Episode 171: Becca Braun on ghostwriting business memoirs

Download transcript

April 29, 2019

Our guest today is Becca Braun, an innovator and writer whose longtime passion is capturing the voices of executives, entrepreneurs, and others in new and interesting ways.

Becca is an alum of Harvard Business School and Harvard College, and the President of Braun Ink, a ghostwriting firm that writes action-packed executive biographies and memoirs.

Learn more about Becca’s firm on their website, https://www.braunink.com/

To sign up for the weekly Unleashed email, visit askunleashed.com

HIGHLIGHTS

Will: Hello, Becca. Welcome to the show.

Becca: Thank you.

Will: Becca, what are some common misconceptions about ghostwriting?

Becca: Oh, good question, Will. I would say that one of the biggest misconceptions is that it will be easier if you use a ghostwriter. In general, that the process of writing a memoir is easy because it feels and, in some ways, is less research-driven than an academic work or something like that. But what I would say about working with a ghostwriter to write your memoir is that it’s still quite a lot of work. It is every person we’ve written about, 20 of these so far, four individuals. They’ve all said it is more work than I thought. They say that even when we warn them upfront and say, “There’s gonna be more work than you thought it would be.” We hear that consistently from people. It’s still more work than they thought. Because, at the end of the day, we cannot get into your voice quickly or easily.

That takes a lot of time. Ultimately, over the course of six to 12 months, we still are never going to fully have or get your voice. You have your voice. You’re gonna have to edit a lot and work with us a lot and have a lot of patience and that type of thing. I think the misconception is that a ghostwriter does all the heavy lifting. They do enough of it so that the process is not entirely painful to you. But, ultimately, it is more work than people think. A lot of fun too, by the way. I didn’t mean to make it sound all work. It’s a lot of fun too. But then, they always say there so glad they did it. They just didn’t know how much work it would be.

Will: That would have been one of my misconceptions. I would have thought, “Well, I’m hiring someone. It can take the load off.” Let’s backtrack a little bit and talk about how you got started. You were writing on the side, doing some ghostwriting for executive speeches?

Becca: Yes.

Will: Tell us about that. Then how did that develop into your current business? Tell us a little bit about what you’re doing now?

Becca: That’s a good question too. I’m a big advocate of the side hustle, which is moonlighting the side hustle, whatever you wanna call it. I had been co-founder of and was president of Jumpstart Ventures, which is a nonprofit seed and angel investing firms in Northeast Ohio. I was doing that job and that was, as you can imagine, a pretty full-time job. We were high-velocity investors. That was a pretty full-time job. I had four young kids ages … They’re now 17, 15, 13, 11; but at the time, they were about 10 years younger. In any case, but I loved writing. Do you know I was a linguistics major in college? I was a journalist. I really love writing, and I loved business. I wanted to combine writing and business. I had a side hustle about eight hours a week ghost writing speeches for CEOs. I was very consistent. I did eight hours a week, every week. I did these speeches for different CEOs. One of them asked me-

Will: What kind of speeches? That’s an interesting thing itself. What kind of speeches would a CEO be giving that they would engage you for?

Becca: I love these things. I mean it was CEOs. It was chairmen, chair people largely, for better or worse, chairmen. But in any case, these were speeches to all employees. Companies have employees around the country, around the world. These were often on-screens throughout the world, live-streamed or televised or whatever. There were those types of speeches. There were chairperson remarks at different events. It wasn’t really investor relations per se, because most companies have investor relations departments, if they’re of the size to have public investors. But it was speeches or remarks at events that investors might attend as opposed to investor relations or might be in attendance at. It was we did all kinds of things; conferences where customers would be present. I frequently worked with members of the marketing department.

The marketing departments are so overloaded and so overwhelmed that actually trying to get into the voice of the CEO or any executive. Again, it was C-level executives, but trying to get into that voice was not something they had time for. They should have time. They need to outsource that and say, “Can you pull up the words this executive used three speeches ago? Can you pull up these images? Can you interview? Go find some documents.” That’s the type of thing that I just love to do, was to find that cadence. Find those words, find that syntax. Find everything that is particular to that executive.

Will: I imagine that you would have some conversations with executive about, broadly, what they wanted to say and what they wanted to talk about.

Becca: Oh, of course. I mean, the closest work was with the executive herself or himself, but I worked also with marketing departments. It takes a village to create a good speech. Yes, it was quite a few meetings and discussions with a CEO, and quite a few drafts. Many instances, in fact, I would say more often than not where they sent lots of the draft remarks back to the cutting room floor. Executives are like anybody, but they’re pretty demanding. They were not subtle in saying. You have to have a thick skin to do almost anything in life. You have to have a thick skin because they’re not subtle about saying this isn’t good enough. It’s not working. So keep going. That’s why it was mornings, evenings, lunch times, and that type of thing.

Will: Fascinating. We could have a whole show about that. We’ll get you back to talk about speeches, but let’s continue on. You’re writing these speeches and then that evolved into this business eventually of really writing memoirs for executives. Tell us about how all that happened.

Becca: One of the CEOs that I was writing for said, “Would you be interested in or willing to go straight my memoir?” The first couple times I said, “No, I just don’t have time. I’m working at Jumpstart. I have a full-time job. I have a family. I just don’t have time to do that, unfortunately. I can’t do it.” He was in no hurry. He was a former CEO. He was older. He was in no hurry by any means. Finally, I got the third or fourth request from him to go straight his memoir. I was ready to leave Jumpstart. The reason is it was a nonprofit. Ultimately, I went and got my MBA because, fundamentally, as much as I think that capitalism has a long way to go to be the type of system we want it to be. I have many issues with capitalism. It’s the best system out there. Unfortunately, it’s the best.

: There was on the matter, I would love it. I really am getting my MBA, really believe in the for-profit system. I wanted to go back to the for-profit world. I was ready to leave Jumpstart. I needed that jumping off point. That’s why the side hustle is so good. I said to him, that third or fourth time that he asked, “You know what? Let’s do it.” I had a 12-month contract with him to go straight his memoir. We had so much fun doing it. I mean, I did not think I would have that much fun writing a book for someone to tell their story. It was personal, and it was professional. From there, his other COE buddies, there’s a CEO club, I think, the CEO buddy, a couple of them read it. They said, “Oh, I’d love to do that too.” We just started writing more of these stories for CEOs. Again, these were limited print edition. Maybe in a few moments, we’ll talk about the books that are more for public consumption but these were limited print edition. Just CEOs telling their stories just for kicks and giggles.

Will: So they would distribute it, I imagine, to their friends and family and maybe internally to the company so they could understand the origin story of the company.

Becca: That’s exactly right. It was all over the map in terms of what their limited distribution plan was for their limited print edition. But by and large, it was friends, family, colleagues, internal to the workplace or sometimes donated to a nonprofit, where people could get the book and were asked to make a donation to get the book and that type of thing. It’s been across the board.

Will: What’s involved in writing one of these? Maybe a double-barreled question. I’m curious if you have to serve almost the standardized structure like childhood, talk about entry into the business. Is there some standardized structure that you typically do? Tell us a little bit about that whole process of creating one of these books.

Becca: Sure. Typically, a book takes … A memoir or ghostwritten memoir takes about 12 months to research and write. Then about six months to produce, which involves design, administrative, getting Library of Congress numbers, getting ISPN numbers if you want those, which are the little barcodes you see on the backs of books. Even though these are limited print edition, those are the types of things you do. Then to produce in different formats like eBook, et cetera. There’s 12 months to write and six months to produce for us. As far as the standardized process or actual structure of the product, the process is typically interviewing and then drafting. It is just a classic, it’s just the grind. It’s just doing the interviews is an awful lot of fun. I just love that part.

I mean, you are deeply learning from other people’s successes and mistakes in life and in business when you do these interviews. We do start out with maybe 15 hours of interviews. Then, over the course of about five drafts of the book, we conduct another, let’s say on average, 15 to 20 hours of interviews. Then we do research. These are fairly research-heavy for us. We like to not only fact-check, but surround a story with research of what was the context, what was going on. That’s quite a bit of research. Then we just complete a final draft and we get it proofread, designed, and everything else. We work with 100% contractors who have specialties in all the different areas of book writing, research, production.

As far as the actual structure of a book, I generally divide a book because I’m a pretty structured, creative but structured into style, substance and structure. They all should have a beautiful, for lack of a better word, a beautiful synergy. You don’t structure a book creatively, just a structure creatively just because you wanna be creative. You structure it creatively because that structure aligns with the substance of the book. It aligns with that person’s style. I can try to give an example. We had one where a fellow wrote a book about his late wife. It’s a beautiful story. She grew up utterly impoverished. Impoverished because her mother had died and her father had unfortunately succumbed to alcoholism.

The story talks about how most nobody knew in her society friends. She became fairly well-to-do woman. Nobody knew about her past and about her needing to reconcile with her past. We structured it where we told the front story, the main current day narrative, our contemporary narrative. Then, of course, alternated that. We whirled in and alternated in from her childhood. Every other chapter would progress her childhood and every other chapter would progress her adulthood. But where they met was at the moment when she found her father, for the first time in 25 years or something, as an adult, and he unfortunately still a degenerate but she reconciled with him. She was Catholic so there’s that notion of reconciliation in the Catholic Church anyhow.

The book is about reconciliation. The chapters lead up to structurally that reconciliation moment. I know that’s a long example. My point being, we didn’t just do that because we wanted to be creative and alternate chapters. We did it because the substance led us to that point.

Will: Having produced now about 20 of these biographies of successful business people, what are some of the themes that have emerged for you? Anything surprising emerging for you?

Becca: Yes. I would say after about the fifth one, a very clear … Again, this is not statistical. It’s anecdotal, because 20 is hardly enough. It’s not like good to great. The book, it’s highly statistical about what, for instance, makes it a great CEO or separates a great CEO from an average CEO. It’s not statistical. But what I would say is, after about the fifth one, each of these people has really, I would say, an epiphany in their adolescence, in their age 13 to 20, 22-time period when they realized they want to become an achiever. That struck me because each of them talks about it. They don’t say this is my epiphany. They don’t use those words. They don’t say, “I wanted to become an achiever.” They don’t use those words.

But each of them, whether they’re rich or poor, whether they were good at school or not good at school, it doesn’t matter. Since then, I’ve noticed that I’d say 90% of the time, I hear about that story sometime between age 13 and 22, where they just realized, “I wanted to really do something with myself, with my life.” That is one. Then, the second one that has struck me, and this is very much by virtue of the primary people we’ve written books for, were fundamentally, as much as I’d like you to believe, they were global. Every market is local. I’d say 60 to 70% of the people we’ve written for have primarily been Cleveland area, Ohio business people. Not all of them, but 60 to 70%.

This is very particular to that. But these stories, these people, the separation of church and state that took place between the business men and their wives is stunning. I know this sounds crazy in today’s day and age, but in some ways, it is beautiful. I do talk with their wives. It’s beautiful because it’s clear. Today, we have so much less clarity. The wives are as strong. I just was under the impression because I didn’t grow up with that much of an executive parent. I was really under the impression that the wives of these executives were perhaps a little bit more quiet or whatever. They were strong, strong, strong about what they did to raise their family. The executives were never around. It was absolute commitment to growing whatever company.

They are an absolute, complete commitment to it 70 hours a week and weekends. 100%, the wives raised his families. They dealt with the difficulties of the kids. They dealt with all of the family stuff. The strength these women had and have was incredible. The clarity of the separation of duties. I just, in some ways, I have a different American, a different family. My husband and I are very equal on working and raising kids. I’m hip to that jive, but there’s something really incredible about that clarity they had and the strength that clarity could bring on.

Will: What a powerful observation. On that first observation, how did that manifest itself? How do people express that that sometime in their teen years, they decided that they wanna really make something of their lives? How did that come out?

Becca: Let’s say, I’m trying to think of some good examples. I’m walking in my office here to look at some of the book spines to come up with some good examples. I think there’s one a fellow who became a renowned doctor, the head of a major unit of Cedars-Sinai Hospital and did more transplants, heart and lung transplants than any other doctor in history at the time and that type of thing. In any case, he decided that he was Jewish. He faced some discrimination. He faced it in his teen years, and it made him really angry. He decided that he was going to make something of himself so that he didn’t face that discrimination again. That was an example. He ended up going to Yale at a time when the now well-known Jewish Coda existed.

He also found out a bit about that. That additional discrimination made him pretty angry. There’s that example where anger drove his desire to achieve and, unfortunately, discrimination. Then there was another one, who was a little bit sickly as a child. He ended up becoming the chairman of Standard Oil of Ohio, Sohio. He was a little bit sickly as child. He didn’t compete athletically with the other boys. He could have just gone an average route in school. He was neither super smart or super academic. I think he just came home one day. I don’t recall. He looked around and just said, “I don’t feel like being the sickly child anymore. I don’t feel like being not noticed anymore.” He just started going to his room and studying a lot more. These kids that you would see in high school, any of us would see a high school who, all of a sudden, they just start to nail it.

He sounded he was that partly. I don’t know if you had any of those in your high school life. I have teen kids so we were actually talking about that general topic the other day. One of my kids said somebody came into school. Somebody, this year suddenly seems to be just working really hard, answering a lot of questions, and doing really well. Anyhow, it sounds like this seller who I wrote for, he just did that. He just decided, “I don’t feel like being mediocre anymore.” World War II, for some of these people. I mean, I’ve written for some significantly older people. World War II tended to have a strong motivation to people. If they served in World War II, then they came back. They went off at about age 18, right? Some of them came back at about age 21.

I said these epiphanies were generally between 13 and 22. A couple of them came back. One of them had the Epiphany. In fact, on the boat in the North Atlantic, he thought they were gonna die. It was the death epiphany and just decided that he was not gonna … He decided in that moment. He absolutely thought they were gonna die. I can’t remember the specifics. It was a torpedo. It was something. He also was in D-Day after that. But, in any case, that he was on the bridge or something. He thought they were gonna die. He just said. He had grown up with great fortune. He said he couldn’t squander that great fortune. He was a fortunate, wealthy, young man. He just decided, “If I get out of this, I am not gonna squander the good fortune I’ve had. I’m gonna really make something of myself.” I’m sorry. I’m answering questions so long.

Will: No, that’s great. It must be just such an amazing experience to have the time to really delve into lives the way you do. Tell us a little bit now about the new more branded product line meant for published for a general audience or public audience. Tell us a little bit about that you have coming out.

Becca: Sure. We’re launching what we’re calling … My company is called Braun, Ink. I- N- K. We’re launching what we’re calling the Braun Collection, which is a collection or a content library of books and companion products for a business student and business professional audience. These are action-packed, character-driven memoirs and biographies by and about CEOs of mid-sized companies around the globe, telling their stories. It’s their life stories, but concentrated primarily on growing their businesses. These are for business students and professionals. The idea is … Did you go to business school, Will? I can’t remember.

Will: I did. I went to Columbia Business School

Becca: Oh, look at you. In many business environments, you learn through the case method, case studies. Those are situational examples. After reading a case study, you will pull out your, in my year, it was your HP-12C calculator or your Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet or you might pull out your Excel spreadsheet or whatever, but you figure out should we invest in that new plant in India or whatever it is. These are intended to be different. They’re intended to be a situational case study, a biographical case study. The books are eBooks. You can also get a printed book, if you want but the main format is an eBook. It’s pretty quick read. It’s 125 pages. That takes about three hours to read. Then they come with what you can buy, instead of the book or in addition to the book.

Because we know people’s attention spans don’t even reach two to three hours, you can buy a presentation, $1.99 to get a presentation. You can get a short video, four-minute video all summarizing what’s in the book. You can get a chapter summary and study guide. You can get an individual chapter covering a certain specific topic or issue. If you’d like, I can tell you about the first book we’ll launch. You can get a conference call with the CEO who wrote the book.

Will: That’s awesome.

Becca: Lots of different companion products. We’ll have about eight different companion products.

Will: That’s pretty cool because it’s so … You hear about a few well-known CEO names. We’re not gonna mention them because I try to avoid mentioning them. The cliched names that we all hear. It’s not as often that you get to hear about just very ordinary average, not the fortune three but the CEO of a midsize company who had a real significant career but not globally famous. Bringing those stories to life sounds such a cool thing. Where can people go to find more? I know we’re almost out of time here. Where can people go to find out more about your firm and to look into finding out about these products?

Becca: They can go to braunink.com. That’s I-N-K. B-R-A-U-N-I-N-K.com. We just have a placeholder page right now for Braun Collection. However, that will be not a placeholder anymore in about three weeks, so towards the end of March.

Will: So probably, actually, when this episode comes out, that page should be live. The link will be in the show notes. Becca, I would love to continue this discussion. Maybe we could do a follow-up episode to hear more about speeches. Really wanted to thank you for being on the show.

Becca: Thank you so much for having me. I think it’s a great idea. You did a great job. You’re a good friend, so thanks so much.