After reading 24 non-content books last year, I set a goal to read even more books that were not strictly content related this year. The year isn’t quite over yet, so I’m optimistic I’ll hit that goal. (Thanks to all the positive psychology books I read!) But I didn’t want to wait any longer to share 11 of the books I found interesting so you can consider them for your reading list.

This list numbers the books so it’s clear I’m not cheating you… yes, there really are 11 books. But, no, I didn’t rank them in order of preference. So, grab your favorite eggnog or holiday beverage and enjoy this list. And, while we’re at it, let’s play a little game. Each time this article uses the banned science-based or evidence-based terms or their variations, take a sip!

1. Barking Up the Wrong Tree

As you might have guessed from my company’s name, Content Science, I am a fan of science-based approaches to solving problems or developing innovations. Outside of the content realm, I am particularly fascinated by and excited about using science to better understand how to live a prosperous life. When I was growing up, very little of this science was available, and I often felt I was making big decisions based on gut, unproven advice, and whatever seemed to work for my friends and family. In this handy book, Eric Barker explains a wide range of evidence-based insights about succeeding in life.

Some of these insights validate gut instincts or common advice, while other insights blast long-standing myths. Most importantly for me, this book reconciles potentially conflicting evidence and articulates critical nuances that help with applying the insights. For example, Barker explains that while executive leadership roles tend to have a disproportionately high number of narcissists, those roles also have a disproportionately high number of extremely nice, giving people. And the givers are the ones who are the most successful, especially over time. As someone who often interacts with a variety of people, including executives, this insight inspired me to refocus on the givers and gain renewed enthusiasm for working with executives.

2. The Inner Game of Tennis

Even if you don’t play tennis or any sport, consider reading this book. I recently discovered it, but W. Timothy Gallwey’s read is a classic in sports circles. It’s the first book to comprehensively and practically cover the mental side of performance. If you ever have to perform in any way (and I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t), then you will find this book thought-provoking. One key theme is focus. Gallwey observes:

“Not assuming you already know is a powerful principle of focus.”

Gallwey goes on to explain the importance of seeing the situation as it is, not as you assume it or judge it to be, to perform well in the situation. While useful in sports, I find this idea to be true in content situations. If you try to develop a content strategy, a content marketing strategy, a design or product strategy (you get the idea) based on assumptions and preconceived judgments, you will fail. Content intelligence developed by thorough content analysis is the only way to avoid assumptions and gain clarity.

3. Jobs to Be Done

In our workshops, we often talk about content as having important jobs to do. Content is integral to marketing. Content often is a product, as in the case of any media. Content is critical to any digital product or service experience. Content facilitates customer support and service. You get the idea. We have found the concept of thinking about content in terms of jobs to be very useful, so I was delighted to see this book explain “jobs to be done” as a framework for innovating entire products and services–and even entire companies.

Stephen Wunker, Jessica Wattman, and David Farber posit that whatever you are offering must help a customer get a job done that the customer considers important.  This framework brings focus to customer research so that, as Gallwey might say, you’re not assuming. Your research should focus on uncovering or better understanding the jobs your customers are trying to accomplish. This framework also brings focus to ideation. (I love how the authors criticize brainstorming… I’ve always hated brainstorming.) When you focus on jobs to be done, you can more easily generate ideas that, at once, are more feasible and more creative than you would otherwise.

4. Before Happiness

I’m so in love with this book that I find writing about it difficult. The science-based elements that positive psychologist Shawn Achor explains have changed my mindset completely–on good days, at least! And, as it turns out, your mind needs to be right before fully applying and benefiting from the practical principles outlined in his first book “The Happiness Advantage.” Achor calls this idea developing “positive genius.”

To achieve positive genius, perhaps the most mind-changing element is choosing your reality. Not just any reality–the most valuable reality. (Hint: the most valuable reality is not delusion. It’s based in evidence.) This choice is the foundation for the other elements and, ultimately, making positivity part of your life. Fortunately, Achor explains how to make that important choice. But this book is dense, rich with useful ideas. I’m already reading it a second time.

5. The Potential Principle

This book is a wonderful complement to books such as “Peak,” “Flow,” and “The Inner Game of Tennis” to round out insights about reaching your potential. I particularly like how Mark Sanborn simplifies the areas to focus on for improvement as these four:

  • Thinking
  • Performing
  • Learning
  • Reflecting

And then he offers practical, evidence-based techniques to make incremental improvements. His philosophy is that you will never know your potential if you stop trying to improve.

6. How to Get a Meeting with Anyone

This amusing yet practical book offers a wealth of ideas to get the time and attention of a busy, successful person. Surprisingly, content plays a big role in many of the ideas. Stu Heinecke, for example, relies heavily on his ability to create custom cartoons in his “contact campaigns” to get meetings.

While not everyone has such talent, Heinecke does a great job of extrapolating useful principles and offering a wide variety of ideas curated from successes his colleagues experience in their contact campaigns. Heinecke points out that a contact campaign can be useful for work (I’m thinking getting time with an exec to talk content) and for personal goals. He even met his eventual wife through one of his contact campaigns. This book reminded me that at times I don’t take the care I should in my one-to-one communications, and such communications are the foundation of great relationships.

7. Small Giants

This book explores the elements of success–and sometimes failure–in small businesses. The author seems particularly enamored with Ani DiFranco, but if you look past that, some amazing business stories emerge. These stories don’t make typical business books because they are about privately held small companies such as Zingerman’s, where financial performance is not publicly reported and, consequently, not easy to research or analyze.

Through story after story, the author makes a convincing case that a small company can have a big impact. As a business owner, I found this book extremely thought-provoking as I envision the future of Content Science.

8. Pre-suasion

Similar to “Before Happiness,” this book focuses on context—what has to be in place before a persuasive technique is used successfully. Robert Cialdini finds the ability to guide attention and make associations as critical to setting context for successful persuasion.

I find the science of persuasion and influence fascinating for planning digital content, as you saw in my book “Clout.” So, I was glad to find Cialdini does not disappoint in explaining evidence-based principles through a wide variety of examples. And I appreciated his discussion of ethics at the end.

9. The Founder’s Mentality

We are living in a crazy time for business. Digital transformation is largely responsible for more than half of the Fortune 500 disappearing since 2000. What prompts large businesses to start the quick path to failure? And what can be done, if anything, to get back on the path to success? A pair of Bain consultants explore those questions in this book and conclude that the key factor is the company founder’s mentality–purpose, philosophy, and so on.

When large companies such as Charles Schwab lose the founder’s mentality, they flail. When they figure out how to embrace and scale the founder’s mentality, as Charles Schwab eventually did, they can overcome challenges such as disruption. This book complements leadership books such as “Start with Why,” and I particularly appreciated the evidence that Chris Zook and James Lane bring to the conversation.

10. Decide to Play Great Poker

Don’t let the title fool you. This book is much more about making decisions than it is about playing poker. And I love it. Master poker player Annie Duke, along with John Vorhaus, explain that the key to winning strategy is to consistently make good decisions, then explain what a good decision means in poker. For example, it’s best to play a hand when you are in a position to have the most information possible to inform your decision. When you are in an early position or betting first, you have less information than when you are in late position or betting last. So, don’t try to make a big bet when you are first.

It’s not hard to see how so many of the lessons apply to life, as well. Perhaps my favorite insight from the Duchess of Poker is that making good decisions doesn’t guarantee you will win every hand. But it does significantly increase your likelihood to win the big hands over the course of a long game. If life is not a long game, I don’t know what is.

11. Grit

I am obsessed with this book by Angela Duckworth. I technically started reading it in 2016 and finished it, then read it a second time in 2017. This book is a useful complement to “Mindset” by Carol Dweck, “Before Happiness,” and the performance books mentioned above. Duckworth’s theory of grit prizes effort over talent, much to my relief because I lack special talents but am happy to work hard (usually). While this book is not the first to assert effort is more important than talent to succeed, I appreciated how it brings the science of grit to life, connecting mindset to behavior. I also drew inspiration from the wide-ranging examples of grit in the face of failure.

I also love that “Grit” has become such a popular concept that “Portlandia” pokes fun. (If you have not seen the “Amore” episode with the Operation Safe Bully sketch, I highly recommend it.)

So, I hope this list inspires you to read and listen to the wealth of fantastic, evidence-based content in the form of books available to us today. I know the insights you glean will be different from mine, and I have no doubt they will be interesting.

And I’d love to hear about the books you enjoyed this year. As for 2018, wish me luck with my new goal of… 26 books!


The Author

Colleen Jones is the author of The Content Advantage and founder of Content Science, a content intelligence and strategy firm that has advised or trained hundreds of the world’s leading organizations since 2010. She also is the former head of content at MailChimp, the marketing platform recognized by Inc. as 2017 Company of the Year. A passionate entrepreneur, Colleen has led Content Science to develop the  content intelligence software ContentWRX, publish the online magazine Content Science Review, and offer online certifications through Content Science Academy.

Colleen has earned recognition as an instructor on LinkedIn Learning, one of the Top 50 Most Influential Women in Content Marketing by a TopRank study, a Content Change Agent by Society of Technical Communication’s Intercom Magazine, and one of the Top 50 Most Influential Content Strategists by multiple organizations.

Follow Colleen on Twitter at @leenjones or on LinkedIn.

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