22 November 2008

The Charles Hotel, Boston

I assume most everybody who finds his or her way to this website will have read one of my favourite books: The Tipping Point by New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell. If you have not, do. If you have, and liked it, consider getting the latest book by the same author: Outliers – the Story of Success. I just finished reading it and it is fabulously inspiring.

Of course, there is something ironic about recommending an author such as Gladwell: it is as if, for a moment, one steps into the world of his books and performs one of the roles that he explains there: to contribute to another “social epidemic”. And since many people do this, the outcome is, indeed, epidemic (see a recent article in the Guardian, In Praise of Malcom Gladwell). But this is not hype: any praise for Gladwell’s work is fully deserved.

In his first book Gladwell sets out what he calls the rules of social epidemics. The basic idea: ideas, products and messages spread like viruses. Any epidemic has a tipping point, when it spreads exponentially. So do ideas. Certain individuals – connectors, mavens and salesmen – play a key role in this. Mavens are people who collect information, who read newspapers and magazines obsessively, who share news: information brokers, data banks, people who provide messages. Connectors spread messages. Connectors are those who have a very large and diverse circle of acquaintances: people who know lots of people, who have a foot in many different worlds and can thus bring these worlds together. Salesmen persuade people who remain unconvinced of what they are hearing. As Gladwell describes a salesman: “it’s energy, it’s enthusiasm, it’s charm, it’s likability.”

One of my favourite passages from Gladwell’s first book – which I have used many times during ESI capacity building seminars, trying to explain how we at ESI think about our own writing – is taken from the US TV series Sesame Street. It seeks to explain a concept dear to anyone engaged in the business of producing stories for a (hopefully) large audience: “stickiness”.

The makers of Sesame Street succeeded in making their TV series for children ‘sticky”: their insight was that if you can hold the attention of children, they can be educated. They went about this systematically: devising tests such as running shows on TV screens while giving young children toys to play with. Children were quite sophisticated when to turn away from their toys to watch the screen and when to ignore the show: “they looked at what were for them the most informative parts of the program.”

The head of research for Sesame street then developed what he called a distractor: playing one episode of the show on one TV and running a slide show on another. When would children turn from the TV and watch the slide show? What episodes would hold children’s attention? Often the difference between a message that is sticky – and thus likely to turn into a social epidemic through the efforts of mavens, connectors and salesmen – and one that is not sticky consists in small but critical adjustments. People did not like it when two or three people talked at the same time. Etc:

“The Distractor showed that no single segment of the Sesame street format should go beyond four minutes, and that three minutes was probably optimal. He forced the producers to simplify dialogue and abandon certain techniques they had taken from adult television.”

(This is also a central idea in ESI’s writing: whenever something can be explained in a more simple way, do it. If we can find a simple word instead of a complex one, use it. Cut out any superfluous sentences. Insert no table whose message cannot be grasped at one glance – a rule most international organisations seem to delight in breaking. Make a report sticky. We call this internally our “Ahtisaari test”: every report should be written in such a way that when we get it to Martti Ahtisaari – a very busy man who nonetheless appreciates our work and is interested in the issues we care about – he should never get bored. Thus, no report must be longer than 30 pages, no discussion paper longer than 10. The few times we broke this rule we paid a price, and even well-researched reports failed to have any impact).

Gladwell’s writing can be applied to many different situations. In fact, his own success is an almost perfect illustration of his theory: his messages are certainly sticky. People who read a lot – like myself – feel compelled to recommend him. And when he appears on television, he radiates optimism and enthusiasm and draws attention (a perfect salesman).

So this is what happened to me: I had set up my own distractor in my hotel room in Boston, working on my laptop to prepare a presentation on the Balkans for the Kennedy School, with the hotel TV on in the background. Occasionally I paid attention to the program (CNN). Until Gladwell appeared and talked about his new book to Anderson Cooper. Then I stopped working on my presentation.

Now, three days later, I can still recall what Gladwell and Cooper talked about. The 10,000 hour rule. The fact that it therefore takes ten years of practice to be very good at anything. That this was as much true for Mozart as it was for the Beatles. That when we think about success as individual achievement – admiring a genius and a self-made man/woman – we miss what is essential about the social opportunities that any outlier (exceptionally successful) person requires. As Gladwell puts it: “When outliers become outliers it is not only just because of their own efforts. It’s because of the contributions of lots of different people and lots of different circumstances.”

So the inevitable happens: two days later, now back in NY, I buy the book. I start and read it almost in one go. And now I spread the news. Get the book! And then let me know what you think!

If you need one more push to be convinced, let me give you one more example from Gladwell’s book: a test undertaken by psychologist K. Naders Ericsson at the Berlin Academy of Music. The school’s violinists were all divided into three groups: the stars, students with the potential to become world class; the merely good; and those unlikely ever to play professionally, preparing instead to become music teachers in public schools. Then all were asked how many hours they had practiced in their youth. The finding was striking:

“… by the age of twenty, the elite performers had each totaled ten thousand hours of practice. By contrast, the merely good students had totaled eight thousand hours, and the future music teachers had totaled just over four thousand hours. … once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it. And what’s more, the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.” (p. 39)

To reach ten thousand hours of practice, however, is almost impossible if you are all by yourself as a young adult. It requires support and encouragement. Families, or societies, where this support is widespread will produce many more people who can turn innate ability into top performance. Without support, even a high IQ or an inherited talent will not be sufficient.

I immediately think of the Kosovo villages we have researched in Cutting the Lifeline (and which appear in our Kosovo film): how many of the young there, in particular how many of the young women, get anything remotely resembling the support they need to develop their talents? How many young women do so in Eastern Turkey? Does the “Matthew effect” Gladwell refers to (“unto everyone that hath shall be given”) not also hold for 2nd generation Turkish migrants in Berlin? And the story of the NY garment industry and who it generated skills useful in financial markets within one generation: does it not fit perfectly into our analysis of textile towns in the Balkans? A good book leadsto countless further ideas …

However, there is one additional lesson from the Tipping point: remember, “no sequence of Sesame street” should be longer than 3 minutes. Perhaps this is a good lesson also for this blog? To read more … come back soon.

PS: And if you want to get more information about Gladwell go to www.gladwell.com.

Filed under: How ESI works,Stickiness — Tags: , , , — Gerald @ 5:03 pm
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