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What Is a Business Memoir?

What Is A Business Memoir?

The world does not need another business manual. But it does need business memoirs. What’s the difference? Aren’t memoirs for recovering alcoholics, mentally ill survivors, and abuse survivors? Yes, and no.

Memoirs are personal accounts centered around a specific theme, or series of memories or stories from your life, your business, your failures. Memoirs typically focus on overcoming, on the things you survived in order to succeed. Memoirs are written from personal knowledge. Memoirs are books about your life, the lessons you learned, and the key moments that shaped who you are. The key word here is a theme, not a timeline. A memoir is not a record of your entire existence or a history lesson of your life. It’s a reduction of your most intense, profound,   experiences with a particular skill, a moment or moments, and your experience, or insights. A memoir takes those events, emotions, insights, and experiences and reduces them down into a rich sauce which can be savored and enjoyed.

Shoe Dog, by Nike founder and CEO Phil Knight is a memoir, not a biography, not an autobiography. Knight shares the inside, mostly unknown story of Nike. From a solo startup with first-year sales of $8,000 to their current annual sales of $30 billion, THIS is a memoir! What other businesses can learn from Knight is how he went from selling shoes out of the back of his car, to the success he is today. It’s about struggles and obstacles and backstabbers, haters and incredible times that would have made most of us give up. Knight didn’t. You can’t share that kind of journey in a manual. You share it in a memoir.


A memoir is to a business as a mentor is to a mentee. Mentors take the most valuable lessons, moments, and experiences and distil them into wisdom their mentee can (hopefully) incorporate into their own careers and lives. Learning from the experience, failure, insights, and wisdom of others is far more valuable than following a lesson plan, manual, or how-to book. That’s why memoirs are so powerful. They touch us deeply. They share the very things we believe will make us vulnerable, and show the world that what we thought was a weakness, was muscle being made. If you’re not a gym rat, the lesson is that you have to tear down muscle to build it. We have to fail before we learn to succeed. Those lessons are showcased in the memoir. It’s not the carefully crafted step one, two, and three that inspires. It’s the voice of experience that moves us.

The reason Malcolm Gladwell’s books are consistent best-sellers is that Gladwell takes the THEME of a thing, and writes a business memoir – focusing on lessons learned, insights gained. His insights are real. His interviews targeted, his understanding, and that of his interviews, authentic.

A memoir, by definition, is “… a historical account or biography written from personal knowledge or special sources.” It’s an essay on a learned subject. Who doesn’t prefer a good story over a lecture?

There’s a time and place for manuals, and a time and a place for memoirs. When people come to us for help with their book we ask them three questions:

  • Who is your audience?
  • What is your message?
  • What is your story?

Their response to those questions tells us what kind of book they need to achieve the things they want to achieve. Sometimes it’s a manual. Sometimes it’s a memoir. Sometimes it’s a combination. For more information on what a business memoir looks like, read our post about the Art of the Business Memoir.

Special partner co-author – Becky Blanton, TED Global Presenter

Melissa G Wilson

Melissa has been a leader in the book writing, publishing and marketing arena for the past two decades. To date, she has helped more than 100 thought leaders write, publish and market their books. Her clients include executives such as Dan Weinfurter a seven-time Inc 500 winner and Orlando Ashford, President of Holland Cruise Lines.

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