November 25, 2008

Gladwell’s success by numbers

In the introduction to his talk last night, Malcolm Gladwell self-depricatingly announced that he hadn’t given his talk a specific title. Usually, he said, he’d come up with some obscure title for his talks involving Freud – for example “Freuds’s geology” – or put three random words together – for example “Elephant, Ice Cream, Jesus”. The idea being that the more obscure the title, the more interesting the talk, therefore the bigger the pull. The crowd tittered at this thought, however these introductory words for me proved the most interesting of his whole talk.

I’ll admit that I’ve never been a massive fan of Gladwell’s. I think he’s clever and I admire him for bringing the genre of popular social science to the masses, however each of his books seems to grate more and more.

The reason for this is that Gladwell comes across to me a as a bit of a one trick formulaic social science pony, who takes a simple central concept and then surrounds it by obscure anecdotes to make the concept sound a lot more interesting and important than it is. And the formula is roughly this:

1) Pick an “of the moment” concept that’s been bubbling away in the back of public consciousness, but hasn’t yet been articulated well enough for the public to “get it”. N.B. this concept will generally be pretty obvious. Obvious enough to result in people going “Oh, I seeeeee!” once they’d read Gladwell’s book.

2) Give the concept a catchy title / name (e.g. Tipping Point, Blink . . .) N.B. these are often existing names of concepts.

3) Explain the concept by using a varied number obscure real life examples / anecdotes to bring the concept to life, and flesh out the book so it’s over 150 pages long and therefore merits being called a book and worth over £8 (paperback) or £15 (hardback).

4) Send the book to the Daily Mail to get previewed to ensure a gushingly positive review involving the words “inspiring” “genius” and “genre defining”.

So, by being partly lost for something interesting to say to introduce his talk Gladwell made a Freudian-slip and revealed his inner-self – a self that’s undoubtedly clever, but also hell-bent on making sure everyone knows he’s clever. That’s of course not a bad thing. Especially when the end product is as entertaining as his books, and he (and his formula) is such a Success.

Posted by ChrisQ