Smith College and The Tipping Point

By Matter

Reading the news and reading good books are two of my favorite things. When I read a book, I sink into it and it changes my view of things for the time that I’m reading it; the world around me comes into focus through a lens of the book and I see overlap and connections between reality and fiction. So, when I’m reading a really good novel like The Imperfectionists, I dive into the incredible characters, and swim around in the story lines; and I see in a different way the changing world of news publishing which overlaps with the ways we get and digest news – which, of course, impacts the way we PR people tell our clients’ stories.

Sometimes, the overlap between what I’m reading and current news is so outrageous that if it were supposed to be a Venn diagram, it wouldn’t be – it would just be a big circle with words in it.

Here’s a great example: I’ve been re-reading Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, for our Matter book club. The book is an attempt to throw a net of scientific understanding around the phenomenon of social movements, enthusiasm and how things become wildly popular. At the same time, I read the articles last week about Smith College and the Logic experiment that two professors undertook which started a campus-wide protest.

I was immediately struck by the connection that the Smith College story could be one of the examples in Gladwell’s book.  Just like in Gladwell’s subtitle, it was a case study in ‘how little things can make a big difference.’ This experiment was just one in a series that the professors have set annually over the last decade (this one sought to convince people that Smith was going vegan and locovore). What was it about this rumor that made it so successful? What was it about the half of the class who was assigned to make people believe it was true, that they were so persuasive? A mix of context, personality, and audience made the rumor take flight. In both the Smith College story and The Tipping Point we can glean lessons about the varying levels of influence different people have, and why the timing and receptiveness of an audience matters, and the art of storytelling using compelling and persuasive facts. 

For me, the connection between the current event and the book I was reading made for a great reminder of why, in our busy, transactional lives, where we spend lots of energy making the proverbial trains run on time, it is so useful to take a step away and read something that takes us out of the everyday, forcing us to make observations, and ask questions that might not occur to us otherwise. Whether it’s a novel, a business book, or a biography, seizing the opportunity to read something new is one of those ‘little things’ that makes a huge difference – arming us with questions, information, and insights that can be our own tipping point, raising the level of our PR work, and ultimately yielding better results for our clients.