I bought Outliers two days ago. And though I’m familiar with many of the stories that Gladwell tells I’m still entranced. They work on the printed page and they’ll also work for you in a presentation. How does he do it?
Here’s my analysis of Gladwell’s storytelling techniques - illustrated by Chapter Five of the book.
1. He starts with one subject
Gladwell’s book explores why certain people are exceptionally successful. We hear personal stories and detailed statistics – but Gladwell always starts with a story about one particular person. So Chapter Five is entitled “The Three Lessons of Joe Flom”. Flom is a Jewish lawyer born in the 1930s. We get a detailed trajectory of his career from his humble beginnings to his later successes.
2. He paints word-pictures
Before he starts his story, we get a description of Joe Flom:
He is short and slightly hunched. His head is large, framed by long prominent ears, and his narrow blue eyes are hidden by oversize aviator-style glasses.
So as Gladwell tells his story, we can visualise Flom in our minds.
3. He gives us detail
He doesn’t just tell us that Joe Flom’s family was poor – he tells us:
His family moved nearly every year when he was growing up because the custom in those days was for landlords to give new tenants a month’s free rent, and without that, his family could not get by.
That detail helps us plunge into Joe Flom’s early life – you imagine yourself having to move every year just to get a month’s free rent – that’s emotive and memorable.
4. His characters speak
Gladwell doesn’t just narrate a story – he has his subjects tell the story in their own words:
“I was ungainly, awkward, a fat kid. I didn’t feel comfortable,” Flom remembers. “I was one of two kids in my class at the end of the hiring season who didn’t have a job.”
5. He makes us curious
Gladwell tells Flom’s story without revealing exactly why he’s an outlier:
“Joe Flom is an outlier. But he’s not an outlier for the reasons you might think…
Then Gladwell sets the curiosity trap:
“By the end of this chapter…we’ll see that it is possible to take the lessons of Joe Flom, apply them to the legal world of New York City, and predict the family background, age and origin of the city’s most powerful attorneys, without knowing a single additional fact about them.“
That’s compelling – Gladwell has given us a mystery and promises to unravel it for us.
6. He multiplies the story
One story or anecdote doesn’t prove anything. Gladwell muliplies the impact of his first story by delving into the lives of Flom’s cohorts - Alexander Bickel, Mort Janklow, Ted Friedman.
And then comes the research study. He tells the story of a sociology student, Louise Farkar, who’s investigated the family trees of Jewish immigrants. Family tree after family tree shows that the parents of Jewish doctors and lawyers born in the 1930s were all in the garment trade:
Farkas’s Jewish family trees go on for pages, each virtually identical to the one before, until the conclusion becomes inescapable: Jewish doctors and lawyers did not become professionals in spite of their humble origins. They became professionals because of their humble origins.
This strategy might be familiar to you from the book Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath and from their blog. They call it the Micro-Macro approach. And that’s what Gladwell has done – he’s started with the story of a single person and then gradually zoomed out and shown that hundreds of people share the same story.
7. The clincher
Gladwell could have stopped there. But he adds a powerful finale to prove his point that success “arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities”. He takes a great New York law firm (“generally regarded as the finest in the world”) and one by one goes through the law firm’s founding partners to show that they all share the characteristics that have enabled them to be so successful.
This analysis has looked only at Chapter Five of Outliers. But every chapter is constructed in a similar way. Start with an individual story and then zoom out to show how the lessons from the story apply to hundreds or even thousands of others. Every story paints word-pictures, adds detail and dialogue. Gladwell’s storytelling had me turning the pages late into the night. Use the same techniques in your presentation and you’ll have the audience on the edge of their seats.