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Summer Reading List: 11 Books That Will Make You A Better Communicator

2024 May 26
by Greg Satell

More than a decade ago I published an article in Forbes about IBM’s Watson. With the system’s triumph, beating the best human players at Jeopardy!, everybody was wondering whether humans had a future or whether we would all be at the mercy of “our new robot overlords.” It was an exciting and confusing time.

Yet as I sat down with those that were developing Watson and its applications, it started to become clear that the new era of cognitive computing would be an era of cognitive collaboration, in which humans and machines would need to work closely to better serve other humans.

At the heart of all of this is a need for us to communicate more effectively, so it shouldn’t be surprising that a number of books have come out in recent years that aim to help us meet the challenge. There are also a number of truly profound thinkers throughout history that can help us think about communication on a more visceral level. Here are 11 of the very best:

How Minds Change by David McRaney

Technology often has strange, unintended consequences. One of these is how access to cheap video cameras have improved our understanding of what makes communication effective. Practitioners can record themselves and then study the recordings to see what worked, what didn’t and how the process could be improved.

In How Minds Change, David McRaney thoroughly researched a variety of methods that have benefited, such as Deep Canvassing, Street Epistemology and the Change Conversation Pyramid and what emerges is a very different view of how you can be more effective in getting your point across.

The key insight of the book is that trying to overpower people with facts or sophistry is usually a waste of time. Far more effective is to build a sense of safety around the conversation, help people to examine what they really think it, why they think and let them find their own way.

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Supercommunicators By Charles Duhigg

While McRaney focuses on how everyday people can improve their effectiveness, veteran New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg focuses on “Supercommunicators,” those who are exceptional at getting people to listen to them. Surprisingly, his insights can be learned and applied by anyone to become a more powerful communicator.

In a nutshell, Duhigg finds that there are three types of conversations: Those about facts and analysis (“What’s this about?”), those about emotions (How do we feel?) and those about identity (Who are we?). The best communicators are excellent matchers, understanding what type of conversation they are in and matching their interlocutors.

Duhigg explains the concept with a situation many will recognize. Often, he would arrive home from work with some complaint and tell his wife about it. His wife would respond with some type of fact-based analysis of the situation, which he found annoying. What he really needed was for her to understand his frustration, (How do I feel?), not practical advice (What’s this about?)

It’s a very helpful concept and I recommend this book highly. Tanmay Vora also gives an amazing summary in one of his sketchnotes on LinkedIn. You can find it here.

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Influence by Robert Cialdini

This is the absolute classic of the genre. For 35 years, psychologist Robert Cialdini researched which types of communication were effective and which were not. He found that influence is based on six key principles: reciprocity, commitment and consistency, social proof, authority, liking, and scarcity.

While modern methods can provide much greater insights, the basic truth of Cialdini’s work makes it a must read and you can see echoes of it in more modern work. For example, social proof, a term he coined, is a form of social dynamic that we can understand further through network science.

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Magic Words

Wharton Professor Jonah Berger’s Magic Words can, in many ways, be seen as a more modern version of Cialdini’s Influence. Intensely data-driven, the book gives practical insights on how to choose words that will increase your impact. The result is an incredibly useful guide.

Some of the tips, like using the second person rather than the third, are incredibly simple. Others, like the use of identifiers to confer agency (e.g. calling someone a “runner” rather than somebody who runs”). All of it is intensely interesting and can help take the guesswork out of writing emails and other professional communication.

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The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

We tend to assume that people make judgments rationally and so focus on making a logical case in order to sway them. Yet as social scientist Jonathan Haidt explains in this wonderful book, people tend to make judgments on a much more visceral level based on how they see themselves and their values.

Based on 25 years of research into Moral Foundations, this book helps explain how we can sometimes get such visceral reactions from innocently stating a fact or pointing to data. When we perceive something to be undermining a key value, it can feel like an attack on our identity and we will tend to lash out.

Although Haidt has gotten much more attention recently for his work on technology and mental health among adolescents, I think this is a more important book. Especially important is his insight that many of our opinions are manifestations of seeing ourselves as a member of a particular “team.” It’s one of those books that will forever change how you see things.

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 Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!  by Douglas Coupland

Marshall McLuhan, in the subtitle to his classic, Understanding Media, called media “extensions of man.”  He meant that, while we can only see and hear so far, electronic media allows us to extend our senses across the globe, much like a light bulb—which he also considered a medium—extends our eyes into the dark.

This is a deceptively profound insight, especially in the age of AI. When we ask a chatbot to write an email for us, what are we extending? Where does the chatbot end and where do we begin? What do these distinctions mean for the reader? These are all things that we are going to need to understand and act on in the years to come.

McLuhan, although a profound thinker, was not the most entertaining writer and anyone describing technology a half century ago is bound to be somewhat anachronistic. This biography, by the novelist and artist Douglas Coupland, offers a much more accessible path into McLuhan’s work and insights.


Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius by Ray Monk

Wittgenstein was clearly one of history’s most profound thinkers about communication. Above all, he preached for discipline and clarity, to not confuse things with “word games,”but rather to “let the fly out of the bottle,” in order to make meaning clear. “Whereof we cannot speak,” he wrote, “thereof we must remain silent.”

Ironically, being very directed at the philosophical questions of his time, Wittgenstein’s writings can be somewhat impenetrable for most people. This biography, by Ray Monk (the same author whose book on Oppenheimer was recently adapted for the hit movie), makes Wittgenstein’s life and ideas not only accessible, but profoundly readable.

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The Doctor’s Plague by Sherwin Nuland

Coming up with a pathbreaking idea is one thing, but getting it adopted is another. That was the problem that Ignaz Semmelweis ran into. By instituting hand washing at Vienna General hospital, he nearly eradicated the incidence of childbed fever and saved countless lives. However, he was unable to get the medical establishment to accept his idea and it took another two decades before the germ theory of disease became widely accepted.

As Sherwin Nuland explains in The Doctor’s Plague, a big part of the problem was Semmelweis himself. Instead of formatting his publications clearly or even collecting data in a manner that would gain his ideas greater acceptance, he railed against the medical establishment and, perhaps not surprisingly, received pushback.

We often fall into the trap of thinking that if we just “do the work” that results will come. The story of Semmelweis shows why that’s not true. Millions of people died needlessly, in part because of his failure to communicate effectively. If we care about something, we need to hold ourselves to be effective messengers.

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Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman was not only one of the greatest scientists who ever lived, he was also one of the funniest. In this phenomenal book, he tells the story of his life as well as of his endless series of pranks (such as flouting the security procedures of the Manhattan project by learning how to crack safes).

Yet Feynman’s humor was more than just a ploy, it was how he communicated ideas. It wasn’t enough for him to learn things himself, but he had a deep passion for helping others to experience “the pleasure of finding things out.” That’s what made him such a talented lecturer and communicator. His undergraduate classes at Cal-tech were always packed.

It’s very rare that a book can both inspire you and make you constantly laugh out loud. This one does.

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Blueprint For Revolution by Srdja Popović

I once asked my friend Srdja Popović what he thought of great change leaders like Gandhi, King and Mandela and he told me “Those guys really weren’t that funny.”

Blueprint for Revolution tells the personal story of his journey from bassist in a rock band to leading a revolution against Slobodan Milošević in Serbia and then moving on to establish the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS), which trains activists around the world. Few have done more to serve the cause of freedom than Srdja.

Yet what makes this book so important is his concept of “laughtivism.” We often get so caught up in the importance of what we communicate and we lose sight of how we’re communicating. Nobody likes an angry interlocutor, nor one that comes off as stiff and humorless. This book will show you how to get results without becoming a bore.

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Cascades by Greg Satell

Okay, this is obviously a shameless plug. Nevertheless, if you want to harness the power of social movements in your organization, you’ll find this book incredibly useful.

Cascades also has an interesting back story. In 2004, I found myself managing a major news organization in Ukraine during the Orange Revolution. One of the things that amazed me was how none of the usual rules seemed to apply. Anybody who had any traditional form of power found themselves almost powerless to shape events. At the same time, some mysterious force that nobody could describe, but no one could deny, was driving things forward.

It took me more than a decade to figure out what that mysterious force was and years more to be able to articulate it in a form that is not only comprehensive, but fun and exciting to read. I hope you pick it up, enjoy it and let me know what you think.

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So that’s my list for this summer. If you would like to add a suggestion of your own, please feel free to do that in the comments section.

Greg Satell is Co-Founder of ChangeOS, a transformation & change advisory, an international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website,, follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto, his YouTube Channel and connect on LinkedIn.

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Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Mari Anixter permalink
    May 26, 2024

    Politic aside, Jen Psaki’s new book, Say More is in-the trenches communications.

  2. May 26, 2024

    Thanks Mari. Great suggestion!


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