Summer is almost here, which means it’s time for Bill Gates’ annual reading list. He shared his list of five recommended books for summer reading last week—along with an amazing video starring five puppies.
Gates explains that the five books selected for the 2018 list all wrestle with big questions, including mortality and the future of humanity.
Last year, we talked about the theme that spanned Gates’ selection of books—global experiences and how they inform our understanding of other people and the world around us—and why it mattered to PR professionals.
This year, the five books each have an important individual takeaway with valuable lessons for communicators and PR pros.
Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson
Most of the world remembers da Vinci as an accomplished artist, but he had tons of other interests and passions, ranging from anatomy to theater. According to Gates, Isaacson excels at “pulling together the different strands of Leonardo’s life and explaining what made him so exceptional.”
This book highlights the multiple dimensions of one of the world’s most famous artists, and just like da Vinci, communicators have various dimensions and passions. Working as a communicator requires a wide array of necessary skills, including writing, research, and data and analytics, among many others.
Additionally, there is no singular path to building a career in the communications field. Communicators and PR pros come with diverse degrees and experience, sometimes switching to communications from a different career in another field or industry.
The vast array of necessary skills and diverse backgrounds of communicators relate to the history of da Vinci. It’s key for communicators to have this diverse set of skills and to figure out how their own history and experience can contribute to and benefit their role as a communicator.
Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, by Kate Bowler
At the age of 35, Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke and new mother, was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer. Her memoir explores her own mortality and living in the face of uncertainty, and lets the reader into her personal life, populated by a cast of friends, family, doctors, and pastors.
Bowler’s book is built on some huge questions, including “why me?” after her diagnosis and how her illness can align with her deeply held religious beliefs. Humans are naturally curious (on average, children ask about 300 questions per day.) As a communicator, it’s important to ask questions. Whether you’re planning a campaign, interviewing a member of your C-suite, or analyzing data, it’s important to ask the right questions to gather the information you need to make better decisions and produce better content.
Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
There’s no shortage of writing on the life of America’s 16th president, but Saunders mixes facts and history with fantasy and fiction to create his version. Gates describes it as “a long conversation among 166 ghosts, including Lincoln’s deceased son.” The inventive storytelling in Saunders’ book highlights the grief and responsibility that permeated Lincoln’s life.
As communicators, we do a lot of writing on a day-to-day basis, and sometimes, it gets tedious and tough. Whether you’re trying to find an interesting way to convey your brand’s story or brainstorming a new topic for your organization’s blog, it can be difficult to find the right words. When you hit the wall of writer’s block, take a page out of Saunders’ book by getting creative and finding a new angle. Your solution probably won’t involve inventing dialogue for 166 ghosts, but doing some writing exercises or talking through your ideas with a colleague can change your perspective and generate fresh content.
Origin Story: A Big History of Everything, by David Christian
Christian created Big History, an online course that examines 14 billion years of history spanning from the Big Bang to humanity’s future. Origin Story is a great read to complement the course or introduce readers to it, and provides a “greater appreciation of humanity’s place in the universe.”
We’ve often written about the importance of a good story. Christian tells the greatest story of all time, the development of the universe and the road to humanity, and used this story to engage people in learning. Readers are more likely to connect with narrative storytelling than bland, jargon-heavy text about your organization. A communicator who works for a hospital could outline how many beds they have on their campus and the new medical technology they’ve invested in, but readers will be more likely to connect with and remember a story about a patient’s road to wellness or a magic show organized by a Child Life Specialist to entertain young patients.
Factfulness, by Hans Rosling, with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund
Rosling, a lecturer on world health, weaves together personal anecdotes with discussions on aspects of life that have improved and improvements the world still needs to make. He deals a lot with the ten instincts that prevent humans from accurately seeing the world, as well as advice to overcome these and their inherit biases.
Everyone has cognitive biases, including communicators. These biases can affect how communicators’ perceive their work, which can be especially problematic during data analysis. If we approach the data we collect with a conclusion already in mind, it becomes difficult to extract accurate insight from the information. Rather than allowing the data to expose truths about our communications work, cognitive biases encourage us to mold the data to fit our preconceived notions. But being aware of biases minimizes oversight and mistakes, and produces better, more accurate work.