Learn Malcolm Gladwell’s Most Valuable Storytelling Tool

Malcolm Gladwell is a 56-year-old Canadian living in New York City, a runner who loves cars, and probably our most popular public intellectual. Except that he isn’t really a public intellectual, he’s a storyteller. That’s how he describes himself, a storyteller.

I’ve been a Gladwell fan for a long time. According to my reading journal, I read Blink, Outliers, and Tipping Point all in 2009. When I discovered Revisionist History, his podcast about the overlooked and misunderstood, it instantly became a storytelling resource I recommended at all my workshops. Why?

Once you start listening to an episode of Revisionist History, you will not want to stop. Gladwell covers all kinds of topics, from teachers left unemployed by the end of school segregation in the United States to Elvis’s difficulties memorizing his own lyrics. Gladwell’s storytelling is so powerful that the topic hardly matters. You listen because he captures your attention right away and doesn’t let go until he’s done.

While I love encouraging all the academics I work with to take him as a storytelling example, the truth is that academics tend to criticize Gladwell’s work. Some claim he adds so-called theories to the obvious. Others say he cherry-picks research to support what’s more or less gut instinct theorizing. He’s also accused of the cardinal sin of academic storytelling: simplification.

They have a point.

And still, I think all storytellers and especially academics should pay attention to and study his work because he has a valuable lesson to teach.

Malcolm Gladwell knows who his ideal audience is. In fact, he describes his audience as “a 45-year-old guy with three kids who’s an engineer at some company outside of Atlanta.” His audience clarity is his superpower when it comes to storytelling.

When you know who your ideal audience is, how they think, and what they expect then you can shape a story that will grab and hold their attention. Is Gladwell’s audience looking for deep theoretical analysis or reflections on the validity of psychological tests that were done on 30 people and aren’t easily replicated? No. They aren’t interested in that at all. 

They want human stories that can help them understand greater logics about how the world works and why. They want stories that make theories concrete. They want to enjoy the story and perhaps build a reference library of life lessons the same way we learn the lessons from Aesop or the Greek Gods.

While I was researching this article, I pulled out all my Gladwell books and my copy of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, thinking Gladwell might have referenced him. He didn’t, which makes sense because Gladwell’s area is almost exclusively social sciences. Kahneman is a Nobel Prize winner for Economics and his book outlines a number of basic logical fallacies that we easily fall prey to. I read it in 2016.

I use index cards as bookmarks and will usually write a quick “just after reading” note on the card. On the card for Blink, I wrote, “thoroughly enjoyed.” On the card for Thinking, Fast and Slow, I wrote “Whew!” 

They write for different audiences and for different purposes. Malcolm Gladwell is a storyteller. Kahneman is an intellectual.

When you read Malcolm Gladwell, you get an enjoyable read that will inform you. Reading Kahneman, you can expect an informative read that might be enjoyable.

As a storyteller, whether you are sharing your professional story or telling a folktale, you must understand your ideal audience. The Little Red Riding Hood we tell for adults is not the same Little Red Riding Hood we tell for children. If you aren’t sure, pick up a copy of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and please let me know what you think.

The more precise you can be about your ideal audience, the more you can shape your story to meet their experience and expectations. Your story will be more effective if you go and meet your audience where they are. You do this by starting with something that’s familiar and interesting to them and then drawing them slowly into your story world.

Now, it’s easy to object here and think, “now wait, Christine, if I narrow my audience down to 45-year-old men working in engineering in the American South, won’t I shut out everyone else?” To answer your question, I’ll give you a fact. Revisionist History gets up to 3 million listeners per episode. Atlanta’s population is just under 500,000. Narrowing your ideal audience helps you focus your story. Once you have created a tight story, it will attract audiences far greater than your ideal audience.

Think about all the adults who love Harry Potter the way I do. We weren’t necessarily the primary ideal audience. Well-structured and well-told stories attract huge audiences.

If you aren’t sure about how it works, please go listen to any Revisionist History podcast. Listen twice, once for the story and again for the analysis. What do you think? What lessons did you learn?

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