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Holding Readers: Controlling Information

Malcolm Gladwell

Lesson time 13:24 min

Learn how to use surprises, guessing games, and suspense to invite readers into your story.

Malcolm Gladwell
Teaches Writing
In 24 lessons, the author of Blink and The Tipping Point teaches you how to find, research, and write stories that capture big ideas.
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I have a very good friend who does this thing which drives me crazy, which is that when you say something to her and you're pretty sure you're telling her something interesting and new, she will always act as if she knew it all along. Or, that it's not a surprise. She will essentially say, yes, of course. And that, Am makes me unwilling to tell her other interesting things because I don't get the reward. The reason we tell people funny, interesting stories is we want the reward of them having that look on their face and being surprised and being pleased at hearing something new. And there is no greater encouragement than me going, really? That's amazing, right? That keeps you going. As a writer, your job is to get people to keep going. So just even if you don't feel it, even if you've heard it before, you need to say, wow. You need to practice that openness in the face of someone taking the risk of telling you a story. Story in conversation is a risk. I am telling you something without knowing how it will be greeted. Whether you'll greeted with disdain, disgust, enthusiasm, boredom, excitement. Conversation works because we're risk takers. And if we continually are met with disdain and boredom or disgust, we stop engaging in conversation, in meaningful conversation, right? It shuts down. So your job as a writer is to create an environment where stories can be told. Part of that, sometimes that requires faking it. But actually 99.9% of the time it requires an honest examination of what you really did know. The easiest thing is for you to say, you tell me a story, and for me to say, well, I knew 75% of that, so what I'm going to do is I'm going to take credit for knowing all of it, right? That's your ego speaking. Oh, they had this little bit of insight which I didn't have, but I'm going to fake it and say, oh, I knew that. The first thing you have to do is to stop that impulse, is to understand that even if that little piece you did know is only 2% is to say, oh, you added to my knowledge of this crucial subject by 2%, and that's meaningful. I now look at the world from a slightly different angle as I did before. So cultivating surprise, I think, is a central part of what it means to be a writer in the world, a writer about ideas at least in the world. And I have always-- the more I know, in a certain sense, the easier it is for me to be surprised, right? Because I get better and better and better at identifying a little piece that I didn't understand before. The more opportunities you build into your pieces for reactions, the better off you're going to be, the more engaged and memorable-- engaged they'll be with the reading process and more memorable what you've written will become. So I did it more when I was starting out than I do now, but I was like, if there is any opportunity I can give to let the reader, to invite the reader into the same thought process I'm going through, then I do it. You know, in the thing I'm run...

Transform the ordinary

Ketchup. Crime. Quarterbacks. Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell’s books, these ordinary subjects have helped millions of readers grasp complex ideas like behavioral economics and performance prediction. Now, the renowned storyteller and best-selling author of Blink and The Tipping Point is teaching his first online writing class. Craft stories that captivate by learning how Malcolm researches topics, crafts characters, and distills big ideas into simple, powerful narratives.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

I love Malcom! I love his book that I have read so far and I plan to read more. I also enjoy his podcasts and any time I have heard him speak or do an interview. It was just funny to see that this teaching format is not his "bag." He stutters, changes the direction of what he is saying and it takes him a while to get going. But once he does he say some fascinating stuff!

Malcolm Gladwell's class helped me structure my writing and taught me how to better interview. It surprised me to know my favorite author considers 1 page of writing a day is a success. Until today I felt like a failure if I couldn't write several pages or at least a story a day. There are so many gems throughout his class for storytellers of all kinds. Highly recommend this class.

I have recently started to write. I have a little experience in writing and this class can help me develop my skills more and hopefully write a full story.

Gave not only a great class, but great references I've been thoroughly enjoying.


Lesley P.

I the use of the term "candy" to describe those smaller but interesting bits. I am going back to think about his book "Talking to Strangers" and think about exactly what was the meal vs the candy.

Emma T.

Something Dario Fo wrote in his memoir came to mind as I watched this lesson - "The art of storytelling isn't apprenticed, it is thieved." Meaning, you learn by studying great storytellers, and you do it quietly.

Turner S.

I absolutely love this class so far. I am writing more often just in the last couple of days - and the amount of eye opening experiences I'm having seem to be endless. I love this.

A fellow student

This is really good and I was glad to hear something I do, explicitly recommended by him. I am a stand-up instructor. Most of my working days I stand up and teach all day and then I go home. Since I am the only instructor my students see for almost 3 months, I need to give them candy once in a while. I have referred to it as such, and my working definition of it is nearly the same as Malcolm's. I use it to entertain, keep them awake, and to get the students to internalize the information better. Now I need to bring that into my writing, and he just gave me permission to do so.

Oscar M.

I liked this first session a lot, starting from the initial statement explaining readers go for non-fiction because they are looking for what may help them to become better persons. Also liked the reflection about the need to have an "odd" "non-perfect" puzzle in order to get people attracted to it and the use of "candy" and "connected data" as engagement tools

A fellow student

I gained insight lesson 1-3. 3 I haven't finished yet. Candy: hit the spot ...Diversity. Then also connect the audience to data as well as the imperfect pzzule.Good. My purpose improve business writing. This will help.


In magazine journalism, the notion of 'candy' is always there, often visually. One long read needs a few accessories: pull quotes, fact boxes, roundels, teasers. What I hadn't thought about was inserting these into the body copy in a deliberate way that doesn't interrupt the flow. I'm going to serve some secret candy soon…

Tracy P.

The story about the jigsaw puzzle had me laughing out loud! That sounded a lot like my own family. I'm fascinated with the idea that a narrative does not need to be perfect. I'm taking this course as a reader and I'm enjoying the behind the scenes viewpoint that goes into writing.

A fellow student

Did Malcolm just give us permission to have desert every night as long as eat an entree? Yes, the candy idea is intriguing. It's a point I won't forget. Am I suggesting I will forgot other points? Oh heck yes. Did you know eating candy releases releases endorphins such as dopamine and serotonin? Malcolm is suggesting word or thought candy has the same effect. I think word candy is even longer lasting and more powerful than a simple chocolate dopamine rush.


Malcolm's attraction is his uncanny ability to draw us in with our human experience. He brings in examples of how we behave together through our language and awareness. His candy compels me to return again and again. Genius. And, BTW, it only took me a nanosecond to recognize that he is smarter than my humble self.