“People don’t mind a little timeout to learn the rules of the game.” — Malcolm Gladwell
A writer has to spend time sketching out theory or framework for the task at hand. Then give readers the tools to follow along with this framework and help the readers think as you think. Connect as you connect. A non-fiction story without a theory or framework written with the tools you give them lacks reader engagement.
The whole point of continuing to read is this simple fact happens: the writer engages you.
One lesson I took from Malcolm’s MasterClass was this: great writing is like eating mud pies, they are delicious unless you eat it all at once.
But how does a great writer like Malcolm Gladwell engage you?
Mr. Gladwell gives you a provision of tools to help you move forward and understand the theory or framework of his piece.
Most writers are going to tell you an entertaining story about X, but fail to help you understand the story with educational tools you give them. You will need to help the readers learn to use and carry these tools, and use these tools to follow and make sense of the story, theory, and data that explains their connection to your story.
A writer’s job is to help these readers use these tools.*
For example, Malcolm talks about the theories of displacement and coupling in a story.
You naturally inclination is to believe in one of these theories, after he explains what they are. A writer intends to make you question which is right once I’ve given you this framework or ask: which do you think it is right?
I’ve asked you to use your toolkit, to examine something in your thinking that may make one or other right (to you).
Make the reader use the tools.
BUT WHAT EXACTLY IS A TOOL AND WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE?
Tools are what engage your mind to keep reading. A reader needs engagement to keep reading so it is our job as writers to keep the reader going on through the words you type on a page.
It’s probably why sex is so popular. It sells because people want to know what happens next.
But when writing about car accidents relative to automobile engineering, one can’t use sex to engage the reader (well, if you could, then damn, you are real good). Everyone needs a timeout to understand the rules and tools of the game, and so they can then plunge back into reading the meat of the story with enthusiasm.
1ST WRITING TOOL FOR ENGAGEMENT: USE DATA AND CONNECT READERS TO THAT DATA
People think data is boring but is it really?
In a vacuum maybe.
But think about your life, your childhood, everything you did to improve in school was based on data. Your first exposure was getting grades on a test, comparing your history, your math, your English, your gym, and your science scores with your classmates.
Malcolm’s childhood was full of data. Weirdly (or inhumanely he jokes), he and his classmates would sit in a chart accordingly to their grades. High grades started on the left and low on the right. This was a chart of intelligence, really.
But the data mattered to them because they were connected to it.
Kids and humans alike, are interested in the results because it creates enormous excitement. Give the readers a link to data like your 5k results, your shooting % in basketball, your triathlon time, your marathon finish, and readers want to know the results and data of their race or connection to their event or game or field. Almost everyone is fascinated by their data because of their relationship to it, so don’t believe the myth of readers not being interested in data.
The issue isn’t data, it’s a connection to the data.
One article he uses to connect data to his readers is titled, “The Engineer’s Lament.” This story ran in the New Yorker gives people the account of why an engineer’s job is a difficult one as car safety in design versus car highway legislation is a complicated issue. Finding causation in car accidents due to poor design amounts for fewer deaths relative to overall car deaths that could be changed by evolving our driving legislation (or drinking laws, i.e., raising alcohol taxes would reduce deaths by a significant amount). The connection between why an automobile engineer working in the recall department is relevant to readers is because they can save our lives which is mainly dependent on the engineer’s mentality and approach to life. This story is now connected to you as you read through how engineers make decisions on how to stop the thousands of car deaths per model and make per year and all the pitfalls associated with this job and trillion dollar industry of car making.
2ND WRITING TOOL FOR WRITING ENGAGEMENT: SET UP THE STORY
Set it up. Take time to set it up. Only when you’ve told you a story to connect the reader to why the chart and data are meaningful to you, can a connection take place (which is why candy helps*).
Don’t put up big charts of data for the reader to sift through and read. Break up the data charts. If you have a data chart of 10 rows by 10 rows, don’t give people 100 numbers at once.
Give them a snapshot of one number.
Keep telling the story.
Then give them ten numbers. And then five pages later, they get all 100 numbers and the whole chart.
And now they see the entire pattern now and use this as a tool to make sense of a complicated issue.
Readers can see it differently, and understand their connection to it because everyone really likes numbers, but only when and how you prepare the reader to appreciate the data.
3RD WRITING TOOL FOR WRITING ENGAGEMENT: LEAVE A TRAIL OF DESSERT, DON’T GIVE THEM THE WHOLE MUD PIE
From time to time, give your audience candy and the treats. There is a difference between the meal and the candy. When people are in casual conversation, they are talking about the candy. Which means, they don’t talk about it the same way they think about it. You can’t talk about the meal like you do the candy.
In reality, your understanding of a topic or story, or history of something on a deep level is different than your ability to explain and talk about it. What you can talk about, the things you can express in a short amount of time, the qualities and memories of things you can say in an elevator pitch, and how long you have stage to entertain someone in person, what you represent the conversation as in a snippet, isn’t the same thing as the meal.
The thing you think about genuinely in the movie, or book, or story isn’t the thing you talk about to a stranger on the sidewalk about.
Your task as a writer isn’t always to give the reader something to only think about, but also talk about. Candy is the stuff for your readers talk about in the street, in the elevator, in the short three-minute elevator pitch.
The meal is what the readers dwell on and take home and think about on a deeper, more complex level.
Candy is excellent as long as you have an entree, but it’s also a bad idea to have dessert and no meal, and even only a meal, with no dessert.
WHAT DOES CANDY LOOK AND SOUND LIKE?
Listen to someone talk about something they are excited about or just saw or read or experienced. When someone shares candy and talks about a movie, for example, you’ll hear people say, “I just saw this movie last night, there is this one scene, the actress that plays the mother, is unreal.”
This is dessert.
And humans do this because you have 10-seconds to get your point across, and you get a short amount of time to talk about the candy, the actress that portrayed the mother in the story you loved, so you share what matters the most.
Serve that candy, give them the little moments, and little digressions that can sell the piece to their friends, the opportunity to talk about what they just committed to or consumed.
Our job as a writer is to give the readers these entry points to digress and laugh and be held in reverence of a moment, a choice, a time, a profound crystalized moment of human achievement, suffering, or feeling, or emotion that they can relate too.
This is the candy. Give them the sweet job of enjoying your candy.
The meal is something else. It is the more in-depth understanding of the data and story with characters the candy people will and can remember easily.
Candy holds attention, but it is also short and sweet.
4TH WRITING TOOL FOR WRITING ENGAGEMENT: USE FOOTNOTES AND PARENTHESES AS MUD PIE CRUMBS
Use parentheses, or footnotes in your stories so people can remember and talk about the funny parallels in a natural way.
These look like small jokes. Insider info. Little known facts. Backstory bits.
For example, one kind of candy he used in David and Goliath was using footnotes to leave a fun trail for the reader to connect too. In the story, he was examining something called the CRT, the shortest possible intelligence test, because basically, the intelligence worlded wanted something faster than typical I.Q. tests. “Why not have a test with just three questions?”
Malcolm leaves a small footnote or uses parentheses to leave a trail of candy for the reader about Dvorsky’s I.Q. test, supposedly, one of the most brilliant men that ever lived, and by setting up the reader to follow the footnote, a little candy reads: Do you want to know a better Dvorsky I.Q. test? Just talk to Dvorsky and figure out how long it takes you to realize Dvorsky is smarter than you. Then you’ll know how smart you are and your true CRT answer.
That is the shortest intelligence test of all time.**
Hope you enjoyed my MasterClass.com notes on Malcolm Gladwell.
Please follow me Trevor Huffman to read more super duper things on my life as a pro athlete writing on the weirdness of fulfilling human potential.
*I forgot what my answer for more tools was, but just wanted to reiterate that you came this far to read it.
**The answer is, the longer it takes you to realize Dvorsky is smarter than you, the dumber you are — so measure it in seconds. That is candy. That is what you will hopefully tell someone at a party, in an elevator, or in person when they have limited time to describe what they loved about the piece.