Tone and Voice

Malcolm Gladwell

Lesson time 17:02 min

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.

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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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. eye on their own supply. 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. [MUSIC PLAYING] 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....

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.

This class examines the so subtle underpinnings of the craft of writing. I am looking forward to applying these insightful gems to my writing projects. Superb and fun,

Malcolm is a brilliant teacher and writer. Love his thoughtful, personable style. Quite inspirational, funny and engaging. Loving the class

This is the part of Master Class where I feel the most stupid, like when you're a kid and your mom asks, "So what did you learn in school today?" and all you're thinking about is if there are any Pop-Tarts left. I enjoyed Malcolm going through his thought process. If this reflects in my own writing... I'll let you know in a year.

I've never read anything by this author, but I'm going to now. He seems like a wonderful human being and I want to hear his opinion on many subjects.


Jennie C.

Loved this lesson..so wished I had a teacher like Gladwell earlier in my academic career...journalism class and academic. What I like most is how he discusses creating the skillset for different kinds of writing, i.e. journalism, academic, and note writing to a friend. This advice will prod one into navigating the realms of "pretentious" journal articles to a magazine article that reaches the masses. Through this illuminating process, one's voice can be re-affirmed.

Anne Z.

Hey Alexia, what are you looking for in a writing buddy? What are you writing? Annie

Carmine D.

Malcolm goes full Italian with the hand gestures at the one minute mark lol

Ekin Ö.

It's an interesting idea to write several texts with the same underlying concept but to different types of audiences. I'll give this a shot.

Brett G.

Who else is taking MG's class on writing? Based on comments and the hub, it's a ghost town around here! I'd be down for doing the email exchange as discussed in Lesson 15. Let me know if you are interested and we can exchange email addies. Cheers.


I liked the idea Malcolm Gladwell suggests of emailing someone else. I chose my son who is a graduate student and an excellent writer. His creativity is beyond my imagination usually which is the primary reason I chose him. My son acknowledged my story had indeed improved. However, he had so many suggestions and questions about why I said (or didn't say) something. Similar to what Malcolm explained, my son read a sentence and replied to my email "so what? What does that have to do with the story? You write the character is READY. Ready for what? I can say I'm ready for this story to be over." Then my son explained how I should relate what behavior, action or description shows the reader that my character is ready for the next paragraph. This masterclass is great. On to the next lesson ....

Stan B.

Ok, I'll admit it's wonderfully gratifying to hear that Malcolm finds people who insert extraneous self-promotion into their work irritating! The larger point, of course, is to be aware that your personality (shortcomings and all) is reflected in your scribblings. In the comments for Chapter 13 a number of folks noted the benefits of reading their stuff out loud. I would expect reading your words aloud and discovering they 1) do not contribute to the story or 2) sound uncomfortably pompous, might lead to some editing.


Mr.Gradwell brings up sports and corresponding with people in an uninhibited way. Is he eluding the wild world of sports forums? Where in Trolling, the Agony and Ecstasy are the norm with in and without ones favorite team and or teams. I wonder what Mr.Gladwell would think of W.C.Fields quote: "Attitude is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than what people do or say. It is more important than appearance, giftedness, or skill. " Considering who he was and his background.

Brian P.

I am seriously loving this course! I am rewriting my entire first draft because of ideas I got from Malcom's advice. I'm loving Malcom's personality too. Reminds me of a smaller Christopher Walken.


The converging tones is a useful tactic when working with clients. If I get an angry email from a client (and clients love to copy as many people as possible on these types of emails) I respond with a lighter, friendlier tone. It's not dismissive--I address their concerns and I'm careful not to make light of them--but I never respond "in kind" either. You can either escalate the tension or relieve it, and I always opt for relief. Their response is almost always a lot nicer. On the rare occasion it's not, I make a mental note to never work with them again.