Have you ever heard of Jonah Berger? Probably not, but it is almost guaranteed that within the next few months we’ll be hearing a lot about this 32-year-old Wharton Business School professor, especially those of us interested in communication and leadership. I almost skipped the article about Berger in Fast Company magazine (“The Making of a Guru,” April 2013) that describes the man and his new book titled Contagious. “He’s creative, thoughtful, spunky and playful” wrote one enthusiastic reviewer. Another describes his book as written in an interesting, “sprightly, charming style” that shows how to spread our messages so they become contagious.
Perhaps I’ll say more after I finish reading the book but the magazine article raised several issues that might have relevance for all of us who are communicators. (And that includes all of us):
- Stories and Facts. Probably you are aware of Malcolm Gladwell’s 2000 best seller (4,500,000 copies to date) The Tipping Point. Gladwell is a master story-teller but there is one problem. At least half of his conclusions are wrong according to subsequent research. Several very recent books criticize the tendency of self-help authors to make sweeping recommendations based on heart-warming stories that are at odds with careful research facts.* Like these other authors, Berger tries to start with research and build stories around this. What does this say about how the rest of us communicate?
- Solid Facts and Quality Writing. Too often highly capable people are the dullest speakers and writers. Whatever our training we learn that scholarly and well-researched communication should be boring. Berger defies this myth and joins others in academic and ministerial communities who show that ideas are contagious when they are well presented.
- Marketing Machines. The Fast Company article describes the marketing strategies and frenzy that has surrounded the launch of Contagious. “All signs are that he will be one of the leading business thinkers of his generation,” gushes Berger’s editor. Maybe true, but in large measure this is because of the promotion dollars that have launched the book and drawn in people like me. Does this leave you with some discomfort, especially when we see the many teachers, speakers and writers with good ideas who never get heard?
*In addition to Courageous the books are Changeology (Norcross), Decisive (Heath Brothers), and How will You Measure Your Life (Christensen).