How to sell good ideas

Ian Leslie in New Statesman America:

The night before I met Malcolm Gladwell, I went to see him speak at the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank. The gig was sold out: as the young and diverse crowd filtered in, and the Specials played over the PA, I reflected on how unusual it is for a writer to fill so many seats, especially one with no creed to preach or secret to sell. People were not coming to sit at the feet of a guru. They were here to enjoy themselves. Gladwell, a strip of a man in jeans and sneakers, sauntered on stage, took his place behind a lectern and began telling a story from his new book, Talking To Strangers. Within two minutes he swerved off into a story about how he got the story, which involved him mistaking a call from a legendary CIA agent for one from Barack Obama. It doesn’t always come across in his writing, but Gladwell is funny. At the South Bank his words flowed and fizzed with vocal energy; he used his voice like an instrument, at times lowering it suggestively (“I mean I can’t tell you what Barack and I talked about…”), at others leaping high up in his range to register incredulity (“I’ve been at dinner parties with the super-rich. All they talk about is tax!”). His pauses and pay-offs were perfectly judged.

He was interviewed on stage by the journalist Afua Hirsch. It transpired that they both have a white father and a black mother. Gladwell had a theory about this, based on his observation that until recently, it was unusual for the female half of a mixed-race couple to be white. But then, Gladwell had a theory about everything. Over the course of the evening he expounded on policing, schools, sport, prison, why rich people don’t know how to enjoy being rich, and much more. Some theories were carefully weighed, others were riffs intended to elicit a gasp or a laugh. Even as Hirsch was wrapping up the Q&A, Gladwell interjected to ask why it always seems necessary to take questions from every part of the auditorium. “When you walked in here you had this identity,” he said, addressing the hall: “Say, British, white, female. But in the last 45 minutes, you’ve acquired this new one: stalls left. And suddenly it seems like a monstrous injustice that nobody from your side has been picked.”

For nearly 20 years, Gladwell has been America’s most important public intellectual. If the label seems incongruous, that might be because we think of public intellectuals as those such as Steven Pinker or Niall Ferguson: hommes sérieux who enjoy crushing those who disagree with them. Gladwell does not cultivate gravitas and doesn’t much mind if you disagree with him. He is an intellectual hedonist: his big idea is that ideas should be pleasurable. Rather than trying to persuade, he seeks to infect readers with his enthusiasms: isn’t this interesting? This ethos has birthed a whole publishing industry. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that, without Gladwell, there would no Freakonomics, no Nudge, no TED Talks, no “Smart Thinking” section in Waterstones. For those who find the whole genre unbearably superficial, Gladwell is to blame.

More here.