The Business Book That Started It All

30 million people worldwide have read it. Your father or grandfather probably had a copy of it on their shelf. It was published in 1936, and yet, when released as an iPhone app in February, it immediately became the top-selling paid business app in the iTunes store. A new edition (only the second since the original publication) will hit stores next year. What is it? How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie. Carnegie’s brainstorm of business advice has been translated into 47 languages, and is the most successful business book in history (by far). In 2009 alone, it sold 300,000 copies – this for a book that is 74 years old!

So who was this guy, and how did he tap into the mother lode of business counseling? Born in 1888, Carnegie had virtually no business background when he wrote the book. He was raised on a pig farm in Missouri, and moved east to become an actor in his early twenties. He didn’t make it as an actor, so he tried selling trucks and writing western novels (neither of those ventures worked, either). What did seem to stick was a class in effective business speaking that he began to teach at a Harlem YMCA in 1912 – a class that would form the basis for the book.

Carnegie knew a thing or two about marketing, for sure – in 1919 he changed the spelling of his name from Carnagey to Carnegie… probably to match the spelling of another pretty famous entrepreneur at the time. Carnegie just intuitively “got” the relationship between public speaking and business success (these days, we’d call that connection “executive presence”). Lots of prominent business people seem to have benefited from the connection. Warren Buffett, for one, says that the course “changed my life.”

The core elements of How to Win Friends and Influence People are Carnegie’s 30 principles of success, which are as applicable in one’s private life as they are in the business world. Essentially, it’s a book about self-confidence, and how self-assuredness and poise makes us effective as people. The 30 principles are all pretty basic themes: “let the other person do most of the talking” or “the only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it.” But actually, that’s what makes the book so charming (and yes, so effective).

Sometimes the best advice really is the basic stuff. Carnegie himself used to tell audiences – “I’ve never claimed to have a new idea. I present the obvious – because the obvious is what people need to be told.” Sounds like good coaching to me (clearly, Carnegie would be an executive coach today – or maybe Dr. Phil).

Everyone who has ever written a business advice book owes a debt of gratitude to Dale Carnegie. Now, if they could only out-sell him! This tells you something about the power of his simple ideas… sound, basic advice never goes out of style – something we might all remember as we look for ways to influence in our own lives.