November marked Dale Carnegie’s birthday (November 21, 1888) and also the anniversary of his death (November 1, 1955). While recently browsing the bookstore, I saw Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People alongside another familiar book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey’s 1989 bestseller. I have read both books; while both books have much to offer, I hold one book in much higher regard than the other (I bet you can guess which one from this post’s title!).
Covey billed his book as a next generation self-improvement book above and beyond Dale Carnegie (in fact, Covey’s 7 Habits includes an irksome “Goodbye, Dale Carnegie” quote of critical praise for Covey at Carnegie’s expense). And yet, Dale Carnegie’s venerable 1937 book has actually endured much better than 7 Habits over the last twenty years, thanks to Carnegie’s timeless, highly personable advice, wrapped in one of the first and best conversational writing books ever written.
Kathy Sierra, whose Creating Passionate Users blog (2006-2007) remains one of my favorites of all time, had a lot to say about the value of conversational writing over formal writing. Kathy identified a universal truth that goes a long way to explaining the 70-plus-years of success of How to Win Friends and Influence People:
If you want people to learn and remember what you write, say it conversationally. This isn’t just for short informal blog entries and articles, either. We’re talking books. Assuming they’re meant for learning, and not reference, books written in a conversational style are more likely to be retained and recalled than a book on the same topics written in a more formal tone.
I wondered whether How to Win Friends and Influence People was recognized as a groundbreaking book when it was first published. I could only find one book review in a search of major newspaper archives: a January 31, 1937 review in The Washington Post (Advice for the Lifelorn, by Gilbert Stinger). Yes, the review was favorable, but while referring to How to Win Friends and Influence People as “a popular treatise, dressed up in fast-moving, twentieth century English, full of hardheaded testimonials,” the reviewer also remarked “the core of [Dale Carnegie’s] advice is: Think about others, be unselfish. Other authors in this field have recently stressed the same point [including] Dorothea Brande in Wake Up and Live.” In fact, the books could not be more different. Compare Dale Carnegie’s work with the dry and stiffly formal dissertation style of Wake Up and Live (available online), presumably typical of the prevailing 1930’s style of non-fiction. Now I really appreciated how ahead of his time Dale Carnegie’s conversational writing truly was, and how fresh it remains even today.
If you haven’t recently read How to Win Friends and Influence People, pick up and read an updated copy [EDIT: but not the “Digital Age” version]. Ideally, get the 2-in-1 edition that includes How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, Dale Carnegie’s follow-up companion bestseller.
How to Win Friends and Influence People remains the first and best modern self-improvement book.
Dale Carnegie’s work would have been right at home as WordPress blog, but was just some 65-70 years ahead of its time. Mindful of this fact, plus given that a number of blogs have been republished into books, I hereby nominate Dale Carnegie as the world’s first (de facto) blogger. Carnegie was perhaps the first non-fiction author who understood the value of “writing as you talk.”
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