Holding Readers: Tools for Engagement

Malcolm Gladwell

Lesson time 13:40 min

Data is a big part of Malcolm’s stories. Learn three ways Malcolm helps readers digest data and engage with complex ideas in his writing.

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 spend a lot of time in a lot of my pieces sketching out some kind of theory or framework for the task at hand. So I give you tools to-- to follow along, or to think like I'm thinking, or think like the people I'm writing about-- how they think. And I always feel like the provision of tools is one of the things that compels people forward. So I introduce-- I say, let's-- we're going to tell-- we're going to-- I'm going to tell you a really fun story about X. And then I pause and I say, OK, but in order to understand the story, you're going to need to carry the following tools. Here's what they are. Here's how they work. Here's the theory that explains them. And once I've given you a tool, you're natural next question is, OK, I want to use it now. That I've given you-- you know, in this thing I've been writing right now, there's a very distinct-- there's a very beautiful distinction between displacement and coupling. They're separate things. They don't-- it has no meaning to you outside of the context. But I tell you this whole story and I say, OK, there's two-- there's these two categories-- displacement, coupling. And your-- you know, your natural inclination is towards one. And very often, the truth is the other. And the-- it may not work, but the intention is that once I've given you this little framework-- and then I play a little game, in which I-- I give you a scenario. And I say, well, which do you think it is? And then, that's a kind of break from our narrative. And then I go back to the narrative. But now you've gone back. And you've got this-- you've learned this shiny new-- I've given you this shiny new tool. And you want to use it, right? And I-- my hope is that that desire to use the tool keeps you going. The reader needs a tool sometimes to want to keep going. So give them one. Come up with a fun one, you know. And everyone doesn't-- people don't mind a little time-out to kind of learn the rules of the game. And then they'll plunge back in with renewed enthusiasm. [MUSIC PLAYING] People mistakenly think of data as boring. But in truth-- again, I hate to bring everything back to my childhood. But as a kid, what do you notice about data? What are your first-- what's your-- as a kid, your first exposure to data is the grade you get on a test, right? That's data. Now in my-- I think-- I don't think they do this anymore. But when I was a kid in my little rural Canadian town, you would sit-- in a classroom-- according to your grade on the last test. So the person with the highest grade would sit in the far left-hand corner. The person with the lowest grade would sit in the front, right-hand corner. That is a-- that's-- first of all, that's inhumane and horrible. But it's also-- that's a chart, right? It's a physical chart. And what do you discover when you do that? That kids are enormously interested in the chart. They-- they talk about it. They're obsessed with it. They get upset over it. They're-- it...

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.

Malcolm is a genius who's mind i was able to pick through this masterclass. Thanks Malcolm.

I am deciding whether to bring a fiction or a nonfiction world to life, and Malcolm's class is helpful for either front. His focus is on the nonfiction work, but the tools he offers are interchangeable. Most importantly, however, Malcolm's passion for the writing process is palpable, and his excitement is contagious. Time to get to work...

Thinking about the structure of non-fiction writing.

i enjoy listening to intelligent people. Gladwell is a pleasure.


Alex B.

The author might be very good, but He is not a very good speaker. He has so many unfinished sentences and uncountable filler words. all the time he uses: hmmmm. ahhhhh, ehhhh.... It could be easly fixed by editing the video and cutting this filllers and other unfinished sentences. It would save time and pacience of the hearers. (This goes for the previous lesson as well)

Russell H.

My understanding is that the “tools” are the conceptual framework that Malcolm gives the reader in order to contextualise, understand and engage with the material presented. These are clearly important for he says "I spend a lot of time in a lot of my pieces sketching out some kind of theory or framework for the task at hand”. Critically, they illustrate how the author has conceptually processed the material under discussion. He advises we should present data in small chunks. It should be presented in a format that will connect with the reader in a relatable and meaningful way. And be capable of capturing the reader’s interest and remain engaging. It should compel them to continue reading your work. The “meal” is what the reader will THINK about. “Candy” is what they will TALK about. Candy is an interesting or entertaining diversion or digression in the narrative. Something that can be taken away by the reader as a future talking point with others because it is interestingly memorable. The skill of using candy identifying appropriate examples of it for your subject matter, and where within the narrative you place it.

laura J.

Sometimes to learn you begin by being lost in the mush of it; in the words, ideas that are foreign to you. Malcolm is highly skilled and I am struggling to measure up as a student, learn from his skill. So my hat in my hand, give my review when I am done. Wish me luck!-+++

Jennie C.

I absolutely love Malcolm Gladwell. His articles are smoothly written, and one can tell much thought has been put into the prose. I am reading his latest Talking to Strangers and am enjoying it. In this lesson and the previous ones, he renders concrete examples in relating to journalism and can be applied to other components of everyday life. He provides details, clarity without being superfluous. Only wish I had taken his classes sooner....


I like the notion of candy. While writing my non-fiction book I have come across interesting tidbits that are not entirely pertinent to the main work; however, they are interesting facts one is not likely to encounter readily, unless one follows the same line of research. Also one cannot include every morsel of research in the book, tempting though it is. To place the "candy" in a footnote is an intriguing idea I plan to adopt. E.g. Pétain blamed the occupation of France by Germany in the Second World War to the French women. Post WW1 they hadn't produced enough children to feed to the canons.


I’m here just to maximize the value of my 180 dollars, but this class is beyond my expectation. I’m so glad I took it. I wasn’t a fan, don’t know whether or not I will be, but for now I’d want to finish reading his books that for whatever reasons I once abandoned.

Simon G.

Man, it all makes sense now! I'm reading David and Goliath right now and this explains a lot of his storytelling style. My brother hates this style of writing, though, because he thinks anecdotal evidence and digressive is a horrible approach to science and finding the truth of things. He hates it when people get their political opinions through Facebook and other online social media platforms for this reason: these platforms are often full of anecdotal evidence and shocking statistics, which can often be twisted or misleading. He values straight up statistics and logic to make his points, and he can destroy people's arguments like a wet towel thrown in the face. I told him that even though Malcolm digresses a lot and uses lots of anecdotes, they don't take away from the validity of his arguments. I can see where my brother is coming from, though. What do you guys think?

Kelly H.

Where does Malcolm Gladwell find the jokes or anecdotes he uses as candy? For example in the piece about engineers and recalls, the joke about an engineer, a priest, and a doctor enjoying a round of golf? I'd love to be able to do more of that but wonder if he somehow researches these things or just has them in his head!

Neeraj B.

The idea of giving the reader tools so that he can more easily see what your narrative is pointing to is terrific!

Graeme R.

Such brilliant advice. The magic of Malcolm Gladwell simply explained. I love candy!