The Tipping Point Summary (Malcolm Gladwell)

the tipping point malcolm gladwell

This Tipping point summary examines why some ideas, products and trends go viral, just like infections.

For example:

  • Why do best selling books fly off the shelves?
  • Why do teenagers start smoking?
  • Why does crime spread?

Do they have specific factors in common?

Gladwell argues that they do.

When a social behaviour or fad crosses a threshold, he says, it’s akin to a tipping point, before the message or behaviour then spreads like wildfire.

The book begins by comparing ideas and epidemics and contends that both that spread in similar ways.

Virus-like infections start relatively small, but can quickly grow exponentially (Note: I was reading this at the start of the Coronavirus pandemic, and it was eerie to have chosen a book using this particular metaphor for sales and marketing).

Often it’s not one big thing that proves to ignite popularity, but rather subtle nudges in select areas. 

Identifying and optimising the following factors increase the likelihood of adoption and retention of your message.

One example used to introduce the topic is Hush Puppies, a US shoe brand that waned in popularity, before making a surprising and unintended comeback as an American shoe of choice. 

Considered so uncool as to be cool, the product was initially adopted by a few East Village hipsters, until soon they were sold in every mall in the country.
 
According to Gladwell, there are three main factors that initiated this surge in popularity, comprising the primary parts of the book.

The law of the few

Gladwell uses the Pareto Principle or 80/20 rule to illustrate that it takes relatively few people to accelerate the spread of infection. 

Just as in a company, 20% of employees may do 80% of the work or 20% of clients may generate 80% of profits, so it only takes a few people to expedite a tipping point.

There are 3 key types of people who enable epidemics:

Connectors

Those with a vast social network, great at making friends.

They are often bridges between disparate niches and communities, acting as central nodes, enabling an idea to jump between different ecosystems.

These people are adept at forming a greater number of weak ties, as opposed to possessing a limited number of deeper relationships.

Mavens

While they might not possess a large network, these individuals have their finger on the pulse, with knowledge of all the latest developments and trends in their particular domain.

These people always want to share their information, not for external gain, but rather intrinsic reward.

Thus, they are highly valued for their insider information.

Salespeople

These people know how to sell using the power of persuasion.

They’re often charismatic, utilising the power of body language, non-verbal communication and social mimicry to build empathy. 

Often they develop a natural rhythmic body language rapport, a sort of subtle social dance, allowing them to quickly develop rapport.


When I read the book, I felt that the advantages of being a salesperson were clear.

After all, we’d all like to become more persuasive.

In many ways, I also got the impression that being a Maven was a natural inclination rather than a talent you can develop.

Where I did see an opportunity for cultivation was in cultivating connection skills.

Essentially the person that acts as a hub between distinct groups of individuals and we would consider the go-to people to put us in touch with a wider network.

These people, Gladwell states, are more likely to land better jobs, which is no real surprise.

I was almost hoping that Gladwell would provide a few tips for enhancing skills in these three areas, but alas, they never came.

The other question that arises is how can we identify these people and appeal to them to spread our message?

The stickiness factor 

It’s not enough to have great people spreading the message, the message itself has to warrant sharing.

The stickiness factor is a way of packaging information in a certain way to make it catchy, memorable and ultimately irresistible.

Gladwell uses the example of Sesame Street and how the upended the traditional format of children TV. 

How to make your idea sticky? You must experiment, tweaking small details and analysing the result.
 
Sesame Street almost wasn’t a success until they employed professional psychologists to study children’s engagement as they watched the show. 

Through observation, they learned that children were engaged when viewing the Muppets but switched off during scenes with adults. 

This made them reformat the show, mixing actors and Muppets in street scenes, something which had been advised against.
 
The content didn’t change, but the packaging and placement did.

This minor change led to a massive result. 

Therefore, keep testing minor changes.

The power of context 

Our external circumstances and environment affect our actions.

Gladwell uses examples of 1980’s New York, where the crime rate was through the roof. 

The broken windows theory postulates how crime and anarchy spread, becoming almost viral. 

When people see a broken window, they understand it as an invitation to break another window, thus causing a slow escalation of misdemeanours, all the way up to serious incidents.

As an example, Gladwell identifies the subway, which was the scene of systemic crime, from train graffiti to fare hopping and even murder.

The new administration applied the broken window theory and paradoxically began clamping down on minor crime, much to the dismay of residents and employees who felt they should address the serious issues first.
 
However, it worked. 

When minor crime was eradicated, it sent a serious message that the subway was no longer an easy target, causing violent crime to fall across the board.

Just like anyone else, criminals are influenced by their environment.

Clean, safe environment = less criminality.

Another interesting observation is that the size of a group affects the transmission of a message.

From an evolutionary standpoint, we struggle to collaborate in groups greater than 150 persons, as communication begins to break down.

Therefore, if we want to cultivate a more contagious message or ethos (such as within a community, company or cause), keep individual groups sizes below 150.

Applicable advice to you the reader from me:

  • If you want to stop drinking as much, stop spending time with heavy drinkers.
  • If you want to be an entrepreneur, spend time with other entrepreneurs. 
  • If you want to develop good habits and productive routines, tidy your immediate environment. Outward order, inner calm.

In other words, set your environment up for success.

The Tipping Point summary

Gladwell doesn’t hand us all the answers, but rather offers food for thought.

Ultimately, it’s up to us how we apply these principles. 

Gladwell is a master of using storytelling to create engaging pop-science books. 

The narrative is absorbing and the studies appear relevant in supporting his points. 

At times, Gladwell’s assertions can feel slightly stretched, with scientific examples cherry-picked to support his theories. 

However, when you know that, his work is both thought-provoking and entertaining, providing a new perspective for your own endeavours.

If you want to leverage your own message, idea, brand or product, this book is a good place to start for big-picture concepts.

Bloomsoup review – 7/10


For a related read, check out the Blink summary, another Malcolm Gladwell book.

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