From Malcolm Gladwell's MasterClass

Jargon

Using a New Yorker article he wrote about a company testing out a new drug, Malcolm demonstrates how to employ jargon to hook your readers.

Topics include: Jargon

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Using a New Yorker article he wrote about a company testing out a new drug, Malcolm demonstrates how to employ jargon to hook your readers.

Topics include: Jargon

Malcolm Gladwell

Teaches Writing

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Jargon is the-- the best sense of that word are the words and phrases that people inside a world use to describe complicated notions. There-- it's a form of shorthand. It allows them to communicate more effectively. And so it's a very useful exercise to find bits of jargon and explain them to your audience, to give your audience a window of how someone inside that expert world thinks. So if you're a writer and you're trying to represent a world-- a different world to your audience, the kind of jargon that is used to render complicated arguments more simply is incredibly useful to you. You should use that jargon. The kind of jargon that is just simply people's attempt to keep the world and to be pretentious and to make them sound like they're more expert than they are is the kind you should avoid. So let me give you an example. I was once writing an article about a guy-- a company that was testing a new drug for cancer, for melanoma, and in the world of drug testing, there is something called a Kaplan-Meier curve. And Kaplan-Meier curve is a very simple thing. It's two lines on a graph. The first line is people with this disease-- so if we start with 100 people who have this disease and we simply chart their survival rate over time. So on day one there's 100, they're all alive, on-- week one. On week two, 98 are still alive. Week three, 90 are still alive. Week 50, two are still alive. Right? That's a graph like that. And then on top of that graph, you graph the survival rates of people who are taking your drug. And if the two lines are exactly the same, your drug doesn't work. It's not changing the survival rate of people. If the two lines converge, something's happening. If your line-- if you're testing a new drug and your line dips below the original line, it means your drug is killing people. If it's above your line, it means your drug is saving-- is extending people's lives. Right? So in the world of drug testing, they talk about Kaplan-Meier curves and was your Kaplan-Meier curve positive, negative, or neutral? When you submit a drug application to the FDA, you submit, in some cases, millions of pages of documents, but all everyone cares about is the Kaplan-Meier curve, which is one chart with two lines on it. Right? And when they give their big fancy meeting, they'll talk for hours and hours and hours, and then they will put up on the slide, on the PowerPoint, the Kaplan-Meier, and that's all people are-- they're just waiting for the Kaplan-Meier. Wait, wait, wait. Hours, hours, hours. And then finally-- and they'll say-- and it's a big suspense thing, and they'll build up and build up and build up and build up, and then they'll say-- they'll hit the button, they'll go, and this is the Kaplan-Meier. And everyone goes, oh my god. And it's either, oh no, or, eh, or, oh my god. There's a famous story of a drug for breast cancer-- one of the best drugs for breast cancer that we ever had, and it was a drug...

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.

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Love it. The piece of the puzzle that leaves people guessing, gives me permission to do so. I can so relate to Malcolm’s style.

I've learned more about writing the big ideas out there.

The most helpful part for me was understanding Malcolm's day to day process for writing. What an amazing person and one at the top of his field.

I have gotten so much from this class! I love this Masterclass! I've really enjoyed his examples, stories and his thoughts behind his choices. He's so enjoyable to watch and spend time with Malcolm.. a real treat that I will savour! Thank you!

Comments

Carmine D.

Loved this one in particular. Jargon as a tool to bring people into the fold, make them feel like part of the club. Then keep them engaged until the end with the same bit of jargon. Magic!

Katie M.

He has such a magical way of creating a story out of something that may not seem like a story at all - at first, that is. So awesome. It's a way of thinking. I believe we need to train our minds to think this way so we start to see "the story" in all kinds of areas in our lives. And then of course, the best way to tell it.

Ekin Ö.

It looks like jargon can be very useful. Malcolm explains it so that it's like a VIP pass for people who don't know the subject. :-)

james M.

Interesting in the sense of using a predicate to create anticipation in a writing.

Tina K.

The concept of selected language and using analysis, etc to build the drama, especially for non-fiction really resonated with me.

Gwendolyn D.

Malcolm's style while conducting the class, is engaging, energetic and he is present. His eyes and jesters tell it all. This should be a writers goal for her readers. I applaud all of the classes -- learning so much.

Mia S.

"The whole article was preamble. That's the beauty of insider language is, I can pull you into the world. Now, the thing I didn't do is give you 15 other jargon terms from drug discovery - there are many others, I can bury you in jargon from that world. No, that would defeat my purpose. I'm not turning you into the exact replica of - I don't want to turn you into an oncologist; I can't. That's not the point. I want to recreate the feeling though, that the oncologist has when they're sitting in the audience. The words Kaplan-Meier and the mental image of the two curves, that does it - gets that feeling in the pit of your stomach. That story goes back to a lot of things we've been talking about: it's 1) selective use of the language of the world you're describing, particularly the kind of language that elegantly communicates something complicated and central; 2) it's about suspense, the Kaplan-Meier is always used in a suspenseful manner - it is the punchline, the last sentence of the presentation. It is a concept that carries with it inherent drama, and so it creates a story for you. Lastly, it's a tool - it's a way of thinking in a very clear way about what the challenge is for someone who's making a drug. That's what's I'm trying to do, I wanted you to understand what people who try and come up with drugs - what does it feel like and what are the obstacles they face? There, the obstacle very simply is to get the two lines on the Kaplan-Meier curve to diverge if only for a short period of time. If they can do that, they win - just a little space, then they have succeeded. Years and years of work will come through. All of that in that little simple idea, there's a way to tell a story, just contained in that phrase 'Kaplan-Meier'."

Mia S.

"Famous story of a drug for breast cancer, a drug that people had given up on; they did a big breast cancer trial and the researchers presented the data at the big meeting; every major oncologist in the world is in the audience. Everyone's been waiting for the results of this incredibly important trial that's taken years, millions of dollars. The guy gets up there, does the preamble for like 45 minutes, describes how many people in the trial, where they did the trial, the audience is on the edge of their seat. The audience just - standing ovation, people are in tears, jumping up and down, because that means literally hundreds of thousands of women are going to live longer than they would otherwise; that curve, that's what it means. I wrote a story about this drug approval process. One of the first things I do - in the first or second paragraph - I tell you what a Kaplan-Meier curve is, and I tell you the story I just told you about the curve that was presented for the breast cancer drug - even though that's not what my story is about. My story is about melanoma and another company years later, it has nothing to do with breast cancer - but you have to know that little bit of jargon. Why? It's thrilling; you feel like you're smart - you are smart, you now know the thing you need to know. The simple, beautiful thing you need to know if you want to understand. You hear that and you first think, 'Who's Kaplan? Who's Meier?' It's not impersonal, it's not some jumble of legalese that makes no sense. It's two peoples' names, who described a phenomenon that allows us to really quickly and elegantly understand whether something can save lives or not. That is jargon at its best - it is, 'I can explain that to you,' I've given you this little tool, and now I've got you, now you want to know. This article goes on another 8,000 words - what do you want to know the entire time? Basically we have no drugs for melanoma, if you get Stage III, you die. Here was a company that thought they had a way to cure melanoma. I walk you through everything they went through in the discovery and testing of this drug. The whole time, what are you thinking as a reader? 'I want to see the Kaplan-Meier.' You keep reading, right? And I tell you the Kaplan-Meier in the last paragraph. I have turned you into one of those people in the audience at the cancer meeting, waiting for the breast cancer drug, on the edge of your seat as I go through the preamble."

Mia S.

"Jargon: the best sense of that word are the words and phrases that people inside a world use to describe complicated notions. It's a form of shorthand. It allows them to communicate more effectively. It's a very useful exercise to find bits of jargon and explain them to your audience, to give your audience a window of how someone inside that expert world thinks. If you're a writer and you're trying to represent a different world to your audience, the kind of jargon that is used to render complicated arguments more simply is incredibly useful to you, you should use that jargon; the kind of jargon that is just simply people's attempt to keep the world out and be pretentious and make them sound like they're more expert than they are is the kind you should avoid. I was once writing an article about a company that was testing a new drug for melanoma, and in the world of drug testing there's something called a Kaplan-Meier curve - very simple thing, it's two lines on a graph. The first line is, people with this disease - if we start with 100 people and simply chart their survival rate over time. Then on top of that graph you graph the survival rates of people who are taking your drug. If the two lines are exactly the same, your drug doesn't work. It's not changing the survival rate of people. If the two lines converge, something's happening. If your line dips below the original line, it means your drug is killing people. If it's above your line, your drug is extending peoples' lives. 'Was your Kaplan-Meier curve positive, negative, or neutral?' When you submit a drug application to the FDA, you submit in some cases millions of pages of documents but all everyone cares about is the Kaplan-Meier curve which is one chart with two lines on it, and when they give their big fancy meeting, they'll talk for hours and they'll put up on the PowerPoint, the Kaplan-Meier. People are just waiting. It's a big suspense thing, they'll build up, build up, then they'll say, 'And this is the Kaplan-Meier.' And everyone goes, 'Oh my god!'"

Justin P.

I have a few questions I'd love everyone's thoughts on. Practicing devil's advocacy here for a deeper understanding so bear with me. For me, the description of the Kaplan Meier Curve is not something that landed or clicked well. I can't be the only one in this. I think Kaplan Meier Curve, said out loud, isn't a mouthful which makes it easier to use in text. Compare it to "excitatory post-synaptic potential" which, even after explaining, is a mouthful of words to refer back to in text. The jargon advice provided by MG seems unfit for dense terms written for non-experts, like "excitatory post-synaptic potential" 1. How would you address the above issue? 2. My thought is, instead of using the jargon again to make the reader feel like an inside, why not (after explaining the jargon) paraphrase it into something more direct and representative and use the new paraphrase repeatedly (instead of the original jargon)?