PR firm owner: Reading fiction helps your career

Next time you’re about to grab a business publication, reach for a work of literature instead (unless you were about to open PR Daily, of course).


I’m an English major. Not as in the language, but as in literature and creative writing.

I open with that because what I’m about to say may come across as biased.

Read. More. Fiction.

As it turns out, though, I’m not biased (well, maybe a little bit). In the November issue of Scientific American, author and researcher Keith Oatley describes what reading fiction does for our minds and souls:

1. Reading stories can fine-tune your social skills by helping you better understand other human beings.
2. Entering imagined worlds builds empathy and improves your ability to take another person’s point of view.
3. A love affair with narrative may gradually alter your personality—in some cases, making you more open to new experiences and more socially aware.

You can’t read the entire article unless you subscribe, but that’s the gist of what it says.

I run a PR firm so, of course, it makes sense for us to require our team read everything from news and blogs to fiction and poetry. And it’s one of the questions we ask during interviews.

Hearing what kinds of books people read (is it Steven King or Ayn Rand?) tells us a lot about what kind of person they are and, better yet, what kind of writing they’ll be able to do for us.

But you don’t have to be in a creative field for reading fiction to make business sense.

During the past decade or so, Oatley and other academic researchers have shown how reading fiction helps a person better understand real human emotion, which improves social skills.

In one of Oatley’s studies, 94 respondents were asked to guess the emotion of a person by looking at a photograph of their eyes. They discovered:

“The more fiction people [had] read, the better they were at perceiving emotion in the eyes, and … correctly interpreting social cues.”

They also tested 252 people on the theory that the big five personality traits— extroversion, emotional stability, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness—could be affected by reading novels.

Once again they discovered:

“A significant relation between the amount of fiction people read and their empathic and theory-of-mind abilities.”

But it’s not just about social skills with your team. It also affects the bottom line. “The Business Case for Emotional Intelligence” shows how teaching employees to focus on their work and not simply just get the job done cuts down on grievances, mistakes, and even safety issues.

Emotional intelligence is forged in many ways, including by reading fiction. Just like anything else, we have to work our minds—for leadership skills, for managing profits, and for working better with our human capital.

Next time you go to pick up a business publication or haggle through your email at the end of a long day, think about reading some fiction instead. Not only will it give you some time away from work, it will help you at work.

Gini Dietrich is founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, Inc. This first appeared in Gini’s Crain’s column and on the blog Spin Sucks.

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