Economist Caroline Webb begins her 2016 book How to Have a Good Day not as every other big-idea book from the last two decades has begun (with an arresting anecdote, designed to become the lead of every review or interview about the book).
Instead, Webb begins with a frame — a science frame. In fact, she titles the chapter “The Science Essentials,” which feels like trying to sell canned spinach with a stenciled label that says “Canned Spinach.”
Boring? Anything but. In fact, “The Science Essentials” demonstrates to me why most anecdote- and storytelling-driven science writing and communication feels so insubstantial…so unuseful.
In “The Science Essentials,” Webb sums up in 20 pages both the recent scientific trends (in psychology, economics and neuroscience) and the essential applied findings from those trends that underpin the rest of what she’s about to tell you — which is, you might have guessed, is what science has found helps (and hurts) us as we strive to have a satisfying day, especially in the workplace.
This frame (and the way Webb pulls it off) does three things for How to Have a Good Day:
- It certifies that the rest of the book is grounded in science — that Webb isn’t another Malcolm Gladwell, cherry-picking studies and peddling half-baked hot takes.
- It sets a tone: we’re going to take the science seriously here, but it will also be approachable and delicious. If this is spinach, it’s Rasika’s Palak Chaat — flash fried, with tamarind-yogurt sauce that you could eat all day.
- It hands us a set of concepts that not only Webb will use to write the book, but that we can use ourselves beyond what Webb tells us. (Not quite a unified model, but an affiliated set of them.) The rest of How to Have a Good Day couldn’t possibly cover every adverse possibility we could encounter in the workplace. But Webb’s frame takes widely applicable concepts (such as Kahneman’s “fast” and “slow” thinking) and gives them to us in concise, clear packages that we can use to step back and analyze our own daily behaviors and those of others — and respond to them in more productive ways.
You could skip “The Science Essentials” and get right to the rest of How to Have a Good Day — starting with the chapter where Webb completely misreads a day-long meeting run by a colleague because she came into it reactively, without setting her own goals. That’s where Gladwell, Dan Pink and lots of other “research-based” best-selling authors would begin their books. That’s where storytelling classes tell you to begin — hook the audience first, then use that hook to educate them about your underlying frame.
Your mileage might vary. But anecdote-driven books from Gladwell, Pink, Charles Duhigg et al. — I can’t remember much of anything from them years later, certainly little that I’ve been able to apply to my own decision making. Their frames (flowing from anecdote) never became models for me. They remained narrative strategies, useful mainly for these authors to pull off their books and keep me turning the pages (and buying the next book).
Takeaway: Explicit frames help you move from giving your audience a secret that never quite sticks to giving the audience a model they can use themselves. Which is another facet of research authority.