How to Win Friends and Influence People: Carnegie’s Persuasion with Winning Writing

Carnegie has a distinctive writing style.  I can feel him smiling as he types each word.  Reading his history on Wikipedia it’s easy to imagine him presenting this material time and again, then finally realizing that his notes are worthy of a book.

Without his personal memoirs or interview notes – we can’t know Carnegie’s intentions – but we can see and feel how his words come across the page.  His books are built like his chapters, which are built again like the vignettes from which they are built.  He uses a staccato type cadence, loading the reader with stories which all point towards the teaching and reinforcement of the principles loaded throughout the book.  With the straightforward writing and simple themes, dismissing the brilliance of the book’s structure is easy.  The book works.  The writing is effective and persuasive.

The principles are consistent and self-similar to each other, just as the vignettes which they build up to.  So too the chapters, so too the book.  We watch and hear character after character support or refute the principles and see how it impacts their lives.


If we count the two forewards (and a case could be made that there are 3), then “How to win Friends and Influence People” comes in at 30 chapters.  The chapters are structured in a similar fashion – even the two pre-amble chapters which are more prescriptive and big picture with, “How and Why was this book written?” and “9 Ways to get the Most out of this Book.

The chapters are mostly 8 – 15 pages long.  Some are quite short, as few as 3 pages.

Chapter Structure

Each chapter consists of an opening question and closes with a Carnegie Principle.  The question poised in the ‘Chapter Title’ is often answered right away in a short story or vignette.  Each chapter is a collection of vignettes.  As many as three vignettes can occur in a single page!

These vignettes are the atomic structure of Carnegie’s persuasive writing style.

Vignette Structure

At the heart of each vignette, Carnegie is supporting the Principle at the close of each chapter, and also answering the question posed at the outset of each chapter.  The Vignette involves a character – often a real person that Carnegie has met – whose name is clearly stated, as well as their home location.

The character encounters a situation that almost always involves just a single other person – there are few three person stories in the book, and almost none that involve a group setting.  The person faces a scenario and responds in a way that is in support of or opposition to the main thread of the chapter.  The response either validates or invalidates the actions.  Everything is tied to the central point.

Carnegie loads vignette on top of vignette to create a pile of persuasion.

A Basic Carnegie Vignette

Specific Name (calling out Principle 3 – Names have Power) of Person, from Specific Name of Place came from nothing, and Carnegie met them at a course or through Specific Name’s abundance of success.  SN faced a challenge, and they had several ways to respond.  SN responded in a way that supports the theme of the chapter, and got the desired result.  OR, SN responded in a way that contradicts the theme of the chapter, and didn’t get a good result.

Recurring Carnegie Vignette Themes

The lead character is a famous person. Abraham Lincoln – about whom Carnegie wrote a book is mentioned 72 times.  Pets – especially dogs are common (25 times).  Carnegie is often the subject of the story.  The subject is often a course attendee – they have specific knowledge of the themes of the book, and they explicitly decide to test the validity of the method.  The methods always work.

Advanced Carnegie Methods

Carnegie will go ‘inception’ style in his writing.  He can start with a character, who them throws back to another quote or character.  An example is in Chapter 11, “Principle 2: Show Respect for Other’s Opinions, Never say ‘You’re Wrong’” – when Ben Franklin is praised as a person, but then there are quotes from adults to a young Franklin redirecting his behavior.

An Outline of Carnegie Vignette Methods

  • Clear, direct and short.  As little as 1/3 of a page.
  • Positive / Negative – Push/Pull
  • Anecdote types:
    • Personal – especially parenting, family, pets
    • Everyman – always successful, but still common
    • Famous – Lincoln, Napoleon, Roosevelt, Twain,
    • Religious – Sayings and Wisdom
      • Buddha, Zoroaster, Lao-tse , Jesus, Hindu, Judaism
  • Tangible, visible, sensorial
  • Reinforcement, consistency
  • Lead with the title – resolve with the close
    • The vignettes reflect the chapter structure.  The character has a question, an action is pursued – and the result highlights the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of the action.
  • Call back / Look ahead
    • The stories are often flipping back to a Principle from an earlier chapter or foreshadowing another chapter to come later.
  • Common vignette tropes – youth, anger, inherit a bad situation “it’s not fair”
  • Techniques:
    • he will often identify an objection, validate it – and then remove it.

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