended by Tim Ferriss in a podcast conversation with (I think) Tim Urban. Ferriss mentioned that it was a great book to think about narrative structure.

Now I really admire Tim Ferriss and quasi-worship Urban. Plus, this book dealt with my favourite topic within storytelling - narrative structure.

Then I looked up the author - John McPhee. It turns out, he's fairly accomplished in the world of nonfiction writing. McPhee's written for New Yorker and Time, won the Pulitzer Prize and taught writing at Princeton for several decades.

Ok, so fascinating topic, check.

Credible recommendations, check.

Solid author, check.

What could go wrong?

Boy was it a tough read.

The book is written as McPhee's personal journey of how he structured and wrote his New Yorker pieces and other writings. Many of these were detailed profiles of famous US citizens. Well, famous for McPhee. I just found it difficult to relate to anything he wrote. His profiles, his writing style, his process.

Maybe I didn't try hard enough, or maybe the format that he uses (deeply personal, long-form profiles) is too far removed from my work.

Anyway, if it helps, this is a small highlight which I found interesting:

Developing a structure is seldom that simple. Almost always there is considerable tension between chronology and theme, and chronology traditionally wins. The narrative wants to move from point to point through time, while topics that have arisen now and again across someone’s life cry out to be collected. They want to draw themselves together in a single body, in the way that salt does underground. But chronology usually dominates.

​

c. 'The Book of Why' by Judea Pearl

What is a good data story? It is a structured visual narrative comprised of answers to a series of questions that helps move the business forward.

Of all the questions (What, how much, when, where etc.) that a data story tries to answer, the most important question is the 'Why'.

If you can establish clear causality between an occurrence (good or bad) and its root cause, then jackpot. If you are looking for the 'Why' for good news (for e.g. 'why did we have a record breaking revenue growth this year'), then the answer can help you continue and spread the goodness around. And if it is for bad news, you can take the appropriate remedial action.

(Check out this story of a time when I realised that the real 'why' was far different compared to the perceived 'why' in the eyes of the business head).

Anyway. Given the importance of this question, I was really keen to read this book by Judea Pearl - an Israeli-American computer scientist, who has won the Turing Award and is a known expert on causality.

I thought - 'he sounds credible.. even if the language is not easy, I'll learn some fundamental insights.'

The book started off well. Here's a great para from the first chapter:

Some tens of thousands of years ago, humans began to realize that certain things cause other things and that tinkering with the former can change the latter. No other species grasps this, certainly not to the extent that we do. From this discovery came organized societies, then towns and cities, and eventually the science- and technology-based civilization we enjoy today. All because we asked a simple question: Why?

Then some parts start getting, um, complicated:

...the estimand is computed on the basis of the causal model alone, prior to an examination of the specifics of the data. This makes the causal inference engine supremely adaptable, because the estimand computed is good for any data that are compatible with the qualitative model, regardless of the numerical relationships among the variables.

It does have parts where it seems to be coming together... But there's too much effort involved... And I gave up after plodding through about 15%. Maybe I should try harder?

Anyway, I leave you with this interesting quote:

It is not surprising that the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus (460–370 BC) said, β€œI would rather discover one cause than be the King of Persia.”

​

d. 'India that is Bharat' by J Sai Deepak

I'm a history nerd, although it has been ages since I read a good history book on India. So when I got this recommendation from a friend, I jumped at it. It was supposed to be Indian history written from an Indian (or 'Indic') point of view.

The author, J Sai Deepak, is a Supreme Court lawyer, who ... let's just say feels strongly about nationalistic issues. (Disclaimer: I had never heard of his name or work before). The Amazon reviews looked good and I wanted to give it a try.

I gave up after reading some 7%.

My issue with the book? It's a tedious read. Not just from the point of view of readability - but also from a clarity perspective. I was often scratching my head saying: Dude, what are you actually saying here?

This book might be making some good points, but it sorely needs a major injection of storytelling techniques to make it more readable and clearer.

In a TEDx talk he gave about 4 years ago, Sai Deepak said: "Why is it that this reality is not percolating down to the common reader? Why is that people don't seem to understand that there is a semblance of truth, there is more than an element, there is more than a modicum of truth as far as the facts are concerned? The answer is narrative building. The answer is packaging. The answer is messaging."

I wish he had taken some of his own advice.

PS: I'm happy to be proven wrong on my (premature?) judgement of this book. In case any of you have completed the book, I would love it if you can write back to me with your impressions of it and any specific portions that you enjoyed.

​


🎧 Podcast episode/s of the week

a. The Ukraine Crisis Explained - with Niall Ferguson (The Prof G Pod)​

Niall Ferguson (pronounced Neil) is a distinguished historian and articulate thinker who's written several bestselling books on topics ranging from the history of money, risk, empires and World War 1.

In this fascinating conversation, he offers deeply insightful answers to tricky questions:

  • What is Putin really thinking?
  • Why now? What was the reason for the timing of the invasion?
  • What is Putin's likely endgame?
  • Where has the West (especially the US) gone wrong?

​


🐦 Tweet/s of the week

If it bleeds, it leads:

​

​


Check out this fascinating visual which shows you the power of time vs. timing in the markets:

​

πŸ’¬ Quote of the week

β€˜The cure for boredom is curiosity,’ goes an old saying. β€˜There is no cure for curiosity.’

- From 'How to Make the World Add Up' by Tim Harford

​


πŸ“Ί Video of the week

a. How to tame your Advice Monster by Michael Bungay Stanier (14:29)

Engaging, witty and insightful talk on how the best way to give advice is... to not give it.

Michael shares stories, uses anthropomorphism and shows immense passion and energy for the topic as he teaches us how to listen better and genuinely support your family, friends and colleagues, when they come to you with a problem.

​
Hat/tip: Gwyn Wansbrough for the recommendation
​

​


​

That's it folks: my recommended reads, listens and views for the week.

​

​Take care and stay safe.

​

Ravi

​

PS: Got this email as a forward? Get your own copy here.

​

Access this email on a browser or share this email on Whatsapp, LinkedIn or Twitter. You can access the archive of previous posts here.

​

You are getting this email as a part of the 'Story Rules on Saturday' Newsletter. To get your own copy, sign up here.

​