Seven scientifically proven benefits of reading corporate fiction

More than any other type of fiction, business novels can advance your career, make you happier, and even benefit your health.

Reading time: 15 minutes

a black and white picture managers in front of a glass overlooking the skyline of a city, pondering the benefits of reading corporate fiction

The benefits of reading are undisputed. One study, for example, revealed that people feel happier when they read. In the UK, 1,500 people were queried about their reading and watching habits. Of those, 76% said reading improved their life.

But did you know that sound research pinpoints concrete skills that improve with each book we complete? And did you know that corporate novels turbo-charge these benefits? Yes, back-stabbing directors, Wall Street sharks and big-ego corporate lawyers can push our limits in a way no other genre can.

But before you dive into the seven areas below, look at the importance of reading the right business thrillers, because you don’t have the time to waste on anything but the best titles.

1) Increase your empathy capability with corporate thrillers

Reading corporate thrillers is the number one booster for your empathy capacity and thus a long-term career development strategy. It is probably the most important benefit of reading about bankers, lawyers and corporate sharks as you can read in more detail here.  The fast-paced narration style found in corporate thrillers and dramas, makes business fiction the best training engine for understanding and influencing people around you.

Walking in others’ shoes is the best simulation engine for complex social encounters. It will sharpen your ability to read other peoples’ intentions, to understand their circumstances and their drivers, and it will make you comprehend the emotions they experience. I have talked to many headhunters about the skillset needed to succeed within a corporation, but also on the market. Emotional intelligence was the number one skill they mentioned, while at the same time admitting it was the hardest one to improve.

Increasing your empathy, or your social and emotional intelligence as it is sometimes called, will not only help you in the boardroom (and to get there), but it will make you lead healthier relationships in your private life as well. You will be able to better manage the people around you if you are capable of quickly understanding where they come from and how they feel.

The science: There are numerous scientifically valid studies proving that reading fiction is an amazing driver for social and emotional intelligence. Between 2006 and 2009 Dr. Oatley and Dr. Mar have demonstrated how fiction-readers are much more empathic than non-readers and readers of non-fiction books. They were also able to prove there was a causality between fiction reading and empathy-enhancement. Underlying these effects is a concept known in psychology as “theory of mind,” which denotes the human ability to guess how other people feel, how they act, and what they might do. This ability can be honed by regularly digesting corporate novels.

2) Dealing with uncertainty and ambiguity

Corporate novels are the perfect environment for creativity. A study published in the Creativity Research Journal asked students to read either a short fictional story or a non-fiction essay and then measured their emotional need for certainty and stability. Guess who was better able to live without closure? The students that read fiction.

Novels foster those traits in general, but corporate novels do so even more. Good business fiction is not black and white. Compare that to an Agatha Christie type detective story where there is an objectively correct solution to a murder committed by a rogue and completely unethical perpetrator. After the resolution, which is inevitable, equilibrium is restored again. Business is much greyer in that regard. Not least because we have the omnipresent force of the market. On the one hand the invisible hand of the market restrains actors’ perimeter of actions, but on the other it forces them to be resourceful and canny.

Closely linked to the skill of dealing with complexity is fostering of out-of-the-box thinking, also known plainly as creativity.

The science: Researchers from the University of Toronto revealed that people who read fiction had less need for closure than those reading essays. This effect was demonstrated on the short- and long-term. A reduced need for closure in a story makes us deal better with ambiguity, which in turn leads to more effective and efficient information processing. It also results in higher creativity.

3) Enhance your verbal communication capabilities

In point 1) we discussed how building empathic skills can help you become a good leader. Another key skill for a manager is communication. This does not mean chatting with everybody you meet in the corridor or writing long e-mails. Rather, it means conciseness and the usage of techniques that will make your stories stick. Nobody remembers a bullet-point list unless he’s studying for a high-school exam. Yet a well-crafted, sometimes embellished, story with a personal touch and a strong message can be around for decades. In my career I’ve witnessed stories that were remembered in the company even after their main protagonist had left the company for years.

How come stories are so sticky? Our brain is wired to process the most basic blocks of stories, namely cause and effect. Just look at the memory world championships, where contestants are given a string of random words to remember. Almost all participants are inventing stories to keep track of those words. With this technique they can enhance their performance multiple times over.

Crafting such stories is an art in and of itself. That doesn’t mean it cannot be learned. Immersing yourself into great stories is the safest way to develop storytelling skills of your own. If you try to mimic them consciously, you will even learn them faster. Where do you find the best storytelling? In corporate novels.

Besides storytelling, powerful communicators are adept at using metaphors, i.e. language that evokes images, sensations, stimulates your senses in some other way. Whether it was Ronald Reagan, JFK or Jack Welch – all charismatic leaders have used vivid imagery in their language. Never mistake metaphors for a tool solely reserved for the creation of literature. Many of the metaphors we use in our lives are subconscious, for instance when we speak about life as a journey or time as money, but they are no less powerful. We are describing one experience through another domain. Yet fiction is good in that it is creative in its use of metaphors. Business novels teach you the art of describing something dry and abstract in a way that speaks directly to our senses, triggering an impulse that is immediately processed within our brains.

The science: Stories and metaphors are so powerful, because of the way they are computed within our brains. They are processed by the inner layer of the brain, rather than the outer one. Scientists call this brainstem also the “reptilian brain,” as we share this information-processing mechanism with reptiles. This part of the brain evolved much earlier than the neo-cortex, which is doing the mental heavy lifting such as calculation and memory. The reptilian brain is hardwired to respond to certain stimuli in a way humans cannot control. Information coming in this way is computed within milliseconds and triggers an immediate reaction of your readers and listeners.

Metaphors trigger a reaction within our brain, whether we want or not. When Shakespeare wrote that Juliet is the sun, he took advantage of the fact that we cannot possibly read this metaphor without our mind conjuring up the image of the sun. There is an entire strand of psycholinguistics dedicated to the study of metaphors and imagery in language. If you want to go deeper, the best book on the subject is “Metaphors We Live by” by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Or start with this article in the New York Times.

picure of a glass office building by night with pink windows showing managers working on their way up

4) A vocabulary building engine

This one probably doesn’t come as a surprise, but reading corporate fiction is the best way to build vocabulary. A broadened lexicon will have multiple direct and indirect benefits.

Your speaking and writing will be more vivid and more memorable if you do not always use the same termini. I am sure you have sometimes stumbled over a creative word in a colleague’s e-mail and you found yourself mulling over it for quite some time. Or somebody used an uncommon word in a meeting or presentation that was slightly unusual but described perfectly well what it was supposed to.

Moreover, corporate novels will teach you how to use management jargon. Wall Street and corporate America have their own specialized vocabulary. So has each individual industry or functional area such as marketing and finance. A good author will have done his research also on the language part. Just like writing a historic novel, a corporate thriller requires studying closely the way your characters talk. And a good author must have authentic experience in the upper management echelons. Not sure how to judge an author’s experience from the text? Read on here on how to see if a book is worth your time.

The science: The scientific evidence on this point is unequivocal: Reading increases vocabulary size. In a large-scale study the website testyourvocab.com queried 250.000 of its users and found not only a clear correlation between time spent reading and the number of words people know, but the dimension of the effect surprised even the most avid supporters of reading. Average English native non-readers would build up a vocabulary of about 20.000 words by their mid-forties and hover around this figure for the rest of the lives. Fiction readers, in contrast, passed the 30.000 mark already in their mid-twenties, had their peak later in life, and never really fell below the 30.000 word mark again. It is also interesting to note there was a significant premium when reading fiction as compared to business books and other non-fiction titles. The advantage fiction readers had over non-fiction readers was just as large as the advantage readers had over non-readers in general.

5) Knowledge on the topic

This one goes without saying. If you engage with an industry on a 400-page journey, you will hopefully have learned something about that business area. Therefore, I encourage readers to delve into all the different sub-genre of the corporate novel. If you are a lawyer and read legal thrillers that is fine, but why not also broaden your horizons by reading about a Mid-West paper manufacturer or a London stockbroker? I never had any interest in biology or medicine, but reading Bad Blood was more rewarding than most financial thrillers, which is the industry I have spent most of my career in. The story of a Silicon Valley startup that sets out to revolutionize blood-testing  is a masterpiece in storytelling and has on top made me realize how the whole business works, how it is regulated, and what type of people work there.

When I wrote Call to Power I decided to make it a manufacturing novel because I wanted to embark on a new adventure. The reader accompanies Paul Cromwell, a young hotshot who has turned the back on Manhattan finance to come to Pittsburg and to work for a maker of anti-theft solutions. For me it was fascinating to enter the world of tags and terminals that beep whenever a shoplifter tries to exit. I found myself immersed into all specificities of the industry, mulling over market and competitor reports, industry events and awards, as well as the supply chain. Very little of it found its way into the novel, but it was incumbent to do the research to understand which parts will be interesting for the reader and around which you can build a good story.

I know very little businesspeople, and even less readers of business fiction, that don’t have the desire to peek into other corporate worlds. You see it in the success of general business newspapers, but also at cocktail parties when guests shoot questions at strangers to find out how their industry works.

The science: I couldn’t find any studies on this particular benefit of corporate fiction, probably because it is self-evident that if you read a novel about investment bankers, you will understand a bit more about them by the end of the book. Nevertheless, I did not want to cut you short of this very important reward of business novels.

6) Stress release and health benefits

It is no secret that reading fiction is a perfect pastime to calm frazzled nerves. Disconnecting from your daily routine, tuning into different worlds, and walking in other people’s shoes can lower your overall stress. Why is reading fiction so much more relaxing than other pastimes? Because it requires your full immersion so that you forget about your mortgage or deadlines at work.

It is beyond debate that literary fiction or even a good detective story have this calming effect, but how, you might ask, can an intense corporate thriller help you reduce stress? And isn’t a romance novel a better way to escape your everyday pressure than reading about my work environment? This would be true if I we were referring to a phenomenon known as escapism in psychology. According to this hypothesis people consume literature, movies or TV-shows to flee from your problems.

But I am talking about something else. Compare it to the simulation of combat by the armed forces. They practice combat with videogame-like simulators so that they are prepared and don’t psyche out in real battle. The goal of these simulations is to make the future experience a little less unfamiliar when it occurs. Professional athletes use a somewhat similar method called mental training. In their minds they repeat the sequence of motions their bodies have to do, say a tennis player practicing how to serve or a skier how to hunker down. By simulating such experiences, they can run through the various scenarios that might occur. What happens in the brain during such a mental practice is that synapses (i.e. junctions between two nerve cells) are created and strengthened. As a result, once the situation is encountered in real life, the body already knows the experience and does not face the same stress as when grappling with something completely new.

Now apply that to reading corporate novels: You can practice all kinds of office-related conflicts, pacts, and ploys, yet in an experimental environment in which you will spare yourself the agony that you might screw up your career. And once you encounter the situation in real life, you will be calmer. Your body and mind will be privy to the circumstances and will in advance have a good understanding what it feels like and what possible paths of escalation or resolution lie ahead. This will reduce the stress tremendously.

The science: The instinctive assumption that reading fiction reduces stress can be backup by figures. A study by Dr. Lewis from the University of Sussex demonstrated that reading was a more powerful stress-reliver than listening to rock music or going for a walk. The monitoring of the heart rate showed how reading calmed people down. Experimentees’ stress levels plunged by two thirds after reading silently for six minutes.

The New Yorker mentions that fiction reading not only slashes stress, but that regular readers are shown to have less depressions, sleep better, and thus suffer from less diseases such as high blood pressure.

7) Brain training and prevention of mental decline

We all grow older and once past our zenith, our body and mind start degrading. That doesn’t mean we have to sit by idly, waiting for it to happen. We do push-ups and morning runs to keep our body in shape, and we can read novels to keep our brains functionable. There is a demonstratable link between reading and a delayed or weakened mental decline. Cognitive and memory performance increase during a life of continuous reading, and don’t dissolve so quickly.

Business fiction is even better than the average novel as it has more complex narratives and a high number of characters and conflicts to keep track of. Financial thrillers are also packed with fast-paced plots and raise the mental challenge another notch.

The science: Neurologists have clearly demonstrated the positive impact of lifelong cognitive activity on cognitive aging. Avid readers faced 32% less cognitive decline in the course of ageing. And reading was proven to reduce the likelihood of suffering from Alzheimer’s disease too.

The essence

Executive and career coaching has become a fast-growing business. The purpose of it is to teach aspiring leaders and managers how to develop empathy and emotional intelligence, how to deal with complexity in an ever-changing world, and how to defend their standpoint in a convincing and inspiring way. They should also become jacks of all trades, rather than being trapped in their discipline’ and industry tunnel-vision. And yes, of course, don’t forget your work-life balance because building up all these capabilities won’t lead you anywhere if you drop dead or burn out at age fifty.

The medicine the coaches prescribe are often group exercises or reflective papers, sometimes simulations of possible scenarios. But the probably most powerful tool is overlooked: Reading corporate fiction. Perhaps it’s because it is so simple that all the fancy coaching would become superfluous, or perhaps because in an age where introspection and self-reflection outside of a group have become frowned upon. Just take a look at the triumphal march of the open offices and endless brainstorming sessions. If you are interested in the bigger picture, I urge you to read Susan Cain’s “Quiet,” which does a marvelous job at showing the power individuals have and that despite the current social mood, work done alone is more often productive than that done in groups.

Why am I telling you this? Because thanks to this new ideology reading has become looked down upon as something nerdy, something that costs you time. But all of those skills that career coaches will charge you a fortune for, you can find by reading novels, business novels to be precise. A life-long diet of corporate thrillers will be the best training and simulation engine for vital top-management skills that are otherwise very hard to get. Sometimes the simplest tools are the best.

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