Summary and Review of The Tipping Point – How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell

This summary was prepared by Lisa Patti, while majoring in Business Administration in the College of Business at Southeastern Louisiana University.

Cover via Amazon

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

            The Tipping Point is the biography of a simple idea and how little things can make a big difference causing a “tip” in a circumstance.  The Tipping Point is one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once.  Malcolm Gladwell begins with the example of “Hush Puppies” shoes and also speaks of the fall of crime in New York.  One may stop to wonder how these two very different examples share a basic underlying pattern.  They both exhibit contagious behavior and in each case little changes caused big effects.

            Gladwell speaks of three rules of epidemics: Law of Few, The Stickiness Factor and the Power of Context.  In the first rule, Law of Few, he illustrates certain type of people who help tip the scales.  These are connectors, mavens and salesman.  He gives an example of a famous connector, Paul Revere, which was a most surprising story.  In introducing the next rule, the Stickiness factor, Gladwell uses Sesame Street and Blues Clues to exhibit repetition as a learning tool in the youth of today.  The third rule, The Power of Context, touched on the crime rate of New York City.  A little gesture such as cleaning graffiti off the subway walls helped to reduce crime in the area.  He introduced the “Broken Glass Theory” depicting that unchecked signs of deterioration in a neighborhood or community could result in a declining quality of living.  If a window is broken or left un-repaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares or no one is in charge.  This could lead to an epidemic of crime.  Gladwell mentioned the magic number of 150.  Groups of 150 display levels of intimacy and efficiency.  Groups larger than this size tend to be toxic.  This strategy of smaller groups is found in many corporations’ organizational structures today.

            Gladwell introduces several case studies throughout the book. Airwalk shoes, teenage smoking and breast cancer awareness to name a few. 

            The Tipping Point is a magic moment when an idea, trend or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips and spreads like wildfire. It’s a book about change. In particular, it’s a book that presents a new way of understanding why change so often happens as quickly and as unexpectedly as it does. The Tipping Point is an examination of the social epidemics that surround us.

Full Summary of The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

            The book, The Tipping Point, How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell identifies and explains mechanisms which cause certain trends to “tip” and take hold and others to fail.  Gladwell portrays examples from marketing, medicine, literature, politics, and other spheres that show basic moves and conditions that can transform a small change into a huge awakening.  In the beginning of his book, Gladwell uses an example of “Hush Puppies” shoes and how a handful of hipsters in Manhattan started wearing the shoes and caused a shift in sales.  It took a group of “opinion makers” to wear the shoes; other saw them and copied the style.  After a few fashion designers used them, “Hush Puppies” reached the “tipping point”; causing this brand of shoe to take off in sales and till today still exits in stores everywhere.

            Gladwell identifies how epidemics are started.  He assesses that most trends and styles are born and spread according to certain types of transmission and also in conveying certain style and ideas.  Gladwell introduces three rules of epidemics; the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor and the Power of Content.  The tipping points that transform a phenomenon into an influential trend require a certain type of people. The success to any kind of social epidemic is dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gift.   Those particular people make things happen.  They are usually energetic, connected, knowledgeable, persuasive and influential among their peers.  They are connectors, mavens, and salesman.  Connectors are individuals who have many ties with people.  They have a special gift for bringing the world together.  They tend to be outgoing and helpful.  They are the kind of people to know when you need a job because they know somebody who knows somebody.  A famous connector he uses as an example was Paul Revere and his ride warning the patriots, “The British are coming”.  This was an example of a word of mouth epidemic.  People knew and trusted Paul Revere.  They believed him and followed his warnings.  At the very same time, William Dawes, also rode warning people of the same thing.  No one listened to Mr. Dawes because he was not as well known as Paul Revere.  His message did not stick like Paul Revere’s historical message.

             Gladwell then speaks about mavens. The word Maven comes from the Yiddish and it means one who accumulates knowledge.  Mavens are people who have a strong desire to help other consumers by helping them make decisions.  They are information specialist.  To be a maven is to be a teacher.  Mavens are information brokers, sharing and trading what they know. They are also avid readers of “Consumer Reports”.  Mavens have the knowledge and the social skills to start word-of-mouth epidemics, but don’t how to pass it along. The third type of person is the salesman who twists arms and motivates people into to actions.  Great salesmen have the ability to enter into an arrangement, establish themselves quickly and proceed rapidly to sell items. Salesmen have skills to persuade us when we are unconvinced of what we are hearing and they are critical to the tipping of word-of-mouth epidemics.

            As the book continues on, Gladwell introduces an important factor in tipping items.  This is called the “stickiness”.  Stickiness is a specific factor quality of a message that makes something memorable and grabs people’s imagination.  The Stickiness factor states there are specific ways of making a contagious message memorable. These are simple changes of the presentation of structuring of information that can make a big difference in how much of an impact it makes.  An example of the stickiness factor is the children’s show, Sesame Street.  The makers of Sesame Street use this repetitive factor to teach kids with rhymes and rhythms. The same teaching segment of the show is presented throughout the week repetitively before a new concept is introduced.  This method helps children understand and comprehend by using visual-blending exercises.   One example of this showed segments that teach children that reading consists of blending together distinct sounds.  In one, “Hug”, a female Muppet, approaches the word HUG in the center of the screen.  She stands behind the H, sounding it out carefully, and then moves to the U, and then the G.  She does it again, moving from left to right, pronouncing each letter separately, before putting the sounds together to say “hug”.  As she does, the Muppet Herry Monster enters and repeats the words as well.  The segment ends with the Herry Monster hugging the delighted little girl Muppet.  The legacy of Sesame Street was if you paid careful attention to the structure and format of your material, you could enhance, “stickiness”.  Sesame Street today is watched by children all over the world in an effort to better prepare them in their future education.

            Another aspect of mechanisms that cause trends to “tip” into mass productivity is the next term Gladwell points out, the Power of Context.  When environmental conditions are introduced and are not right, it is not likely that the tipping point will occur.  Gladwell speaks of the rapid decline in violent crime rates that occurred in 1990’s in New York City.  He acknowledged a variety of factors that played a role in the decline.  One instance was the removal of graffiti from the subway areas.  With a clean environment, crime rate began to decline.  Criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling developed the “Broken Window theory”.  This theory basically proposed that crime was the natural result of a disorder. If unchecked signs of deterioration in a neighborhood or community were seen by all, this could result in a declining quality of living.  If a window is broken or left un-repaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares or no one is in charge.  In the cities, graffiti was equivalent of broken windows which initiated more serious crimes.  This is an epidemic theory of crime.  Crime is contagious and can start with a broken window or graffiti and spread through an entire community. Cities began the clean up which allowed other factors like the decline in crack cocaine use and the again of the population to gradually tip into a major decline in the crime rate.

             Gladwell also mentioned for a trend to tip, you need a large number of people to embrace it.  Certain sizes and types can also achieve a tipping point.  In the novel, “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” appealed strongly to middle-aged women in Northern California.  These women were able to push the book into a national success. These women related their own experiences to the book and through word of mouth caused the novel to become a best seller.  This book was an emotionally sophisticated character-driven, multi-layered novel that expressed reflection and much discussion in book groups.  The novel became a social experience, a conversational piece and tipped into a larger word of mouth epidemic.  The lesson of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood states that the small close knit groups have the power to magnify the epidemic of a message or idea.

            In continuing discussion on group size, Gladwell introduces his theory of the magic of the number of 150.  Group sizes play a large part in tipping scales.  He refers to 150 as the magic number of a group size.  This group size displays levels of intimacy and efficiency.  Groups larger than this size tend to be more toxic.  With a smaller group, you can become comfortable and rely on the other members to exhibit qualities of accuracy.  Many corporations today use this factor as a foundation for their organization structure.

            In the case study sections in this book, Gladwell discusses the rise and decline of the Airwalk shoe.  It was originally geared toward skateboards in Southern California. It obtained national recognition through advertising techniques that portrayed“coolness” about them.  By using fad styling in their shoes, Airwalks were able to create a product that was always right on target and exactly what the public wanted.  The advertising agency came up with a series of dramatic images, single photographs showing the Airwalk user relating to his shoes in some weird way.  In one, a young man is wearing an Airwalk shoe on his head, with laces hanging down like braids, as his laces are being cut by a barber.  The ads were put on billboards and in “wild postings” on construction-site walls and in alternative magazines.  As Airwalks grew, the advertising company went into television.  The strength of the Airwalks advertising campaign was in more than the look of their work.  Airwalk tipped because its advertising was founded very explicitly on the principles of epidemic transmission.

            Gladwell touches on the Translation Factor.  Translator takes ideas and information from a highly specialized world and translates them into a language the rest of us can understand.  The most sophisticated analysis of the process of translation comes from the study of rumors.  As we remember the child’s game of starting a rumor and as it is communicated to each person it is heightened and exaggerated totally changing the initial comment.  In a rumor, there are three directions that are followed.  The story is first leveled. Details that are essential for understanding the true meaning of the incident are left out. Then the rumor/story is sharpened.  The details that remain were made more specific. Finally, a process of assimilation takes place; the story was changed so it made sense to those spreading the rumor.  What mavens, connectors and salesmen do to an idea in order to make it contagious is to alter it in a way that specific details are dropped and others are exaggerated so that the message itself comes to acquire a deeper meaning; thus causing a “tip”.

            Gladwell used the spread of teenage smoking as another example of the tipping point.  Once again he reiterates the idea of “coolness” of smoking which causes a teenager to start smoking.  He also noted that making smoking sound dangerous and rebellious appeals to teenagers.  Larger advertising companies continuously pump money into campaigns enticing teenagers.  Many teenagers end up continuing their cigarette experiment until they get hooked.  The smoking experience is so memorable and powerful that they cannot stop smoking.  The habit “sticks”.  Telling teenagers about the health risks of smoking; “It makes you wrinkle”, “It can give you lung cancer and you can die”, doesn’t matter to them in the least.  It is exciting, mysterious, dangerous and cool and especially frowned upon by their parents; all the elements to make teenagers want to smoke more.  Emotional problems such as low self-esteem, unhealthy and unhappy home life, depression could lead to smoking in the first place among these teens.

            Another important example of the concept of tipping was a nurse named Georgia Sadler who began a campaign to increase knowledge and awareness of breast cancer and diabetes in a black community in San Diego.  She moved her campaign from churches to beauty salons.  Women would sometimes spend two to eight hours having their hair braided.  Stylist form bonds with their customers so she initiated the stylist to present a constant cycle of new information and gossipy tidbits on breast cancer awareness and diabetes into the salons.  She wrote material up in large print and put it on laminated sheets.  She set up evaluation programs to find out if it was working and if she was changing attitudes to get women to have mammograms and diabetes testing.  Her program worked.  She tipped the scales in her quest to help these women.

Image by Titanas via Flickr

            In conclusion, the first lesson of the Tipping Point is starting epidemics requires concentrating resources on a few key areas.  The Law of the Few says that connectors, mavens, and salesman are responsible for starting work of mouth epidemics.  There are times when we need a convenient shortcut; a way to make a lot out of a little, and that is what Tipping Points in the end are all about.  There is difficulty in the world of the Tipping Point as hopefulness as well.  By controlling a group size, we can improve its interest to new ideas.  By repetitive presentation of information, we can improve its stickiness.  Tipping points are a reaffirmation of the potential for charge and the power of intelligent action.  The world around us seems like an immovable place, but with the slightest push – it can be tipped.

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To contact the author of this summary/review, please email Lisa Patti at Lisa.Patti@selu.edu.

David C. Wyld (dwyld@selu.edu) is the Robert Maurin Professor of Management at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana. He is a management consultant, researcher/writer, and executive educator. His blog, Wyld About Business, can be viewed at http://wyld-business.blogspot.com/.

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4 Comments
  1. Posted March 2, 2010 at 9:34 am

    Nice info, Keep writing and sharing more

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  3. Posted May 14, 2010 at 9:38 am

    Absolutely fantastic summary of Gladwell’s book. I feel like you’re contributing to the spread and stickiness of Gladwell’s “Tipping Point” idea… is this book now an epidemic?

  4. Dee
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 9:17 am

    Thank you!
    I am slighlty ADD, so reading this book was a bit of a challenge, as in trying to stay on par with the various examples given/stories. Your summary helped me get the the gist of the text and for it to ’stick’.
    Thank you so much!

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