London’s Lyceum Theatre is usually home to The Lion King but last week the beasts of the savanna were dispatched for a beast of the literary world. Mr Malcolm Gladwell. He was doing two talks in one night that were based around his new book David and Goliath. Now the theatre seats 2,100 people and tickets were going for a top price of £60 (book included), and a lowly price of £10 (which hopefully included access to some mighty strong binoculars).
He has a band that takes up the first 15 minutes and then he does his thing for an hour so meaning some people were paying a £1-a-minute to hear him talk. He’s good, not spectacularly so (thankfully he is not into the pyrotechnics and showmanship that marks/mars the TED talks). It’s actually all quite modest.
One of the best things, however, was not watching Mr Gladwell but rather the audience. It was eclectic. Young, old, groups, singletons, conservative, wacky. It was like the first 2,100 people passing the Lyceum had been asked to come on in. But here on a soggy night sat this vast number of engaged people just listening to one man talking. Telling a story.
What’s so glorious is that it goes against everything were are told about what people need to be pulled in these days: he wasn’t tweeting as he talked (nor were the audience), he didn’t do much to grab people’s attention, he offered no epiphany or great insight, he wasn’t outrageous. It wasn’t far off the kind of entertainment that the Victorians would have enjoyed.
The fact is we like to hear people talk, to tell us about their discoveries or their adventures – and all free of multimedia distractions or PowerPoint slides. A politician who can articulate his beliefs is more powerful than a party’s commercial. A single victim who can reveal the impact of a crime can change more in a moment than a well-meaning organisation. We still have a very basic instinct to hunker around the fire and be told a story – even if we have to hand over a pile of crisp ones for the experience. The distracted digerati can be won over with a few wise words, even now.
Andrew Tuck is editor of Monocle.