Malcolm Gladwell is one of the best writers of our generation. That’s not to say he’s always right. As he likes to say, “I hope you find my work entertaining even when it’s wrong.” Gladwell has done some amazing stuff as a magazine writer, book writer, speaker, and even podcast host. If you want to watch some amazing talks, check out: The Spaghetti Sauce Talk and The Coke and Pepsi Talk. But who are the people that Malcolm Gladwell thinks are the best writers and speakers?
The Spaghetti Sauce Talk:
The Coke and Pepsi Talk:
On Great Writers
From the Longform Podcast interview with Malcolm Gladwell (starting at 28:18. Transcript provided by Longform)
My great hero as a writer is Michael Lewis. I just think Michael Lewis, believe it or not, is the most underrated writer of my generation. I think he is the one who will be read 50 years from now. And I think what he does is so extraordinary, from a kind of degree of difficulty standpoint. The Big Short is a gripping book, fascinating, utterly gripping book about derivatives. It blows me away how insanely hard that book was to do, and it’s brilliant. The Blind Side, I think, it might be the most perfect book I’ve read in 25 years. I don’t think there’s a single word in that that I would change. I just think it has everything. But he uses no science, right? Very little.
It’s all story. But he does more work in his stories, makes much more profound points than I do by dragging in all these sociologists and psychologists. He’s proved to me that, if you can tell a story properly, you don’t need this kind of scaffolding. You can just tell the story. And so, I’ve been trying, not entirely successfully, but trying to move in that direction over the last couple books.
I don’t think people realize how hard it is to do a single narrative book. That’s one of the things I admire about Michael Lewis. He seems to be able to do it effortlessly. I don’t even think I could pull it off. Maybe it’s because I’ve never found an individual whose story is rich enough. But, maybe I’m just not as good at developing a single story. I just think that’s kind of beyond me a little bit. … I would lose faith in my ability to keep the reader engaged. I’m much too nervous a writer. Whereas the amount of self-confidence you feel in Michael Lewis’s work, or Janet Malcolm’s work … she’s so extraordinarily sure of her gift, she’s not in any hurry to start and she knows you’ll stick with her because she knows she will deliver. To use a sports metaphor, Janet Malcolm and Michael Lewis are the people who are quite happy to take the last shot. I’m going to pass.
In addition to being a compelling author, Gladwell also makes phenomenal speeches. My favorite Malcolm Gladwell speeches were given about 10 years ago: The Spaghetti Sauce Talk and The Coke and Pepsi Talk. Both of these are brilliant examples of storytelling and really show the difference between reading an article and giving a performance.
In his interview with Tim Ferris (starting at about 28 minutes), Gladwell talked about how difficult it is to give a great speech. It’s not about reading an article in front of a group, it takes a lot more work than that. Then Ferriss asks Gladwell, “Is there anyone in the world of speaking alive or dead who is the Michael Lewis for you.” Below is Gladwell’s answer. Note that I used YouTube’s transcript function and tried editing it so it makes sense on the page:
I once went to a birthday party for an old friend of mine, Anne Applebaum, in England. Now first of all the English are way better at giving speeches than we are. And secondly, we were talking about the creme de la creme of English speech givers. Like serious Cambridge and Oxford debating society kind of people.
Niall Ferguson, the historian, gave a birthday toast which is just the best toast I’ve ever heard in my life. I mean it was like so much better than anything I had ever heard — like on another level. I was like oh my god that’s good. And part of what made it genius was he really gave you the impression he was making it up on the spot. Now he might actually have done that. He may be so good he could do that.
The conceit was that it was totally spontaneous. It was so cleverly done and so hilarious. And one of the ways it was so charming was the ways in which he was wrong. Part of the joke was he was going to make this elaborate hilarious argument about Anne who was turning fifty. And half of the stuff that he was going to say was not right. He spun a theory about the weekend and about her birthday and about her friends that was like hilarious because it was not accurate. And he did it with such panache. First of all that would never have occurred to me to make stuff up in such a dramatic way. But also I can’t do off-the-cuff. Ever since then I just worship the guy. I just think I think he walks on water.
I had Niall as a professor when I was at NYU for business school and he was just amazing. His books (like The Ascent of Money) and television programs (like The Ascent of Money) are really amazing. If you want to see him giving more of a speech like Malcolm mentioned, though a lot less funny, you can watch his speech at the Sydney Opera House.