#196: How to Get Precise Feedback for your Articles (Lessons from Malcolm Gladwell - 1)


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Most of us aren't really sure how to know if our articles are really good, or even if an idea is good.

It gets more complicated when we have a story that we love. Does everyone love it too? Malcolm Gladwell shows us how to get precise feedback and do it in a casual manner.

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What I learned from Malcolm Gladwell- Part 1

When I was in university, all I wanted to be was like Christopher D'Rozario.

Chris was the creative director of an advertising agency called Trikaya Grey. However, I soon wandered away from that dream and then wanted to be like Bill Watterson, the creator of the comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes. But even that dream went into deep freeze as I transitioned to wanting to be a writer and ran into a book by Malcolm Gladwell called “The Tipping Point”.

It was my tipping point in a way I loved the way Gladwell wrote, and for the longest time I yearned to know how he came up with so many cool stories. His research seemed exhaustive and to be like Gladwell was one of my big priorities. Then, like everything in life, you move on, and life pulls you in its own current.

Even so, recently I watched a series made by Masterclass.com about Gladwell on Writing. I went in expecting to learn interesting stuff. I wasn't disappointed. And here in this series, I would like to share with you, six things that jumped off the screen—so much that I made a note of them, even drew some cartoons for a quick reference later on.

What are those six points?
  1. Candy vs the main meal
  2. How to gauge reader interest with conversation
  3. The power of juxtaposed titles
  4. Why you need to walk away from drafts
  5. What to do when your story enters the world
  6. And finally, how to read

1) Candy vs the main meal

In 2008, I switched to the Mac after almost 15 years of being on a PC.

When people asked me why I'd tell them the story of my presentation I'd been doing a series of presentations for the clients of a radio station.

Now, I'm like a helicopter mom when it comes to my presentations, but on this occasion, they wanted the slides in advance. To make sure nothing went wrong, I arrived a whole hour before the event and tested the slides.

To my horror, everything looked different. “Who's tweaked my slides?” I asked the technician in charge. “We didn't change anything,” said the guy in charge. “All we did was load your presentation through the Mac software called Keynote. When I looked closer, I realised I was looking in admiration at the slides, rather than frustration. If all they did was run a Powerpoint through Keynote and it improved so much, it sure was my signal to fall head over heels with the Mac.

This is akin to what Malcolm Gladwell calls “candy”

“There's a difference between the meal and the treat,” he says. “It corresponds to the way people talk about things and think about things”.

When people talk about things, they tend to strip it down to something smaller, something enjoyable, even tweetable.

The reason, Gladwell continues, “Is because the way you think about something is complex, may have several parts, may or may not be contradictory. Or parts of it may even be remarkably difficult to explain. The things you talk about are those you can talk about. The things that are easy to remember or get across. And usually, they're short—tweetable.”

Which is similar to the story of the migration to the Mac

I didn't want to move to the Mac. I had a whole suite of programs on the PC, including costly Adobe software and painting software like Painter, which were all purchased for the PC. Moving to the Mac would mean I'd have to ditch all of that software or buy new versions all over again.

Plus, there were programs like Corel Draw that at the time (if I remember well) worked solely on the PC. To have to make all of these changes were frustrating. When I explain my story about the Mac, there's a lot more that I'm not even expressing in this piece. Instead, I strip it down to the smallest, most interesting story. The story of how my presentation became went from Cinderella to Princess in glass slippers. In effect, I'm giving you the candy version.

The candy version is a snippet, but no ordinary snippet.

It's a way for the writer to give you something to talk about as well as something to think about. The information—whoa, that's clearly the cerebral, thinking stuff. The candy, in a story, article, webinar—the candy is the fun stuff. Which is why if you look at The Brain Audit, you'll see loads of candy. Let's say you want to talk to a colleague about The Brain Audit.

To get the colleague to read the back page of the book, or even the introduction would be too much. But if you have candy, it allows you to talk about the “seven red bags” story. You're not dragging out all the words from the 180 pages of the book. Instead, all you're telling is a short 3-4 minute story. Instantly, you have the floor and the attention, but you've also neatly communicated something.

A book must have the main meal, without losing out on the candy

The candy is a tool for engagement and helps people sell the idea to their friends or talk about what they've consumed. It could be an analogy in the book, like what you experience in The Brain Audit with the seven red bags, but it could also be part of a chapter when you're explaining about “dog poo” and how it's relevant to how the brain processes “problems”.

If you see the Yes-Yes pricing video which shows you how to raise your prices by 15%, there's an explanation—and a reasonably long one too—about pricing. But there in the middle of it all is a coffee and a muffin. When you're talking to a friend and trying to convince her to raise her prices, there's no way on Earth you're going to explain the entire Yes-Yes pricing. Instead, you're more than likely to reach for the muffin and coffee story.

And this got me thinking because I like structure. Does every chapter need candy?

Gladwell doesn't go into the details, but he gave me candy, didn't he? I had to switch into “ponder-mode” to work out how every chapter could have its candy. Logically, almost every good analogy is candy. Which means you and I have at least a few places where we can insert the candy. Analogies, case studies, examples, even footnotes.

To get this act right, we can't just think of books as Gladwell does. What about podcasts? Or webinars (not the yucky sales pitches, but instructional webinars). Or we could even create our own candy version. For instance, at the Landing Page workshop, it seemed like a good idea to create some postcards that would encapsulate the entire workshop into a single postcard.

Cartoons would make the postcard really cute, but the postcard also quickly allows a client to show a friend exactly what they learned, even as the elevator hits the “ding” on the eighth floor.

Since around November 2017, I've almost stopped eating sugar, but I'll chew anyway into this candy concept as we head to the next idea: How to test your idea quickly and efficiently.

2) How to test your story idea quickly and efficiently.

About two years ago, my friend Luca and I were up late at night drinking a bit of Lagavulin.

As the whisky drained itself out of the glass, the topic veered to “talent”. Since at least 2008, I've been threatening to write a book, even three books on talent. But on this particular night, I was, for no particular reason, trying to boil down the concept of talent to an equation.

From that moment on I have this equation chat with people I meet, discuss it on the forum at 5000bc, and finally, in Singapore, I presented to the audience. It wasn't a workshop about talent. Instead, it was a sales page workshop, but I found it pertinent to start day three with the “talent equation”.

And when the day was done, my wife, Renuka came up to me and said: “That's it. I've heard you talk about talent many, many times before, but for the first time I've heard you explain the concept in a way that's easy to understand and implement.”

Finally, it seemed I'd gotten to the core of the story.

Gladwell talks about how he tests his stories as well

Often at the outset of developing a story, he'll tell it over and over again to different people. You know what he's looking for, right? He's gauging interest. Apparently the story is interesting to Gladwell, but do the others find it interesting as well? Which parts interested his listener?

When did they tune out? More importantly, when did they change the subject?

It what point do they jump in with questions or objections? And also, what do they say next, once you've finished with your story or concept?

The reason why all of these questions are so very important is due to the fact that Gladwell is testing the waters. He sees the person in front of him as a stand-in for his eventual audience. However, at all times, you want honesty with the listener's feedback.

Laziness rarely helps in such matters. So what's lazy?

Laziness in such a situation is texting someone an idea or sending an e-mail. Yes, there are situations where you're in Auckland, and the other

person is in Leiden or Singapore. But even so, a face to face conversation matters. Gladwell prefers the direct, in your face feedback, because it brings out the directness. There's a raw honesty when you're right next to the person, rather than separated by technology.

Even reading a draft of a chapter or book doesn't elicit the same level of honesty. And once again, we've done this draft reading before, haven't we? We're usually concerned about someone's feelings; we barely have time, we don't necessarily feel we're the right person to ask—and so on. But when someone's right in front of you, you can only tend to take so much.

They ask your opinion, and you give your response. It's not necessarily a brutal response, but even if you say nothing, they can gauge how excited you are.

Comedians know this factor of instant response to be true

Take for instance some clips from The Daily Show with host Trevor Noah. When the show goes for an ad break, Noah chats with his audience. Noah improvises on the spot with a private audience. If the joke gets a lot of laughs, it could then be taken to a much bigger stage.

This randomness in telling a story is what gets you great feedback It feels like a conversation, not an audit. And when you're just riffing in the wind, there's a lot less at stake. In effect, Gladwell is saying, “lower the bar, make it easy for them” Just for good measure, Gladwell will pick friends that he bores to death.

He chooses people who he knows aren't awed by his status as a best-selling author. They will cut down his story if needed. Which is why he goes back repeatedly with a different angle to the same story.

My battle with the “talent equation” story was similar

Since 2008, I've been trying to get this idea across that inborn talent—if it exists—is inconsequential. That if you wanted to learn to draw outstandingly well, cook, dance—you could do so in an incredibly short span of time. So well in fact, that people would think you've been practising it for years or are “born with it”

Anyway, it wasn't hard to find people who would say things like “you're so talented, I could never be like that”.

They look at my cartoons, and at least 50% of the people say just that. Which was like a red rag in my face, because then I'd get into this two-hour discussion with them. At the end of the two hours, they'd either stick to their point or agree with my point of view.

But how do I get this idea across in a shorter amount of time?

How do I make it more elegant? The only way to get the story to that point of elegance was to keep pushing it back in different forms, over and over again. When I say forms, what I mean is I try and get the same idea across in different ways, using various examples, and different approaches to see which one is more palatable to the audience.

Be aware that you're not watering down your concept, or changing it. You're just approaching the idea from a different perspective. And then it's time to test it out with an audience like Gladwell does.

Let's take an example

For years, I was trying to prove that talent isn't necessarily inborn.

This concept would and continues to meet with massive resistance. Over the years, I changed the approach. I started to talk about how “almost children in all countries” draw when they are three years old. And almost all children in all countries are hopeless at maths and writing when they're three, but then something odd happens when they're ten.

Suddenly all the kids who were pretty good at drawing, now become hopeless at drawing. And all who are hopeless at maths and writing are now reasonably proficient at it.

That's a different approach, and it's something that all of us tend to agree with.

However, there's still doubt because we feel that someone else is better at cooking, drawing, dancing etc. So I had to go back and formulate a system where there was no doubt at all. And that system would mean that I could prove, without question, that everyone in the audience could draw well, or multiply at super speed, or be able to speak in the future tense of a foreign language. And all of this had to be done in the space of 10-20 minutes.

The concept is the same: talent is not inborn. The approach is different. When you suddenly see a room of 5000 people drawing, speaking and multiplying (and there's no exception), now the concept is on fire.

But let's deviate for a second because most of us don't have easy access to feedback

from others Gladwell works in New York; he's a staff writer at The New Yorker. Already, being in a big city is an advantage. But to then have access to other writers in a world-class magazine, that's extremely rare.

Sure, there are interesting people everywhere no matter if you're in Cape Town, Liverpool or Dunedin, but it's not easy to find such people, let alone get their attention. Which is often where a forum helps tremendously. When I get an idea I want to test; I might put it on Facebook. But Facebook and even Facebook groups tend not to go in depth. The format is clunky because it's more suited to information that's on the move, rather than an archivable discussion. And in 5000bc, the forum is where I put forward my ideas.

This article, for instance, is first being written in 5000bc, in the forum.

At which point, the feedback comes in pretty rapidly. People like it, or have objections or have read something and drive you to another reference. Yes, the in-person chat is the best of all, no doubt about it, but barring that option, a well-curated forum is hugely beneficial to test your ideas.

Even the validity of your headline can be gauged by how many people click on the link to read your discussion. When you do put it out in the world as an article, podcast or chapter of a book, do you know whether the title was exciting or not? Was it just interesting to you or others as well? This kind of information is part of a forum structure, and it's tiny little giveaways like this that give you a scale of how impressive your article or story happens to be.

Gladwell urges you and me to pay attention to a specific phrase as well

The moment you write or say something that's even mildly interesting to the other person, they want to jump in. They want to be part of the ongoing conversation, and they will utter something like: “Oh, that reminds me of…” and they will go off on a tangent. Listen, listen, listen.

Don't pull back to your own megaphone because that person is giving you a lead into another world that you're not aware of.

A world that possibly leads to a dead end, but there's often a chance that it will significantly enhance the depth and clarity of your story.

Conversation is a bunch of building blocks that we have with each other. For instance, you may say to your partner: I didn't sleep well last night, and they say something about their sleep. And then you go down what possibly disrupted your sleep. Given some amount of chatter,that conversation may get to a point where you realise that all you need to do is to get that White Noise app out and you'll sleep a lot better.

When you have a story, you have to do a lot more listening

It's a conversation, yes, but it's a specific type of discussion. It's one where you're testing, but also getting their version of what they hear, what they know, the resources and connections they have, etc. Asking someone: “What does this story remind you of?” is a great way to get a conversation going.

Testing a story isn't difficult, but it might involve a bit of Lagavulin and a conversation

Or it might be just a walk that you take with friends or a visit to a cafe. But even if you can't go out, find yourself a forum where your ideas could be challenged consistently; where you can get objections and resources. And as far as possible do it casually, because there's a higher chance of the other person responding quickly and without too much fear of offence.

And that's the second thing I learned. Let's go to the third: juxtaposed titles and why they matter when you're trying to get attention.

Next Up: How To Choose Evocative Titles for your Book (Lessons from Malcolm Gladwell – Part 2)

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