From Malcolm Gladwell's MasterClass: Tone and Voice

Written by MasterClass

Apr 23, 2019 • 3 min read

MasterClass Video Lessons

Malcolm Gladwell Teaches Writing

Malcolm explains how to calibrate your tone for your readership using examples from his book David and Goliath and his own public speaking Q&As.

Topics include: Don’t Serve Your Ego • Manage the Audience With Tone • Mold Your Voice Based on Audience and Subject • Move Between Different Forms • Practice: Exchange Emails With Other Writers


Preview of Tone and Voice

This is an excerpt from Malcolm Gladwell's MasterClass.

If someone's a jerk, you can pick it up in their writing. Pay attention and you're like, oh, I really don't want to hang out with this person. Or sometimes writers who, they insert themselves gratuitously into stories, and you're like, that is just not, you know, did you really-- are you really that-- do you really think you're that important that you have to-- they'll talk about some incredibly consequential thing and then they'll just start talking about their own-- something that happened in their own lives and it's not equivalent.

And you're like-- you know-- so you're coming-- your listener is assessing not just what you're saying, but who you are. So you can't get away with-- you can no more get away with being obnoxious or egotistical or self-indulgent in a piece of writing than you can in a conversation. There's no difference, right? You can't hide your personality when you write. It comes out loud and clear.

I read a piece recently-- I won't say where. It was about this controversy at some fraternity. And the writer-- it was really clear to me the writer had-- they had about 5,000-- 4,000 words of material, and they wanted to write a long story. So they handed in 8,000 words, and the rest was just padding. They took a trip, and the trip-- and visited somebody, interviewed someone.

And the interview wasn't terribly interesting. Didn't add to the story. And they didn't do anything with it, that made me happy to go down that digression. They just wanted to prove that they had flown all the way to California to talk to this person.

And I resented it. It's like, I don't care if you went to California. I know you want to show-- the writer wanted desperately to show readers that they had done their homework. I went to California. I went to Pennsylvania. I read this report.

That was, like, loud and clear in the piece. Time and time again, we were reminded just how hard the writer worked. We don't want to know-- we don't care. We assume-- I assume you worked hard. Of course you did. But you don't have to-- don't waste my time on 800 words on your California trip that turned out to be a total waste of time and money, right?

It's just-- so there's that-- the writer wasn't thinking about how they were coming across. They were so anxious to make this kind of-- they were so insecure about their status as a writer that they ended up like going on these digressions that had no-- I don't want to say had no function, because digressions don't have to have a function.

They just have to be interesting, right? It wasn't interesting. It was just serving the kind of troubled ego, fragile ego of the writer.

Invariably in a public speaking event, there's a Q&A. And Q&As are very difficult. They're difficult because you're essentially selecting a random sample of people and allowing them-- giving them the floor. So some people ask-- don't ask-- some people just go on forever...

To access the full lesson, enroll in Malcolm Gladwell's MasterClass.

Reviews of Malcolm Gladwell's MasterClass

He is incredible! Among all instructors İ watched, he give much more information (valuable), inspiration. His vision is clear. - Afsana Y.

Plenty of insight about working on my content, even if I'm not a writer. - Peter Q.

My favorite author period, and I love hearing how he thinks about stories and the world. - E-Kan S.

Each MasterClass I've taken has provided me with a fascinating insight into the life and work of the instructor, but Malcolm Gladwell's MasterClass is by far the most interesting. I can't wait to read his work and integrate his advice into my own work. - A fellow student