How to research for your nonfiction book (or other project)

The first port of call in any nonfiction book’s research journey must always be the book’s potential readers. By knowing these people well and understanding their issues and problems, you may even find that the book’s structure and content suggest themselves. So how do you go about it?

how to research for a nonfiction book

Start at your desk with some common sense.

There’s no great mystique to it. If you want to get to know your readers, simply go and talk to them. That’s what I do. But I don’t always follow the most obvious route.

Start with common sense

A lot of your research into your readers can, in theory, be done at your desk. You can use your common sense to work out the fact that the readership of a book about weddings – say – is likely to be predominantly female, mostly within the 20 – 40 age group with a secondary audience of brides’ mothers plus second/third time a-rounders, with a reasonable amount of money to spend but not enough to justify hiring a wedding planner, etc.

In the same way you can work out that a book about how to write your own advertising and PR material will appeal to people in small businesses – sole traders and the lower end of SMEs trying to maximize small marketing budgets – with a secondary audience of people in departments of larger companies who may be trying to maximize ad budgets squeezed by a financial cutback.

Look for the dirty little secrets

Quality of information is important here. Even small nuances can make a huge difference to your understanding of your readership. And one thing common sense doesn’t achieve, is to uncover issues and problems that no-one likes to talk about. Yet often it’s precisely these issues and problems that your own expertise can help solve, so making your book even more valuable to its readers.

One time I was asked to produce a series of podcasts to inform and motivate a team of mobile automotive technicians working for one of the UK’s leading motoring organisations. From the information I was given and found out from my desk I knew that they were all rather independent individuals, many of them working pretty remote territories all over the UK in their vans and only meeting with their colleagues and superiors on fairly rare occasions despite online connections and communications.

how to research for a nonfiction book

Was anything smelly lurking under the floorboards?

They were key customer-facing staff because they were the people customers met when their cars had broken down or had run out of fuel. They were perceived by customers to be knights in shining armour and as a result, many of these guys had quite lively egos. Great, all good stuff, and easy to discover through the comfortable media of telephone, e-mail, online information etc. And that might have been enough for some writers.

But Suzan’s nose kept twitching. The picture looked too rosy, too settled. I needed to know if anything smelly was lurking under the floorboards. My client, a senior HR manager, through no fault of his own hardly ever got to leave Head Office and never had the chance to see our target audience in action. It was possible there were problems he didn’t know about.

Be a mystery shopper if you need to keep a low profile

So, not quite donning a wig and a false nose but certainly keeping a low profile, I sneaked into a rare regional conference of these people in another city. Boring old stuff from the podium and very interesting quips from members of the audience to one another in the back rows of the hall (where I was sitting). I detected unhappy noises and made notes. Next stop, out on the road.

It just so happened that an old friend of mine owned a big service station and car workshop near where I live and his place was a certified depot for motoring organisations. I learned that most local technicians in the motoring organisation business hang out in these certified depots because that’s where they bring in customers’ cars for more complex repair.

Over some vile pre-Starbucks instant coffee late one night I was shooting the breeze with representatives not only from the clients’ company but also from their two key competitors. And guess what?

In casual conversation it turned out that my clients’ company was being ridiculed by its competitors because of a variety of issues, several of which my poor client knew nothing about.

So, what difference did that make to the project I was working on, and my knowledge of the audience – in this case several hundred people like the poor man who was lambasted by the competitors’ staff over a cup of revolting coffee in that depot? Early the next morning, I called my client and told them.

From then on it was like watching dominoes fall over. By end of business the following day my client’s company had launched an urgent investigation into the whole thing. By the end of that week they had discovered that the same problems were widespread, across the country.

By the beginning of the next week our entire communications project had been changed to accommodate the new findings. We then went ahead with the revised approach and it worked. I shudder to think how much money my client’s company would have wasted on expensive, pointless videos and podcasts and associated other consumables had we not uncovered those issues in time.

Become one of the crowd

There’s a lot to be said for using these mystery shopper techniques to research and get to know your audience. Although some people might say it’s dishonest to conceal your identity, the problem is people won’t always be honest with you if you tell them who you really are and why you’re asking questions.

That’s especially true of rank-and-file staff in large organisations, if they think you’re ‘management.’ Many will tell you what they think you want to hear. Similarly consumers in stores and shopping malls will put up barriers, especially if you’re walking around shooting video on your phone or talking into it.

Even the people brought into focus groups (those supposedly informal discussion sessions highly revered by researchers and marketing people) tend to exaggerate their existing opinions and invent an opinion on the spot if they don’t happen to have one handy.

The reason in all cases, I believe, is because people find these circumstances artificial and intimidating – hardly conducive to relaxed, honest information sharing.

how to research for a nonfiction book

Become one of the crowd

You’re far more likely to get the truth from staff in a large organisation, say, if they think you’re the person who’s come in to fix the water cooler, or from shoppers if you’re pushing a loaded cart in a supermarket and strike up a conversation with them while waiting to go through the checkout.

Get people talking about themselves

However even if you’re upfront and say you’re researching for a book, you can still get to the truth by gaining people’s confidence, and that you do by becoming their friend.

How do you befriend your interviewees? You get them to talk about themselves. And not just their business or professional selves, either, but their personal selves. Pick up on some small thing to get the conversation going… a golf trophy on a shelf, a picture of some children or pets, an attractive piece of jewellery, the quality of the coffee, the weather.

Sometimes you’ll find that their demeanour changes abruptly – they soften, smile, relax. Once you’ve got them going on that, ask their opinion on a small point that’s relevant to your book project. Then gradually guide the conversation into everything else you want to know.

Interviewing people

There are very few people in the industrialised world who will not warm to someone whom they believe is genuinely interested in them, their life, and their opinions. Over the years I’ve conducted literally thousands of corporate interviews, most of which were recorded on video or audio, and in all that time I only failed to get through to two people.

One was a 7-foot car factory worker with a shaved head, a ring like a door knocker through his (nasal) septum and a fondness for the F-word which came up several times in each sentence. The other was a rock band’s road manager who was about to get barbecued by the electrics in pouring rain on an open-air stage, surrounded by live cables. Everybody else, though, eventually opened up and spoke their thoughts freely.

It’s not because I’ve got a pretty face, large cleavage, bulging wallet or anything else (I have none of those). It’s because I genuinely like people and I am genuinely interested in them.

Members of your audience / customer base aren’t idiots. If you’re only pretending to be interested in them, they’ll know. So you have to be interested. Really. And if you are, you’ll get the results you want.

Once you get the conversation rolling you need to employ some of the basic techniques used by good corporate/business TV interviewers (not journalists as their interviews often are adversarial – makes for more exciting TV, they say, but useless here).

Some tips:

  • Be careful how you phrase your questions – be tactful and polite.
  • Always make your questions open-ended, so they invite an answer. Ask for opinions. People love to give their opinions.
  • Never ask a ‘closed’ question (one that can be answered with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no.’) Use ‘open’ questions based on the news reporters’ approach of who, what, where, when, how and why. But be gentle – not just “why does everyone hate bindweed so much,” but “why do you think bindweed has become such an issue for gardeners?”
  • When asking a question, just ask one – don’t include more than one key thought.
  • When you’ve asked a question, shut up. Let the person speak. Don’t interrupt or attempt to steer what they’re saying.
  • If they falter or hesitate on an important point, don’t press them on it. Ask them something else, then return to your original point later on, remembering to ask the question in a different way so they don’t realise it’s the same point. You’ll be surprised how well that can work.
  • And when you’ve finished, thank them. They’ve helped you to plan your book better and more accurately.

Good luck!

Adapted from Suzan’s forthcoming title, “How To Write A Brilliant Nonfiction Book,” to be published later in 2020 by BetterBooksMedia.