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Business Book Club: Tipping Point

I've set myself a goal to read one self-development book per month. To make sure I truly reflect on what I'm reading I'm going to extract the wisdom from the best business and personal development books and share it with you.

This time, I’ve been reading The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

The Book

I’ve spent many years studying how to help individuals and groups change behaviour but when it comes to getting a message to the masses I have no idea how to spread the word. I’d heard good things about Gladwell’s writing so I decided to read The Tipping Point, a book that explains how ideas spread like epidemics. Gladwell explores what it is that helps ideas reach that tipping point. Instagram, for example, had steady progress for quite some time. Then at some stage, it reached a ‘tipping point’ where it just took off and exploded. Suddenly, Instagram was a must-have social media account and it seemed like everyone had one.

What is it that makes ideas take off like that? I was keen to find out.


What did I learn?

The Law of the Few

One of the first lessons in the book is the law of the few. What Gladwell says here is that you don't need to influence everybody with your idea. For an idea to spread like wildfire, you just need a few key people. He divides these into three types:


These are people that have a massive social network. They have lots of acquaintances of all social standings, from a wide variety of professions and from all corners of society. They nurture and maintain these relationships and are therefore well skilled in connecting one group of people to another group of people and helping ideas to spread from one social group to the next.


The next group of people you need are what Gladwell calls mavens. These are people who hoard information. They are true specialists in their area of expertise, have a nerd-like obsession with learning more about it and they spot trends very early on. Not only do these people have a lot of information, they are also very good at sharing it. These are the people who others often turn to as a source of information because they have a great source of insight from their network. The great thing about mavens is that they are keen to share their knowledge and teach others, meaning that they greatly influence people with their advice.

However, this isn’t enough to spread an idea. You might have your mavens who really know their stuff and can spot trends early, and you may have connectors that are able to connect these ideas from one group to the next, but you need one more type of person. A salesperson.


Salespeople boast about ideas they love and display masses of positive energy which is almost contagious. They that can take ideas and translate them into a language that makes sense to everyday people. Therefore they are able to persuade others that these ideas are desirable. If you want to get your idea going viral, getting it into the hands of a salesperson or two is crucial for hitting that critical mass.


A second rule that Gladwell points to in his book is the stickiness factor. He said it doesn't matter how many people get on board with your idea or how many experts vouch for it, if the idea is not good it will never take off. Stickiness is about whether or not your idea is memorable enough for people to take action. It has to resonate with people and be something that can be contagious enough to spread like wildfire.

In the book, Gladwell gives the example of the children's TV programme Blue's Clues. The show follows an animated blue-spotted dog named Blue as she leaves a trail of clues/paw prints for viewers in order to help them figure out her plans for the day. Blue's Clues became the highest-rated show for preschoolers on American commercial television. To get it right, producers studied the way children watch TV programmes and found that Blue's Clues already did a lot right to be sticky for their pre-school audience. It kept it simple, puzzles grabbed their audience’s attention and breaking the puzzles down into three clues kept that attention and made it easy for children to follow. However, they found that at the end of an episode children couldn't solve the whole problem and this was frustrating for them. The other challenge was the audience couldn't remember much from just watching one episode. Therefore Blue's Clues broke the mold by being the first Children’s TV programme to air the same episode every day for five days a week.

Broadcasting the same episode every day in the week allowed children to get better at solving the clues each day. So, if after the first episode they could only solve the first clue, after the second episode they might feel really pleased with themselves that they were able to also solve the second clue. By the end of the third, fourth or fifth day, they were confident that they could solve all the clues and viewers found this enormously rewarding. This repetition and the sense of achievement made the programme incredibly sticky and has made Blue’s Clues one the most memorable and successful children's TV shows to date.


The final rule covered in the book is context. 

Finding the tipping point is not just about how good your idea is, how sticky it is or who you get involved. The context in which we receive information is another powerful factor. One of my favourite examples from the book is an experiment with young priests in a seminary. Observers set up the experiment whereby they directed young priests to the seminary chapel, but they did so in a way that made the priests turn up late. In a courtyard on the way to the chapel, a person needing assistance with some dropped papers was carefully put in place so that the priests would pass them as they hurried to mass. What they found was that the majority of these loving, God-fearing, would-be priests did not stop to help their fellow man when they were feeling the pressure of running late to go to the chapel. It is important to note that his isn't because these young priests were bad, this is true of any of us. We are all enormously influenced by the context that we operate in. Even good people will not usually notice the struggles of others when they are under pressure themselves. Small tweaks to our environment can have a huge effect on our behaviour.

Channel Capacity: The rule of 150

Another really interesting fact I learned about context is the magic number of 150. Gladwell explains that there is a limited number of people who we can form meaningful relationships with. This is called our ‘Channel Capacity’ and for most people this number is around 150. He explains that this has been found again and again by different studies and no one really knows why 150 seems to be the limit for the number of people we can truly connect with. Gladwell gives examples of companies that have used this to their advantage. One of them is Gore of Gore-tex fame. Whenever the company, or a team within the company grows to 150 people, it breaks off and forms another little mini company. For example, as soon as Gore’s protective clothing part of the business grew to more than 150, they separated the retail weatherproof clothing from trade and emergency services clothing and created two companies. As you probably know from your own experience, it makes a massive difference. Smaller companies and communities have a very different feel to them. People take responsibility for each other, they feel that they have a stake in decisions, communication is easier and the personal touch means everything just works better. If you want to get an idea to spread, consider aiming your messages at a series of smaller groups where people know and trust each other rather than the masses.

What Did I Think?

Gladwell’s writing style is engaging as well as informative so I found the book to be an enjoyable read. There are some interesting concepts and stories in this book and I can certainly see why it is popular. Despite this, I didn’t find myself as a gripped by this book as some of the others I have read. I don’t think that’s to do with the book but more to do with my own personal interests and focus right now.

However, the book has given me some good ideas for how to market my own messages and products. It gives me hope that you don't necessarily need to mass market ideas or products in order to make them popular. It seems that what you need to do is make an idea easy to relate to, ensure it’s sticky and then focus on getting it to the right groups of people in order to make the idea is spread. The book also made me think about my network, and how I can use the different people in my personal and professional circles to help me get my ideas out there. The context won’t always be in my control but I can make the most of what is out there to ensure my messages are being heard by the right people in the right place at the right time.

All in all, it's an easy read and the ideas are useful for anybody who wants to get an idea to take hold. Whether that's to the public generally, within an organisation or perhaps even within your own family, there are some good pointers here. I'll definitely be putting them to good use at some point in the future.