Meaning Guide

Making meaning with Malcolm

I meet Malcolm in a small café on the Upper West Side during one of my early visits to New York.  Our small talk is mostly about coffee and the weather, which is just as well.  Although he cuts a slight figure, there is a definiteness to his movement that warns me that once the deep talk starts, he won’t be pulling punches.  All of my research has pointed me to this man, but now that I am actually here with him, taking in his higher-than-expected voice, his dark penetrating eyes, the faint whiff of nicotine, I realise what’s at stake:  If I blow it, he’ll probably never speak to me again.

I have never been to that café on the Upper West Side, and Malcolm is actually a figment of my imagination.  I named him in tribute to Malcolm Gladwell, the original journalist turned non-fiction writer who perfected these kinds of paragraphs.  They now pop up everywhere, even in books written by academics trying to boost their book sales, and this can get frustrating if I’m short on time:  I don’t care that the lead researcher had curly hair, brown rimmed glasses, and a hint of cologne, I want to know what they discovered!

But here’s the thing.  Gladwell’s books have sold millions of copies around the world.  Compare that to the readership for the original research papers he combs then cites in his books.  The “10,000 hour rule” was based on research by Anders Ericsson that virtually no one had heard of before Outliers was published.  Without Gladwell, it wouldn’t have been reported, taken for granted, analysed, and now increasingly attacked to the extent it has been.

If I put this back in the context of the Meaning Curve, you get a sense of what’s happening:  Ericsson’s research is in the bottom right quadrant, Gladwell in the top right.  How did he do that?

Simply by adding story.  Shared meaning is created by connecting with shared experiences.  Story builds shared meaning because it aligns to the way we experience the world – as a chronological unfolding of events that are of interest to us.  In order to bring laboratory research to life for a general audience, it needs to somehow have a story wrapped into it.  Sometimes the journey of the research is itself an interesting story (“I was sitting thinking about this, when suddenly an apple fell on my head and I realised that …”)  But sometimes it just isn’t.  Sometimes the story is around the character who made the discovery.  Either way, I’m going to be way more interested in what someone discovered if I feel like I know who they are.  Hence the scenes in the café, the descriptions of the weather outside, the references to the family history etc.

There are some really practical lessons here for people in the bottom right of the meaning curve who wish they had a larger audience.  There may not be obvious points of contact between your world and theirs, but can you create some?  What do you care about that they care about too?  How can you bring your journey to life in a way that the average person will relate to?

The problem I think is not so much that the average person in the bottom right quadrant is incapable of doing this, it’s that they probably don’t want to, because turning facts into a compelling story inevitably sacrifices some accuracy.  Is it OK to slightly change the order of events in order to build more drama?  How liberal can you be with your characterisation in order to make the actors more interesting?  If you’re the sort of person who’s drawn to deep academic research, then you’re probably not the sort of person who’s happy quibbling with these kinds of details.  Which probably partly explains why the majority of the best-selling non-fiction is written (or at least ghost-written) by non-specialists like Gladwell.

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