I just finished Michael Lewis’ fantastic new book Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt and enjoyed it immensely. I’ve been a Lewis fan from the beginning. Lewis is about my age and his book Liar’s Poker, which I loved, released when I was working on Wall Street in the 1980s.
Lewis has gotten tons of press for Flash Boys. He was on 60 Minutes, a huge way to launch a book and since then he seems to be everywhere in the media. Walking through a bunch of airports last week, I saw piles and piles of the book stacked in not only airport bookstores, but newsstands as well.
Flash Boys is a story about High Frequency Traders operating in Wall Street’s equity markets. And it is a story about real-time. The book is not without controversy as Lewis describes HFT a way of “rigging” the market to take money from each and every investor. HFT professionals disagree and have been on a campaign to defend the practice. Many others have debated HFT as outlined in the book and I’ll leave those discussions to other outlets.
I want to focus on Lewis' writing instead.
The power of story
In my opinion, the reason Flash Boys is doing so well (all that media resulting in a rank of number 3 of all books on USA Amazon and number 1 on the New York Times bestseller list as I write this) is because of story. Lewis has taken the complex and arcane world of trading stocks in real-time measured in milliseconds, a subject most would find boring and complicated, and turned it into a story filled with heroes and villains and conflict.
CHARACTERS: It is the story of one group of Wall Street professionals who expose the down sides of high frequency trading and walk away from million dollar salaries in order to reform the markets. And it’s about another group of Wall Street professionals who will do seemingly anything currently legal to make money, even if it includes shaving a percentage away from everybody who invests in the stock market.
HERO: There’s a hero in Lewis story: mild-mannered Bradley Katsuyama who worked at sleepy Royal Bank of Canada. Like many traders, Katsuyama experienced strange behavior on his real-time screens whenever he went to buy or sell shares on behalf of his customers. But unlike other traders, he dug deep to find out the cause and then created an infrastructure to fix it. He is a hero like you normally find in fiction, yet this story is true.
CONFLICT: The story drips with conflict, a topic I discuss in my own free ebook Gaijin Male Model: A Case Study in Conflict-Driven Business Writing. Unlike typical business writing that focuses on the facts, Lewis brings his stories alive by showing how people are in conflict with other people and how they are in conflict with institutions. Writing without conflict is propaganda.
CLIFFHANGER: The meat of the book focuses on how the hero and his cohorts solve the mystery of how HFT works. It is a story of detective work that exposes flaws in the US financial market system. And like a debut mystery novel from an author planning on a series of books, the last very last paragraph of the epilogue involves a doozy of a cliffhanger. That last paragraph challenges the reader to learn more. (If you read that far and are interested, Google the number.)
What business content creators can learn from Flash Boys
As I was reading the book, I was enjoying elements usually found in fiction within this nonfiction book. I was thinking how these techniques can be used by any nonfiction writer, but typically are not.
Writing about interesting characters, creating conflict, making a hero, and having elements that challenge a reader to want to learn more can make your own writing come alive.
Read Flash Boys for the story. But learn from it to make your own content better too.