A critique of Malcolm Gladwell

Garr Reynolds from Presentation Zen has highlighted several presentations from Malcolm Gladwell. Malcolm Gladwell is a master storyteller in his books. He carries that through in his presentations. Watch the video – then read my analysis below for what you can learn from Malcolm Gladwell and his presentation style.

What Gladwell did well

So what did you pick up on what he did well. Here’s my list:

1. He had a Key Message

There was one consistent theme or key message in his presentation – and all of his presentation was focused on supporting that key message. I do have a suggestion on how Gladwell could improve how he states the key message. Near the beginning he said:

“Cap rates are really low.”

This is clear and succinct but doesn’t tell us why it matters. An audience appreciates knowing why we should listen near the beginning. The way Gladwell stated his key message near the end of the presentation was much more effective:

“We are squandering our talent.”

That’s when we really get the point and why it matters.

Sometimes people are concerned about repeating their key message in the same way at the beginning and at the end of their presentation – but it works in an oral presentation. Martin Luther King said “I have a dream” eleven times.

2. He cut everything else out

Gladwell has just published a book Outliers. I’m sure he had a ton of material that he could have included in this presentation. But he resisted the temptation. He picked one point to highlight and stuck to that.

3. He had a clear structure

Here’s how I would represent his structure visually:

gladwell-presentation-structure1

This is an excellent three-part structure. Gladwell picked the three most important constraints and concentrated on those. There are probably many other constraints, but again he resisted the temptation to overload his audience.

4. He supported each point with concrete evidence

Gladwell is a storyteller in his books, so it’s no surprise that he has excellent examples and statistics throughout his presentation. As I’ve done with other presenters (Al Gore, Seth Godin) I’ve analysed the proportion of evidence (examples and statistics) to points/discussion in his presentation:

gladwell-evidence

In Al Gore’s presentation, 60% of the presentation was evidence, and in Seth Godin’s case 67%. These are all great presenters – take a look at this metric for your own presentations – and benchmark yourself against these guys.

My only quibble around Gladwell’s use of evidence is that on two occasions he used a second example or statistic when we had already got the point. We didn’t need the Czech soccer team example after the Canadian hockey example. That was overkill. Second, he gave us a second set of statistics around the capitalization rate of Chinese Americans which didn’t seem to me to say anything significantly different to the first set of statistics. It confused me. The lesson here is that most points only need one example or set of statistics to back them up. Only use a second piece of evidence if it is appreciably different.

5. He used signposting to make the presentation easy to follow

Signposting is letting your audience know where you’re going, where you’re at and where you’ve been in your presentation. Gladwell told us he was going to look at three constraints and then told us as he moved from one to the next. He could have used signposting even more without overdoing it. When we teach the technique of signposting, the presenter often tells us they feel like they’re overdoing it – but the audience loves it. So don’t be afraid of frequent signposting.

6. He communicated with passion

I love the way Gladwell presents. I love the intensity that he brings to communicating his ideas to an audience. I feel like he really wants his audience to get what he’s saying.

So what could Gladwell improve?

Gladwell volunteered that he was a Powerpoint virgin – and I think he did great for a first timer. Here’s some suggestions that I would make.

1. Use your slides to state a message

The first slide was simply this:

gladwell-powerpoint-slide1

This is a waste of a slide. Instead of a heading, state a message. Gladwell could have had a slide which reinforced his key message:

gladwell-key-message1

2. Use Powerpoint to show things visually

Remember the slide which listed all the Canadian hockey players with their birthdates and Gladwell reading them out. He could have added visual impact by first showing them the slide on the left, then saying “look at how many have birthdays in the first half of the year”, and then clicking to reveal the highlighting of those players – as in the slide on the right.

gladwell-powerpoint-slide2 gladwell-hockey-slide

There were a number of concepts later in his talk where visuals would have improved my ability to grasp the point. The statistics that he used in his Chinese American example would have been easier to follow with a visual like this:

gladwell-cap-rate

When Gladwell explained that Chinese Americans with an IQ of 100 performed as well as White Americans with an IQ of 120, a slide like this could have been helpful:

gladwell-iq-performance

Note that if I was presenting with this I would show the two trend lines, and then animate in the white dotted lines to show that Chinese Americans with an IQ of 100 perform as well as White Americans with an IQ of 120.

3. Presenting with PowerPoint

Gladwell had some issues with keeping the slides in sync with what he was saying. For example, he showed us the hockey player slide way before he started talking about it. I suspect that Gladwell didn’t rehearse his talk with the Powerpoint slides and so hadn’t worked out when he should click. PowerPoint does add another layer of complexity to presenting – you need to work out the right time to click for each slide and then to rehearse that.

Gladwell then stopped using slides, so it would have been better if he had blanked the screen. You can do this by pressing the ‘B’ key on your keyboard while you’re in slideshow mode, or insert a black slide in your show beforehand.

4. Using notes

There’s nothing wrong with using notes, but Gladwell’s were rather obtrusive. He also only looked at them between sections of his talk – so he could have reduced their size right down. Possibly, Gladwell could have managed with one 3×5 inch card with a visual overview of the structure of this presentation as I showed earlier. That would have been enough to get him from section to section.

In summary, this is a compelling talk from Gladwell with solid content and engaging delivery. He’s great without PowerPoint, but he could also use Powerpoint effectively in his talks to explain his concepts visually.

Related Posts with Thumbnails
If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS feed!

3 Comments

  1. One of the great things about Malcolm Gladwell is the topics he chooses. I find them fascinating. He is a great presentation paradox. There are lots of things he could do to become much better at presentation delivery. But he is a highly sought-after speaker and I am sure makes a good living from his speaking and writing. That begs the question: Does it make sense for him to spend time perfecting something that he is already extremely successful at?

    Only he can answer that question.

    I guess I was ahead of my time. I wrote this about him last December.
    http://www.mosttoast.com/mosttoast/2007/12/a-perfect-examp.html

    I love Malcolm Gladwell. He is a fascinating guy. He has a great Web site with a ton of his New Yorker articles on it.

    http://www.gladwell.com/archive.html

    I am really enjoying your blog,
    Jeff

  2. Hi Jeff

    I think Gladwell is already great at delivery. He’s passionate about his topic, he loves to communicate it, he has great energy. No problem there at all. What I’m suggesting is tiny fine-tuning on his content, and reducing his notes. Presenting with Powerpoint as his partner is the major thing he can improve on – if he decides to carry on experimenting with it. But if he decides to never use PowerPoint again – I think that’s fine too – he’s a great presenter without PowerPoint.

    And thanks for your comments on my blog.

    Olivia

  3. I love the IQ Slopes. Performance > Achievement