6 Lessons From Malcolm Gladwell to Make You a Better Storyteller
Gladwell. An English-born Canadian who writes for a living, and quite successfully I may add. Malcolm Gladwell is the author of five New York Times best-sellers. Added to that he’s been included in the TIME top 100 most influential people (that’s in the world) and one of Foreign Policy’s Top Global Thinkers. His current net-worth sits in the region of $30 million.
Luckily you don’t have to question how Gladwell become so brilliant for very long because he has taught a Masterclass on every inch of his process. This Masterclass consists of 24 lessons in which Gladwell tells us all his secrets.
I’ve recently watched the entirety of his five-hour Masterclass and here’s what I’ve learned.
Messy Dead Ends Are Better Than Perfect Pictures
Sometimes with our writing, we feel that the page must finish with a conclusion. In fact, we often feel like the page should be littered with conclusions throughout. As if the piece isn’t complete until all the “i”s are dotting and all the “t”s crossed. Gladwell argues otherwise. He states that a story is much more interesting when it’s explored even if it is a dead-end. Instead, we should aim for an imperfect puzzle.
When you think of a traditional puzzle it’s easy, right? All the pieces are there, the edges help guide your starting point and best of all, you have a picture of how it’s meant to look. Easy. With writing we aim for the same thing, we aim to build a perfect puzzle. But a puzzle is easy and predictable.
Our lives aren’t perfect, yet the stories we tell are. It makes little sense. We write as if to completely solve a problem, a problem that is quite often unsolvable. We write as if there is an answer to be found but what we know about life, if there is one thing we know about life, there is no answer.
A Case Study
Gladwell recounts the story of a writer who is perplexed by a problem. The problem was that lots of kids were running away from certain schools in England. In the story, this chap visited these schools to understand which kids were running away. He wanted to meet them all to understand the common themes. Was it something to do with their upbringing, their personalities? What was it that was causing them to skip school?
Then, somewhere in the 3,000-word article, the writer says that he realised that the kids weren’t the issue. He noticed that actually the same schools always had the same amount of kids running away, in other words, it wasn’t the kids it was the school. Brilliant, a revelation.
So then, as the reader, we have an obvious question. “What is it about these schools that make kids want to run away?” Yet the author of the said story never tells us. He writes a huge piece on the problem, the new problem he has, and then simply says that he never found out why these kids ran away because he got called away on another piece of work.
As the reader, you are left none the wiser. You are no closer to knowing why these kids ran away than when you started the article. You might argue that you’d been fooled. Gladwell is fairly animated at this point and he’s screaming out that this is the best thing about the story, it’s why he remembered it so much. He remembers how frustrated he was, getting to the end of this story and not knowing how it ended. So much so that he went about finding out the answer himself. But that’s what made this story so memorable.
Lesson 1: Stories don’t need to be perfect, in fact, it’s much more interesting if you leave questions unanswered.
Make Something Matter and Then Provide the Tools
When we write, often we refer to tables, graphs, or charts. These are tools to help the reader understand what exactly we are referring to. Instead of listing countless words on a page, we present the numbers in a table to prove a point or support an argument. But unfortunately, we leave the reader unequipped to access this information because we don’t tell them what it’s for.
Instead, what should happen is that you give the reader a reason to care, to use this extra information. It’s unlikely that someone will read a chart or a table if they don’t understand why they are. Plonking a table in the middle of a page and asking someone to understand it is unfair. They don’t know why it matters to them.
“Will I pick up a book of statistical of charts and graphs without some strong reason too, no I need someone to explain to me why it matters. If it’s a book of races that all my peer group ran, totally, because I know what it means.” — Malcolm Gladwell
Gladwell says he only uses charts and graphs when he’s set it up. When he’s told you why you need to read it and importantly, how to read it.
Lesson 2: Don’t give too much data without enough reason to read it.
Side Note: The Central Struggle of the Writer Is to Make The Reader Keep Reading According to Gladwell
As the writer, you hold the information, in many senses, you are in control. You control the order of events, the facts that are being told, and then the way you want someone to feel. Your job as the writer is to present the information in a way that is compelling, interesting and most of all makes the reader want to read on.
Now that we’ve already discussed the traditional way of doing things and how you can avoid answering obvious questions to make things more interesting, but what else can you do? Play the game with suspense and surprise.
Suspense is when the reader knows something is coming, they just don’t know when; a surprise is they don’t know either. You can entice the reader by playing subtle games throughout the writing to engage them and empower them to keep reading.
When You Research, Follow Your Curiosity, Gladwell
Research, or rather, good research is critical to any story you are to tell. It’s the facts on which you are going to hang your opinion, so good facts, naturally are key. When it comes to research, it’s easy to find the line or piece of research that just supports your argument but we should avoid this.
When you set out to write something, you generally have an opinion on it. For example, when writing an article about habits, you’ll already have an opinion about them. With a title like “Habit Are the Key to Success,” you will immediately look for things that prove this statement. You may then totally dismiss anything that counters that argument because you are dogmatic about your view.
Gladwell pushes us away from this way of thinking, instead, he says follow your curiosity. He says that when he is researching something he will often go to the library, find a book that he has been recommended, and look for the books around that book. He stays close to whatever he finds interesting and uses that material. He lets the research guide him, not the other way around. The other thing you could try is scrapping the headline altogether and going on the hunt for a story. Watch where the research takes you and see what you stumble across.
Gladwell tells the story of how he stumbled across a transcript from a “would-be school shooter.” He said that he wasn’t looking for a story per se, he was just seeing where his nose took him. He calls it the best gift he’s received from a journalist’s standpoint because everything he needed was there. All the questions were answered. And that’s what happens when you just start looking.
Lesson 3: Research is more of an art than a science, see where your curiosity takes you rather than trying to force a narrative.
Be Different, Not Better Says Gladwell
Gladwell, with a net worth of $30 million, says that in his writing he aims to be different. Not better, that’s too high of a bar to set, but what he does want is to be different. Apart from being incredibly humble, as a New York Times bestseller, some (many) would argue Gladwell is a lot better than most of us, yet his focus remains on being different.
When we look left and right (especially on Medium) you can see how great writers are producing content at the rate of Knotts. Not only that, but they are also producing brilliant content, content that makes you think: “How on Earth are they producing this level of quality content so quickly?”
But that shouldn’t be a distraction to you because your aim shouldn’t be to be better than everyone else, it should be to be different to everyone else, so says, Gladwell.
The way the world is going with content creation, with the likes of Gary Vee telling us to “create, create, create,” soon we will (if we aren’t already) be in a sea of opinions. That sea of opinions will be saturated meaning your voice will be diluted. How do you get your voice heard? You provide something different to everyone else.
Think differently about what you are reading and write differently to the norm. Everyone has heard the same self-improvement stuff time and time again:
Overnight success doesn’t exist;
Spend your twenties figuring out who you are;
Save your money, don’t spend it on junk.
How can you take those old stories and make them new? What if some habits actually don’t work, what if overnight successes do work, what if your twenties are about climbing the ladder?
Lesson 4: Look at the same stuff and aim to be different.
Profiling People is About Conveying to the World the Way They See Themselves
“Accurate, very accurate.” — Ron Popeil, when describing Gladwell’s account of him.
When we introduce a character to the world, Gladwell says we need to think about what idea of this person we want to get across. How do we want the audience to feel about this person? There are lots of ways to feel about successful people:
Do we want the audience to feel in awe of this person?
Do we want the audience to feel inspired and passionate?
Or do we want the audience to feel embarrassed for this person?
When constructing the profile of the said person, we need to think about the feeling of the audience. If we want the audience to be in awe of this person, we need to show them why this person is “awe-worthy.” What is it about this person that makes them different? What is it that makes us in awe of them? Then we need to convey that in our writing.
Gladwell takes us through his profile of a chap called Ron Popeil, a salesman on late-night TV, he’s the guy that sells knives for $9.99 and you have to call up the number of the screen to purchase them. The first thing Gladwell notes is that most of his audience will be dismissive of Popeil because a late-night TV sales show is hardly the big-leagues. Gladwell is under no illusion that the audience will start off rooting for Ron.
So, with that in mind, Gladwell tells us about Ron’s past, what has made him today to prove to us, the reader, why he’s remarkable. There are two lessons here:
You need to understand what your readers currently think of the person you’re describing. Are they already in awe? Are they dismissive? Understand what point you have to prove.
Set the stage to prove that point. What is it about this person that makes them remarkable, is it their family history, they’re bad luck, or just the way they are? Pinpoint what’s remarkable and go about proving that.
Lesson 5: Understand what your audience thinks of your subject and go about convincing them otherwise.
Your Tone and Voice is a Reflection of You
“Rosemary Lawlor was just a newly-wed when the war broke out in Northern-Ireland.” — Malcolm Gladwell
That is one of the opening chapters in Gladwell’s book. Now, you could simply write “Rosemary Lawlor was innocent before the war broke out” or you can show them with your words: “Rosemary Lawlor was just a newly-wed when the war broke out.” The word “newly-wed” represents innocence, a sense of young love, and this idea that Rosemary was just about to start her life. The word “just” tells us that she was nothing more than that. Instead of stating the obvious, Gladwell weaves this idea through his words.
Gladwell is a master of tone and voice. It’s as if every word is perfectly placed to convey the exact message he wants. And he’ll tell you why he’s placed it there too. When Gladwell talks about tone and voice he explores this idea that whatever you write down on a page to be read by someone else, is a view into the author. Right now, writing this, I am telling you who I am. He says because that happens, you need to think about how you are coming across.
Ego is one of the things Gladwell can’t stand, he finds it hard to fathom why people insert themselves into stories when the events of their story aren’t comparable to their own. He recounts a time where tone got him out of a sticky situation. He was in a room full of experts and so he started the speaking engagement with self-deprecation. The audience knew he wasn’t full of himself. He said that he knew he was out of his depth, he knew that the people knew way more about the subject than he did. And he called it out.
Often when you call something out you disarm other people. It allows you to be clear that you are on the same page as them. Which in turn means you won’t end up in a sticky argument later.
Lesson 6: The words you write and say convey something about you as well as your characters.
Malcolm Gladwell, the son of a psychotherapist, shows that writing is much more than throwing words on a page and hoping they stick. Writing is about knowing people. Empathizing and bridging the gaps. Gladwell creates an immense depth to his writing that eludes to the kind of person he is and how seriously he takes his craft.
Gladwell asks us to write imperfectly. Don’t chase the happy ending. In fact, you don’t even need an ending. You just need to create interest. That’s the same for your research, don’t crave a carefully crafted story that has a finite end, that’s what everyone does.
This writer implores us to think differently, to try harder than the obvious. He finally asks you to think deeper than the surface of your characters, think about how your audience already sees them, and then go about convincing them otherwise. Oh yeah, and remember that whatever you write says a great deal about you.