How Do You Read a Business Book? – Here’s How I am Now Reading Business Books

An executive summary, sometimes known as a management summary, is a short document or section of a document, produced for business purposes, that summarizes a longer report or proposal or a group of related reports in such a way that readers can rapidly become acquainted with a large body of material without having to read it all.

“You need an idea.”
You need a tangible idea to get you going. The idea, however miniscule, is what turns the verb into a noun – paint into a painting, sculpt into sculpture, write into writing, dance into a dance.
Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit


After writing yesterday’s blog post, What Are You Reading Right Now? – Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Charlie Munger had a Ready Answer to that Question; Do You?, I started thinking about this question: How do you read a business book? This is my attempt to explain how I am now reading business books.

And, I realize that most readers do not read as preparation for a book synopsis presentation, as I do.  Each book I read, I know that I will (or, at least, might) present a synopsis of this book to a live audience.  That has surely shaped my approach.

I have “evolved” into my current practice after 16+ years of the First Friday Book Synopsis. Over 16+ years, I have prepared synopsis handouts for over 200 business books (and, I have read far more than that).  And, my approach has truly evolved. This is what I am doing now as I read these books…

Here’s the short version:

I read the first and last chapters, and answer this question in my mind: “What is the idea behind this book? Only when I know the answer to that question do I feel ready to read the entire book.

Let’s think about this…

I think a business book is written to provide an answer to a question, or an approach to an issue. The best ones identify a current problem, very clearly, and then say: this is how to solve this problem in your business.

The quality of the idea; the quality of that “problem/issue identification,” may be the most important content of the book.

And, to be honest, plenty of business books are not examples of great writing. That almost doesn’t matter. What matters is — has the author (or, authors) identified an issue worth the time it will take to read the book? If the answer is yes, I’m ready to go to work.

In other words, I don’t look for the same “reading experience” in a business book that I do with a good novel, or other terrific books of nonfiction. When I do experience a “good read,” I feel like I’ve been awarded a special treat. Malcolm Gladwell, Michael Lewis, … I find that “good read” experience from them. But, that really is almost just a “bonus.”

I have a strange new excitement that has developed over these years. That excitement comes when I find a great identifier and explainer of a problem or issue. And, even more strange, I get more of an energy rush from a well-identified issue than I do from the proposed solution.

So, in my initial reading, I am asking: how do I find this big idea? I have come to realize that I first seek to write my own executive summary paragraph of the book. A short paragraph, that somehow captures the essence of the book. I print this on my handouts, right at the beginning of the “content portion” of each handout. For example, here is my “executive summary paragraph” of Accelerate (XLR8): Building Strategic Ability for a Faster-Moving World, the most recent book by John Kotter.

Threats to organizational health, and thus threats to market share and profitability, are coming faster and faster.
We are in an age of accelerating challenges and threats. The pace of such threats demand change in organizational structure.
John Kotter recommends a way to “restructure” an organization for this fast, ever-faster paced, accelerating world.

I arrive at this executive summary paragraph this way. I first read the first chapter or introduction, then I read the last chapter. This usually gives me this “big idea” that the author/authors are dealing with.

Yes, I have occasionally had to revise this paragraph after my full reading of the book. But not often.

Once I get this idea clear in my own mind, then I can start looking for the support, the details, the “fleshing out” of the author’s arguments throughout the book.

And then, I can start dealing with “so what do I take away from this book?”. That leads me to my “takeaways,” which are always the last items on my handouts. (And, I blog about these from each of the books I present, pretty much every month).

I do not read reviews, interviews, for the content of my handouts. I’m a text guy — I want to know what the book itself is saying, and I seek to deal only with the text of the book as I prepare my synopsis (and the handouts).

So, to sum up:

I look for the author’s identification of the problem or issue.
I look for the author’s solution(s).
Then, I share the supporting content, and my takeaways.

That’s how I am currently reading business books. How do you read them?


15minadMost of our synopses from the First Friday book Synopsis, with the comprehensive, multi-page handouts and the audio of our presentations, are available at our companion site,


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