In a recent post about how to creatively write a business book,  I discussed how captivated I was by Eli Goldratt’s book The Goal. Not only did the book introduce me to some profound insights on productivity, it reminded me how much I like the novel as a format for understanding new and interesting concepts, particularly in a business setting.

But not everyone is a novelist and maybe not everyone enjoys fiction as much as I do. That doesn’t mean that you are limited to presenting your new ideas or learning new things in ways that cling to the old formula of long blocks of text interrupted only by footnotes and chapter headings.

Two printed book series that do a really excellent job of breaking those constraints (nod to Goldratt there) are the Head First books and the Stikky books.

The Head First series focuses mostly on computer programming languages and applications, but also includes such topics as Algebra, Statistics, and Data Analysis. (Here the author of Data Analysis book provides an interesting take on what he learned about writing from doing it.)

The Head First books all rely on a boatload of illustrations and examples. They usually start with a multi-dimensional problem that you, the reader, want to solve. The book then applies the concepts and tools of the language, application, or field of study in leading you through the different steps to solving the problem.

They are all written in second person and encourage (even demand) your interaction in moving through the steps of the problem—and not in the rhetorical or end of the chapter “things to ponder” way, but rather in concrete ways such as identifying errors, doing calculations, choosing among alternatives, specifying language, etc.

The Stikky books are fewer in number (only four titles, on subjects as diverse as weight management, stock charts, and astronomy), but in some ways even more purposeful in their presentation. The psychological foundation behind the format of the books includes learning theory, reader motivation and stimulus-response image design. They use small units, an illustration on every page, frequent testing of what has been covered, and a task orientation among other principles.

You may not want to know about how to program in Java or what to look for in the night sky, but the creative format and execution of both these series of books is something that can help any of us whose jobs require that we communicate complex or abstract information in a way that is clear and meaningful.  - Barrett Sydnor


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