“Of course it isn’t,” most faculty would say to the statement above, but do they know how and why it’s not the same? What we’re learning through Story Circles Narrative Training is telling us volumes.
YOU GOTTA HAVE “A WANT OR A NEED”
We’ve now had three years of development for our Story Circles Narrative Training program which has involved well over 1,000 scientists and communicators. We started with four prototype circles in 2015: undergrad, grad, postdoc, research scientists (conducted with USDA, NIH, Univ of Chicago and Hendrix University). The differences were evident from the very first meeting of each group.
The participants in three of the prototype circles (undergrad, grad, postdoc) were curious and willing to do as asked, but overall, fairly hesitant. The members of the last group — 5 research scientists at USDA/ARS — within minutes after hearing about the ABT Framework began talking about all the different applications they could think for it. They jumped in with an enthusiasm reflected by Cathleen Hapeman of USDA/ARS who tells about that first Story Circle at USDA in the new video we will be releasing with AAAS. The rest is history as USDA is now approaching 15 Story Circles and a dozen Demo Days.
Back then we thought that was just kind of interesting. Now we realize it’s fundamental to all communication training — the difference that previous experience makes.
Story Circles is very challenging. One of the participants in a Story Circle at Genentech said, “It’s powerful training, but the hour sessions are like eating your Brussels Sprouts.”
We’ve come to realize you need to be solidly motivated for the training to work. What this means is that the participants must have either a WANT (I’ve heard about this program and I want to do it) or a NEED (we know we need help with narrative).
In fact, the one major modification we made after the prototypes was to split the training into two stages — first, the one day Demo Day where everyone learns what they will be signing up for, then the actual Story Circles training of 10 one hour sessions. The Demo Day is the weeding out that makes sure the participants in the Story Circles are sufficiently motivated since they are signing up on their own, not being required to do it (we’ve learned you can’t force this stuff on people).
The result of this two stage process is that, of nearly 30 Story Circles to date, no one has quit before completing all ten sessions (with the one exception of a graduate student who felt he learned everything on the first day when he heard the three words of and, but, therefore — literally — and eventually quit).
HOW IS A GRADUATE STUDENT DIFFERENT FROM A RESEARCH SCIENTIST?
Has the science world thought deeply about this simple question? We can tell you one huge difference — experience. It turns out experience makes a huge difference in both focus and motivation when it comes to communication.
Think about it in terms of the fundamental couplet of “arouse and fulfill,” that I cited in the first chapter of, “Don’t Be Such a Scientist.” (2nd edition coming out in March from Island Press!) What you get with graduate students is a shortage of arousal when it comes to communications training.
Most are told they need it. They do the best they can in trying to follow what is being said, but they have limited experience in the real world. This means for something like Story Circles they are mostly plowing forward based on little more than blind trust — sort of like, “I don’t see how this relates to what I want to do someday, but if you say I should do it, I’ll do it.”
In contrast, the research scientists — as we’ve seen from that first prototype group — have plenty of experience in the real world. They have taken part in, or at least watched, major projects fail to have much impact because their results were so poorly communicated. By the time we start working with them they are aware of what it means for a project to have “lacked a clear narrative.” That’s what experience brings.
“STORY CIRCLES IS A WASTE OF MY TIME”
Yep. We’ve heard it from grad students. Many have said, “We got it — three words: and, but, therefore — all set.” At one university 50 grad students took part in the Demo Day. Of them, 26 signed up to do Story Circles, but a week later when the organizer tried to assemble the first circle, it turned out there were only 4 who really felt it was worth their time. The others said they mostly signed up just to lend their vote of support, but didn’t really see the need.
The same happened two weeks later at another university with 38 grad students in the Demo Day. At another university there were 19 grad students signed up for the Demo Day. I gave my talk on the ABT the day before. When it came time for the 3-hour “hands on” part of the Demo Day, not one of the grad students showed up (though 3 faculty did). The organizer said she spoke with some of the students after my talk — they felt like they “got it” on the ABT thing and didn’t need anything further.
I DON’T BLAME THEM: A SOLUTION WITH NO PROBLEM
I don’t blame grad students for not wanting to do Story Circles. Back when I was doing my PhD in biology I wouldn’t have had much interest in this stuff.
The more I have honed in on the problem/solution dynamic that lies at the core of narrative, the more I’ve come to realize how often smart people provide solutions to people who don’t know they have a problem. Imagine being told, “We’ve got a solution for you!” but thinking, “I didn’t know I had a problem.” Guess what happens when people do this. Here’s an example from the real world of conservation biology.
Three years ago the conservation groups in the state of North Dakota engaged in a huge and expensive exercise that proved to be exactly this. They created a state ballot initiative to “fix” the state’s conservation problems. It failed horrendously (20% supporting votes versus 80% opposing votes). I was brought in by a group to assess their communications work on it.
After a week of driving around the state conducting interviews I came to a simple conclusion — most people in North Dakota don’t think there’s any problem with their nature and wildlife resources. In fact, they feel blessed with an abundance. They looked at the ballot initiative and just said, “Why?”
So there you go. It’s hard to get people to work on a problem they don’t personally feel they have. That’s what we’ve run into with Story Circles with graduate students, repeatedly. Research scientists tend to know they need help with narrative based on their experiences, but graduate students just don’t feel the need for help … yet.
We’re continuing to work on it and study it. It’s not that graduate students are lazy or have bad attitudes, it’s just that they are swamped — getting better at narrative is not a perceived priority.
WHY ARE THESE OBSERVATIONS IN STORY CIRCLES IMPORTANT?
Because what we are doing is systematic. This is not a different bunch of lectures and exercises with various one day workshops. To the contrary, Story Circles is almost cookie cutter in it’s rigidity and consistency. All groups that do the 10 one hour sessions go through the same structured one hour time course with each session. We’ve changed almost nothing about the training for three years now.
The result is sort of like a controlled experiment. Everything is held constant between groups except the composition of the participants. If we had some sort of accurate metric (and we don’t — that’s a whole other discussion — narrative doesn’t lend itself to any simple, immediate measurements — if you think it does, you don’t understand it) we could probably quantify this difference between these two big groups.
For now, we can simply see it in the different way Story Circles works (and doesn’t work) with them.
BOTTOM LINE: GRAD STUDENTS SAY, “IT’S A WASTE,” RESEARCH SCIENTISTS SAY, “THANK YOU, WE NEED THIS”
Yes, this is of course an exaggeration. I’m getting a reputation as being an overly simplistic reductionist (thank you very much!).
There are lots of grad students who do get it and work as hard in the sessions as research scientists. The students themselves are not the problem. The problem is simply TIME and EXPERIENCE. Telling students, “You’ll thank us for this some day!” and hope that will motivate them to do the hard work is not enough.
Make no mistake, communication is challenging. You get back what you put in. There are no magic bullets, and even the almighty ABT Narrative Template is only as powerful as you what you get back from it by putting it to use repeatedly. This is the whole philosophy that underpins Story Circles.
But the bottom line is that you gotta go to the gym and lift weights, even if its boring, repetitive and stinks like Brussels Sprouts sometimes.
Why is this so consistent, universal, and unchanged? A Republican strategist points out, once again, that Democrats don’t know how to fit their argument onto a bumper sticker. Or t-shirt, as I had fun with a decade ago in this clip that never made it into “Flock of Dodos.”
Of course we’ve got a t-shirt!
“HANG ON” IS NOT AN OPTION IN THE REAL WORLD
One of the best rules of our Story Circles Narrative Training program is that the timing video that runs throughout the hour session is sacred. When you hear the audio cue go off, you have to stop what you’re saying to the group, mid-sentence.
This drives many scientists CRAZY. Being perfectionists, they want to finish their thought. But they can’t. The group turns on them with smiles, saying, “That’s it, gotta move on.” It’s a great exercise to help people deal with the need to not be a perfectionist when it comes to communication — you gotta do your best then keep moving. “Hang on,” is not an option in the real world.
BUMPER STICKER ME THIS
This need to say EVERYTHING is the bane of Democrats. They can’t help themselves. They have so many great idea. It was the downfall of Hillary Clinton. She ran a campaign with no clear single message, but heaps and heaps of things to say. Trump just had one simple minded thing — #MAGA.
Sadly, here’s a Fox News article pointing out the same thing. It says, “The problem with the argument that Democrats are making,” said Republican strategist Evan Siegfried in a devastatingly perceptive segment on Outnumbered Overtime last month, “is that the argument takes longer than a bumper-sticker slogan to make.”
It’s endless. And ultimately cured by three letters: ABT.
It’s the wrong way to go about it. Yes, they are stimulatory, but do they stick?
LIE TO ME
If you were booking communications training, which would you go with — the exciting one day workshop that presents a shopping list of topics to be covered, promising to hit on pretty much everything, plus lots of “tips and tools,” offering “a packed day” that will send everyone home hyper-energized. Or would you opt for the long term training program that warns it will be like going to the gym for fitness and that one graduate referred to as, “like eating Brussel sprouts.”
My gut says I’d prefer the exciting one day event. It sounds more stimulating, and really convenient to get “the whole communications thing” done and out of the way in just a single day.
But my head knows better. The one day offering is noisy nonsense. Yes, it’s stimulatory, but so is being forced to watch, “A Clockwork Orange,” five times in a row with your eyelids held open. Improving your ability to communicate does not, and cannot, happen that quickly.
Why? Because it requires the development of intuition. Read Malcolm Gladwell’s landmark book, “Blink!” and you’ll get some appreciation for what is required to develop intuition. It all comes down to one word: time.
A DAY OF DHY
When you work with the ABT Framework you learn about the DHY form for content. It stands for Despite, However, Yet. What it represents is too many narrative threads all at once — which is stimulatory, but confusing.
There is an optimal form for narrative. It is expressed in shorthand with the ABT Template of And, But, Therefore. All else equal, this is the form for narrative structure that is the optimum.
Running people through a packed day, one topic after another, is basically taking the DHY approach to learning. Yes, it’s stimulatory, but think of it as a bunch of white heat that goes quickly from cold to hot then back to cold again.
“A FULL 7 HOUR DAY”
I hate to get too specific on this, so I’ll avoid examples from the science world. Keeping it broad, just search “One Day Storytelling Workshop” and you’ll find pages and pages of them from around the world. Here’s one in Oregon that I’m sure is a lot of fun, but what is your goal?
Do you want to have a fun, exciting day, or do you really want to improve your ability to communicate (for which narrative is the central element). Imagine going to the gym for a 7 hour workout. Do you think after 2 hours you’re accomplishing anything meaningful? And is it even possible you’re doing more damage than good after 2 hours?
It’s the same thing. It really is. More is not more when it comes to improving your grasp of narrative.
SCIENTISTS KNOW BETTER
What prompted me to finally write this blunt essay is that I was recently forwarded a Twitter discussion among scientists who were frustrated with the communications training they had received. Here was one of the comments:
COMMENT: “I think there is the perception that you can be good at it after a 1 hour-long workshop.”
That’s what I’m talking about. Everyone in the discussion seemed to be realizing this, and they felt like they had been lied to. This stuff is difficult. You definitely can get much better at it, but it doesn’t happen in one hour, one day, or even a one week boot camp.
YOU CAN’T RUSH THE RIVER
Here’s a great tidbit to this point. We’ve been working with folks at Genentech for the past year. We ran a Story Circle there with 5 scientists, meaning they met for the standard 10 one hour sessions that the training involves. Ideally the sessions happen one per week, meaning 2.5 months. But in their case, their schedules are so intense with so much travel, it took them 8 months to finish the training.
Which is fine. So long as they stay committed, it doesn’t hurt to have the delays, though it’s still a little better to stay close to the weekly schedule if possible.
So I asked them when it was over what would they think, given the intensity of schedules there, if we were to run a Story Circle that met three times a week, allowing it to be finished in less than a month. They immediately recoiled with a solid, “No.” It didn’t begin to makes sense to them to do that. They insisted that taking at least a week between sessions was essential to allow the training to slowly work its way down from the head to the gut.
And they are absolutely right.
There is no substitute for time. Sorry. Plain and simple. Don’t whine to me about your busy schedule. Do you want to improve or not? We’ve been hard at it for 3 years now developing Story Circles. If there’s one solid conclusion we can offer up, this is definitely it.
There is no substitute for time.
And guess what is at the heart of narrative. Time.
I have a therapist friend who is fond of the expression, “You can’t rush the river.” Therapy is narrative. It’s all the same stuff. Narrative is everything. This is what grieving is about. You can’t rush it. You can try. But if you want to genuinely heal, you can’t rush it.
Sorry. Welcome to life. At least for now, until A.I. takes over. For now, we’re still stuck with these 4,000 year old principles. But the good news is, if you invest the time, you’ll see the changes.
“WE’RE DONE WITH THE ONE DAY WORKSHOPS”
The good news for us with Story Circles Narrative Training is that nobody is arguing with us. We speak to so many groups now who say, “We’re done with the one day workshops — they don’t work.”
Story Circles takes time, and it’s even hard to quantify the outcomes (heaven forbid). But there is one clear metric which is that groups are coming back for more — especially with USDA, NPS and USFWS.
We’ve run over 30 Story Circles now. We have about a dozen Demo Days being planned for next year, including at Western Society of Naturalists in February, University of Idaho in April, and several government agencies in the spring.
We’ve yet to do any advertising or have any media coverage. We don’t need to. There’s lots of scientists who get it. They’ve tried the one day thing. It didn’t work. They’re ready to eat the Brussels sprouts.
There’s a reason why university graduates are not very good with communication. It’s the same thing you see with film school graduates (whom Hollywood has traditionally laughed at). Universities develop intellect. It takes a different approach to develop intuition. It’s what Story Circles is designed for.
Once upon a time the educational world understood and accepted the need for repetition. It’s called inculcation — “the instilling of knowledge or values in someone, usually by repetition.” Inculcation is also the pathway to intuition.
I experienced plenty of inculcation in elementary school where we learned the alphabet and arithmetic through endless, sing-song repetitions. I didn’t get much repetition through high school, and by college I could tell it was looked down on as some sort of old fashioned technique for stupid people.
But then I entered into a two year Meisner acting class in 1994 in Santa Monica (and keep in mind that acting and communication are the same thing). Meisner is the technique that is revered by the greatest of actors from Grace Kelly and Gregory Peck to Robert Duvall and Diane Keaton. The Wikipedia entry for the Meisner Technique says:
The focus of the Meisner approach is for the actor to “get out of their head”, such that the actor is behaving instinctively to the surrounding environment. To this end, some exercises for the Meisner technique are rooted in repetition so that the words are deemed insignificant compared to the underlying emotion.
There you have it. The word “repetition” and the idea of having people “get out of their head.” If you take a look at all that I’ve written and preached for the past 20 years for communication in general, those are the two most important underlying principles.
My first book, “Don’t Be Such A Scientist” (second edition coming in March) was built around the Four Organs theory that we learned in the Meisner class. It was all about “coming down out of the head.” The class was also built around endless repetition.
UNIVERSITIES ENTERTAIN MORE THAN EDUCATE
As I said, somewhere along the way the smarty pantses in the ivory tower decided that repetition is for slow learners. I think it’s something along the lines of, “Only dummies need things repeated.”
That attitude is fine if all you want to achieve is intellect. That’s what universities do. They are great at producing intellectuals. But there’s a problem when university graduates go out into the real world, which is that they lack intuition. Especially when it comes to communication.
We saw it at USC film school. In our orientation the older graduate students (well, actually, I was older than just about all of the students from the start) explained to the new students that when you finish film school, Hollywood is going to hire you for one main reason, which was not your ability to do the visceral/intuitive part of filmmaking as a director or even cinematographer. No, what Hollywood looks to film schools for is writing — the more cerebral element.
They mostly laugh at the directing and visual skills of film school grads. Why? Because new graduates lack experience, which means they lack the visceral elements. If you want to see a perfect comic picture of this watch, “The Big Picture,” which came out in 1989 but is pretty much timeless. One of the opening scenes is of three film school students and their lousy, clunky student award-winning films. We had to sit through hundreds of such films in film school. It’s what happens with communication when people lack experience.
STORY CIRCLES: NO LECTURES, NO NOTES, NO READINGS, JUST EXPERIENCE
I think there are a lot of people in the science world who want to be told they are wonderful communicators. Improv classes are certainly great for building comfort and self-esteem. But at some point you might as well accept that getting good at communication requires experience. And as everyone always likes to say in every profession in the world, “There’s no substitute for experience.”
So this is what our Story Circles Narrative Training program is built around — not feeding knowledge, just gaining experience. The whole realization of how it differs from university courses became clear to me last spring when a professor told me about his course on “narrative for scientists” he was teaching at his university. He felt it was similar to what I do. I asked if the ABT was part of it, he enthusiastically said, “Yes! It’s an entire third of a lecture!” Which meant what he’s doing is not at all similar to what we do.
With Story Circles the ABT is just about all there is. There’s no lectures, no notes, no readings. It’s not a university course. It’s training, similar to going to the gym and lifting weights. It’s “conditioning.”
The result of this is we’ve had some graduate students show no interest — saying, “I got it on the ABT — And, But, Therefore — all set, why should I spend an hour a week for ten weeks when that’s all there is?” But the response is completely different with government agencies and the scientists I work with at Genentech. They know that the practical side of anything takes repetition and experience. So they get it.
BUILDING “NARRATIVE INTUITON”
And now we’re getting to see how well they get it. A couple weeks ago I posted this set of comments from a recent grad. Last week we had the first of a half dozen Story Circles finish that have been running all summer in Colorado with the National Park Service.
We know from past graduates that the training takes time. That’s the whole deal with both narrative and intuition — they take time. But for those who go the distance, we’re seeing the development of what I’ve termed “narrative intuition.” The consequences of this end up being the term that NSF wore out long ago — that the training is, “transformative.”
The climate crowd dreams of motivating the masses, but their voice is so robotic, so informational, so rational, so non-human that the masses feel little. You want to hear a voice that cuts through the noise into the hearts of real people? Listen to Eminem’s rap about Trump last night at the BET Awards. It’s not easy to listen to, but what do you expect — it’s not easy communicating effectively like a real human.
WORDS THAT CUT LIKE A KNIFE.
EFFECTIVE COMMUNCIATION AIN’T PRETTY
It’s really painful listening to climate activists trying to rap (here’s one and another that will only motivate you to do one thing — avoid climate rapping), yet if enough of them tried with complete conviction they would probably eventually find their way to something that would be motivational for the masses. It just might take a lot of awkwardness to get there. But how serious is the climate issue? If it’s that serious, it would be worth it.
Rapper Eminem delivered this uncomfortable, searing rap session last night at the BET Awards that was instantly praised for its power. Similar to what Lin Manuel Miranda did for the seemingly dry historical material behind “Hamilton,” Eminem blazes life into today’s political issues with this performance.
This is what the theme of “Make Science Human” is about. If you want the masses to activate around the issue of climate, someone has to take the message down to a gut level like this. It’s how things work in a noisy society. You can’t stay up in your orderly, safe, logical tower and expect to motivate anyone.
Because Story Circles Narrative Training is a long term process we’ve been hesitant to attempt “assessment metrics.” The training is 10 one hour sessions, usually weekly, but it can take up to a year to see the full results. That’s how narrative is — it takes time. For now, the training is better described qualitatively. To that point here are the detailed comments of a recent graduate telling about the value of the training.
THE VALUE OF STORY CIRCLES
Here’s the comments of a recent graduate of the 10 one hour sessions of Story Circles who works with a government agency.
OVERALL VALUE – Story Circles really helped clarify the ABT. However, the log-line maker/hero’s journey is emphasized more during the story circles than during the introductory Demo Day session. Thus, one gains insight on how to write a narrative longer than a couple of paragraphs during story circles. One also begins to recognize this structure during movies and how it is a successful formula for a good movie…..
TIME COMMITMENT – The amount of time is not demanding and is worth it. Even if you wait until the last minute to do the homework (or don’t do it all for the days you aren’t on the hook for some writing), the time spent listening to the rest of the group’s comments and engaging in the discussion, will have an impact on your thinking and writing.
PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE – The opportunity to intensely practice recognizing, analyzing, and creating narrative structures was something I would otherwise not have undertaken. The story circles deepened my understanding of the ABT and improved my writing. It’s like learning a musical instrument or a new sport: practice, practice, practice.
IMMEDIATE VALUE – The challenge to my thinking that came from the story circles helped me reframe a major message about my program – I used the ABT structure in a presentation within days of this realization and have changed all my presentations and write-ups to incorporate this same ABT structure. This new message structure greatly strengthens how I communicate the unique value of our programs.
THE SUPPORTING MATERIALS – The reference cards and the handbook provided for the story circles are immensely useful aids. One can look at the reference cards during discussions to help with the ABT analysis and stay on track. I still refer to these aids when I am writing – whether it is on the job or at home. However, one needs to sit in a story circle and go through these aids to fully grasp how useful they can be – and how useful a narrative structure is to effective communication.
Story Circles is unique. We make no apologies for the time involved (and actually it’s really not that much, just an hour a week) as well as how challenging the sessions can sometimes be. You get back what you put into communication training. It’s about developing “narrative intuition,” and that takes work.
But the flip side is what you get from Story Circles, which you can see in the comments above. To put it simply, it’s a fascinating form of training that can crack your mind open to viewing the world in a whole different way.
If you have specific questions feel free to email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Bill Maher ends every episode of his HBO show Real Time with a monologue that begins with the last of his New Rules. Month after month, year after year, the monologues are powerfully written essays. Wanna know why? Just look at the Narrative Index. I measured it for 53 of them — the average is 33. Last week’s was a 43. That’s strong narrative content. If only they had written Hillary Clinton’s speeches. Seriously.
MAHER KNOWS NARRATIVE
Wanna know why Donald Trump hates Bill Maher? It’s not just because Bill suggested he was descended from an orangutan. It’s also because Bill communicates with strong narrative content, as revealed by the Narrative Index.
It’s a metric so simple that it’s beneath the dignity of serious text analysis jockeys, but it’s also very profound in what it reveals. It’s just the ratio of all the BUTs to ANDs in a given text. I derived it from the ABT which arose from the Rule of Replacing I learned from the South Park creators.
These are the two fundamental words of narrative. AND is the most common word of agreement, BUT is the most common word of contradiction. They represent two of the three fundamental forces of narrative (agreement, contradiction, consequence).
I’ve been measuring the Narrative Index for hundreds of texts over the past two years. The patterns are astounding. In the graph above you see a range of values. At one end are equipment maintenance manuals. Not surprisingly, they hardly ever present narrative content. Telephone books would score even lower.
At the other end are Bill Maher’s monologues. For a while HBO provided the transcripts on their websites. I analyzed 52 of them. Also, just to show you in detail how the pattern works, below is the transcript of last Friday night’s monologue with all the BUTs and ANDs colored.
There were 10 BUTs, 23 ANDs, which means a Narrative Index of 43. That’s powerful.
POLITICIANS NEED COMEDY WRITERS (BUT NOT FOR JOKES)
You have to be careful analyzing small sample sizes. I usually recommend at least 1,000 words. This one is only 566 so you wouldn’t want to infer too much. But when you average it across 52 of his other monologues you can rest assured the pattern is real.
The fact is he’s got a great team of writers, and what they produce is always punchy. It has to be. It’s for television — the medium that produced our current President — a man who has a dangerously deep grasp of narrative.
This is what I’ve been saying for years — that politicians need comic writers as their speech writers. Not for their ability to write humor. They need them because they, perhaps better than anyone, understand narrative structure. They have to, or else they’ll bomb.
EPISODE 438: TRANSCRIPT OF END MONOLOGUE
AND finally … if you want to understand why america is so divided, don’t talk about Republicans AND Democrats, or red states AND blue states, read the story about The City Mouse AND the Country Mouse, currently being sold under the new title, What Happened? BUT the original is about two mice who learn that you’re either one or the other, city or country. AND the same really could be said for America. When you fly over it, you don’t see red states AND blue states. You see vast stretches of land where there’s nothing. AND then every once in a while, a city.
Here’s Missouri, BUT every state looks the same — a sea of red with a few blue dots. Now I could joke about Alabama all I want — AND believe me, I want — it’s Trump country. BUT not Birmingham, cause that’s a city — it voted for Hillary. Something happens to you when you live in a city — you get mugged.
BUT you also have a multi-cultural experience. Cities are places with diversity AND theaters AND museums, AND other gay stuff. I have nothing against rural life, BUT I’ve seen farms on TV AND they look dusty. Republicans are freaking out lately because it seems Trump is pivoting from these two, to these two. Colluding with Russia — fine. BUT Democrats?
BUT really it’s not that complicated. Chuck Schumer AND Nancy Pelosi? They’re city mice. AND that’s who a consummate New Yorker like Donald Trump relates to. Why is he always poop-Tweeting at 3 a.m.? Because he’s from the city that never sleeps. He’s such a New York guy, he had is last wife delivered. Trump’s disillusion with McConnell AND Ryan is not really political — it’s just that for the first seventy years of his life he would never be caught dead hanging around with traveling bible salesman like Paul Ryan or a corny countrified goober like Mitch McConnell.
For Christ sakes, the man is from Kentucky. Jeff Sessions is from Alabama. When he talks all Trump hears is a tiny little Ernest movie. AND Mike Pence? It must be torture for Trump to be in the White House every day with that home spun Christian tightly wound human hard on. He literally won’t dine with an unchaperoned woman. Meanwhile Trump has spent his entire life posing with a shit-eating grin that says look at all the pussy I’m getting.
AND this is the existential crisis of our President. He’s an asshole, BUT he’s not a hick. He represents one group, BUT belongs to another. I hate to break it to you real Americans, BUT what Trump likes about Chuck AND Nancy is they’re not you.
He’s not one of you — trust me — when Trump watches “The Beverly Hillbillies,” he’s rooting for Mr. Drysdale. AND when he tells a crowd — as he often does, “I love you,” what he means is that in middle America, he found something that he had long ago run out of in New York — suckers.
Trump voters were played for rubes by the ultimate fast talking city slicker who saw vulnerable people nervous about jobs AND the melting pot getting too melty, AND he told them he’d built a great wall AND get their jobs back at the mine, AND they said where do I sign.
Folks, you didn’t make America great again, you enrolled in Trump University.
Remember that beating we took next year? No. Remember that beating we took last year? Yes. Case closed. We talked about this on Terrence McNally’s podcast.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN TWO NARRATIVE GUYS GET TOGETHER
I did this very fun podcast with radio host, writer and actor Terrence E. McNally this week. We ran through a range of topics mostly centered around the importance of narrative structure in politics (especially in relation to Trump) and climate activism. It was so nice to have a host who could explain a lot of the basic aspects of narrative structure better than I can.
One of the most interesting parts is our discussion of “The future is intellectual, the past is experiential/emotive — you need to use the past to work towards the future.” Which is why scary movies of climate predictions tend to not have much impact.
Hey, I was just talking with Jayde AND we were wrapping things up, BUT then she said “So, call me maybe,” THEREFORE we now have our first entry into the ABT Hall of Fame. #seriously #drinkthekoolaidnow
WHAT MORE PROOF DO YOU NEED?
I’ve been saying it for 5 years now. The ABT is universal. Won’t someone please argue with me about this? Won’t somebody say, “No, you’re wrong, here’s an alternative, competing model for a universal narrative template.”
Maybe the ABT really is THE fundamental narrative tool that underpins pretty much everything. In his Masterclass, veteran screenwriter David Mamet says, “Everything is drama.” Which is true, except that I would broaden that to say “everything (interesting) is narrative, and thus ABT.”
Regardless, what more of a scholarly endorsement of the ABT is needed than Professor Carly Rae Jepsen using it?
“Reductionist and insulting,” “hyper-reductionist,” and “simpleton” are a few of the more common slurs you get when you advocate simplicity. But the mud slinging is worth it when you look into the eyes of 40 USDA scientists working with the ABT Narrative Template and see a moment of revelation as I did last Thursday in San Francisco at one of our Story Circles Narrative Training Demo Days. Kinda makes you wanna tell the narrative purists to get stuffed.
PROFESSOR OF “FULL” STORYTELLING
Last Tuesday my “buddy” Dan Fagin, long time professor of journalism at N.Y.U. who hosted me in 2014, tweeted some interesting comments my way — above are a few of them. The tone is condescending, the “hyper-reductionism” label is insulting.
Dan wrote a truly great book, “Tom’s River” that earned a Pulitzer Prize in 2014. I was one of many who applauded heartily. But I also agree with the Amazon reviewer who conveyed the essence of the book in saying, ” I appreciate how thorough it is but just beware that it’s meant for science-minded people who want the FULL story…plus the full story of the side stories.”
Yes. Dan’s an expert on telling the full story, and the world definitely needs such skills. But we had a Presidential candidate last year who tried endlessly to tell her full story, resulting in telling no story, and ultimately had her opponent tell her story with two words, “Crooked Hillary,” that she will take to her grave.
So don’t tell me about the need for subtlety and nuance in today’s world. Our nation is now getting ravaged by the consequences of thinking the masses have the time to hear full stories. They don’t.
Despite the record heat last week, Jayde Lovell and I ran our 8th Demo Day with scientists and communications folks from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Services (USDA/ARS) in their offices in Berkeley, California. The Demo Days just keep getting better as we perfect the Story Circles model. Lots o’ great developments ahead for the fall.
NOTHING BETTER THAN A DEMO DAY
Lots of skeptical expressions at 10:00 a.m. By 4:00 p.m., lots of deeply engaged minds, beginning to grasp how challenging this narrative thing is. What more could you ask for.
We ran our eighth Demo Day with the USDA/ARS folks last Thursday in Berkeley, California. It was organized by the USDA godfather of narrative studies, Mike Strauss (Director of the USDA/ARS Office of Scientific Quality of Review), along with his narrative understudy, Cathleen Hapeman. Jayde, Mike, Cathleen and I had dinner the night before where we realized how far we’ve developed the Story Circles model in less than three years.
At USDA/ARS they are launching their 12th Story Circle this month. That will make 60 graduates of the training consisting of the 10 one hour workout sessions. We’re approaching a tipping point with them where most everyone in the agency has heard about the training and seen the impact.
IT’S ALL ABOUT BREAKFAST
As Mike made clear in his morning presentation, the knowledge of narrative structure isn’t just for writing. He went through a list of the different applications of the training, from speaking to project plan development. And he presented his great use of narrative structure last year where he and a fellow administrator gave a major USDA national presentation that scored a bullseye by having a simple narrative core.
The presentation was a general talk about the importance of ARS work. They opened by saying, “All we’re here to talk to about is breakfast.” They then used breakfast as the central narrative to run through a series of ARS-funded studies on oranges, pork, wheat and other breakfast staples. Brilliant talk, brilliant use of narrative. Mike has been the heart and soul of Story Circles at USDA/ARS. And I’d almost say we’ll miss him, except that Cathleen is just as good and coming along to take his place when he retires at the end of the year. Which will make him available as a free agent for the Story Circles Traveling Road Show!
There is a myth among the left that Donald Trump can’t stand to be laughed at and ridiculed. You hear it confidently, smugly explained night after night by “expert” guests on every news talk show on MSNBC. That’s them using THEIR set of fears. There’s only one thing Trump cannot stand which is: NOT GETTING ATTENTION. We exist now in The Attention Economy and he is greedy. He lives his life for attention, and he gets it through his deep and thorough intuition for narrative. Laughter and ridicule are not part of the currency, which means they are trivial to him. All of which is beyond the intellectualism of the left. Also, note this for Trump’s Narrative Index (BUTs/ANDs): TRUMP WITH SCRIPT (on Afghanistan) = 6, TRUMP RANTING SPEECH (in Phoenix) = 23. The man knows narrative.
TRUMP KNOWS ATTENTION
For the past 15 years a few very smart people have realized that our core currency has shifted to one central resource: ATTENTION. Starting at the turn of the century books began to emerge with titles like The Attention Economy (Davenport and Beck, 2001) and The Economics of Attention (Lanham, 2006). What I don’t get is why news pundits have not put that knowledge together with the fact that we have THE most attention-seeking President ever, and produced at least some body of thought to explain and predict his behavior.
To the contrary, what we have over and over again is massively educated pundits on the left analyzing Donald Trump using THEIR rules of how people should think and act. Which leaves them endlessly baffled. Could they be any more lost?
NOT THE BEST FOOTBALL TEAMS
Trump loves CONTRADICTION, the central force of narrative (which is AGREEMENT, CONTRADICTION, CONSEQUENCE). Let me give you a little example of this.
Last fall he showed up in the control booth at the Army-Navy football game. The two hosts were thrilled. They raved to him about what a beautiful day it was, what an incredible event, and how amazing the two teams were. He agreed (AGREEMENT), but then couldn’t help himself and finally had to move on to the central force of narrative (CONTRADICTION) by saying, “Yes, but let’s be honest, these aren’t the two best teams.”
CLANK. Way to lay a turd on the festivities. The two hosts didn’t know what to say. It was a day to honor the armed forces. There’s no way Obama or Hillary or even G.W. Bush would have said such a thing. They would have all just rolled with things and said, “Yes, this is great.” Especially Bush. If you doubt that, look at his Narrative Index values (But/And ratio) for all of his State of the Union addresses. Every one of them was under 10 for an average of 4, which is literally the same values as four equipment maintenance manuals I found online recently. He didn’t know how to disagree with anything.
TRUMP IS FOLLOWING “THE HIGH-CONTRADICTION DIET”
There are three fundamental forces of narrative: AGREEMENT, CONTRADICTION, CONSEQUENCE. If you want to understand a lot about your world quickly, start absorbing what those three forces mean. Don’t fight it. Accept that back in the 1700’s Hegel pointed it out with his triad, and then start realizing how the three forces explain just about everything when it comes to communication.
Realize that CONTRADICTION is at the core of narrative. Then think about the life of Donald Trump. Day in and day out, every single moment, his life is all about contradiction. He loves it, he relishes it, he bathes in it.
TRUMP KNOWS RANTING
One more thing on El Presidente. It’s called The Narrative Index. It’s just the ratio of BUTs to ANDs in any given text. Have a look at this.
His Afghanistan speech on August 21 was restrained, controlled and tightly scripted. Look how few times he said BUT — a total of 9. His Narrative Index was 6.
Now look at his Phoenix speech last week was a 77 minute rant that was rich in ABT form. Just look at the first part of it. He opens with line after line of AGREEMENT, each of which is followed by applause. BUT THEN, he finally hits his source of contradiction with this line, “But the very dishonest media, those people right up there with all the cameras.” It’s his first BUT.
Guess what that line is met with — boos. That’s the start of his central narrative thread, laid out plain and simple.
Overall, look at the scores. His boring Afghanistan speech scores a 6, his barn burner Phoenix speech scores a 23. The man knows narrative — when to pull it back, when to lay it on. He continues to be a powerful mass communicator, despite what the eggheads are saying, hoping and praying.
Valerie Plame understands media. It’s not about facts. It’s not about pointing out individual pieces of misinformation from Donald Trump. It’s about advancing new narratives, like “Let’s buy Twitter and kick Trump off.” The information side of that is cockamamie, but as a narrative it’s awesome and attention-getting. And idea-generating. She gets it. If only the Democrats did as well.
DIPLOMACY CAN’T AFFORD TO BE NON-NARRATIVE
I’ve spent all year trying to explain there is an analytical reason for why President Trump should not be allowed to use Twitter for anything related to diplomacy. Back in January I pointed out that Twitter is too short, by half, to allow the communication of coherent ABT-structured narratives. And I’ve spent the year wondering what in the world is wrong with Congress that they can’t seem to see this as anything more than a laughing matter.
Twitter is not a joke. It’s a source of rapid mass communication. It creates all sorts of mass MIScommunication, as I explained in that essay, using Stephen Colbert’s debacle as an example.
Finally someone truly gets it. Former CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson has taken the issue into her own hands with an attention-getting idea that is unlikely to occur, but that’s not the point. She is identifying the problem — that we’ve got a President who is well known to behave in a reckless manner. He simply should not be allowed to do it with Twitter.
WE’RE IN A POST-SUBSTANCE WORLD
The last election showed how we have entered a new phase of The Information Society. Facts and accuracy now count for very little. What matters now is higher levels of information organization — namely narrative threads.
Some how, some way the Democratic party has to grasp this, realize that Twitter is dangerous, realize that the last President used it very cautiously, but the current President is running roughshod with it.
There has to be a way to stop this from happening. It begins by identifying the problem and getting everyone talking about it. The Democratic party has done nothing at all about this. It’s up to single citizens like Valerie Plame Wilson for now to at least try. She gets it.
The sad news: Most of the world and life in general is not that great of a story. In fact, most of it isn’t even a story. It takes A LOT of hard work to either craft a great story or find one. Don’t underestimate how tough the challenge is.
THE NAKED (AND MOSTLY BORING) CITY
When I was a kid (a looooong time ago) there was a show called, “The Naked City,” which opened with a wide shot of New York City and the narrator saying, “There’s eight million stories in the Naked City, this is one of them.” The eight million referred to the population size of NYC at the time, suggesting that, “Everyone is an interesting story, just waiting to be told.”
Nope. Sorry. The truth is most people don’t have a story to tell. If you doubt this, try going to film school and being forced to see it played out in all your classes where students are forced to make films, even though they have nothing to say. It’s like being called on in a conversation by someone saying, “What do you think?,” and replying, “Blaaaaaah, buh, blaaaaaaah, bluhbluh.” Just because you made a noise didn’t mean you said something.
In fact, one rather heartless friend used to say, “Just because it happened to YOU, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s interesting.”
At USC they were smart enough to have all 50 students in each class pitch their story ideas on a single day, then the faculty chose four — literally the cream of the crop for each cohort — to actually be given the funds to make their films. I sat through five semesters of those pitches.
The proportions pretty much followed the subjective graph above. Most of the pitches didn’t have a story to tell. Kinda like, “I’m gonna make a film about this guy, and he breaks up with his girlfriend, and he goes to Arkansas, and he gets a job cutting trees, and he’s making some money, and he tells his friends he’s not sure that’s what he wants to do with his life, and he sits out at night looking at the moon, and he gets depressed, and he keeps chopping trees, and finds a new job at a restaurant, and he …” Not a story, dude.
ARE YOU CRAZY?
Actually, I just remembered this — here’s a terrible story. One young guy the semester after me was a real quiet introvert who was a Dungeons and Dragons type of kid. He pitched a sic-fi “story,” where he started telling what his film would be about.
It was like he was in a trance explaining it to the audience, with his eyes glazed over, looking far away, spewing out all this terminology he had come up with, saying, “So the Zorgons on planet Skartan go into battle with the Keerjops and they’ve got these special Shootoo rods that can put their enemy into the ninth dimension, but their leader Dalius doesn’t think they should use them while his son Varlin does, and every time they visit the planet Gnipgnop …”
For fifteen minutes he wound out this bizarrely intricate yet utterly confusing “story” of the film he wanted to make which you could see he stayed up late every night laying in bed staring at the ceiling figuring it out. He was completely off in his own bonkers world. By the end of it people were avoiding eye contact with each other out of awkward embarrassment for him. Needless to say, he didn’t get chosen. BUT …
The next day the Chairman of the department asked him to stop by for a chat. The kid showed up thinking he might be offered support for his film from a different department. Instead, the Chairman gave him a number to call. It was the mental health services program on the campus. Seriously, his pitch was that much in outer space it was a reasonable suggestion.
LIKE CROSSWORD PUZZLES
You want to be good with story, it starts with developing a strong feel for what is not a story. Having a good story takes a lot of work. And I mean A LOT. We see it now with our Story Circles Narrative Training. They’re seeing it every week with the 6 circles that are running with National Park Service in Colorado.
Every week one member of each group offers up their narrative of a project to work on. Most of them start their session thinking “what I’m sharing here is pretty good.” By the end they’re left thinking, “Wow. I’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Here’s a way to look at it. Imagine you take the Sunday crossword puzzle from the LA Times, work on it for ten minutes, solve about ten out of a hundred clues, then proudly show it to your friends, saying, “Hey, look at my solution to the crossword puzzle.”
They would look at it, look at you, then say, “Um, yeah, nice start, get to work.” That’s exactly what you’re getting with most films — their final version is like that puzzle that’s only started to be solved.
Look at my breakdown of the HBO Real Sports segment on the Great Barrier Reef a couple weeks ago and you’re looking at essentially the description of a completed crossword puzzle. They have a whole team of story folks who make sure it is well polished. But then you look at most amateur documentaries on the same subject and you’re looking at that version of a puzzle with ten out of a hundred clues completed.
One of my film school classmates worked for Real Sports for a couple years. He told me about it. They work HARD, scouring the landscape for possible stories. They don’t say, “This month we’re going to do a segment on football, a segment on boxing, a segment on car racing and a segment on skiing.”
That is a recipe for bad storytelling — saying, “We don’t care if there’s no good stories for each topic, we’ll find some bunch of stuff on the subject and present it.”
No, they scour the world for stories, eventually taking the handful on the end of the graph above — the “good stories” — then working to present them as tightly and cleanly as possible. Every once in a while they strike pure gold as they did with the Rod Carew heart story in that same episode as the reef.
Storytelling, when it works, is indeed magic. But that’s incredibly rare.
The fact that “most movies are bad” is a reflection of how tough it is. A few years ago a friend and I were watching the Oscars in our separate homes, texting between speeches and following a Twitter feed for it. A presenter said, “Movies are magic!” Someone tweeted immediately in response, “Bacon is magic, movies are crap.”
LET ME SAY THIS ABOUT THAT
On Saturday President Trump gave a textbook demonstration of the power of specifics, and non-power of non-specifics. Specifically … he said there’s blame “on many sides,” rather than naming specifically the alt-right groups that should have been named.
The key thing to note, for communications purposes, is how unpowerful non-specifics are. They talked about it in detail on Meet the Press on Sunday morning. Then, almost to demonstrate how that style of communications works, they had National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster engage in this little exchange with host Chuck Todd:
CHUCK TODD: Can you and Steve Bannon still work together in this White House or not?
MCMASTER: I get to work together with a broad range of talented people and it is a privilege every day to enable the national security team.
TODD: You didn’t answer — can you and Steve Bannon work in the same White House?
MCMASTER: I am ready to work with anybody who will help advance the President’s agenda and advance the security prosperity of the American people.
TODD: Uh … do you believe Steve Bannon does that?
MCMASTER: I believe that everyone who works in the White House, who has the privilege — the great privilege, every day, of serving their nation — should be motivated by that goal.
TODD: Okay. General McMaster, the National Security Advisor, thanks for coming in.
Talk about complete double-speak and evading the questions. But the nice thing was the show ended with Rich Lowry, editor of The National Review, pointing it out exactly as he said McMaster, “used Washington-speak three times to say basically, no, I cannot work with Steve Bannon.”
Ah, Washington-speak. The art of filling voids with meaningless clutter.
We’ve cracked the nut for Story Circles and universities with one simple realization: it needs to be EMBEDDED within an existing course.
THE NEED FOR STRUCTURE
While the good folks at USDA are running their eleventh Story Circle and in two weeks we’ll be presenting their sixth Demo Day, it’s been a challenge to figure out how to make the training work at universities. The problem is schedules.
Government agencies have everyone at the same work environment day after day, making it relatively easy to schedule the 10 one hour sessions. But universities have student schedules all over the map. As a result, the set of Demo Days we ran last fall at three universities produced no Story Circles.
Solution: Embed the training into an existing course.
That’s what will happen this fall at University of Northern Colorado. They have a weekly two hour graduate student training course. For ten weeks, Story Circles will take up one of the two hours each week. Very simple.
THE THREE SACRED RULES OF STORY CIRCLES
There are three inviolable rules for Story Circles: 1) You may never stop the hour-long cueing video during a session, 2) You must stop mid-sentence when the cue goes off, and 3) You must always have all 5 members of the circle for a session. It’s been that last one that’s been the challenge. This will fix things for universities.
For inquiries contact us at the website: http://storycirclestraining.com/
Al Gore is such a tireless worker and a truly good soul, but he continues to surround himself with people who don’t really know what they’re doing. As a result, his new movie isn’t bad, it’s just middling. He is the proverbial “And, And, And” voice — not that there’s anything wrong with it. My brilliant cinematographer buddy Paul Wojciak nailed it on the movie, saying, “We needed Empire Strikes Back, but we got Clone Wars.”
AN INCONVENIENT AND, AND, AND-ER
On Saturday I attended a screening of Al Gore’s new movie in Hollywood followed by a rather rigidly controlled Q&A in which the only Q’s came from the host. As expected, the movie was a little bit better than the first one in narrative structure, but not much.
Once again the movie could have told a clean, SINGULAR powerful story, but … alas, it missed. Where does he get these filmmakers — didn’t they ever take any writing classes?
There was a great potential SINGULAR over-arching narrative sitting there waiting to be told which was Gore’s efforts to bring around the India delegation at the Paris Accord on their climate negotiations. The story of them going from “no way” to “yes way” covered about twenty minutes late in the film, but it should have been stretched for the entire movie as the central narrative thread. It was powerful enough.
Instead the movie is largely an “and, and, and” exercise, ambling from exploding glaciers to flooding Miami streets to our democracy being hacked by big money (complains the guy from the party that out-spent their opponents for the past three Presidential elections) — the usual shopping list of climate topics.
I guess they feel like they’re conveying the global aspect of the issue by visiting so many places, but the problem is, if that’s the point you want to convey, then convey it in a single sequence about how global the problem is, not through an ambling narrative structure.
Furthermore, stick to the narrative. Just before the Paris climate meeting the huge terrorist attack took place. It was powerful material, but it was also “off the narrative” of the movie. Yes, Gore gives a very heartfelt speech to the journalists about it, but it’s still OFF THE NARRATIVE. Powerful for powerful’s sake is not the way to tell a clear, focused story. There’s just too many amblings and diversions throughout.
Didn’t these filmmakers read the editorial in the NY Times on January 19 pointing out that the Democrats have been sidetracked by trying to accommodate the various needs of a diverse America and thus have failed to promote a unifying narrative.” The movie does the same thing — pursues some sort of “more is more” agenda and ends up with failing to bring home a clear singular experience.
BUILD YOUR CHRISTMAS TREE, THEN PUT SOME ORNAMENTS ON IT
Political strategist Dave Gold — one of my newest heroes — has a very simple way to convey narrative structure. He published a great article in Politico in February telling the Democrats to lighten up on the metrics, focus more on story. He says your central narrative is the Christmas tree, the issues are the ornaments.
Gore’s Christmas tree should have been the India challenge. The movie should have opened in Paris — the Ordinary World — all the nations coming together to solve the climate problem. Then it should have made clear WHAT’S AT STAKE — why Paris mattered, what will happen if there’s not an agreement — who the major players are. It should have made us feel like everything is on track, just fine, BUT THEN … the India delegation says basically you people had your 150 years of burning fossil fuels, now it’s our turn.
That moment should have happened about 15 minutes in. We should have then gone to India to see the consequences of global warming, heard from some of the people behind that attitude, learned about why their delegate would have said that and what it might take to change it. So much that could have been so logical and made for a great journey.
Instead the movie doesn’t even go to Paris until about halfway through. The India storyline emerges around an hour in. What are they thinking — that telling a story is as simple as, “And then, and then, and then …”?
GET THEE TO A STORY CIRCLE
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a few nice little moments such as the reversal of the India delegation at the Paris meeting, but it all weaves so ineptly back and forth, all over the place. And then ends with narrative poop as we see Gore walk into Trump Tower, obviously for the pathetic meeting he and Leonardo DiCaprio gave the newly elected Trump back in December where Trump clearly was just arrogantly toying with them.
It cuts from Gore entering the building to a close up solo shot of him speaking to someone which obviously must be Trump. This is called THE OBLIGATORY SHOT in filmmaking parlance. If you show us the guy walking into Trump Tower, then Gore blabbering for about a minute, we will connect the dots and know he must be talking to Trump as we get ready for the money shot which is the reverse on Trump. At that point, the Trump shot is obligatory.
BUT … they did nothing of the sort. It was just Al pontificating for too long. No Trump. No money shot. As the Irish commentator on my iPad FIFA game would say after a poor shot on goal, “That’s a complete let off.”
Gore and his filmmakers really should do our Story Circles Narrative Training. Their circle would have figured all these structural elements out. It’s what the story circle does.
EVERYBODY’S A CRITIC
Last year I ripped poor old Marc Morano’s climate skeptic “documentary” on Andy Revkin’s NY Times blog (btw, Doug Parsons just posted his interview with Morano for his America Adapts climate podcast where I join him for the analysis). I criticized his film for the same basic problems — a lack of compelling narrative structure. In his case there were also production shortcomings that were an inevitable result of his limited budget.
For this movie they clearly have all the money in the world for their visual elements, but as my buddy Paul would point out, “Clone Wars” also had the stunning visual effects. It just didn’t have a good story.
Why couldn’t they make “The Empire Strikes Back” for global warming?
When asked for years for good examples of science communication in film I’ve pointed to HBO Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. Not that they communicate science, they’re just a model for how science ought to be communicated. This month they brought their excellent narrative skills to the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. In this post I dissect what they presented to show why I think they are so good at narrative. This is how true professionals communicate effectively. I wish more amateur documentary filmmakers and scientists in general would learn from them. More is not more for media when most of it is so poorly crafted for narrative structure (i.e. stop boring the public).
THIS IS HOW IT’S DONE PROPERLY
For years I’ve raved about the narrative skills on display when you watch HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. The show has won two Peabody Awards among other accolades. How do they do it?
First off, they aren’t driven by any sort of, “You need to know this” agenda. To the contrary. They have a team of people who scour the world for good stories, even if the connection to sports sometimes seems a little stretched. They look far and wide for good stories, first and foremost. Then they work extra hard to shape the narrative structure into as powerful form as possible.
This month they did an excellent segment on the dying of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Without making any specific mention of the amateurishness of most feature environmental documentaries when it comes to narrative, I’ll simply focus on pointing out the various key narrative elements that are so well used in the Real Sports segment.
NARRATIVE MECHANICS AT WORK
Let me start with a few of the key attributes.
THREE ACT STRUCTURE – as we say endlessly in our Story Circles Narrative Training, it’s about the three fundamental forces of narrative. They begin with AGREEMENT. Notice that the first quarter of the show has no tension, no conflict, no issue, no problem — it’s “The Ordinary World” to use Joseph Campbell’s terminology. Bryant Gumbel goes snorkeling on a healthy reef and raves about the beauty.
This makes me think of the summer of 2001 when an editor at the LA Times asked me to write an editorial about coral reefs. She coached me on the structure, saying I should open by “putting us on a coral reef.” This is what the HBO segment does. (btw, that editorial was schedule to run two days after 9/11 occurred — it got booted for obvious reasons, but a year later the editor and I came back with my Shifting Baselines OpEd)
In perfect narrative form, the first act ends with CONTRADICTION — i.e. the statement of the problem. This is exactly what they do, stating the problem which begins the narrative part of their story.
It’s always hard to pinpoint where a third act really begins, but in their story it’s fairly clear as it occurs when they finally move up to “the big fish” that was hinted at from the start (climate change and the coal industry driving it). Bottom line, the structure is excellent.
AROUSE AND FULFILL – it’s the central dictum for mass communication and you see it at work in their three act structure. The entire first act is pure arousal. No information, no statistics, no preachy message — just the pure pleasure of diving on a beautiful coral reef. The narrative process not yet begun — just arousal to start with. The fulfillment will come later, once you really want to know more about this resource.
SUPERLATIVES – superlatives are basically statements of X-tremes (biggest, longest, worst, most dangerous, etc.) and are communications gold in a world of too much noise. The challenge is to not over-reach for them. But if you’ve got ‘em, use ‘em. Which is what they do, being the professionals they are. I count ten superlatives, if we include “Godfather” as a statement of extremes. Of course this is a story that is already set in a world of extremes on the GREAT Barrier Reef, but still, they clearly have the eye for all possible superlatives.
SPECIFICS – rule number one for story is that THE POWER OF STORYTELLING RESTS IN THE SPECIFICS. You see this throughout the piece. Not vague statements about “this is really important,” but specific information and again, statements of extreme, but only where correct and reasonable. Notice that Bryant Gumbel even asks, verbatim, if Dean Miller recalls “any SPECIFIC moment.” This the pathway to the most powerful form of storytelling — to recall individual, specific moments.
DON’T TELL US, SHOW US – twice they yield to this principle — first taking us on a snorkeling trip to a healthy reef, then a few minutes later taking us to dive on a dead reef. It’s the obvious and obligatory footage, but the thing to note is that they weren’t jumping back and forth between the two from the start. No, they took their time giving you a full dose of what a healthy reef looks like. Then they took an equal amount of time to visit the dead reef. These things matter, narratively.
REPETITION – this is the bane of artsy filmmakers who never want to “hit you over the head” with things, or be “too on the nose.” And that’s why they are rarely good at messaging. Effective messaging is all about inculcation — repeating the message, ideally in different ways — but sometimes just bluntly saying the SAME damn thing, as they do a couple of times, especially at the end.
If you’re a fan of John Oliver’s HBO show you may have enjoyed the mission he’s been on showing how the CBS show 60 Minutes egregiously repeats the sound bites of their interview subjects. The host will say, “So that’s what it costs?” The interview subject will say, “So that’s what it costs.” They do it relentlessly. And they are one of the most successful shows in television history. Yes, it’s funny if you look at it analytically, but most of the mass audience isn’t analytical. Which is something that highly educated people have a hard time grasping.
Sorry if you think repetition is tacky. So many of my USC film school classmates headed out in the world wanting to be artsy and not say anything too bluntly, but after twenty years in the business they have a completely different understanding of how things work. You wanna get your point across, you better say it loud, simple, and repetitively. That’s the real world. Get used to it, eggheads.
BACKLOADING OF EXPOSITION – in the last blogpost I talked about my new Get To The Point Rule which is: the quicker you can get through the A and B, the more we’ll let you have all day with the T. You can see this at work in this segment. They have a bunch of factoids to share, but look at where they put them — not in the first act where they would bog everything down. No, they occur about halfway through. That’s what I mean by “backloading.”
STAKES GET RAISED – if you look at The Logline Maker (a 9 part template for crafting an entire story, presented by Dorie Barton in our book “Connection”) you see that step #5 is “The Stakes Get Raised.” You can see that right about the midpoint of the segment. We’ve established that the reef is suffering major problems, BUT here’s what’s worse — the officials aren’t even sounding the alarms about it. What this means structurally is that right about the time the story might be starting to lose momentum they kick it up by raising the stakes. You know how you know to do that? If you have narrative intuition, that’s how.
FINAL SYNTHESIS – the segment ends with the double shot of the core message — that the reef is DYING — spoken by both Charlie Veron, then repeated by Dean Miller. Did they cue Dean to say that bit or did the editor just find it in the interview. I’d guess the former. Then they put the visual lid on the presentation with the final aerial shot pulling away from the reef.
THE NARRATIVE INDEX (BUT/AND RATIO) – here’s a final demonstration of how competent these folks are as storytellers. I have defined The Narrative Index as simply the ratio of the word “But” to “And” for any given text. Some day the know-it-all journalists of the world will open their minds enough to realize how simple and stunningly consistent the patterns are around this index. For now, you’ll just have to use your common sense. Granted it’s not super precise for relatively small amounts of text like this twelve minute segment, but still, the pattern is clear. Have a look:
This is not a fluke. There’s almost no “but’s” in the first act for exactly the reasons I listed above — there shouldn’t be any contradiction in the first act. It’s a place for AGREEMENT. It needs to be free of narrative twists so you can establish the Ordinary World clearly in the viewers mind.
Once the second act begins with the statement of the problem, it’s then time to take us on the whole journey full of twists, turns, and raising of the stakes (“But they aren’t sounding the alarms”).
BOTTOM LINE – The HBO Real Sports team are incredibly gifted at the challenge of creating effective narrative structure. If you doubt this, just watch the stunning story in this same episode they tell about baseball player Rod Carew and his heart transplant. And I mean STUNNING. The stories they find are so powerful, and often have little to do with sports. Their stories are about what interests humans most, which is HUMANS (not science or coral reefs or climate change).
For years I have said the science world could, in theory, produce an equally good program. It would just require one thing — that the producers NOT love science. That is the bane of science programming. Endlessly. The producers always love their science and see humans as inconvenient baggage. The result is content geared for science lovers, not the general public.
And sad to say, given how much I have loved the ocean my entire life, the problem is even worse — much worse — for “ocean lovers” and what they produce.
Here’s my crude outline of the segment, showing these points of structure I’ve mentioned.
Great Barrier Reef is paradise.
It provides a religious experience
SIZE – length of east coast US, area of Germany
LARGEST venue – SUPERLATIVE #1
“NOTHING compares to it” – Dean Miller SUPERLATIVE #2
“It’s like a city full of 3-D billboards” (MAKING IT RELATABLE)
ACTIVE JOURNEY – headed to Port Douglas
“MORE species than anywhere on the planet” – Miller, SUPERLATIVE #3
Gumbel — affirming, adding to superlatives
END OF FIRST ACT – “There’s just one very big problem”
SECOND ACT – the journey begins
THE PROBLEM: Healthy parts like this are getting hard to find
Been around for 25 million years, now DYING (THE MESSAGE)
CAUSE: Fossil fuel burning (but only teased at, start with specifics of bleaching)
IMMEDIATE PROBLEM: Bleaching
Miller: Bleaching means starving (simple language)
Gumbel: Was there one specific moment? (power of storytelling rests in the specifics
Miller: Yes, April, last year — tells of first seeing it
Charlie Veron: We’ve lost HALF
Gumbel: That’s right, half (REPETITION)
Specifics: 30% last year, another 20% this year
SECOND JOURNEY – to view the devastation
“The Godfather of Coral” — SUPERLATIVE #4
“World’s Largest Underwater Graveyard” – SUPERLATIVE #5
BACKLOADING OF EXPOSITION
1 Home to 1/3 of marine life
2 Main source of food for 1/2 billion people
Veron: EVERY coral reef region has been severely hit SUPERLATIVE #6
MORE BACKLOADING OF EXPOSITION
– Great Barrier Reef is great for business
– Centerpiece of Australia’s booming tourism industry
1 2.5 million visitors
2 65,000 jobs
3 6-7 billion dollars/year
STAKES GET RAISED: Officials not sounding alarms
Steve Moon, Tourism Spokesman: The damage is patchy
(to Moon’s credit, Bryant asked, “If you lose the reef do you lose tourism?” He replies absolutely)
THIRD ACT – The real problem is mining industry
#1 Producer of Coal – SUPERLATIVE #7
Veron: Coal industry is the WORST possible thing Australia could do – SUPERLATIVE #8
Matt Kanaban, Minister for Resources of N. Australia: Don’t think coal and environment are at odds
Carmichael Coal Mine will be the BIGGEST coal mine on the planet – SUPERLATIVE #9
Trump Paris Accord
Veron: President of the country that has produce the MOST science – SUPERLATIVE #10
Gumbel: Why are so many supportive of coal?
Veron: Climate change seems to be off in the future, BUT the truth is the Great Barrier Reef is DYING
Miller The reef is DYING – ITERATION
FINAL VISUAL: Wide aerial shot pulling away
“Dunkirk” is a movie that is excellent (92% on Rotten Tomatoes), popular (made $50 mil opening weekend), and with pretty much flawless, simple narrative structure. In fact, it illustrates what I am hereby and from here on calling “The Get to the Point Rule” for the ABT Template. It is the idea that, “The quicker you can get through the A and the B (set up and problem), the more the audience will let you have all day with the T … provided you’ve set it up right.” Here’s the ABT for “Dunkirk”: The British troops are retreating AND in a month they could all be evacuated safely, BUT the Germans have them surrounded, THEREFORE they only have a few frantic days to escape. That’s it. They go through the A and B in the first minute of the movie. The rest is T, delivered at relentless speed. It’s a great movie.
THEREFORE, THEREFORE, THEREFORE ..
I’m putting a name on this ABT rule I’ve been saying repeatedly over the past year. I’m calling it The Get to the Point Rule. The rule is, the quicker you can get through the A and B, the more we want to hear lots and lots about the T, provided you’ve set it up well.
I saw “Dunkirk,” yesterday, thoroughly enjoyed it, and realized it gets through the A and the B in about the first minute. It starts with a couple of screens of text telling you the set up (the British are retreating) and the problem (the Germans have them surrounded). Within another minute we get the first of many THEREFOREs as the actor we’re following runs out on the beach and sees thousands of soldiers standing in line waiting to be transported back to England — i.e. THEREFORE everyone is stuck trying to escape quickly.
From there it’s basically THEREFORE men are being killed by the enemy, THEREFORE they need to bring in rescue ships as quick as possible, THEREFORE just standing on the beach is life threatening.
And then they start back with a whole series of minor ABTs — BUT there’s German planes strafing them, BUT there’s British planes defending them, BUT the Germans manage to sink a ship next to the pier, THEREFORE other ships will have trouble getting in.
Lots of smaller ABTs as the movie moves along the arc of the over-arching ABT. The central problem is the need to get back to Britain. The solution is the fleet of boats that eventually come over (if you think this is a spoiler you don’t know your basic WWII history — also, you might want to hear from a historian about the creative licenses taken).
It’s a great movie, a total ABT workout from start to finish, and shows how if you provide tight enough ABT structure you really don’t have to have much of any character work. Filmmakers figured this dynamic out over a century ago with the serial queen melodramas like “The Perils of Pauline” which we learned about in film school. The recent and brilliant “Mad Max” was a direct descendent of that genre, as is “Dunkirk.”
Give the masses a tight, fast paced story and they really don’t need much else (including character work and backstory). Do this and you score 92% with Rotten Tomatoes. Such is the eternal magic of story.
“Right, our polls show the public doesn’t want candidates who pay too much attention to the polls. So let’s do a poll to see what they do want.” The Democrats are in such a quagmire. Here’s an article this morning in The Hill that confirms Democrats aren’t gonna win with no message. In “Houston, We Have A Narrative,” there are narrative tools that can help with structuring a message, but the problem is they can’t work if there is no message to start with. Everyone should get comfortable with the Republicans for a long road ahead. Narrative is everything. The Democrats, at present, have nothing, aside from “we hate that guy” which polls show isn’t enough.
NO MEANS NO
It’s official — you aren’t going to get elected through hate alone. Here’s a simple article this morning reporting polls that basically show that the “We Hate That Guy” message is not enough to take over leadership of the nation.
It didn’t work for the last candidate. It won’t work for the next.
You gotta have a positive, constructive message. The ABT can help tremendously once someone knows the message. The Dobzhansky Template can actually find the message. But until the Democrats get more analytical about narrative and realize there’s more to it than just gut feelings, nothing will change. THEREFORE … everyone might as well get comfortable with the behemoth that the Republican party has become.
And in the meanwhile, they need to take to heart this quote from a New York Times editorial on January 17 that still holds true:
Listen to this story from last year’s winner of The Moth storytelling competition. It’s a beautiful story that she tells AND I hate to ruin it by suggesting you analyze it (like a bunch of scientists — and keep in mind this is coming from the guy who wrote the book “Don’t Be Such A Scientist”), BUT … it really is a textbook example of how the ABT works, THEREFORE …
AS SIMPLE AS ABT
Mary Kate Flanagan is from Ireland and is a former student of Frank Daniel, the screenwriting guru who in the 1980’s first pointed out the And, But, Therefore (ABT) dynamic. Last year she won “The Moth” storytelling competition with this perfectly delivered story about her father’s funeral.
If you listen close in the first 1.5 minutes you’ll hear the ABT structure plain as day. She says AND 7 times, she says BUT 6 times, she says SO (the more common equivalent of THEREFORE) 4 times. That’s a LOT of structure. I have developed the Narrative Index (the BUT/AND ratio) in the past. A value of 30 for the N.I. is exceptional. Her ratio for that first minute and a half is 86.
These things matter.
Furthermore, if you consider her overall structure, you see she follows the MONOMYTH to a tee. She begins by introducing her theme — that there are 6 strong sisters who together can do anything. The Ordinary World is set up (that the father dies and they’re all set to bury him with the sisters carrying the coffin), BUT THEN the funeral director says they’re not strong enough which takes us into the Special World and off on the journey.
The problem is eventually solved, then notice where she concludes the story — full circle, back to what she said at the start with her THEME (that the parents gave them all they ever needed in the world — six strong sisters).
Not surprisingly she teaches screenwriting and is a member of The Frank Daniel Institute. Kind of helps with the understanding the power of the ABT when you see it so effectively on display like this.
Here’s her very impressive website: http://www.adramaticimprovement.com
The news used to be driven by the truth, at least in theory. Today — more than ever — it’s driven by story (as Trump knows well), which requires sources of contradiction. When contradiction is in short supply, Twitter conveniently provides it. USA Today knows this at a deep and instinctive level. They continue to blaze the path into The Age of Mediocrity.
STORY TRUMPS TRUTH
Narrative consists of three forces — AGREEMENT, CONTRADICTION, CONSEQUENCE. If you want a solid narrative structure, you need sources of all three.
Furthermore, Rule #1 of storytelling is that “The power of storytelling rests in the specifics.”
Today’s news media has a ravenous appetite for both contradiction and specifics. Twitter provides both.
If I tell you Ann Coulter got into a spat on a flight, that’s moderately interesting. But if I can use Twitter to quote specific words from her AND specific words of opposition, as USA Today does in this article today, it’s much more powerful. Who cares whether the Twitter sources are reputable.
Even more to the point, if I tell you Ed Sheeran’s appearance on “Game of Thrones” sucked, that’s moderately interesting. But it’s much more interesting and engaging if I can cite specific voices — regardless of whether they are professional movie critics. Who cares who they are, they are sources of contradiction and specifics — precious narrative fuel.
It’s happening all day, every day now. How do movie critics even have a job any more? How do any experts have jobs? We are devolving into a gelatinous mass of supposedly all-knowing crowd-sourced knowledge, driven by an increasingly insatiable thirst for narrative, accompanied by an increasing disgust and even contempt for what used to be known as “the truth.”
Thus continues our information-glutted sleigh ride into The Age of Mediocrity, overseen by The Master of Contradiction in the White House. And followed suit by the increasingly dull and mediocre Democrats who respect and value the voices of mediocrity.
It’s here, it’s there, it’s everywhere you look. Like this article in this month’s issue of The Atlantic. As Aaron Huertas says, it’s like the arrow in the Fedex logo — once you see it, you can’t unsee it.
YES, IT IS THAT SIMPLE AND COMMON
I continue to wage war against all the old farts who say “it’s not that simple.” Yes it is.
We’re definitely making progress. We’ve now run or are running 26 Story Circles. Yesterday we had an “ABT Build Session” with about 20 USDA veterans of Story Circles. It was 90 minutes of discussing and editing about 10 ABTs of the participants. It’s a standard aspect of Story Circles training which is both interesting and productive for everyone involved.
And then this morning I open this month’s issue of The Atlantic and there it is, plain as day — the ABT in the form of the little teaser at the start of an article about a psychiatrist written by David Dobbs who obviously has good narrative intuition.
It’s everywhere you find good communication. Yes, it is that simple.
GIVE ‘EM WHAT THEY WANT
FLORIDA’S CORAL REEF FACADE
NOBODY WANTS TO WATCH DEAD CORAL REEF FOOTAGE
COMIC WRITERS DO MORE THAN WRITE JOKES
Bill Maher apologized on Friday for his racial slur in a show that was not quite as effective as it could have been. One of the problems was he led with the CEREBRAL (Professor Michael Eric Dyson) and ended with the VISCERAL (rapper Ice Cube). It would have worked better in the opposite order.
FIRST YOU WANT TO AROUSE, THEN YOU NEED TO FULFILL
“THE LEFT IS SNIDE, THE RIGHT IS DANGEROUS” – DAN SAVAGE
John Oliver last night suggested Trump might have inadvertently given the climate movement something they’ve needed from the start. I’m in total agreement. It’s easy to see if you look at it in ABT terms. Trump is the B of the ABT that “the climate narrative” has needed all along. This is why Al Gore’s boring “And, And, And” (AAA) movie was so sadly misguided. Narrative is everything.
EVERY NARRATIVE NEEDS A BUT
John Oliver, on his often-brilliant HBO show “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” ended last night’s episode with the following:
JOHN OLIVER: This week the climate movement may have gotten a symbol to rally around because apparently it was never quite enough to motivate ourselves out of love for this large gassy orb (EARTH photo), but maybe, just maybe we can now motivate ourselves to do something out of our loathing of THIS one (TRUMP photo).
He is absolutely right.
LET’S LOOK AT IT FROM THE ABT PERSPECTIVE
Here’s what John Oliver is saying. For twenty years all sorts of well meaning people have been boring the holy hell out of the masses with their AAA (“And, And, And”) documentaries and other do-gooder media efforts. Throughout my first book, “Don’t Be Such A Scientist,” I used Al Gore’s snoozefest, “An Inconvenient Truth,” as an example of poor communication. Six years later in “Houston, We Have A Narrative,” I went into even more detail about this using the ABT.
Why was all that media so boring? Because it lacked narrative strength. How did it lack narrative strength? It lacked contradiction. How could it have had contradiction? By going after the climate skeptics, big time.
Did Al Gore deal with the climate skeptics? Only in a weak and misguided way. He dismissed them right off the bat. In so doing he wasted his entire opportunity to create narrative strength.
Gore dealt with climate skeptics with a single number. He presented the number of studies examined by Naomi Oreskes in her Science paper and posed the question of how many of them disagreed with the consensus on climate change. The answer was zero, meaning that in the real science world nobody buys into climate skepticism. And that was it. From there on he basically implied that climate skepticism was a trivial topic and never visited it again in the movie.
Big mistake. That was his potentially powerful source of contradiction. Factually they might have been a trivial force, but narratively they presented a huge opportunity. That was wasted.
Even if they were only straw men, they could have been the source of contradiction to drive a good narrative structure and engage the brains of the audience. The audience could have been on the edge of their seats, asking about the THEREFORE. As in “Therefore what are we gonna do about them, before we end up with one of them as President?”
But he didn’t take advantage of that because he and the filmmakers were so weak on narrative intuition.
IGNORE THE SKEPTICS AND THEY WILL GO AWAY (NOT)
So is anyone in the climate movement FINALLY ready to accept that “ignore them and they will go away” is not a viable strategy for climate skeptics? It never was, any more than to ignore the Swift Boat Veterans ever was for John Kerry. I swear, the instincts of the left are just so bad when it comes to politics.
Trump is now the grand manifestation of the skeptic perspective and that is a potentially good thing, as John Oliver implied. Yes, there will be some setbacks, but he is the singular source of contradiction that is now bringing the entire ABT of climate into focus. The climate crowd at least finally knows who and where the enemy is and how to combat them.
Just look at some of the things happening. The fact that almost all of the major corporations are in support of the Paris Accord is now a huge story. There have been small articles over the past decade pointing out how both the military and major corporations have accepted climate change as a serious threat, but it’s only now that it’s suddenly a big story, thanks to Trump. John Oliver pointed out that Walmart, Bank of America and Phillip Morris all support the Paris Accord. The entire issue is now coming into very clear and simple focus, thanks to Trump.
It could have happened a decade ago, but the people in charge are just too devoid of narrative intuition. And so now the world has assembled the narrative elements for them.
The question is whether anyone in the movement will actually listen and learn anything. Or will they just revert to their AAA ways of the past decade.
Honest to goodness, it’s in the news this morning, and it’s all about the ABT. World Bank Chief Economist Paul Romer has been trying to get World Bank folks to reduce their use of the word “and.” He’s demanded final reports not have “and” be more than 2.6% of total words. YES! He gets it! This is narrative warfare!
“AND” FURTHERMORE …
FROM: Financial Times, May 26, 2017
THE CHARGE: EXCESSIVE EXPOSITION
This is a case for the ABT! World Bank Chief Economist Paul Romer has “stripped of management duties” after sending too many memos trying to combat the plague of “Bankspeak” that exists at the World Bank. He is my new official hero!
There’s a bunch of articles this week, but this one is perhaps most direct, in Bloomberg News.
Somebody needs to get him a Narrative Spectrum refrigerator magnet. Paul Romer is a warrior in The War on Boredom!
MOVIN’ ON UP
It’s been two years since we ran the first prototypes of Story Circles with NIH and USDA. Back then we were wondering “how will we manage to scale this up?” The answer will come to life next week in Fort Collins, Colorado.
In January of this year we ran Demo Days in Ft Collins and Lakewood, Colorado. They involved a total of 57 participants. It took a couple of months to do the organizing, but by late March it was clear that enough people were eager and their schedules open to organize 6 Story Circles.
I’ll be going to Ft Collins next Tuesday and Wednesday to help with the launching of each circle. It’s great that we waited two years for this step forward. A year ago I would have been a little nervous about the logistics, but now that we’ve completed 16 Story Circles we’ve got the whole routine down and know how to launch them with no glitches.
TRUE SELF-GUIDED LEARNING
Story Circles is not like a college course. Not at all. Aside from the initial orientation, there are no lectures, no note taking, no readings. It’s just week after week, analyzing material we give you, then analyzing the material of the group members. A few people have called it boring. If you find it boring, you’re not doing it right. A lot of people have called it hard and even draining. If you find it hard and even draining … you’re probably doing it right.
The process really works when you hit the point that you’re spotting the ABT in the real world and finding yourself thinking A LOT about the narrative structure of things around you. Like movies, or newspaper articles, or radio segments, or a presentation you’re attending. That is when Story Circles is starting to work. Not so much during the ten one hour segments, but rather outside of them and in the weeks and months after you finish the last segment.
At this point we’ve had lots of people report back that the training is very, very valuable. And a few who simply didn’t get it. It’s definitely not the happy fun social hours that Jayde Lovell and I originally thought it might be. It’s hard work. But also very effective. Which is why we’re excited about these 6 new circles that will begin next week.
He uses two simple devices to make sure his new hour long Netflix comedy special has structure, moves along, and pays off brilliantly at the end. Narrative matters.
ADVANCING THE NARRATIVE …
If you’re a fan of Dave Chappelle, as I have been from way back, you’ll love his new stand up comedy special on Netflix that was his first show in LA in over a decade. The material is of course both crude and hilarious, but what’s worth noting are two narrative devices he uses.
The first one needs a tiny bit of a SPOILER ALERT so read no further if you want a completely blank slate in watching it. But it’s actually not much of a spoiler. It’s just that he says at the start he’s going to tell you the stories of the four different times he met O.J. Simpson in person.
When he gets to the end and walks off stage, he’s only told you three of them. I think you can guess what happens.
If you’re a fan of narrative structure, just think of the 5 rules of “archplot” I listed in “Houston, We Have A Narrative,” citing Robert McKee’s 8 rules in his landmark 1997 book, “Story.” One of them is the need for the “closed ending” where all threads are tied up at the end of the story. Telling only 3 of 4 promised stories leaves the audience member feeling unfulfilled and not ready to go home.
Leaving you with one story untold might actually leave some of the more artistic and intellectually inclined stimulated to go home wondering what that last one was. But most of the masses would just be pissed, wanting to shout out, “Hey, where’s our fourth story?”
Dave Chappelle’s humor is oriented to the masses, not the sophisticates. You can guess what he does.
But the key thing for narrative structure is that with each of the four stories he tells, you can feel him “advancing the narrative.” This makes the show more than just an “And, And, And” presentation of a bunch of funny bits as you’d get from a lesser comedian. Advancing the narrative is essential to narrative structure.
AND PAYING IT OFF
The other thing is more sophisticated and I don’t want to give it away, but suffice it to say he delivers a prime example of “plant and payoff.” This is a standard part of high quality storytelling.
You’ve seen it in a million movies. Some prop or idea or line is “planted” early in the movie, then “paid off” later when it returns. If you want to read a rundown on this technique, here’s a whole essay from my film school classmate Sean Hood (who by the way is in my upcoming video on Story Circles with AAAS).
So Dave Chappelle sets up something in great detail during the course of the hour long show, then surprises you at the end by bringing it back for his grand synthesis which is hilarious and perfect. He’s working at a level well above the majority of comedians today.
“Will the Science March Wither Away like the Women’s March?” is the headline right now on the website for Science Magazine. Which is a good question with a sad likely answer. Unlike the March for Science, the Women’s March, and probably the upcoming People’s March for Climate (which all have huge turnouts but no new message), the Earth Optimism Summit delivered a clear new message which was, “Time to focus on success.” The event was a solid success and a case study in how to “advance the narrative” for environmentalism. Kudos to Dr. Nancy Knowlton of the Smithsonian Institution, the visionary behind the entire Earth Optimism narrative. Whether Earth Optimism actually will change things remains to be seen, but for now, it achieved the essential goal which is “advancing the narrative.”
ADVANCING THE NARRATIVE: IT’S ABOUT HAVING A NEW ARGUMENT TO MAKE
That’s what narrative is about, at its core — having an argument that you keep refreshing over time. The three day Earth Optimism Summit last weekend in Washington DC wasn’t the typical hot air gathering of eggheads. This is because of one main reason: It had a clear new message. The message was, in simple terms, “Enough with the bad news, let’s focus on where we’re succeeding in protecting nature.”
Contrast this with the March for Science which had no clear message except the same old “science is good.” And compare to what you get at most conservation meetings — no clear message other than the obvious one of “we need to save nature” (duh). Earth Optimism had a narrative that calls for a SPECIFIC new action (to focus on success).
I gave a talk at Earth Optimism (EO) on Friday morning titled, “Narrative is Leadership.” My session was titled, “Inspiring Positive Action.” All four of the talks were indeed inspiring. But they also had something in common with every talk, discussion, pointed comment and biting piece of humor at the entire event. They were all about the argument/message that we need to shift the tone from pessimism to optimism, with the suggested mechanism being “focus on success stories.”
THE DEFINITION OF NARRATIVE
In “Houston, We Have A Narrative,” I defined the word “narrative” as “The series of events that occur in the search for a solution to a problem.” If you apply this to EO you see they are on a clear narrative pathway. The PROBLEM is flagging energy for conservation as people are growing tired and demoralized from the bad news. The SOLUTION is a re-energized populace.
Whether the Earth Optimism Summit’s idea of focusing on solutions is even the right way to achieve this solution remains to be seen. But for now, what is important is that EO is “ADVANCING THE NARRATIVE” (an essential element) meaning it is a step along the way in the search to find the solution to the problem. Getting together to complain about the same old defeats in conservation is the definition of NOT advancing the narrative, which eventually bores and demoralizes everyone.
SO WILL THIS WEEKEND’S PEOPLE’S CLIMATE MARCH ADVANCE THE CLIMATE NARRATIVE?
I doubt it. I’m not hearing anything to suggest they are advancing their narrative. All it looks to be is the same old whining about the climate changing and the right is to blame. That was going on a decade ago in the wake of Al Gore’s movie.
It’s actually similar to what the entire Democratic party is doing right now about Trump — not launching new ideas in an effort to advance their narrative (as Trump did with his “Make America Great Again” theme) — just wallowing in the same stuff.
No, the Democrats at the moment are stuck. They are endlessly fact checking, calling their opponents liars, screaming about how unfair it all is, but not advancing their narrative (for example, the Affordable Care Act — why aren’t they proposing their own means of fixing it?). I guarantee you they will never succeed until they get back onto the narrative journey, creating events that will serve as new stepping stones in the search for the solutions to the problems.
As I said on Friday as loudly as possible, NARRATIVE IS LEADERSHIP.
It’s unfortunate, but somebody has to say these things. The March for Science was stunning in the size of the turnout, yet equally stunning in the lack of a message. No one wants to say this, but I will. The message is, “There’s no leadership in science.” The march wasn’t the doing of the science “leadership” — it was organized by “the troops.” I discussed this on NPR on Friday. An absence of leadership wasn’t a problem in the 1950’s, but it is today.
ONE FROM THE GUT
On Saturday I took part in the March for Science in Washington DC. The turnout, despite heavy rain, was stunning and inspiring. It hit me at the gut level — both humor and emotion. Clearly there is a ton of good will at the grassroots level of the science world. But there’s a problem. The leadership is lacking.
I’ve been hitting this note for years and even mentioned it in my 2015 book, “Houston, We Have A Narrative.” It bothered me in the 1980’s when I was a scientist. The profession is run by faceless committees. Which was fine in the pro-science 1950’s and 1960’s, but we’re now in a different era. It’s a problem.
I was on NPR on Friday talking about, “the message” of the March for Science. There was no message. Actually, as Ed Yong identified, there were at least 21 “messages.” But in a world of too much information, that ends up resulting in their being no overall message.
EVERYBODY GO HOME!
The absence of a message on Saturday was abundantly clear. It started in January when the march first arose, not from the ranks of leadership, but from the grassroots level on Reddit. I was on the periphery of the communications team since near the start. They never managed to decide on whether the event was a politicized anti-Trump rally or a happy fun science festival day for the family. It ended up being sort of both, and also neither.
The absence of a message was most apparent on the website where they never did post any sort of slug line or slogan within the artwork. The closest they had was, “Science, Not Silence” (I dare you to say that ten times fast).
The clearest demonstration of a lack of a message was two things:
1 THE END OF THE MARCH – the march ended in front of the Capitol building. A friend who was at the front told me they got there, everyone was ready for speeches and instructions on what to do, but instead there was just a woman on a loudspeaker saying, “Thanks for coming, all done.” Basically, go home. No one was told what to do (i.e. “Write your congressman, organize your colleagues”)
2 NO MEDIA TRACTION – coverage of the march was ephemeral and kind of trivial. The main focus was all the funny signs and science puns. But there was no clear message. Having a message, means having a narrative, which is what the media world feeds on because “media is narrative” as I said in my Friday talk at the Earth Optimism Summit.
THE MESSAGE: WHERE’S OUR LEADERSHIP?
Q: What is the official policy of the science world on debating anti-science people?
A: There is none.
Right now the American Psychological Association is doing a good job telling psychologists to remember The Goldwater Rule (to not publicly evaluate the mental health of politicians in office). That is leadership.
But for the science world, trying to stop CNN from including climate skeptics in their climate “debates” seems to fall on peripheral entertainers like Bill Nye. In 2010 I blogged the recommendation that no one other than comedians debate climate skeptics, but that was just me, not the appointed “leadership” of the science world.
NARRATIVE IS LEADERSHIP
This was the title of my talk on Friday. It’s my message for 2017. It’s what I spoke about to James Carville’s class at Tulane University in January. It’s what I’m preaching now through our Story Circles Narrative Training (which will launch 6 circles next month with National Park Service in Colorado!).
I spoke with a friend yesterday who is a geologist. She told me that only 10 of the 52 member organizations of the American Geosciences Institute (the big umbrella group for geology) supported the march. The others were “put off” by the political tone of the organizers.
Which just confirms the predicament. There is no clear leadership for the profession of science. And that’s a problem, given the anti-science tone of the current administration.
I’m not sure what the solution is, but the one thing I know well is that everything has to start by identifying the problem. Everyone seems to think “the problem” is Trump. But I feel there’s a deeper problem, which is the absence of effective leadership with which to defend the profession. It’s not the end of the world, but is definitely something that needs to be addressed.
The March for Science page should have had a clear slug line on it. It should have asked, “Oh, Leaders, Where Art Thou?”
Anyone surprised? Yes, she’s gorgeous, but when she speaks she ain’t saying much. At least not in narrative terms. The Narrative Index of her speech yesterday at the State Department was 0. One IF, 35 ANDs, no BUTs.
NOT YOUR BEST BEDTIME STORYTELLER
The First Lady gave a speech at the State Department yesterday as part of presenting the International Medal of Courage Award to 13 women. I’m sure it was well received, and it’s not to say that the simple Narrative Index of BUTs to ANDs (times 100) is the definitive word on content, but really … zero?
That’s what she scored. She never said the word BUT though she said AND 35 times. It was pretty much of a perfect And, And, And, (AAA) presentation.
The deeper question is who wrote it? Which of course was the same question raised for her RNC speech last summer, part of which was plagiarized from Michelle Obama. That speech at least had 5 BUTs for an NI score of 7 (though none of the BUTs were in the plagiarized part).
The bottom line is that she speaks the same as she looks. Beautiful but kind of shallow when it comes to content.
If Michael Crichton were alive today he would look at the news of President Trump and just say one thing, “Yep, figures.” His 1999 AAAS keynote address was titled, “Ritual Abuse, Hot Air, and Missed Opportunities.” Among many things, he was offering up advice on how to deal with fake news. He tried. No one listened.
WHAT ARE SPEECHES FOR, WHEN NO ONE LISTENS ANY MORE?
That’s a paraphrasing of “Words,” the old 1980’s song from Missing Persons. And is what Michael Crichton must have felt in response to his 1999 keynote address to the AAAS meeting titled, “Ritual Abuse, Hot Air, and Missed Opportunities.”
The title referred to “ritual abuse” meaning the anger of the science world in feeling misunderstood, “hot air” the fact that most media is just that (so what), and “missed opportunities” — that it really isn’t that hard to use of the media, you just need to do it.
Michael Crichton was a giant of a man, not just physically (at 6’10”) but intellectually. He was a smart guy who left a burgeoning career in medicine to become a bestselling science fiction writer, reaching a peak with his landmark novel, “Jurassic Park.”
Over the years he kept in touch with the science world and by the late 1990’s had plenty of smart things to say given that no one in science had his understanding of mass media. He offered up his wisdom in 1999 as the keynote speaker at the annual meeting of AAAS. He ended his talk by listing 4 problems and their possible solutions.
He started the last bit of the talk saying, “If I were magically put in charge of improving the status and image of science, I’d start by using the media, instead of feeling victimized by them.”
Look at the quote above in the photo. He knew what was coming. He could have predicted that one day the Presidency would be won by a master media manipulator. He tried to instruct the science world on how the system works. But scientists don’t listen.
CRICHTON’S PROBLEMS AND SOLUTIONS
Here’s his specific itemization of major media/image problems faced by science and how to deal with them. Just about none of this was heeded.
PROBLEM 1: FEELING “USED” BY THE MEDIASOLUTION: Instead of fighting and resisting reporters, work with them. The AAAS Mass Media Fellows program has been somewhat of an effort in this direction, but still is only a program for training reporters. It’s not the sort of real world/public relations firm style involvement with shaping media that he was talking about. Scientists are too terrified of media to ever do that.
PROBLEM 2: INACCURACYSOLUTION: Set up a service bureau for reporters. One genuine stride in this direction has been the National Academy of Sciences Science and Entertainment Exchange program in Hollywood which has provided a service to writers to help them with the scientific accuracy of their scripts. And even better, and pre-dating them, is the Hollywood Health and Society project of the USC Annenberg School of Communication. But still, both projects are sort of “passive” media manipulation — offering up help, but not actively going after stories to set them straight.
PROBLEM 3: FAKE NEWSSOLUTION: Establish a “GOOD HOUSEKEEPING SEAL” for reporters so that your denial has power. This was never even close to being addressed. It should have been. In 2005 John Ioannidis offered up his false positives problem for the biomedical world, and by 2010 David H. Freedman had published his powerful book, “Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us …” Crichton’s solution was basically to use the power of branding — to establish a trusted and reliable brand for science, such as exists for the CDC. But nobody was close to thinking in these terms.
PROBLEM 4: FAKE EXPERTSSOLUTION: RECOGNIZABLE SPOKESPERSONS – science needs to anoint designated experts, respect them, then use them to put a human face on science. This was such good advice. I bet the person he was thinking of was Surgeon General C. Everett Koop — the only Surgeon General to attain rock star/badass status. The Associated Press said, “Koop was the only surgeon general to become a household name.” He kicked ass on tobacco and AIDS under a Republican President, Reagan. I once stood next to him at the urinals at Boston’s Logan Airport and wanted to shake his hand but obviously was the wrong time. He was awesome, with his bow tie and Amish beard. He stood up to the tobacco industry and created exactly what Crichton proposed — a trusted, reliable voice of knowledge and authority endorsed by the science community. Similar things can be said for Carl Sagan. But that’s about it. Since then it’s been a string of dull, faceless scientists trying to interact with the media, eventually devolving into Bill Nye the Science Clown. Oh, well. Neil Degrasse Tyson does come close to Crichton’s vision, but he’s not officially sanctioned by the science world.
Tragic, really. The bungling ineptitude of the science community and the pro-science Democratic party eventually ends up with the obvious result — President Trump. As the Science March folks prepare for what will hopefully be a huge turnout on April 22, they should keep in mind that the most media-savvy science proponent in history, Michael Crichton, did once upon a time offer up the advice that was needed, but nobody listened.
It’s the bane of scientists. They don’t listen.
THE EARTH OPTIMISM ABT: Earth Day is the largest secular holiday in the world, AND since 1970 has presented the bad news of how we are destroying the planet, BUT bad news takes a toll, THEREFORE this year the Smithsonian Institution is presenting The Earth Optimism Summit which shifts the focus of Earth Day to stories of success.
ALL WE ARE SAYING, IS GIVE OPTIMISM A CHANCE
“We’re destroying nature.” “We’re killing the planet.” “Everything is dying.” “We’re all horrible people.”
That’s been “the narrative” for the environmental movement for over 45 years — since the first Earth Day in 1970. It was needed in the early days to motivate and light the fires needed to defend the planet. But there’s an air of pessimism that inevitably arises from so much grim news. That pessimism eventually saps the life out of even the hardest workers.
Two scientists who figured out this problem more than a decade ago are coral reef ecologists Drs. Nancy Knowlton and Jeremy Jackson. I watched their awakening over the course of several years when they were professors of marine biology at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
By 2010 they were both starting to work to change the tone of ocean conservation from constant kvetching to focusing more on “where things are working.” They launched a series of symposia around the title, “Beyond the Obituaries for the Oceans.” Their feeling was, “We’ve read enough obituaries for parts of the ocean, let’s shift our attention to the pockets of success in saving the oceans.”
Nancy launched the hashtag for #OceanOptimism which rapidly gained popularity. A couple years ago she then began spreading the theme to #EarthOptimism. From there she took the idea to the top of the Smithsonian Institution, where she is now a senior scientist. They got behind it in a big way, and voila …
THE EARTH OPTIMISM SUMMIT APRIL 21-23 IN WASHINGTON DC — YOU CAN ATTEND!
The plans are now set for a gathering of over 200 conservationists ranging from scientists to economist to lawyers to communications folks to tell stories of conservation success from around the world. I’ll be one of the speakers. And here’s the good news — it’s open to the public for a modest registration fee.
Actually, here’s the very best news — the event has a clear narrative. Unlike too many gatherings these days where people don’t really know what they’re trying to say (they’re just angry) this event knows EXACTLY what it has to say.
What the organizers and all the participants have for a message is laid out clearly with ABT structure in the subtitle above. In fact, you can even boil it down to a single word, reflecting a clarity of purpose that’s essential for people to dedicate their lives to a mission and remain inspired over time.
That word is OPTIMISM.
A friend who attended the Oscars complained to me, “There were so many amazing stories for the night, I can’t believe the only thing the media talked about was the Best Picture mistake.” Actually that was the ONLY real story, and that’s why it dominated everything. The starting point for understanding storytelling is to understand what is, and is not, a story.
LET ME TELL YOU A STORY …
Rick Nelson, our wonderful Story Circles aficionado with US Fish and Wildlife Service likes to tell about his buddy in graduate school who, “always said he was gonna tell you a story … and then he never did.” Let’s consider this basic dynamic for Sunday’s Oscar’s debacle.
An actress friend of mine called me yesterday to tell me about what she saw at the Oscars, which she attended with her husband. The first thing she said to me was, “It was such an amazing evening — there were so many great awards given out, great speeches, and great performances — I can’t believe the only thing the media is talking about is the big mistake at the end of it all.”
Well, I can believe it.
Everyone is indeed still talking about “the big mistake.” It’s Wednesday and I just listened to Jim Parsons (who was in “Hidden Figure”) on a radio show. The host asked him if everyone was talking about the big mistake at the post-Oscars parties. He said, “Yes, of course, non-stop, you couldn’t quit referencing it.”
In fact it was a real story because there was a genuine real PROBLEM/SOLUTION dynamic to it. Nothing else in the evening — none of the awards, award speeches, performances, jokes — none of those things presented a real problem that needed to be solved, and especially not at that level of importance. The result was there were no other significant stories to tell.
In “Houston, We Have A Narrative” I defined the word “narrative” as “the series of events that occur in the search for a solution to a problem” and explained how that is the dynamic at the center of a story. Now, think of the Oscars evening in those terms and you begin to see why 100% of the major media coverage focused on “the mistake.”
THE BORING FACTS
Yes, there were lots of great awards given out and honors paid, but those are, by comparison, pretty much just facts — of interest to some, but not to the masses. The one thing that interests everyone is THE STORY of what happened at the end. A problem arose — wrong winner announced — a solution was found — gave it to the right winner. The story that interests everyone was THE SERIES OF EVENTS THAT OCCURRED IN THE SEARCH FOR THE SOLUTION TO THE PROBLEM.
Australians inspire me to make trouble. If you’re going to South By Southwest Education Conference in a couple weeks, come hear me plus three crazy Australians on March 9. We are presenting a panel on, “Science Refugees.” Also, Jayde Lovell is giving her own talk at SXSW Interactive on “narrative selection.”
My Story Circles Narrative Training co-conspirator Jayde Lovell is the ring leader responsible for getting us to South By Southwest in a couple of weeks. For over two years I’ve been working with her and going from fan to loyal follower. She is now the head of her own science PR agency named ReAgency, runs Sci Q, her own science channel on The Young Turks Network, her own space at the Youtube Studios, is the head of social media for the Tyler Award for Environmental Science, is Chief Storyteller for The Science March, won the National Academy of Engineering’s Next MacGyver contest, and is the funniest person I’ve met in decades.
Suffice it to say, we’re gonna have fun in Austin. Come join us if you’re there.
If you’re giving a talk or teaching a class and want an amusing analogy for the Narrative Spectrum here’s a little thing we did with an Ikea desk. Feel free to put it into your presentation.
THE IDEAL FORM
Think of the Narrative Spectrum as being like assembling an Ikea desk. If you just stare at the parts and never even start the journey, that’s the AAA (And, And, And) form. It’s non-narrative — you never even started the narrative process.
If you throw the instructions away, over-think how it all goes together, then just do it yourself, turning your nose up at 4,000 years of narrative selection, you end up with something like the DHY form (Despite, However, Yet) — a confused mess.
But … if you heed the age old powers of narrative (i.e. you read the instructions/learn about the ABT), take the time to do things right, then you end up with the ABT form (And, But, Therefore) and everything works properly.
Yes, it takes time to do it right, but do you really want to bore or confuse people?
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine just announced they are releasing a report titled, “Communicating Science Effectively.” A quick search of the report for key words reveals a number of biases in the thinking behind it. I’m sorry, but this is a sad case of the blind leading the blind. Truly it is.
LET THE NUMBERS DO THE TALKING
The numbers say it all. How can you talk about communicating anything effectively and never mention the word SIMPLICITY? Any mathematician, for starters, will tell you the key to solving problems effectively is to find the simple solution. There’s the age old adage that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” And yet here is a report from the National Academies that doesn’t have even a hint of that thinking?
How can you talk about communication and not mention the word INTUITION? Communication isn’t something that robots know how to do. It’s done by humans. They draw on intuition when they communicate. Even if they are scientists. Even if they are scientists speaking at the most intense of scientific meetings. I know this, I was a scientist once.
There is nothing in this report about the need to find singular, unifying themes, or consider science as a journey. There’s not even a nod to the IMRAD template that lies at the heart of the effective communication for research scientists.
How does something like this happen?
And yet … what you do see in the numbers is the word FRAMING mentioned 67 times. What is framing? There’s not even clear agreement on what the term means, much less agreement that it leads to effective communication. It was debated hotly in 2007. It may be the cutting edge of debate among theoreticians, but then if that’s so, the report should have had been called “Communicating Science Theoretically.”
This report is so vastly mislabeled. I don’t want to ridicule it, I just want readers to know that as the science community complains about not being heard, this is where large amounts of effort are going.
Having trouble sleeping? Here’s three hours of my droning voice, going on and on about the ABT, that’s a guaranteed cure for insomnia.
It’s been a busy past few months for me on the podcast circuit (with a couple more in the works). Here’s three I’ve done since the election.
My buddy Park Howell is a professor in the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University. He and I connected nearly four years ago when he read my second book, “Connection,” and instantly grasped the power and importance of the ABT Narrative Template. He listened to me try to warn about the power of Donald Trump as a communicator, but when my warnings proved correct he had me appear on his podcast the morning after the election.
AMERICA ADAPTS: CORAL REEFS COMMUNICATION IS BAD NEWS
Doug Parsons was part of our Connection Storymaker Workshop in 2011 when he was working for the National Park Service on their climate team. He eventually branched off on his own and started this excellent climate podcast, American Adapts. We had a few discussions last fall about climate issues, but when I started ranting at length about the poor job that’s been done in communicating about the worldwide decline of coral reefs he demanded I put my mouth where my mouth was by being a guest.
NEW BOOKS NETWORK: HOW THE GREENHOUSE MANAGER PUT ME IN MY PLACE
Bob Wilson of Syracuse University hosted me in 2010 for a two day campus visit to show my movie, “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy,” and speak to their sciences programs. I gave what I thought was a respectable talk, but a member of their audience didn’t think so. What transpired in the Q&A was the greatest public humiliation of my speaking career. It’s a great story that helped inspire much more effort and conscientiousness on my part and contributed to my third book. He gave me the chance to tell the story in detail and lots more about what we’re doing with Story Circles and the ABT these days.
PROFESSOR RAGIN’ CAJUN
Every college student in America should be jealous of the lucky 50 students enrolled in James Carville’s political science class at Tulane University. On Monday nights they meet at the home of Mr. Carville and his legendary Republican wife, Mary Matalin, to have him present a guest speaker. It’s the way that college ought to be — a chance to hang out with awesome and innovative professors like that.
I got to know James last year, as I talked about on Park Howell’s Business of Story podcast which I recorded the morning after the election. From my work with narrative structure I came to realize that Donald Trump had an unfair advantage in the political world. He has deep “narrative intuition” — the term I coined in “Houston, We Have A Narrative.” In the podcast I told about my journey of frustration during the months leading up to the election.
I set to work starting in the summer of 2015 trying to publish an editorial titled, “Trump Knows Narrative,”(a broader version of this in-depth essay) showing how the ABT Template can be used to quantitatively show how much of an upper hand Trump has with communication. I drew on every contact I have at the NY Times (which was a lot), as well as contacts with 538 Blog, Slate, The Guardian, The Upshot Blog — on and on, pounding on the door of every possible journalist and news pundit, BUT … in the end I hit a complete brick wall.
Finally, a year ago I searched simply HILLARY CLINTON BORING. The first result that came up was an article with the headline, “James Carville Admits Hillary Clinton is Boring.”
I set to work and by April was on the phone explaining the ABT to James Carville himself.
He got it, immediately. For the man who coined the term, “It’s the economy, stupid,” it didn’t take any explanation for him to see the power and importance of the simple ABT Template. He tried to get the folks at Hillary Clinton’s campaign to listen to me. BUT … they didn’t. Just as they didn’t listen to a whole stack of people with good ideas.
The rest was sad history.
THEREFORE … LET’S HAVE FUN WITH CARVILLE AND THE GETTYSBURG ADDRESS
So Mr Carville invited me to give the second lecture of the semester to his class at Tulane. You can see the setting from the photo above — James and I seated on the landing with me showing slides to the right. Every few minutes he would interrupt with some hilarious story or gem of wisdom. The man is a gold mine of political wisdom, as well as communications savvy.
In fact, he opened the evening with a brilliant introduction that he said to me, “Once you hear this you’re gonna want to use it for every talk you give.” Which is true.
He asked the students if anyone knew who Edward Everett was. No response. I should have known — the name even rang a bell — but I was still lost. He explained.
Everett was the famous politician who spoke before Lincoln at Gettysburg in November, 1865. As Carville pointed out, Everett’s speech was two hours long, Lincoln’s was two minutes. “Which politician do you remember today?” Carville asked the students.
In fact, this is the famous quote from Everett after their speeches, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”
And just to get didactic for a moment here, he was absolutely right. Lincoln had a super-clear theme of “unfinished business” which underpinned the 270-some words of his powerful speech. Lincoln had deeeeeep narrative intuition.
And the Everett anecdote is doubly fitting given that Lincoln’s speech, as first noted by Park Howell, is itself nothing more than a three paragraph ABT (basically “We have a great AND mighty nation, BUT now we’re in a civil war, THEREFORE it is up to us, the living, to make sure these men did not die in vain.”). Mr Carville included that in his introductory comments as well. As I said, he gets it on the ABT.
DINNER WITH A LIVING LEGEND
After the two hour class we went to dinner at a quiet, local upscale restaurant. Every head turned as we were seated, and before the evening was done there was a line of people coming to the table to beg Mr. Carville to do something about this horrible new President, to have their photo taken with him, or to tell him stories about their parents having worked with him.
He laughed and joked his way through every autograph and photo, truly a man of the people. It was a fantasy night starting with his house which you can see looks like it’s straight out of “Interview with a Vampire.” What a great, great professor, political strategist, and all around excellent fucking guy. Who has the foulest mouth you’ll ever hear. And the students, being from New Orleans, absolutely love him for it.
You can read about Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock bemoaning the sad state of college life these days in America, BUT … I can assure you students are still alive and kicking ass at Tulane. THEREFORE, that one night in New Orleans made the entire journey of rejection with my Trump editorial worth it in the end.
Okay, Trump sucks and is a horrible person and all that stuff. There, that’s my disclaimer so that hopefully no one calls me a Trump lover. I’m not. But I do demand the right to analyze the narrative elements of his communication and call them “good” without having that mean I support his policies. I don’t.
The political pundits, who are deaf and blind to the entire concept of narrative structure, thought Trump’s inauguration speech was short, dark and weird.
First off, it wasn’t unusually short. It was 1,475 words. The first inaugural speeches of the previous three presidents were 1,592 (Bush), 1,607 (Clinton) and 2,422 (Obama). Yes, it was the shortest of the group, but only 7% shorter than Bush, 8% shorter than Clinton. That’s not a big deal.
It just felt short. That’s what properly constructed narrative structure results in — a feeling of “wow, that was quick.” I’ve made films that people thought were much shorter than their length and, sadly, I’ve made films that people doubted the length could possibly be as short as it was (which is a painful comment to hear).
It was powerfully structured in terms of narrative. As I have been saying for two years now, Trump has deep narrative intuition. This is just the start. He is going to give mean, angry, powerfully focused speeches for a long time to come. It’s what he thrives on. He will never, ever be content with a lack of tension. Never. It’s what narrative demands.
Here are, in my opinion, the 5 most important narrative features of Trump’s inauguration speech:
1) OVERARCHING ABT – THE “WE SHALL EMERGE FROM THE DARKNESS” THEME
Obama gave a solid first inauguration speech for which you could say the key word of “hardship” was at it’s core. It was justified then given the collapsing economy he inherited. Trump is getting a booming economy, yet he delivered the same sort of message. His ABT was basically, “We are in a dark time BUT I am now President, THEREFORE we are going to return to good times AGAIN.” Make a note of that last word.
Why would he do this? Is it because he’s a liar? Is it because he wants to scare people? Is it just “fear mongering”? No. He lives and breathes narrative. At the center of narrative — at the center of the ABT Template — is the word “but” which is a deeply negative word that arouses the brain with tension. Trump thrives on this word.
He will always be working to generate narrative tension. That is the main driver of all his actions. Even if there were ever peace, he would find a source of tension. The man will never, ever be comfortable for one moment if there is no tension. Everyone should accept this core property of his psyche. It explains more of his behavior than anything else. It’s why, rather than be a good sport with the SNL parodies of him, he instead takes issue with it. Being a good sport destroys narrative tension. That’s just not him.
2) NARRATIVE INDEX (18) – THE HAND OF BANNON
I had predicted last week that by looking at the Narrative Index of the speech (the BUT/AND ratio) you would be able to infer whether Trump’s schlub speechwriter Stephen Miller (author of his speeches last summer that mostly scored around 10) wrote it, versus Trump (who averaged 29 last spring when he was writing his own speeches that got him the candidacy).
In the end it was probably neither. The inside sources say it was his agent of darkness — his “strategist” — Steve Bannon. Which makes sense. It ended up being a compromise between the styles of Trump and Miller, and thus had the intermediate score of 18.
But more importantly, it had strong narrative form. Clear set up, short, structured journey, concise synthesis.
3) OPENING ABT – YES, THERE WAS ONE
In classic ABT form he opened with words of agreement. He spoke the platitudes of how power is transferred every four years and thanked the Obamas. But then … he inserted a singular statement of contradiction with this passage:
Today’s ceremony, however, has very special meaning because today, we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the people.
There’s actually two words of contradiction — however and but. A double dose, fitting of what was to come. He identified the problem (the elites have had all the power), then launched right into the statement of consequence:
That all changes starting right here and right now because this moment is your moment, it belongs to you.
4) THE JOURNEY: ARISTOTLE WOULD HAVE BEEN IMPRESSED
From there, Trump/Bannon embarked on a series of narrative cycles — all ABT structured — all matching Aristotle’s cycles of paridos, episode and stasimon which you can see in Figure 5 of “Houston, We Have a Narrative.” Over and over until climaxing in this passage shortly before the end:
Finally, we must think big and dream even bigger. In America, we understand that a nation is only living as long as it is striving. We will no longer accept politicians who are all talk and no action, constantly complaining, but never doing anything about it.
The time for empty talk is over. Now arrives the hour of action.
5) THE GRAND SYNTHESIS, “AGAIN”
What is most stunning is the grand synthesis of everything — his last 100 words. SIX of those last 100 words were the word “again.” That is very, very significant. When you study the monomyth of Joseph Campbell you come to realize that once the journey has begun — once you have entered the “special world” — your only overall goal is just to get back to the “ordinary world” … AGAIN.
That word is deeply powerful in narrative terms. And guess where it’s shown up for the past two years — as the last word of his slogan, “Make America Great Again.”
That is how deep Donald Trump’s narrative intuition is.
So to all Americans in every city near and far, small and large, from mountain to mountain, from ocean to ocean, hear these words: You will never be ignored again. Your voice, your hopes, and your dreams will define our American destiny. And your courage and goodness and love will forever guide us along the way. Together, we will make America strong again. We will make America wealthy again. We will make America proud again. We will make America safe again. And yes, together we will make America great again. Thank you. God bless you. And God bless America. Thank you. God bless America.
BOTTOM LINE: THE SPEECH WAS NOT FOR ELITES OR EGGHEADS
Sorry. It’s the truth. If you are smart enough to pick the speech apart analytically then it simply wasn’t meant for you. Trump has deep narrative intuition. He knows how to use it to connect with the masses. No one — not one person — in the Democratic party has this attribute. It’s not just about being a populist hate monger. He embodies the “narrative imperative” of the American masses, and they will be listening to him for a long time to come.
What sort of narrative strength will Trump’s inauguration speech have? Will he breathe narrative bluster like Richard Nixon? Or deliver a rambling drivel-a-thon like Eisenhower’s second inaugural. One indication will be his first paragraph. Will there be a clear narrative/ABT structure (I would predict yes if Trump over-rules his speechwriter) or will it be rambling and unfocused (his designated speechwriter is not good).
Wherever you find great speeches you’ll find the ABT at work. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech opens with the ABT structure for the first paragraph — so plain and simple I use it in all my talks. The Gettysburg Address was nothing more than three paragraphs — one for each of the ABT elements.
Mario Cuomo’s legendary “A Tale of Two Cities” DNC speech of 1984 opened with an ABT as he basically said that Reagan says we’re a shining city on a hill AND in some places that’s true, BUT he hasn’t been to the worst parts of our cities, THEREFORE he needs to realize we are a nation of two cities.
Barbara Jordan’s legendary 1976 DNC speech opened with an ABT — 144 years ago Democrats first met to choose a candidate AND this week’s meeting is a continuation of that process, BUT tonight is different because I, Barbara Jordan am a key note speaker, THEREFORE the American Dream continues to advance.
It is the hallmark of great communication — clarity and simplicity of message. Trump showed early in his campaign a strong aptitude for this, BUT … once he won the nomination he began allowing others to write his speeches, and their clarity declined.
What he ought to open with is a clear ABT that presents his narrative theme of making America great again. If he does, the speech will probably have been rewritten by Trump and will have focus and clarity. If the first paragraph (or two) doesn’t have solid ABT structure, I predict it was written by Stephen Miller (and others who are rumored to be getting their hands into it — danger, danger) and will be flabby and rambling.
Tune in to see.
Last month PLOS published a paper titled, “Narrative Style Influences Citation Frequency in Climate Change Science” which was a nice study, BUT… How do you write a paper about “narrativity” in scientific papers and not discuss the IMRAD narrative template that scientists began using a century ago? How can you use the word “influences” in the title if you did nothing more than correlations? Why would you over-complicate things by using “narrativity” instead of just narrative structure? The paper stands as a monument to the lack of “narrative intuition” in the science world. Other professions (business, law, politics, advertising) already know that narrative structure underpins all communication. EVERYONE knows that narrative is central to all communication. Except, apparently some scientists, who lack intuition and thus need data. The bottom line is the same old thing, don’t be such a scientist — the world needs your efforts actually using narrative dynamics, not questioning their value.
IT’S CALLED INTUITION
Bob Dylan once said, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” If you have the least bit of common sense/intuition you can walk outside and figure it out for yourself.
The idea that science communication benefits from narrative structure was established a century ago by a generation of scientists with much deeper understanding for communication than today’s scientists. They created the IMRAD Template which today underpins the communication of pretty much all scientific papers. If you don’t know what IMRAD stands for, Google it. If you’re a scientist, you should know.
“DATA” — IT FIGURES
My development of the ABT Template has resulted in a great deal of interest, not just in the science world where I’ve launched it, but far outside of science. In addition to 5 government agencies, I’m now working with a wide range of corporate clients (Roche, Billabong, Deloitte, Genentech, among others) who, instead of saying “Gosh, we don’t know — where’s the data to show this narrative stuff is actually needed?” have simply brought me in to get to work helping them apply the knowledge emerging from the ABT. (I’m also working with a number of political folks shaping their messaging)
It’s very exciting. Everywhere I go, people are applying the ABT to strengthen their narrative content (just this week the National Park Service used the ABT throughout a 50 page climate report)
BUT THEN … I turn back to the science world and what do I see? A paper presenting “data” to “prove” that “narrativity” matters. Which is true. It does matter. Of course it matters. It’s why scientific papers morphed from their original non-narrative form in the 1600’s to the structurally regimented narrative form of today using the IMRAD elements.
NOT WRONG, JUST SAD
There’s nothing wrong about their paper (except using “influences” in the title — isn’t that the same as causation when all they present are correlations? I don’t see any controlled experiments). If you really are stuck back in the 1600’s, needing evidenced-based arguments to convince you narrative matters, then I guess it’s the paper for you.
But seriously, the point was made a century ago. The major thing everyone should learn from this paper is that no other professions feel the need to question the importance of narrative. This is the handicap that science suffers from — a vast lack of intuition when it comes to communication.
It needs to change. It has to change, given the coming anti-science onslaught, starting with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. this week (sheesh!).
As I said last week, 2017 is going to be The Year of the ABT. This is a perfect start. Just in time for our Story Circles Demo Days in two weeks in Colorado, the National Park Service has released a 50 page report on their Cultural Resources Climate Change Strategy featuring the ABT approach throughout. If it’s good enough for them, it really is good enough for you.
What’s best about this new report from the National Park Service on “cultural resources and climate change” are the sections on the ABT Template (And, But, Therefore) — on page 17 and 30/31 where they explain the ABT, tell how to use it for case studies, then present case studies throughout the document where they have clearly used it.
It’s not like the case studies all use the three words — it’s just that you can feel they have solid narrative structure. Each one sets up the context, presents a single narrative thread, then addresses the significance and meaning of what’s going on.
It’s not that complicated. Effective communication is simple. Just like the ABT.
I can’t wait to run our two Demo Days with the NPS folks in Ft Collins and Denver. This is the first group we’re working with who have already adopted the ABT approach. We’ll be starting at the most advanced level yet.
We’ll be starting at the most advanced level yet. Therefore … (stay tuned!).
The pundits keep laughing about President-elect Trump’s use of Twitter for diplomatic statements. They shouldn’t be laughing. It’s dangerous. The problem with Twitter: It’s a NON-NARRATIVE medium. I showed this in my 2015 book. I compared the average number of characters needed for a narrative statement (an And, But, Therefore or ABT statement) versus what Twitter allows. The difference is huge. This means there is little chance to put comments into context. Stephen Colbert found this out the hard way in 2014. For Trump there will come a disaster soon based around his tweeting, and it will be the result of the medium being non-narrative. Maybe that will wipe the smiles off the faces of the pundits.
This isn’t going to last long — the tweeting of soon-to-be President Trump. It should have already been shut down by Congress, but they lack the cojones for such a move.
How is it the most important diplomatic voice of the U.S.A. is not only being allowed to communicate broadly, wildly and unchecked, but also, more importantly, through a non-narrative medium?
Last night on MSNBC Hardball they were swinging in the dark about how Twitter works in relation to diplomacy. “You don’t know what it means,” Michael Steele said, “in an industry that is all about precision.” That precision comes from the ability to begin statements with clear exposition that set up the world, the stakes, and the overall context before diving into the conflict.
Twitter does not allow for that.
Just keep in mind what Stephen Colbert said after he endured a firestorm of controversy on Twitter with accusations of being a racist after a punchline (and not the joke) was tweeted in 2014: “Who would have thought a means of communication limited to 140 characters would ever create misun- derstandings?”
It’s official — 2017 is the Year of the ABT. Why not, the ABT is the DNA of story, as my good buddy Park Howell of “The Business of Story” podcast likes to say. It’s the central tool for our Story Circles Narrative Training which continues to spread. This year Story Circles kicks off with two big Demo Days for the National Park Service in Colorado later this month. Also, we’re up to our elbows editing the 20 minute video about Story Circles we’re doing as a co-production with AAAS. And in the meanwhile, the corporate and political worlds are starting to “get it” on the ABT and Story Circles. 2017 will truly be the Year of the ABT.
As we prepare to enter a strange new world next year I want to end this year with the figure from “Houston, We Have A Narrative” that underlies pretty much everything we are now dealing with. Our information glutted world has turned “The Creek of Story” into “The Raging Whitewater Torrent of Story.” The polls show clearly who is the casualty — the tiny fish of truth. But by “story” I’m not referring to lying. I’m referring to story structure. It doesn’t mean you need to lie, only that you need to understand the narrative selective regime in which we now live. “Just the facts” no longer works, as sadly shown by the losing Presidential candidate who tried to pursue that approach. From here on, it’s all about story.
THE POST-TRUTH WORLD
There’s mountains of stuff now spewing out about the “post-factual world,” fake news and “post-truth politics.” Wikipedia even has a page for the latter.
I have only one simple thing to add to the mix. It’s the visual (above) that was in my book last year, “Houston, We Have A Narrative.” I suppose I might modify that figure to have two fishes — one labeled NARRATIVE (ABT, And-But-Therefore) that is succeeding in beating the river. The other labeled NON-NARRATIVE (AAA, And-And-And) that is being swept downstream.
You CAN NOT DO THAT in the United States and expect to win. It’s an intensely narrative culture we have created. My Story Circle co-creator Jayde Lovell and I are assembling the data and argument for the process of “narrative selection” — the fact that we live in a narrative selective regime — those who fail to comply get selected against.
NARRATIVE IS NOW OUR NARRATIVE
These are my watch words for the new year — the Narrative Imperative. Donald Trump has deep narrative intuition, as I talked about on Park Howell’s podcast “The Business of Story” the morning after the election.
If you want to make sense of the world we are headed into, you better have a solid grounding in these narrative principles. I presented the Dobzhansky Template in the book. Here it is, filled out for the new year:
“Nothing in America Makes Sense Today Except in the Light of Narrative Dynamics.”
This underlies the fundamental dynamic between the right and the left. The left has the statistics showing how rare terrorists attacks are in America, but the right has the handful of stories of terrorist attacks that are absolutely terrifying. Story wins.
That’s the bottom line for 2017: Story wins.
I know we’re supposed to applaud climate scientists who speak out in defense of climate science, and I do. But just getting media attention isn’t the challenge — it needs to have long term impact. Which is where narrative dynamics come in. I offer up this ABT analysis of climate scientist Mike Mann’s editorial yesterday in the Washington Post to help demonstrate the importance and power of narrative structure. Yes, presenting lots of conflict draws attention for the short term, but for the long run, if you don’t have good narrative structure (i.e. all 3 of the ABT elements), you’re producing nothing more than “a sundry lists of facts.” Which is what he did — all B, no A or T.
AN 8 WORD THEREFORE?
Climate scientist Mike Mann and I have been buddies since he was on the post-screening panel for my climate mockumentary “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy” at Penn State in 2009. One of my first interviews for my blog The Benshi was with him in 2010. He’s done a mountain of important work for the climate community, and borne the brunt of relentless personal attacks from climate skeptics — much of which he itemized in his Washington Post editorial yesterday.
But here’s the problem. The narrative structure of his editorial is weak. Yes, there’s a ton of conflict in it — a laundry list of attacks he’s endured. But that’s all it is — in essence an AAA exercise (the dreaded And, And, And template). Which is interesting, and maybe even a little bit curious, but in the words of Dobzhansky (as quoted in my last book), in the end he presents little more than “a sundry list of facts, some of which are interesting and curious, but ultimately meaningless.”
This is the hard part of narrative. There’s more to delivering content that will “stick” (and btw, “Made to Stick” was nothing more than the fact that things stick when they have good narrative structure) than just making a list.
This is what participants in Story Circles Narrative Training begin to realize. The ABT is the magic bullet of communication which seems at first to be incredibly simple, but if you commit to actual in-depth training you begin to realize it has infinite complexity. And you begin to realize why it has been the central structuring principle of communication since pretty much the beginning of communication, thousands of years ago.
As my buddy Park Howell (host of “The Business of Story” podcast) loves to point out — the ABT goes all the way back to cave people muttering, “Unh Hunh” (A), “Uh Oh” (B) and “Ah Ha!” (T). It is that primal.
“IT’S THE T, STUPID”
Okay, calm down, that’s not an insult, just a reference to the line from my hero James Carville (a master of simple communication) who coined the expression, “It’s the economy, stupid.” This is the message to the climate crowd — it’s time to focus on the “THEREFORE” of your messaging.
There’s 21 paragraphs in Mann’s editorial. 20 of them are statements of the problem — on and on. If you’re part of the choir you can’t get enough of these details. But if you’re only marginally interested (i.e. the masses), after a while you hit the point of wanting to “advance the narrative” which manifests itself with a feeling of “okay, I got it, you’ve been attacked a lot — what are you recommending we do about it?” This is the power of the word THEREFORE. It’s what begins to emerge when people work with the ABT — they begin to ask, “So then what’s the THEREFORE of your essay?”
In the case if Mann’s editorial, it was only 8 words at the end — “I would urge these scientists to have courage.”
It could have and should have been much more. One of the key realizations we’ve had in Story Circles is that “the quicker you can get through the A and the B, the more we’re willing to let you have all day with the T.” It’s the T that everyone really wants.
But also, without some attention to the A, there is little overall context, importance and depth to the message being delivered. Yes, it’s nice to hook the reader with a first moment of conflict, but once that’s achieved it’s time to go to work on the basic narrative process starting with exposition. His editorial never did that.
THERE COMES A TIME FOR PREPARING …
If you find yourself getting furious at me for having the audacity to critique someone on the climate team then you’re probably as much of the problem as the climate skeptics. It’s the same with the Democratic party which has delivered a colossal failure to this nation. It’s a time for rational, analytical (not arm waving) analysis of what happened, why, and then delivery of the THEREFORE (how to do better).
Mann’s editorial should have given a couple of quick words of A (climate skeptics undermine the serious work that needs to be done, time is running out), a quick statement of the B (3 of his worst experiences plus all the signs that it’s now about to get really bad). That should have been about 4 paragraphs.
The rest should have been the THEREFORE. As in, “Therefore it’s time to begin preparing for the assault on climate science we know will come.” It’s time to assemble defense strategies. It’s time to look back to 2009 and realize how unprepared the climate community was for the email attacks of Climategate. It’s time to shift the focus of science organizations from PUBLIC UNDERSTANDING (I served on the AAAS committee charged with this) to PUBLIC PERCEPTION of science.
This last one is big, and is very difficult for scientists to accept. There is about to be a hell storm of attacks on the credibility of the entire science community. David H. Freedman’s excellent 2010 book, “Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing US” pretty much foretold that eventually the problem of “fake news” (which is no different from “false positives”) would emerge. The door is now wide open for major communications chaos for science.
I saw it four years ago in my local California community where there was a painfully divisive local environmental issue. The anti-science forces wrote editorials in our local newspapers saying, verbatim, that today “scientists are no different from lawyers — you can buy one to argue whichever side of an issue you want.” That, of course, is not true, but you better get ready for this at the national level. It’s coming.
Last week I had dinner with the head of the largest science organization in the world. I detected no major preparations in progress for the coming onslaught.
The bottom line, it’s time for a lot of THEREFORE’ing about the climate skeptic/anti-science community. But I don’t see it happening. At all.
All I’m seeing coming is a whole lot of the same old Climategate “Well, that just isn’t fair” reactions.
Get ready for “Lalaland” to win the hearts of movie fans over the next few months. I attended a Screen Actors Guild screening yesterday where the lead actor Ryan Gosling spoke afterwards. He was amazing, both in the movie and as well as tremendously likable in the Q&A. But most important, the movie was an ABT tour de force, wrapping itself up in a neat story package at the end, prompting the audience to give it a well deserved standing ovation. Musicals that work are difficult. Musicals that work AND tell a good story are incredibly rare and difficult. The film is already scoring advance raves and deserves every bit of the hype.
MUSICALS WILL NEVER DIE
Once upon a time, long, long ago, I wrote and directed a 20 minute musical comedy film at USC film school that premiered at the Telluride Film Festival, chosen as one of six student films out of nearly one thousand submitted. You can actually view it here, but you need to keep in mind it was made 21 years ago as a student film and shot on 16 mm film, back in the days when that still happened. It starred Carol Hatchett, one of the Harlettes, Bette Midler’s backup singers, who gave a tremendous performance that made it all work.
One thing I learned in the process of making that film is that it’s incredibly difficult to make a film that both has song and dance numbers, yet still tells a good story. It’s easy to let the musical numbers, because they are so difficult, take priority and end up with a movie with a clunky story.
Knowing that gives me an even deeper appreciation for the new movie “Lalaland” starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone which manages both great musical numbers and a tight, simple story that builds to a wonderful conclusion. It’s great.
GET READY FOR THE OSCARS
A friend invited me last night to a Screen Actors Guild advance showing of “Lalaland.” For starters it was a pushover audience packed with actors who knew all too well the world the film is set in (actors and musicians in Hollywood). Every bit of humor about auditions was greeted with roars of laughter and squeals of “oh my god, yes!” as the crowd related to the pains of rejection.
There were a few cliched moments and a couple of scenes that could have been trimmed a tiny bit, but otherwise the two actors overflowed with on-screen charisma and managed to reach the heights of performance of the classic 1950’s musicals. Of course, it wasn’t quite “Singin’ In the Rain,” but nothing ever again will be. Some things are just plain sacred and untouchable. But that’s a sort of “shifting baselines” issue that’s not worth letting get in the way of this really fun movie.
ABT AT WORK
For me (predictably) the most significant element was feeling the tight story dynamics. It’s a very simple story. Almost too simple at times — i.e. you know that when the two lead actors fall in love there’s bound to be some rough times ahead. But it all works, and by the end you can feel the ABT elements coming together, leaving the audience with the sort of feelings of satisfaction that are needed to connect deeply with a movie.
Truly great movies have a simple core that lets you leave the theater feeling everything made sense and was resolved, but also allow you to later find great complexity by thinking back on what the story meant. This one was great that way.
I loved it — so much I wish I could go into enormous detail about why, but I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. Suffice it to say the early critics are raving wildly — USA Today posted this article saying the NY critics have already called it the best film of the year. If it is, I’ll be comfortable with that.
This is not an indictment of any one individual, just the entire community. It’s characteristic of the science community in general — the inability to communicate broadly. Coral reefs around the world are approaching their third act, but the messaging about their welfare continues to be muddled. Yes, there are lots of dire warnings, but there HAS NOT BEEN THE ONE SINGULAR MESSAGE CONVEYING THE LEVEL OF URGENCY. Singularity is everything for narrative and narrative is everything for mass communication. The atomic bomb community knew how to do this starting in the 1940’s. The military knew how to do it with hunting terrorists. But scientists have been too deeply ensconced in their soup of facts to speak effectively to the public.
DON’T BE SUCH A CORAL REEF SCIENTIST
I spent a year of my life living on an island on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. After spending upwards of 8 hours a day underwater conducting research almost every day, I knew the reefs around that island like the back of my hand.
Now those reefs are a wasteland from the mass coral bleaching event of this year.
The coral reefs of the Caribbean are worse. I got to know the reefs of Jamaica, Puerto Rico and Panama 40 years ago. Today they are shot. In my lifetime coral reefs around the world have been obliterated. And yet, while this has happened, the science/conservation community has been unable to produce much more than a “things are bad in some places” message to the world.
WHAT PART OF “SINGULARITY OF NARRATIVE” DON’T SCIENTISTS GET?
Actually, pretty much all of it. Scientists are so determined to convey “all the facts” in all their joyous complexity that they have failed to convey much of anything when it comes to the plight of coral reefs.
I began bellyaching about this 15 years ago when I started my Shifting Baselines Ocean Media Project with coral reef biologists Jeremy Jackson and Steven Miller. I kept asking them, “What’s the ONE NUMBER we can tell the world about the state of coral reefs? Are they 90% of what they were? 50%? 25%?” And asking them why the coral reef community in general didn’t grasp the importance of having a single, simple indicator for the general public.
The world needed ONE NUMBER. Not the standard, “Well, it depends on whether we’re talking about live coral cover or total biomass or standing crop or …”
To this day there is still no widely accepted one number for the overall state of coral reefs. Yet at the same time there are still countless television documentaries and tourism agencies painting pictures of coral reefs as happy and healthy as they’ve ever been. And why not — dead reefs don’t attract viewers or tourists. We talked about this 15 years ago. Nothing has changed.
THE DOOMSDAY CLOCK AND IRAQI PLAYING CARDS
Go ahead and ridicule the simplicity of things like the Doomsday Clock for nuclear armageddon and the pack of playing cards that were used in 2003 to communicate about the most wanted Iraqis. If you’re a sophisticate you probably think those things are moronic. But they work for the masses.
Mass communication requires a commitment to finding simplicity. If you doubt this just look at our new President. And if you’re mad about that guy being the new President, don’t blame him — blame the Democrats who let you down by their endless inability to simplify anything.
I’m sick of listening to the whiners. I voted for Hillary. But I also watched her campaign fail to find any simplicity in their mass messaging. You can hear my sad story about it that I told the morning after the election on Park Howell’s “Business of Story” podcast.
The Clinton campaign was just like the coral reef community that has been either unwilling or unable to simplify their message of decline for 30 years, and now sits in confusion as coral reefs approach their own midnight.
Rotten, rotten, rotten mass communication, completely oblivious of narrative dynamics.
Next week we will launch our 15th Story Circle (at University of Maryland) making 75 scientists and communications staff participating in individual Story Circles, with 510 taking part in Demo Days. Some circles have finished but have gotten into narrative analysis so deep they haven’t wanted to quit. It’s effective, however there is one casualty: students and postdocs. Sorry.
Story Circles is right on track to where we had hoped to be by the end of the year. Last year we developed the training through four prototypes with NIH, USDA and Hendrix University. Now we’re spreading the training.
In particular, we’ve developed four major hot spots — USDA, USFWS, USGS and Genentech. These are the places that have hosted multiple Demo Days and Story Circles with plans for broadening ahead. National Park Service is set to join the group in January with two Demo Days.
Best of all is watching circles finish their 10 one hour sessions and ask to keep going because they are so deeply connected with the process. Story Circles teaches a whole new narrative language that takes a while to fully grasp, but once you do becomes very powerful.
Right now we’re in the thick of a 20 minute video about Story Circles we’re producing with AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) that will be released early next year.
THE ONE CASUALTY SO FAR: STUDENTS
Sorry. We had hoped, along with many others, that Story Circles would be an effective training program not just for professionals, but for students as well. At this point we’re having to conclude it isn’t.
There just doesn’t seem to be the “need or want” when it comes to students. Professionals tend to have a lot of experience with projects that have suffered from poor communication, creating a feeling of need for the training. Or they’ve been hearing for years “you need to do a better job of telling your story.”
But when it comes to students, they seem to be more concerned with “is this gonna be on the exam?” or “are we gonna get credit for this?” or they’re too busy and over-committed. There just isn’t the depth of connection, and without that burning desire that is needed to light up the narrative part of your brain, the training just doesn’t amount to much. I’m afraid it doesn’t work to shout, “You need to know this for your future!” Apparently that doesn’t activate the narrative part of the brain..
They also have a tendency to say, “yep, three words: and, but, therefore — we got it, all done, thanks.” Several students have verbatim said that — “we got the three words, we’re all set.” If only it were that simple!
Here’s a great example of the ABT in action as well as the ABT/AAA overall structure. It’s Bob Dylan’s 1966 song, “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”? It’s built of repeating ABT verses with an over-arching AAA structure. Give that man a Nobel Prize (if he wants it).
As he decides whether or not to make a showing at his Nobel Prize ceremony (some of the hosts are already so pissed at him!) let’s take a look at the ABT dynamic at work in one of his greatest songs.
The song consists of 9 versus, all with the same basic ABT structure of agreement, contradiction, resolution. The words themselves are not that clearly ABT in structure, but the basic inflection/chord sequence clearly follows the ABT pattern.
Each verse begins with a bunch of statements that all have the And, And, And feel. Some of them, like the first verse, even start with “But” but they’re still just statements of exposition.
Then the chord goes minor with “Oh, Mama …” and you can feel the contradiction of the flow. In fact, you could drop in the word BUT to make it, “But, oh, Mama …” and it would work just fine.
The last line would be a little clunky if you added THEREFORE, making it, “Therefore to be stuck inside of Mobile …” But … you can hear the tone of consequence in the music — i.e. you can feel the tension being released. In fact, you could make it, “So I guess I’m stuck inside of Mobile …” and that would work fine.
Same thing, over and over, nine times.
Overall, the songs shows the standard recipe for what we might call “engaging boredom.” So many TV shows, movies, plays, personal stories, events … pretty much everything … commonly show this pattern. Each verse is really engaging and pulls you in, but overall, the song doesn’t build to anything. It kind of just “is.”
Which is cool, and is a perfect showcase for strong character work. But, that said, the character side of the material had better be strong or it’s going to lose us. Lots of nature documentaries are like this — made up of really cool, engaging little vignettes which hold your interest, but in the end leave you without much for a deeper experience.
That’s where the over-arching ABT comes into play. It’s what great stories are made of. It’s not obligatory, but it makes the difference between “a sundry list of facts” (as Dobzhansky so eloquently put it) and deep connection.
And that, is what narrative is all about. To be stuck inside of AAA structure with the ABT blues again.
Not sure what kind of drugs I was hopped up on a couple nights ago (maybe still recovering from the election) when a poor innocent woman named Erin Rodgers from Toronto politely asked me to answer at least three of her ten questions. Turned out they were all good questions so I answered them all, sounding like a lunatic, but so what, the new President has instilled this in me. We can no longer afford to bore or confuse.
Ten good questions, ten blunt, repetitive answers, all of which arise from “Houston, We Have A Narrative.”
1) How do you empower people that don’t consider themselves storytellers, such as folks in the scientific world you came from, to start using storytelling techniques in their work?
ABT, it’s the entry level tool for story. It immediately activates the narrative parts of the brain.
2) What, in your opinion, separates a good story from a great one?
ABT, it’s the universal narrative template. Every level of the epic television series “Breaking Bad,” which was probably the best exercise in narrative structure in television history, had ABT structure. It was the defining feature. A small group of writers wrote the scripts two seasons in advance which allowed them to “plant” an AB in one episode but sometimes not “pay it off” with the T until a year later. That is brilliant storytelling. And it’s all about the ABT dynamics. Furthermore, look at every episode of “South Park” for the past 20 years (seriously, I dare you, all 274 of them, then report back to me for counseling after you’ve watched them). Then follow that by seeing the play “The Book of Mormon,” by the same writers. They live and breathe ABT, and everything they touch turns to gold (except a few rotten movies early on). They are the partial original source of the ABT.
3) If a scientist is presenting a “scary” story (e.g. climate change) how can they make sure they are not overwhelming their audience?
ABT, good narrative structure will make sure they are focused on the problem you want them to be focused on. The ABT is the core tool in our Story Circles Narrative Training which eventually leads to at least the beginning of the development of NARRATIVE INTUITION which is your long term goal. It is only through having the property of NARRATIVE INTUITION that you will be able to master the artistic side of narrative. Memorizing a bunch of rules by itself is not going to get you there. And it is only when you have NARRATIVE INTUITION that you will be a truly great storyteller/communicator.
4) In one of my favorite essays, you talk about the power of specifics. Is there ever a time that a storyteller can be too specific?
ABT, is the secret of narrative which will guide you to the answer to this question. You work with it long enough and intensely enough to develop NARRATIVE INTUITION you then have a feel for the right amount of depth and detail needed to make a narrative work. Without this intuition, you’re swinging in the dark. THERE ARE NO SET RULES for these things. You must have intuition.
5) You’ve worked with filmmakers, improvisers, communications experts etc. What was the most unexpected insight you came away with about effective storytelling? How has that insight changed the way you view stories?
ABT, need I say more? It is the magic bullet, the panacea, the Kool-aid, the lotus fruit, the brass ring, the wonder drug, and the elixir of life all wrapped up in three words. It is the well spring out of which you can develop all the properties needed to draw on the power of story.
6) In your writing you talk about how scientists often just say a bunch of details (and, and, and) instead of leading their listener through their work with the story structure that are brains appear to be hard-wired for. Your simple structure of “And, But, Therefore,” helps the work to become a story. How does a scientist (who is sure to be very passionate about their work in it’s entirety) know what elements of their work should fit in the structure and what should be left out?
ABT. You work with it enough, you achieve the golden chalice of NARRATIVE INTUITION. Only then do you have the ability to discern clearly between boredom, confusion and engagement. People ask me, “How long should an ABT be?” My answer is “intuition.” Seriously. There is no set length.
Just yesterday I read about some dodo running workshops on “mastering the power of storytelling” in which they say the golden rule is for paragraphs to have an average of 42 words. That is dodo poop. There is no set rule. You have to have an intuitive feel for the right length. Some narratives may need only 15 words. Others may need over 50. Constraining yourself with some set number is the worst possible approach. Warning: There are now tons of phonies out there teaching about the magic and power of storytelling (and making mountains of money). If they aren’t talking the ABT, they are wasting a lot of everyone’s time. Yes, it is that simple.
HEY … wait a second … I just realized something … did you ever read Douglas Adams “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?” In it he provides the answer to the question of everything. The answer is 42. That must be where they got that number. Definitely dodo poop.
7) Do YOU believe there is such a thing as a natural born storyteller? If yes, what makes them so?
ABT, which is what comes out of their mouth because they have NARRATIVE INTUITION. They may well have been born with a fair amount of NARRATIVE INTUITION, but I’m guessing the environment in which they were raised was also important because we can see that when people live in a narrative incubator like Hollywood for many years they can get better at it. Don’t let anyone tell you the dodo poop I was once told by a science administrator that “there will always be some good storytellers and lots of bad ones, you can’t change that.” Yes, you can. And it starts by ignoring people who say such ignorant things.
8) You wrote about how many Hollywood movies could be made stronger by examining their story through the lens of a quote by geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky: “Nothing in _______ makes sense except in the light of _______ .” Is this a tool that you start with when creating stories or is it more of an editing tool?
Yes, and … ABT. Sorry, am I repeating myself? Yes? Good. Repetition is essential in good education. It’s called inculcation. Do I need to repeat that?
Nothing in narrative makes sense except in the light of … the ABT! In Story Circles our standard progression of discussion is first, what is the question at the center of the story? Then what is the ONE SENTENCE summary of the narrative (which is the ABT ). Then what is the ONE WORD, which is the Dobzhansky Template. Though, probably best if you don’t even mention he was a geneticist. That identifies him as being a scientist which makes many people think, “Oh, it must be wrong since we know that most scientists are weak communicators.” He wasn’t.
9) You talk about the importance of being a likable storyteller. What can the average person, or even an anxious person do to make themselves a more likable storyteller?
ABT! Nobody likes a bore. Nobody likes a confusing storyteller. But everyone likes the person who can wind out a tight and compelling narrative.
Guess what the secret tool is to help you get good a that.
10) How do you know when a story is one that you personally have to tell?
ABT! If it interests people as a one sentence ABT then it needs to be told.
“Mars Attacks” was a movie that was exactly 20 years ahead of it’s time. The entire movie is ABT structured — “The Martians land AND they seem to have come in peace, BUT then they start slaughtering everyone THEREFORE basically beware of the Greeks and their damn wooden horse gifts.” The ABT is the fundamental template of narrative and consists of three forces — agreement, contradiction, consequence. Last week Trump was pure agreement in meeting with Obama. Do you kinda think there might be some contradiction coming soon? Better start getting ready because I don’t think the consequence that will follow is gonna be pretty.
LET THE ABT BE YOUR GUIDE IN THESE DELICATE TIMES
Hate to be a skeptic, but all I could see last week was Trump’s deep, deep narrative intuition at work as he sat there with his new buddy President Obama. That day will come to be known as the AND phase of Trump’s post-election process. I would expect nothing other than that from the man given his deep narrative intuition.
But I also know what’s coming — the BUT phase (contradiction). Which will then be followed by the THEREFORE (consequence). It’s coming. You can see it play out in a movie from 20 years ago, “Mars Attacks,” which was all I kept thinking about last week as the post-election olive branches came out.
Trump has narrative intuition. I did this podcast the morning after the election with my buddy Park Howell for his Business of Story series. To put it in terms of the Dobzhansky Template (see my last book for details), it’s like this: Nothing in our near future is going to make sense except in the light of Donald Trump’s deep narrative intuition.
My advice: Keep your eye on the narrative.
Of all the exercises we did in film school, this one was the best.
As much fun as I had in film school at USC, I was a little disappointed at times with some of the faculty who put little effort into their teaching. Many of them pretty much said to go shoot a film and they would critique it — not much more than that.
But we did do one very simple and memorable exercise in our first semester production class. They broke us into groups of four, gave us one page of the screenplay for the movie “Chinatown,” and told us to come up with a shot list for everything on the page.
My group broke it down into 17 shots. It was the scene where Jack Nicholson is watching through binoculars as a young boy on a donkey rides slowly through the empty creek bed. We had a crane shot, a few dolly shots, close-ups of the boy and dolly, close-ups of Jack as he talks to him.
Everyone put their shot lists up on the board. The other groups were in the same range — between about 15 and 20 shots. And then they showed us the scene. We were all stunned.
It was 3 simple shots.
That’s all. No fancy camera moves, no cutting back and forth, just simple storytelling, first and foremost.
SIMPLICITY IS THE ULTIMATE SOPHISTICATION
This exercise came to mind this week because a young filmmaker showed me a one minute video he had just shot. It was packed with text and twists and turns and quick cuts and … it was a tangled up mess. This happens a lot.
People get excited about filmmaking and think it’s all about impressing your audience with the complexities of what you can pull off. A truly great filmmaker has the experience and intuition to solve the challenge of telling the story in the fewest and simplest number of steps. Just like an elegant mathematical proof.
The way you get to this point of being able to see the simplicity in the story is through lots and lots and lots of experience. No real short cuts. You just have to get to work gathering experience and seeking the ultimate goal which is narrative intuition.
THE ABT OF THIS LITTLE TALE
And just to show you the eternal ubiquity of the ABT, here’s the story I just told you. “We made our shot lists AND we thought we nailed it, BUT then they showed us we were making it 5 times more complicated than needed, THEREFORE we were humbled.”
Get to know the ABT, it’s your ticket to narrative intuition.
An important distinction. The “singular” narrative is part of narrative structure. The “single” narrative refers to limited exposure.
THE DANGER OF A SINGLE STORY. Which is not the same as the importance of “a singular narrative.” Let’s get clear on this.
SINGULAR VS SINGLE (NOT THE SAME)
Last month I was caught out by a grad student at our Demo Day at Yale Forestry School. I was talking about the power and importance of “the singular narrative.” He said, “But haven’t you seen that TED Talk about the dangers of the single narrative?” I had not seen the presentation he was talking about (though should have). I was left with little more of an answer than the standard Rick Perry, “duh, nope … whoops?”
I found the TED Talk. It’s very good. But it’s not about “the singular narrative.” It’s about “the single story.” The distinction is important.
THE SINGULAR NARRATIVE
This is a fundamental piece of “classical design” or archplot as I have presented in my books, citing Robert McKee’s landmark 1997 work, “Story.” It refers to the shape of the ideal form of narrative structure for the masses. He lists 8 characteristics, one of which is “the single protagonist.” This extends to the basic idea of presenting just a single central narrative. Not two.
Nicholas Kristof does a wonderful job of presenting this dynamic in the real world with his classic short, simple essay in Outside Magazine in November, 2009 titled, “Nicholas Kristof’s Advice for Saving the World.” He cites the work of psychology professor Paul Slovic who shows how “storytelling needs to focus on one individual, not a group.” Not two individuals. Just one. That is the power of the singular narrative.
I read a very intellectual blogger last year saying, “I’d like to think people can keep two thoughts in their mind at once.” You’re welcome to wish for that, but it just doesn’t work that well for the masses. They prefer the singular narrative.
But there’s also a dark side which is the public’s insatiable desire for singular narratives. Last week there was a prime example of this reported in the NY Times as they told of how the story of the infamous “Patient Zero,” (who supposedly spread the AIDS epidemic throughout the United States in the 1980’s) actually wasn’t that clear, simple or singular of a story. There were earlier patients, but mentioning them dilutes the strength of the story, leaving you with the usual choice of story or truth.
THE SINGLE NARRATIVE
In her wonderful TED Talk, Nigerian speaker Chimamanda Adichie tells of growing up in a culture where the only stories they were told were of affluent white explorers from Europe. In hearing only this “single story” she naturally grew to believe that was all there was to storytelling — it always had to be about these people. She eventually realized it was possible to tell stories about her own people. Her talk is about the dangers of being raised this way.
It’s a great talk and very culturally important, but it’s not at all about narrative structure. Very important to see the distinction. And very important to understand that you don’t have to tell only singular narratives, but failing to do so comes at the expense of size of audience. This is a fundamental narrative principle, as old as Gilgamesh (and Enkidu!) himself.
The Narrative Index reveals two modes for Donald Trump’s communications. We know from last spring he scores high when he is speaking off the cuff with his solo unscripted voice. But when he is scripted and less impulsive he scores much lower. Last week he gave an unfunny, unappealing, flat and unclever speech at the Al Smith dinner. If his Narrative Index for it was low, it would suggest it was written by his staff. If high, it was probably written by him. The actual score was 38, suggesting the madman created the whole mess by himself.
WATCH ME NOW
The patterns that emerge from the Narrative Index data are not necessarily causative — just correlative. But they do continue to show a lot of consistency.
First off, we know that debate performances in general, being unscripted, tend to score higher than speeches. This has been consistently true all year. You can see it once again for the three Presidential debates. Both Trump and Clinton score above 20 for all of their debate performances. They also showed no overlap in their scores (Trump: 28, 30, 30; Clinton: 20, 21, 21).
Trump continues to flounder with his speeches. Once upon a time he shot from the hip and always scored above 20. But ever since his victory in the primaries and his decision to go with a teleprompter for his speeches (seeking the advice of “veteran strategists”), his scores have been as low or lower than Hillary.
The implication is that other people put their hands into his prepared speeches, as he tries to speak diplomatically, causing the Narrative Index to plummet. The debates have allowed him to return to old form, producing higher scores.
If this really is a valid pattern, then we can use it to ask the question of who the hell wrote his unfunny, off-putting, crap speech last week at the Al Smith dinner?
Look at his score — a 38. Kinda suggests little old Donald wrote it all by himself, thinking he would unleash his brilliance and charisma on the crowd who eventually booed him. The speech sounded like nobody else had a hand in it.
Just imagine the guy as President. Yikes.
This is important. Very important. In one of our Story Circles Narrative Training sessions recently a scientist was presenting his ABT about herbivory in rain forests starting off with basically, “The climate is changing and in rain forests we are seeing …” This is one of the fundamental communications mistakes being made by the science and environmental community — the assumption that climate change is “the new normal” — that everybody knows about it now. No, they don’t. My advice: think through what the “ordinary world” means, realize most of the public is still grasping what climate change means, then start your narrative in the pre-climate change world. Climate change is the central “problem” now. To assume everyone has already advanced to that stage runs the risk of losing a lot of people, as well as coming off as aloof.
TIPS ARE FOR TURKEYS
As a rule, I’m hesitant to get involved in offering up “tips for communication” because it reinforces this sad notion many people have of thinking they can get great at communication without ever investing the time to engage in an actual training regime such as Story Circles. The bane of what we do with Story Circles are the short attention span folks who say, “Great, three words — and, but, therefore — I’m all set, thanks, all done.”
It’s not that simple. I don’t care if you pride yourself on being “a quick study.” You’re missing the point — it’s about building narrative intuition, which takes time.
But for the sake of discussion and because this is a fairly profound element, I’m going to share this one bit that we’ve encountered in Story Circles.
WHAT IS THE ORDINARY WORLD?
This is a question that my buddy Mike Strauss, head of the Office of Scientific Quality Review for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) has locked onto a lot in our training. He has now overseen 5 Story Circles at USDA, including the prototype that produced the effusive testimony of participants a year later that I told of in July.
He has taken to stopping a lot of people as they are working on their narratives and asking them to think through and clearly define the “ordinary world” of their project. If you’re not familiar with this term you can get a good first introduction with Matthew Winkler’s excellent TED ED film. This is the whole dynamic you get with Story Circles — other people poking and prodding your narrative, helping you develop it as clearly and strongly as possible, ideally before you even start writing much of anything.
Everyone should stop and ask themselves this question for any project — what is the ordinary world — the conditions before the problem is identified. Describing the ordinary world is where you lay out elements of agreement — things that everyone in your audience knows.
EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION TAKES TIME
And this is where a lot of climate communication is making a mistake. I moderated a panel on climate change for the Malibu Public Library Speaker Series last month. We had 3 climate experts and 200 audience members, almost none of whom had any background in climate science. Most didn’t have the first clue of what climate change really means.
But even for the people who are climate experts. It doesn’t hurt to open with a tiny bit of historical review — that once upon a time our climate wasn’t changing this rapidly. We can all agree on that, and agreement is where you want to begin.
This is a tough dynamic because so many people want to begin by impressing you with how much they know. It often takes a true expert to feel comfortable enough starting slowly, but it’s essential for communication to work well.
And in the meanwhile, Story Circles is so amazing — we learn something new with every circle we launch — like the one we started this week at Tufts University with five faculty members. It is our 12th circle so far. Lots more to come.
It’s called “the singular narrative.” It’s what the masses demand. It’s a narrative principle that goes back at least 4,000 years — to the story of Gilgamesh — as Hollywood screenwriters know. This morning we finally see behind the scenes of an epic tragedy. Just as I began saying in January on this blog, Hillary Clinton has lacked a clear singular narrative/theme/slogan/message from the start. This spring I communicated all this for three months with a Hillary campaign staffer who tried to pitch my thoughts to the campaign but hit a brick wall. The tragedy is that from the start Hillary had a clear singular narrative and one word theme of EQUALITY. It was there in the opening 250 words of her candidacy announcement on June 13, 2015 as she talked about “No ceilings” and said it VERBATIM with “what it takes to build a strong and prosperous America: “Equality of opportunity…” But she eventually stumbled upon the shallow slogan of “Stronger Together” which says nothing about equality. She could have used this singular equality narrative in the spring to join forces with Bernie Sanders who had the same theme at the core of his campaign. They could have united under a single historically powerful word. But the hacked emails now show the truth of what happened — utter narrative chaos. She ended up with only one direction to go — attack Trump’s stronger singular narrative.
In August of last year I heard NY Times columnist and three times Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas Friedman talk on “Meet the Press” about how Hillary Clinton’s campaign lacks a message. I sent him an email agreeing with everything he said, he wrote back a nice, albeit sad, reply of basically “yep.” By the fall, as my book, “Houston, We Have A Narrative,” was coming out from University of Chicago Press and I was living and breathing narrative principles as I became inescapably aware that her campaign was suffering from complete narrative chaos.
Last month The Guardian ran an editorial with the title of, “Hillary Needs A Slogan.” I forwarded it to Friedman, he wrote back, “Yep, thanks for reminding me.” It’s been a very sad thing to watch.
At the same time, Donald Trump showed deep narrative intuition from the very start by launching his campaign with a single, narratively powerful slogan, “Make America Great Again,” from which he has not veered one inch since that day. Less than a quarter of the way into his announcement speech he first mentioned it in reference to the existing system “… they will never make America great again.” Since then he has repeatedly circled back to that singular, narratively structured message endlessly, including two nights ago in the latest debate.
In my book I present the ABT Narrative Template, which I have termed “the DNA of story.” It is the template of “and, but, therefore.” Trump knows this template at a deeply intuitive level. His slogan has been, “America is a great AND mighty nation, BUT we’ve slipped in the world, THEREFORE we need to make American great again.” This has been the DNA of his campaign from which, despite all his incompetence and ineptitude with gaffes and anger, he has not veered at all. It is probably the central element that keeps his disastrous campaign still alive and enabled him to score respectable marks in this last debate.
“A STRUGGLE TO DEFINE WHAT SHE STOOD FOR” (NY TIMES)
That was how two NY Times writers put it this morning in their article about the hacked emails of Hillary’s campaign director John Podesta. These words are no surprise to me. In March I managed to contact James Carville with my thoughts about the absence of a clear narrative to her campaign. In an effort to be of assistance, I pointed to the narrative tools I present in my recent book. I do this stuff for a living these days. I’m not a crackpot — I currently work with five government agencies including NASA, National Park Service and USDA, and a variety of other science and environmental organizations as I have for over a decade.
He very kindly referred me to Hillary’s campaign, a staffer contacted me in April, we spent three months with me offering up my specific analytical suggestions, and he valiantly trying to generate some interest. Ultimately, as the hacked emails reflect, the cacophony of voices in her campaign made it hopeless for any outside voice — even if the person has authored three books on narrative.
“VEEP” WARS (HBO)
The hopelessness of my plight was spotted early on by one of my Hollywood buddies who pointed me to the episode of HBO’s “Veep” where the campaign speech writers have a big cork board covered with different Post-it notes representing the contributions of each of the competing speech writers. He warned that in a situation like that the chances of an outside voice being heard were zero. The hacked emails now confirm those comic scenes are a direct representation of what really has gone on.
The NY Times writers were alluding to exactly this when they said, “the exchanges among her aides are sometimes less “House of Cards” than “Veep,” HBO’s scabrous comedy dissecting the vanity and phoniness of Washington.”
THE MISSED “NO CEILINGS” THEME (HER STAFF)
The text of what the NY Times has written is painful to read for any Hillary supporter such as myself. They talk about how the hacked emails show, “ …the campaign’s extreme caution and difficulty in identifying a core rationale for her candidacy, and the noisy world of advisers, friends and family members trying to exert influence.”
If not EQUALITY, she at least had the potential theme of “NO CEILINGS!” She mentioned this at the start of her announcement speech, then a year later gave her primaries victory speech in a building in Brooklyn for which in her second sentence she noted, “we are all standing under a glass ceiling right now. But don’t worry, we’re not smashing this one. ”
She could have had the crowd shouting “NO CEILINGS! NO CEILINGS! NO CEILINGS!” all night long. And as one political veteran friend of mine has noted, that would at least be “aspirational” in the same way as “… GREAT AGAIN!” is. But instead they ended up with the narratively empty “Stronger Together.”
DEAFNESS OF TONE (HER STAFF)
How could her campaign committee have been so totally tone deaf to the need for the singular narrative? “No Ceilings” could have been the war cry for millions of people across the land.
Here’s a final sad quote from the NY Times writers that sums it all up, “ The private discussions among her advisers about policy — on trade, on the Black Lives Matter movement, on Wall Street regulation — often revolved around the political advantages and pitfalls of different positions, while there was little or no discussion about what Mrs. Clinton actually believed.”
ONE LAST THING: IT’S NOT TOO LATE
There’s a month left. She’s gaining momentum. Just start shouting it out — EQUALITY! NO CEILINGS! Something, anything that has clear, singular narrative dynamics (Stronger Together doesn’t).
It’s there in the Declaration of Independence — “all men are created equal” — that’s the slogan, with of course the one minor gender updating needed now. Shout it out and bring this train into the station.
Good debate moderators usually score all the way up to the 50’s for their Narrative Index (BUT/AND ratio). Their job is to “advance the narrative” which results in them squaring off the candidates by using the word “but” frequently — as in “Your opponent says this, BUT you say …” Lester Holt’s reviews were so-so for his job as moderator of the first debate. His Narrative Index was a meager 17. Kind of figures.
MODERATORS NEED TO “ADVANCE THE NARRATIVE”
One of the interesting things that emerges with the Narrative Index is the role of good moderators. It’s their job to “advance the narrative” — to not just sit there letting the candidates go on and on, but to push them into positions of conflict. They do much of this using the word “but.”
A good moderator repeatedly points out “you said this BUT your opponent says this — THEREFORE?” The result is good moderators end up with a high Narrative Index score (BUTs to ANDs).
You could see this in the third Democrat debate last spring with major veterans Martha Raddatz and John Muir. Together they scored a 56. Here are some representative questions from them, all structured around the word of contradiction, “but.”
RADDATZ: Secretary Clinton, the Department of Health and Human Services says more than 17 million Americans who are not insured now have health coverage because of Obamacare. BUT for Americans who already had health insurance the cost has gone up 27 percent in the last five years while deductibles are up 67 percent, health care costs are rising faster than many Americans can manage. What’s broken in Obamacare that needs to be fixed right now?
MUIR: You have said it’s your goal not to raise taxes on families making under $200,000 a year a goal. BUT can you say that’s a promise as you stand here tonight?
RADDATZ: Secretary Clinton, first ladies, as you well know, have used their position to work on important causes like literacy and drug abuse. BUT they also supervise the menus, the flowers, the holiday ornaments and White House decor. I know you think you know where I’m going here.
MUIR: As I pointed out the CEO pay, 200 percent of their time — for that family of just 2 percent. You’ve all said, “you would raise the minimum wage.” BUT Senator Sanders what else – speak to that household tonight. 20 years, just a 2 percent raise, how as president would you get them a raise right away?
Lester Holt, as moderator of the first Presidential Debate last week received mixed reviews (that was actually the headline in People Magazine). Aside from allowing Trump to run wild, he just didn’t do much advancing of the narrative. And so, not surprisingly, his Narrative Index was a mere 17.
By the way, if you’re wondering about the two candidates — Trump scored a 25, Hillary a 20. Both of those values were about average. Which is how most people felt about their performances. Neither of them delivered a blazing, inspired vision for the nation. They both just jabbed and defended in a fairly directionless way.
They actually started off in the normal fashion with Hillary launching a barrage of “and, and, and” statements as Trump presented the singular narrative of how China and other countries are having their way with us. But the divide quickly vanished as Trump lost his composure and Hillary got feisty.
From his convention speech to last night’s debate, Donald Trump has tried his best to generate fear around crime in America. I still love Republican strategist/skeptic Mike Murphy’s comment after Trump’s Republican convention speech — “Who knew we’re living in Gotham City?” The statistics don’t support what Trump is saying. But the problem is he’s selling a “positive pattern” narrative (meaning a clear pattern, not a positive vibe). The truth, in this case, as is so often the case, is a null narrative of “there is no net increase.” This is a classic example of how null narratives are a tough sell.
FIGHTING TRUMP WITH A NULL NARRATIVE
In “Houston, We Have A Narrative,” I told about the difficulty of propagating null narratives, meaning situations in which there is no clear pattern. This is part of the challenge of establishing innocence in the legal system. People always want a culprit, which is a positive pattern (definitely need to come up with a better term for this than “positive” because everyone is so fixated on the popular definition of that word these days as being happy and uplifting, grrr …).Fighting for innocence is another example of trying to convey a null pattern (we don’t know who did it, but not this person).
Our brains are programmed to seek the positive pattern. Trump, having deep narrative intuition, has a good feel for this. He knows how to exploit these programming flaws of the average brain.
And that’s what he was doing (again) last night in the debate as he talked about the murder rate. But as the data above from 538 Blog show, the murder rate today is half what it was two decades ago. It’s just that lots of people don’t know this and it’s hard to get them to hear it because … it’s a null pattern.
Everybody wants a good story. Declining murder rates isn’t one.
This is how I will be viewing the first Presidential Debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. There are plenty of things to listen for in the debate, but as far as narrative dynamics, these five may be the most important.
THE NARRATIVE INDEX. I posted this video (edited by John Rael) on Thursday.
Ronald Reagan was of course a (supposedly) master storyteller. I always thought his stories were hokey, but billions didn’t. Neither of these candidates are good at it. Hillary is too cold and fact-oriented, Trump is too impatient. It would be good to open with a specific story of some sort set in a specific moment in time involving a single individual as the main character, but neither have ever shown much ability for this.
2) NARRATIVE (Problem/Solution)
This is Trump’s “strength.” He is a dealmaker with a short attention span. He likes to get down to business quickly, and it shows in his Narrative Index (But/And ratio in the video above which Xeni Jardin of Boing Boing did a nice post about). Listen for this. But also see if he doesn’t manage to get through lots of narrative loops (And, But, Therefore) by cheating the system through over-simplifying (“we like the Mexicans AND we want them to be part of our country, BUT there are too many illegals, THEREFORE let’s build a wall”). See if Hillary is able to answer questions by quickly getting to the problem being addressed, or if she goes off with little focus.
3) OVER-ARCHING NARRATIVE
They both have supposed themes. Trump is Make America Great Again. Hillary is Stronger Together (though it’s not clear who this is directed at). See if they open with their theme, then close with it (coming full circle like the Monomyth).
4) QUICK OPENING
Hillary has a tendency to open with four paragraphs of thank you’s that destroy her momentum. Trump opens quick. Watch for this. One would hope she would open with a focused fierceness and a tone of “this is no time for pleasantries.” It would also be really nice if she were to open with an ABT structure along the lines of the opening of Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech.
The description of the ordinary world ideally involves drawing on history. In the Gettysburg Address, before mentioning the civil war, Lincoln described the history of the nation: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, AND dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” He started his second paragraph by talking about the present problem, “Now we are engaged in a great civil war”.
Hillary could do so much by drawing on the history of equality in this country, but who knows if she will.
Hollywood instructors are discovering Hegel’s Triad (which underpins the ABT). It started with Frank Daniel in the 1980’s, moved to the “South Park” guys, and now can be seen in what current screenwriting superstar Aaron Sorkin is teaching. Sorky’s template is bascially the DHY, geared more towards for advanced writers and advanced audiences who are completely up to speed with the stories he’s telling.
AARON SORKIN TEACHES SCREENWRITING. “You don’t have an idea until you can use the words ‘but, except, and then’.” It’s what you’d expect from a sophisticated master — the DHY.
“BUT, EXCEPT, AND THEN” = B1B2B3
It’s time to talk narrative templates, which all track back to Hegel. He was the boring philosopher of the 1700’s (seriously, he tends to be the guy philosophy students most dread having to read). He’s the guy who identified “the Hegelian triad” of “thesis, antithesis, synthesis.”
A century ago, students were raised on it. Then it became uncool. But I predict a day soon where everyone circles back to realizing that in a world of too much information, the triad is an essential tool.
In “Houston, We Have A Narrative” I identified the narrative ideal as being the ABT structure of And, But, Therefore. I then laid out The Narrative Spectrum where we end up with AAA when there’s no narrative at work, and DHY when we’re wanting complex/potentially confusing, hyper-narrative content. The latter is what Aaron Sorkin is preaching in his workshops, which is what you’d expect for the narratively challenging medium of television.
SORKIN LIKES IT NARRATIVELY THICK
Aaron Sorkin is a Hollywood icon. He won an Oscar for the screenplay of “The Social Network” and was the creative force behind “The West Wing,” “Newsroom” and lots of other great shows. Now he is teaching screenwriting.
Above is the trailer for his course. In the middle of the trailer he brings up a triad of “but, except, then.” Which is great. But … it’s a step beyond the iconic ABT structure. As I have argued in my essay on The Narrative Index, television demands A LOT of narrative content. It won’t tolerate AAA, and is often comfortable with DHY when it’s part of an on-going show. This is what Sorkin is teaching.
So let’s talk about his BET template (But, Except, Then). The first thing he’s doing is skipping the A of the ABT and just starting with the B (But). You can do this. You’re basically “cutting to the chase.” It’s great for short attention span folks and TV audiences who want the start to start right away. But you do it at the risk of losing much of the audience, which isn’t a risk at all if they have already watched three seasons of your show.
You also lose the chance to set up your story – planting at the start the overall context an understanding of why this is an important story. If it’s just another episode of a TV show that we already have been following for lots of episodes, then it’s probably a good thing to not waste a bunch of valuable screen time. But if you’re trying to write a world-changing essay, you probably don’t want to lose the exposition at the start.
Then he moves to the E (Except). This is the same as Step 4 (“The stakes get raised”) of the Logline Maker that Dorie Barton developed in our book “Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking.” We established an initial source of tension or conflict with the B, then we add complexity to it with the E.
This means something like, “The father is found lying dead in his back yard and it looks like he shot himself EXCEPT the angle of entry of the bullet appears to have come from next door.” So basically “the plot thickens.” And then Sorkin wants to thicken it more.
The third element Sorkin wants is a T in the form of “Then” instead of “Therefore” as we find in the ABT. This means that instead of moving towards “consequence” he’s just wanting more conflict. So we find the dead body, we realize the shot came from next door, THEN … we find out the next door neighbor just left town. Now we have a complex story to chase after.
All of which means he’s basically wanting a big chunk of DHY. Which is great for engaged, sophisticated audiences.
Sorkin is a brilliant writer AND I would expect nothing less than a bunch of DHY from him, BUT you’re going to lose people if you’re wanting to tell clear, simple narratives to audiences that haven’t been following your show for three seasons, THEREFORE you should stick to the ABT for now, and use it to understand more clearly what Aaron Sorkin is doing at a more advanced level with his BET template.
“Is the ‘And, But, Therefore’ Template the DNA of Story?” That’s the title of the Reddit AMA session I’ll be doing next Thursday from 10 to 1 PDT. It’s a chance to answer questions about the ABT, Story Circles and the upcoming fall schedule of Story Circles Demo Days at Yale, Genentech, Tufts, UCLA, AAAS, Smithsonian, and USDA. The page for it will open a couple hours before the start time, allowing you to post your questions. We did one last fall, it’s a lot of fun, so please join us! The link will be posted here on September 7th (the day before the AMA).
WHAT’S A REDDIT AMA?
If you’re not familiar with it, a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) is a chance to basically ask me (in this case, Randy Olson, scientist-turned-filmmaker) anything. We did one last fall following the release of my book and and the webinar I did with the Union of Concerned Scientists. Now we’re getting ready for a very busy fall schedule for Story Circles, so it seems like a good time to share the details of what’s ahead and what we’ve learned so far.
Hope you can join us Thursday morning!
By “Big Buts” I’m referring to paragraphs that start with the word “But.” It turns out the New York Times is very fond of them. We followed the front pages of 5 newspapers for 21 days this month. The New York Times averaged nearly 2 “But Paragraphs” per day (or “BP’s”). In contrast, the Wall Street Journal and two small local newspapers had virtually zero BP’s. Why is this?
HERE’S THE DATA, TAWK AMONGST YERSELVES
The data are cut and dried. Pick up the New York Times on any given day (as we did for 21 days) and you will see upwards of 4 stories that have a paragraph which starts with the word “But.” It’s usually the third or fourth paragraph of the story.
Why is this?
HERE’S THE ABT EXPLANATION
It’s as simple as ABT — our “And, But, Therefore” template — or more specifically just the AB elements. The front page of the New York Times, being so widely read, reaching for the broadest audience, having earned the most Pulitzer Prizes, and having the strongest narrative voice in the world of newspapers, also is the strongest “selective regime” for narrative structure.
I’m guessing the editors who shape the front page are not about to let a story amble and wander non-narratively with the “and, and, and” boring structure I identified in “Houston, We Have A Narrative.” To the contrary, they shape every story, making sure there is exposition/context at the start (the “and” material) then a clear start to the narrative dynamic with the word “but.”
Moreover, when you look at their guidelines, they state explicitly that it’s fine to start sentences with the word “but.” Here’s a post from their “After Deadline” blog where they address the idea of starting sentences with “But” (their ultimate source is the NY Times Manual of Style):
“Should a Sentence Ever Start With ‘And’?
Another pet peeve of some commenters is the use of “but” or “and” to begin a sentence. I don’t see any basis for their objections.
It shouldn’t be overdone, but using coordinating conjunctions this way can provide a handy and very efficient transition. “But” is certainly preferable in many cases to the stilted “however,” and “and” is simpler than “in addition” or similar phrases.
THIS AIN’T TRIVIA, FOLKS
Journalists seem to shrug and chuckle at everything I mention about the ABT. Most act like they already know all this — they learned it in grade school. But they didn’t.
The ABT is the DNA of story. It comes from Hollywood. It is both new (never before formalized) and old (the same thing as the age old elements of narrative form, going back to the Greeks, it’s just a new, more concise statement of them). It’s at the core of our Story Circles Narrative Training that is now going wide.
The ABT opens up a whole new world of text analysis, as we’re deep into now. There will be lots more coming along these lines in the next few months. All new. Which means, no, you didn’t already know this.
Big thanks to Daria Epakchi for data gathering and Steph Yin for the NY Times editing insights.
FROM ABT SLASHER TO BO-HOHORING DRONER. In the first stage of his campaign Trump set record levels for narrative content in his speeches. Then he turned “Presidential” and his Narrative Index plummeted, hitting rock bottom with his June victory speech that used a teleprompter and was viewed as uncharacteristically dull. Now he’s entering his third stage. Will his scores rebound?
EXIT THE TRUMP ZONE
Earlier this year, after pounding away at the political blogs with 5 different essays about using the ABT dynamics to analyze the narrative content of speeches (none were published), and finding that the political pundits are more innovation-averse than the dullest foundations, I finally just ended up reporting some of my findings in this blog. No one important noticed, which was fine. It’s only data, after all, coming from the guy who wrote three books on narrative structure and is now running narrative training with the best science institutions in the country. Not likely he would know as much as journalists.
Regardless, a clear pattern has emerged for Trump. He once gave speeches that had strong narrative dynamics. Those speeches all scored over 20 for their Narrative Index (ratio of Buts/Ands times 100 to make a round number). As soon as it began to look like he could win the nomination and he began thinking more about what he was doing — including trying to be more “Presidential” by using a teleprompter — his scores plummeted. The last time he scored over 20 is now February in his victory speech for the New Hampshire primary. He’s sputtered out, narratively.
A CAMPAIGN IN 3 PHASES
It’s pretty clear there are now 3 phases to Trump’s campaign.
Phase One was the Corey Lewandowski Wild West Days. Trump shot from the hip and simultaneously had strong narrative content to what he delivered. And they won the primary.
Phase Two is what just ended. He fired Lewandowski, brought on Paul Manafort, tried to be more Presidential, gave a lot of boring, ineffective speeches, made lots of gaffes and blunders, sagged in the spolls, started using a teleprompter, and among all these other things, ended up giving speeches that all scored well below 20 for the Narrative Index.
Phase Three starts now. He’s brought on two new people. One is soiled by the Breitbart name, the other is a frequent guest on MSNBC shows like Hardball. Manafort has been demoted. These two are known to be in alignment with Trump’s voice.
It will be interesting to see if his narrative content returns.
And please don’t anyone write to me accusing me of being a Trump fan. He’s despicable. But that’s no reason to not study what he’s doing. Unless you’re a typical Democrat and prefer to just ridicule him.
Daniel Slotnik, whoever you are, you should be ashamed of the rotten New York Times obituary you wrote about my old buddy Thom Steinbeck. Your first sentence includes the word “bitterly,” your only quotes from other people are from his father’s biographer disparaging him, and there was not one word about what a funny, fun-loving, boisterous, jovial storyteller Thom was. Not one. All you did was rake as much muck as you could find on him, then do your best to give him a final drowning in the shadow of his larger-than-life father. I assume you were assigned to write the obituary and never met the man. You should be ashamed of yourself. F. you, Slotkin. (btw, that’s for Thom — he would appreciate my saying that for him)
STRANGERS SHOULDN’T WRITE OBITUARIES
What made Daniel Slotnik feel the need to stomp on the grave of John Steinbeck’s son, Thom Steinbeck who departed the world last Thursday?
His obituary is nothing but muck, raked back and forth. There’s no quote from his wonderful widow, Gail. There’s no quotes from his good friends. Yes, he was engaged in plenty of legal battles. So what. He was a fun and generous person who supported veterans and workers groups vigorously.
And by the way, Slotnik, you overlooked the definitive statement on Thom to make your rotten case against him in death — the slender supplemental volume by Jackson Benson, Steinbeck’s biographer. It was titled, “Looking for Steinbeck’s Ghost.” When I first moved to L.A. and went in search of Thom I began by checking out Benson’s biography which I had heard was massive. I saw the Jackson Benson name on the spine of the thin book and wondered as I checked it out with a stack of other works on Steinbeck how “THE” biographical work on Steinbeck could be so small.
When I got home I realized it wasn’t the biography. No, the biography is indeed 1,184 pages. The “Ghost” book was a separate essay he wrote after completing the biography. At the start of the smaller book he explained that he wrote it as almost a public service to all future biographers of famous people. What he wanted them to know was about the horrendous battles, conflagrations and befuddlements he had to endure in dealing with the descendants of John Steinbeck, most prominent of whom was his son, Thom.
So there, Slotnik — you might as well have at least hit the bullseye by citing that work. No, there was nothing wrong with any of the facts cited in your NY Times obituary. It’s just that there was more to the man — a human side — that I now want to share because I was so fond of him. Here we go.
LOOKING FOR STEINBECK’S SON
I met Thom in 1994 when I first moved to Hollywood. I had to meet him. I had grown up as a marine biologist transfixed on his father’s book “The Log from the Sea of Cortez.” It was my density to meet him (and yes, I said density, an oblique reference to “Back to the Future” to show I will be infusing this piece with humor, something the NY Times obituary lacked, severely).
I was in a writer’s group where a woman was listing the other clients of her agent with Gersch Agency and mentioned his name. I had her give her agent a letter to Thom from me. A month later a “producer” (I found out later actually just one of Thom’s drinking buddies) called me up suspiciously. I made clear I was a poverty stricken marine biologist just starting film school. I managed to prove I was sufficiently innocent/incompetent and was thus granted security clearance.
A week later I met Thom at one of the swankiest bars in Beverly Hills. I walked in. Everyone looked too young and hip for me. But then I spotted an older guy at the bar wearing a sort of captain’s hat, looking 1000% out of place. I said to myself, “Please don’t let that be John Steinbeck’s only living son.” It was, and he was already three sheets to the wind.
To make matters worse, one of the hottest young actress wannabes in my acting class was our waitress. She kept bringing the drinks, but glaring at me like, “Dude, you’re with THIS old guy?”
We sat there for FIVE hours that first night, trading stories, laughing our asses off. I drove home obliterated. He told me stories of love and hate for his father. He told me about how his brother and he always wanted to rent a tractor and chains and in the middle of the night tear down the statue of their father in the middle of town in Salinas, California. He told me how much his father would hate EVERYTHING to do with the tourists endlessly honoring and worshipping him — which by the way was already palpable in his wonderful final personal book, “Travels with Charley.”
Thom told me about serving in Vietnam as a combat photographer — he told me he was the only one who shot film footage of the iconic photo of a Vietnamese man being executed (a photo of which won a Pulitzer Prize). He told me about his beloved brother who died in surgery in 1991 — the person he felt closest to in his life.
A couple years later I was part of his bachelor’s party in LA where we went to Thai food, a strip joint, then a massage place. A week later I took my buddy Jay Vavra with me up to Pacific Grove to his wedding to his wonderful wife, Gail Knight. Just last year, as Jay was dying from leukemia, I went up and saw Thom and Gail in Santa Barbara and managed to find a couple of shots of Jay in their wedding photos which I contributed to his memorial service.
Thom and I worked on making a documentary of sorts out of “The Log from the Sea of Cortez” for a couple of years. We had a number of fairly sloshed creative lunches, then at one point — and I’m sorry, but I just have to share this with some of you who can appreciate the outlandish humor of it (the rest of you can get stuffed) — we typed up a synopsis one day and as a joke he added on the cover page the subtitle of, “A Ribald Tale of Barrel-chested Men and Large Breasted Women on the High Seas.”
A month later he called me up and said, “Olson, I messed up. It’s all over — I made a boo-boo — I accidentally sent that draft to Elaine” (his father’s third wife who shared with him control of the Steinbeck estate) “She read the subtitle and wasn’t amused — she said no way will she grant rights to us to make a film.” Which ended that project, but at least we laughed really, really hard about it. For years.
In 2003 I brought him to our Shifting Baselines Roundtable Evening in Santa Monica. At the intermission he told all the scientists they were full of shit — that the ocean was already done, all they were doing was agonizing over the remaining bits, then stormed out angry. Which of course the next day was followed by a phone call with me where we laughed our asses off, again.
Thom was awesome. He was of a different generation. If you didn’t know him you could easily write the sort of pile of crap that Daniel Slotnik has written in the New York Times.
Actually, you know what, the whole journalism world owes the Steinbeck family an apology for the infamous question asked of John Steinbeck at the press conference for his Nobel Prize in 1962. A journalist asked if he thought he deserved it. That fundamentally soulless, disrespectful tone matches the NY Times obituary for his son.
Thom was just like his old man. Not perfect, but deeply caring. He did a lot of work with military veterans and farm labor groups and lots of other meaningful causes. He was connected with the land and with working class folks, just as his father sort of tried to be and wanted to be and thought he was, but actually never really was, as Thom confirmed to me. But at least his sentiments were in that direction.
They both knew bullshit when they saw it. The New York Times obituary for Thom is pure bullshit. You want to see the proper, decent, dignified way to write an obituary, Slotnik? It’s right here, in the Monterey Herald, including a quote from Thom’s old buddy Arlo Guthrie. Thank you, Monterey Herald.
“EPIC 2014” predicted the merging of Google and Amazon to create Googlezon; the beating heart of a massively superficial world. That hasn’t happened yet — the merger — but the superficial part is pretty close.
“IT IS THE BEST OF TIMES, IT IS THE WORST OF TIMES”
Harkening back to “A Tale of Two Cities,” that is the opening line of the short video produced by a couple of journalists in 2004 predicting the future of journalism in America. The main prediction was that we were headed to a world in which there are very few original sources of stories, yet countless “news stripping services” that endlessly recycle those few stories created.
This past Sunday evening John Oliver presented another one of his great in-depth segments (I loved his segment on false positives), this time focusing on the decline of newspapers. He presented the staff meeting of one new owner of a failing newspaper who was telling his employees they needed to make tons more money and then they could worry about providing a service to their readers. He ended his comments by snapping back at a question, ending with “F. you.”
The dilemma of declining quality of journalism was summed up by one veteran of the news world who said simply, “No one seems to have a perfect plan to keep newspapers afloat.” Oliver showed how all the TV news shows endlessly cite articles in newspapers now because they have virtually no budget for their own investigations any more, yet the newspapers themselves have been stripped back.
“IT IS WHAT WE WANTED, IT IS WHAT WE CHOSE” (KIND OF LIKE TRUMP)
I was deeply impressed with the EPIC 2014 video when it came out in 2004. I blogged about it, then talked about it in my first book. Journalism is so important and has so much potential to lead society. I was raised in the era of Woodward and Bernstein as societal heroes. It’s terrible to see that form of journalism vanish, though if you were to read David Halberstam’s magnificent book, “The Powers That Be,” you would learn how the great journalist Edward R. Murrow was forced to watch his beloved CBS News department be stripped down because it wasn’t making nearly as much money as the Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan’s Island. Murrow was never able to make sense of that. Such is human nature. Especially in America.
As EPIC 2014 predicted, we continue to move towards a society that is increasingly “narrow, shallow and sensational.” The video painted a bleak picture of 2014 but pointed the finger of blame squarely at the public, saying, “It is what we wanted, it is what we chose.” Which is the same line that should be said to the Republican party right now about Trump. He didn’t win the nomination through his thoughtful hard work, the party chose him for what he represents.
Gonna be a busy and fun fall with lots of Demo Days that will give rise to lots of Story Circles. Yesterday we launched the first Story Circle for USGS folks (both scientists and communications staff) who took part in the Colorado Demo Day in March. We’re just getting started.
A DOZEN DEMO DAYS
The two Demo Days we did three weeks ago with USDA, NASA and University of Maryland produced 39 of 80 participants signing up to eventually enter into Story Circles that involve the 10 one-hour sessions. It takes a while to get each one off the ground. From our March Demo Day, we have launched 4 Story Circles (two for USDA, one each for USFWS and USGS) involving 20 of the 35 participants in that Demo Day.
This fall’s events should involve at least 500 scientists and communications staff. No telling how many Story Circles will arise from the Demo Days but I’m sure it will be lots (4 are already set for Tufts alone). It’s a slow process, but we are on our way towards establishing small pockets of “narrative culture” meaning groups of workers where everyone in the group is fluent in the narrative language of Story Circles. That is the point where we can start to put an end to painful AAA and DHY miscommunication efforts.
A wonderful time lies ahead!
At our two Demo Days last week we heard from two of last year’s participants in the USDA prototype Story Circle. When their circle ended a year ago, one of them was moderately positive about the experience (though not wildly enthusiastic), the other wasn’t really certain it was worth the time. But a year later, their tone was completely different. They talked in detail about how it has changed how they write, read and think. Yes, it is that profound. The same pattern of needing time to let the training soak in has emerged with the AAAS Invention Ambassadors I work with. The bottom line: NARRATIVE TRAINING TAKES TIME (furthermore, one day workshops on storytelling are somewhere between useless and counter-productive).
WHAT A DIFFERENCE A YEAR MAKES. Two participants in the USDA/ARS Story Circle prototype last year, Cathleen Hapeman (left) and Gail Wisler talk in detail about how Story Circles has changed how they write, read and even think.
THE PATH TO NARRATIVE INTUITION IS STEEP AND CHALLENGING
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and I can assure you that obtaining the gift of “narrative intuition” ain’t gonna happen for you in a day, either. These things take time.
That wasn’t what one government program officer (at an unnamed agency) wanted to hear last year when I met with him. He said they liked the sound of Story Circles, BUT … (he actually used the ABT template to say this), their people are too busy, THEREFORE could we shorten it to 5 instead of 10 one hour sessions.
I didn’t say no. Instead, I had Mike Strauss, head of the USDA Office of Scientific Quality Review and coordinator of the USDA prototype of Story Circles write a lengthy explanation of how it was only in sessions 6 to 8 that we started to see the emergence of elements of “narrative intuition” in the participants.
NARRATIVE TAKES TIME
Last week I listened to the further confirmation of this from two of the members of that Story Circle who spoke at lunch time with both of our recent Demo Days at USDA. No one was more blown away than I as they talked enthusiastically about the value of the Story Circles training.
But here’s the most dramatic aspect of what they said — they were nowhere near certain of the value of the training a year earlier when it finished. In fact, last August I interviewed Gail Wisler on camera and was really wanting her to say Story Circles was awesome, but she couldn’t and wouldn’t.
Seriously. I was cueing her, almost verbatim — “So would you say the training has been helpful?” To my dismay she was filled with hesitancy — saying basically it’s probably useful to some people, but she wasn’t sure yet.
Which is why I was stunned, a year later, to hear them both talk so confidently. Cathleen had used the ABT to give structure to a huge and very complex “project plan” (their central organizing document at USDA) with multiple investigators and various aspects of studying sources of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. She said repeatedly that without the training of Story Circles the project would have been a tangled mess. But instead, it scored the highest rating she has ever received.
Gail was equally certain and enthusiastic.
IT TAKES A YEAR, EVEN FOR INVENTION AMBASSADORS
None of this should be much of a surprise since I talked about it in “Houston, We Have A Narrative.” But I really never totally believe anything I preach, so it’s still pretty remarkable to me when I hear it from others. Which was also the case with the AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors this year.
For three years I have been brought in to work with the team of scientist/inventors they choose to give a series of talks during the year. It’s always a bit of a shock for them to be subjected to me — especially the ones who have given TED Talks with over a million views. They naturally think there’s no need to mess with their presentation skills.
In fact, last year more than one complained about having to use up their time with my lecture and notes to them. And yet this year I was told, before I started with this group, that the same people who complained last year after my three days of working with them, as the year went on and they gave their talks, actually began to incorporate things I had recommended using the narrative tools. By the end of the year they were apparently telling about the value of the tools and the training in their talks.
It just takes time.
And that’s what Story Circles is all about.
A SHOCKING LACK OF PUSHBACK
So there’s the biggest shocker of all — almost everybody seems to realize this stuff takes time. Just yesterday I had a conference call with another organization interested in Story Circles. One of their communications folks said she has been bothered by the one day workshops they have run. She said she always feels there’s no “follow through.” As a result, she totally understood the need for the 10 one hour sessions aspect of Story Circles.
All of which gives me great hope. After 25 years of studying the communications challenge and finally coming up with this whole approach of Story Circles I had feared I would hit the same brick wall that has refused to support my journey. But it’s turning out to be the opposite. Everybody gets it. They are ready for the 10 one hour sessions. Even the big boss man at that agency who wanted to cut it to 5. That agency is now participating and ready to run their first Story Circles.
It’s nearly two weeks since I bought a new iPhone 6S, but they still can’t activate it because of the tangle of Apple ID’s and passwords they had me create. I think they’ve lost track of what Steve Jobs preached. Complex is the default nature of most systems. As Jobs always said, simplicity is hard work — which is especially true in communication.
WHERE HAVE YOU GONE, STEVE JOBS? OUR NATION TURNS ITS OVERLY COMPLICATED EYES TO YOU.
I really can’t believe how stupid my experience has been over the past two weeks with the iPhone 6S. I bought a new one. They tried to set it up at the Apple Store, but after spending 1.5 hours trying to upload the contents of my iPhone 5 to the iCloud to back it up, the upload failed because of their poor wireless service (wouldn’t you think the store would have good wireless service?).
I succeeded from home, but then began encountering a tangle of several Apple IDs they let me put into the system (or actually I think created for me — I’ve never created a me.com or iCloud.com email address) somewhere over the past few years.
At one point the guy on the phone started asking me a series of those annoying privacy questions. They were questions I have NEVER, EVER answered in my life — including “Where did your parents meet?” They met on a ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The guy wouldn’t tell me the answer but said the answer he had was a one-word city. How could that be?
He asked several other questions I have never, ever heard, yet said they had answers for them.
What a mess. They ended up having to file some paperwork that will take another 3 to 5 days to clear. All just to activate the phone, which the guy couldn’t do for me because … “It’s just not that simple,” he said, verbatim.
The whole process left me feeling like their security backup systems have gotten so complicated their employees can’t really completely understand them. Which felt like it’s been a long time since Steve Jobs and his obsession with simplicity has left the building.
STORY CIRCLES IS SIMPLE
I guess I’m thinking a lot about simplicity these days because it’s at the core of our Story Circles Narrative Training. The entire program is built around the one simple narrative template of the ABT. It’s working great, and is a thing of beauty to watch how powerful it all is because of one main attribute — simplicity.
But it hasn’t come easy. The ABT is the result of a 25 year journey. Simplicity takes time. We all know this, though I think some of this thinking has been lost at Apple.
The violent crime rate is low, the economy is strong, ISIS is in decline, and Obama has pulled off miracles, but the Democrats are utterly incompetent at communicating any of this. Trump is running as “The Law and Order President” when there’s nothing close to a crime wave. It’s really sad.
The best quote I heard last night in the commentary on Trump’s nomination speech was political consultant Mike Murphy who said in reference to Trump’s fear-mongering speech, “Who knew we were living in Gotham City with marauding gangs.”
Seriously. Look at the numbers for violent crime. Everyone knows the murder rate is nearly half today of what it was in the early 1990’s, and it’s even lower than in the idyllic early 1960’s.
Trump is billing himself as “The Law and Order President.” It’s so completely wrong. But what is far more wrong is the utter and complete ineptitude of the Democrats to refute this.
It’s straight out of McKee’s Triangle. Trump is telling a big “archplot” fear-based story that is just not true. The Democrats are stuck with the real world “miniplot” story of “There is no crime wave.” It is a tough challenge, but not impossible.
The solution is to tell a powerful archplot story of Trump’s reasons for lying, but do it in an interesting, compelling way that’s something more than just whining about him being a liar.
TRUMP KNOWS NARRATIVE
It’s so sad watching all this. He is a master of narrative as well as performance. The convention had a clear, singular, recurring theme of “Make America Great Again,” for which the word “Great” was easily switched out with “Safe” and “First” and anything else inspiring.
What do the Democrats have planned for their theme? If the past year is any guide, they will change their slogan mid-convention.
The liberal pundits did their best to label the Republican convention as a disorganized mess. But no, it wasn’t. It had energy, spontaneity and everyone spoke constantly of aspirations.
I dread hearing the assessments of the DNC next week. It will be smooth, professional, flawless and … it’s gonna be boring. I guarantee you the most common critique will be “too scripted.” That’s been a problem with previous conventions. This one seems inevitable for that label.
It’s a mess. How can this moron be running as the Law and Order President when there isn’t any sort of a crime wave? And how can the Democrats be so inept as to let him get away with it?
Filmmaker Michael Moore already predicted Trump will win. To quote Han Solo, “I got a bad feeling about this.”
From sadness to joy in less than two minutes.
CHANNELING A SPIRIT
I want to share a great moment I had on Saturday at the wonderful memorial event held at University of Washington for the late, great grandaddy of marine ecology, Robert T. Paine.
As I’ve made clear in both the dedication of my first book and in a blogpost, Bob meant a lot to me. It was 40 years ago this summer that I first met him and he became my undergraduate advisor. We stayed buddies over the years, trading lots of emails in recent years. As Peter Kareiva conveyed so nicely last week on Andy Revkin’s NY Times blog, Bob embodied the very best of everything in ocean science.
At the memorial Bob’s daughters brought lots of his possessions — from books to t-shirts to marine ecology equipment — for everyone to take home whatever they fancied. I’ve never seen that done before, but it was very cool — a chance for people to keep with them some of his enduring spirit — especially his books in which he had written his name.
I was milling around catching up with folks when a friend walked up with a copy of my recent book. It was the copy I had sent Bob last fall and written my heartfelt words of thanks on the opening title page. She gave it to me, innocently assuming I’d want it back. I stood there holding the book, starting to fight back an unanticipated wave of emotion, thinking, “No. I don’t want this back. Ever. I gave it to him. Why would I want it back? It almost feels like rejection.”
It was disorienting. I wasn’t sure what to do. I wanted to throw it in the trash. Something — anything — get it away — this was spiritually wrong.
But then … I swear, within less than a minute I looked across the room and said to the group, “Oh my goodness, is that Chuck Birkeland?”
He was my invertebrate natural history professor that same summer I met Bob Paine and one of the many incredibly cool, fun and smart marine ecology faculty I got to know in the U.W. Zoology Department. The last time I had seen him was 35 years ago in Palau. In fact, below is a photo of us headed out for a dive on that trip, plus he and I both worked on the crown-of-thorns starfish problem.
He had come from Hawaii for the event. I walked over to him, he immediately smiled, said he had enjoyed my recent work on science communication, BUT THEN … he said, “Of course, I haven’t had a chance to get your most recent book.”
Bingo. Amazing. THAT was what was meant to happen with the copy of my book inscribed to Bob Paine. And it did, as you can see in the photo I insisted we take (above).
I left the event with the biggest smile on my face in a long, long time. Incredible how some things like that work out.
Bob, your copy of my book has ended up on just the right book shelf.
This woman has deep narrative intuition and a pretty funny story to tell. It’s not a perfect story, but she does a great and hilarious job with what she has. Let’s listen to it then break it down for structure.
I DON’T DO WELL WITH “EXTRA”. Jessica LaShawn needs her own show.
DELIVERING THE LITTLE PURPLE MAN IN SECRECY
I love this story so much. One of my best friends and favorite people in the world is the singer/actor/dancer Carol Hatchett who was one of The Harlettes (Bette Midler’s backup singers) for many years and a frequent backup singer for Prince. I got to know her twenty years ago when she starred in my USC musical comedy film, “You Ruined My Career,” which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in 1996. I’ve heard lots of stories from her about Prince over the years just like this one. She and everyone she worked with loved him, just as this woman does, but he did have his particular ways.
So it’s a hilarious story, not just because it’s really funny, and not just because she’s really funny, but most importantly, because this woman is a great storyteller with deep “narrative intuition” — the key element we work to establish with Story Circles Narrative Training.
To analytically show you how good she is, I break down her story into individual elements and explain their dynamics. I’m using a mixture of templates here — ABT, the Logline Maker, and The Story Cycle.
STORY ANALYSIS USING THE ABT AND OTHER TEMPLATES
This little exercise is a chance to see how excellent storytelling is equal parts science and art. The science part is the template structure that we can spot. The art half is her ability to know which specific details to include.
One of the key things to note is how little superfluous information is delivered, yet at the same time everything in her story is clear. This is the sort of optimization process a person with great narrative intuition is able to achieve. Great storytelling is about knowing which key details to keep in, and which can be cut out. The set of criteria for the selection of material is too great and complex to do it analytically — you just have to have the intuition for it.
Central to everything is the ABT dynamic at multiple levels. Sometimes she used the actual And, But, Therefore words. Other times you can feel their presence and I’ve added them in parentheses. Keep in mind that “so” is the word that is usually used in speaking instead of the clunky “therefore.”
Also, keep in mind how crucial and essential the “end of the first act” is to effective storytelling. There is no more important element to narrative structure. If you delay it too long, you bore everyone. If it happens too early, people get lost. Knowing where the first act should end may be the single most important element in making a story work. She pulls it off flawlessly.
LINE BY LINE STRUCTURAL ANALYSIS
OPENING ABT – She automatically catches your attention with her first sentence. The reason for this is that it is narratively structured with the ABT.
She begins by saying, “Hey, y’all, I’m so sad, I just heard about Prince and I love Prince, lord knows I do … (BUT) uh, not as much most of y’all, I haven’t even seen “Purple Rain” all the way through, so (THEREFORE) I just wanted to get on here real quick and tell y’all a story about the time Prince fired me …”
JUSTIFICATION – As she continues, she explains why she’s telling this story, “ … because some of y’all need to laugh and you need to hear something great to know what kind of man Prince was.”
ESTABLISHING SETTING – The next sentence begins the story by establishing the setting through place and time, “I was blessed to actually work with Prince when I was out in L.A.” This is similar to the “Once upon a time” cue that signals we’re headed into story mode.
EXPOSITION – She’s laying down the details with next bit, “I was working the Grammy Awards — I worked the Grammy Awards like three or four years.” This starts to give us the context in which the story occurs.
FORESHADOWING (with an ABT) – “And I got assigned to Prince — (AND) now, how they even assigned me to Prince, I don’t know, BUT y’all know Prince is a little difficult, and (THEREFORE) he was a little difficult.” By warning us he’s a little difficult we can already begin to feel a little bit of anticipation of things to come — we start thinking, “uh oh, she’s working with a prima donna”.
DESCRIPTION OF CHARACTER (an ABT) – She describes the main character, “I got to work with him AND he’s so tiny and cute — I’m about five seven, like two hundred pounds, so I’m not like a super-little lady, BUT Prince is like right here to me and (THEREFORE) he was so cute.”
END OF THE FIRST ACT – “So nobody knew that Prince was performing at the Grammy Awards and so it was my job to keep it a secret about Prince, so I go in there and see Prince and he cool as heck, and he’s laid back, and he’s like I gotta find a way to get to the stage, and I was like, oh, I don’t really know how to get you to the stage, we could like walk through here and get to the stage, and (BUT) he’s like “No one is supposed to know I’m here!” And I’m like … okay — y’all know I don’t do well with “extra” — I don’t do well with extra.”
WHY THIS IS THE END OF THE FIRST ACT – You can feel she was in her “Ordinary World,” just doing her normal job, escorting the celebrity to the stage. But her Ordinary World gets overturned and she enters the “Special World” (in a big way) when Prince tells her something she’s never heard before — that the celebrity needs to keep his presence a secret, even back stage.
ACCENTUATION OF THE END OF THE FIRST ACT – To add a little drama to this important point of structure she says, “So that’s when I knew that this was a set up and this was a chance for me to really get closer to God.”
COMIC PREDICAMENT – We now have a classic comic predicament established. We have two characters who have conflicting goals. One just wants to do her (hopefully routine) job as simply as possible, the other wants do extraordinary things (to maintain secrecy about his presence). That’s a recipe for an entire comedy movie — like the 1981 version of “Arthur” with Dudley Moore (not the remake which flopped) where his butler is basically Jessica and he is Prince — same situation.
THE SECOND ACT BEGINS – She now starts her journey of addressing the problem she has posed (trying to get Prince to the stage in secrecy). She says, “Again, Prince is difficult — most of y’all know that — so I figure out a way to navigate Prince and try to sneak him through, BUT he sees this little roller car, and he’s like “Hey, get me on this roller cart.” Okay, you know those little rollable hanger-like closets, but on wheels — its like a closet on wheels. He gets his little tiny butt on this little roller cart, and he hides behind a sheet on the roller cart, and he wants me to push him.”
THE STAKES GET RAISED – She has set up her journey which seems reasonably simple, but now she’s going to make it more dramatic as she says, “Now I cannot see where I’m going on this little roller cart in front of it, and we are trying to navigate through traffic and we are on set for the Grammy Awards. And I don’t really know where I’m going. It’s just little old me pushing this big old heavy metal roller cart with Prince on it.
FURTHER RAISING THE STAKES – Here she makes it clear how difficult the job is. “You cannot drop Prince. You cannot hit Prince. And you can’t say “Hey, help me,” because Prince is on here. It’s up to me to keep it a secret because Prince is on this little ugly cart. So Prince has got an attitude because I’m bumping into stuff. Then I get an attitude because you get an attitude with me. You can’t come for me — I don’t care if you are Prince — I love you Prince — I already done got cussed out by Stevie Wonder cause I kept saying I’m sorry — and you come over and you got an attitude with me because I can’t push you on this little roller cart, sir.
FIRST CULMINATION – The story has been built way up to the point now where something has to give. And it does as everything unravels and plunges her into her “darkest hour.”
DARKEST HOUR – This is where our hero, Jessica, plunges into disaster. She says, “So Prince gets mad and he tells me that I’m FIRED! He told me to get the hell out, and away. And I was like, you little old man — you — I swear … And let me tell you what he did — he flung his hat — you know how Prince flung his hat — and he got on the little roller cart and he stuck his little six and a half shoe out, and he starts scooting, through the sheet on the little roller cart, and he just left me there, looking stupid and dumb, and I couldn’t get back in the dressing room.
PLANT AND PAYOFF – She gets a final accentuation here by doing what is called “plant and payoff.” This refers to when something in a story is “planted” early on as it is mentioned and may be lightly funny but doesn’t seem that necessary to the story, yet it will have impact later if it is “paid off.” A while back she had planted her past experience with Stevie Wonder. Now she pays it off by saying, “And I was hungry and I ain’t have nowhere to go, and they were like okay we gotta re-assign you to somebody else, and then Stevie Wonder was like, “She probably sorry.”
END OF STORY AT TWO THIRDS POINT – That ends up being the last bit of narrative and the end of her story. We’re only about about two thirds of the way through the video, but the storytelling now pretty much ends. Her next line is, “So, that’s what happened to me and that’s what happened when I worked with Prince.” “So” is the same word of consequence as “therefore” which means she’s at the “T” in her over-arching ABT and this is all we’re going to get for storytelling.
From here she conveys the general idea that he did make it to the stage, but her comments are no longer tightly feeding the narrative (problem/solution dynamic) as she hits on summary notes about “I learned a lesson” and her friends texting her and “So that’s what happened to Prince,” and some silliness about how he was “the founder of kick push.”
In fact, you can feel how she has exited from the narrative world. The narrative part of her brain is no longer active. She’s now just tossing out statements of summary and random thoughts. It feels totally different.
It’s too bad — we were ready for the story to get crazier at this point, but she sticks to the truth, which wasn’t quite as wild as earlier.
WHY THIS VIDEO DIDN’T GO VIRAL: NO THIRD ACT
Nobody knows exactly why some utterly stupid videos go viral and others don’t. Length is a fairly important variable but not absolute. Most viral videos are about two minutes or less, yet the KONY 2012 viral video has over 100 million views and is nearly a half hour long.
Demographics are essential with viral videos because of the teen demographic — they are the driving force behind almost all viral videos — if you’re not playing to the teens, you’re probably not going viral. That’s what drove the KONY 2012 video and made brainless entertainers like Pewdie Pie into Youtube mega-stars.
There’s nothing teen-appealing with this video, and at over 5 minutes it’s relatively long, but also it has a major structural problem in that it doesn’t have a third act. If you view Matthew Winkler’s amazing animated video about The Hero’s Journey you see that Jessica’s story ends with Stage 6 — The Darkest Hour. She got fired, was banished, and that was it — story over.
GIVING JESSICA’S STORY A REWRITE
What the story needed in narrative terms was for her to quickly regroup after he fires her, decide to get even with Prince for being humiliated by him, concoct some scheme to humiliate him, have it succeed in a wild and hilarious way, then in the final scene have him offer his apology to her so we can see he’s changed and become a better person. So what’s missing is actually the whole second half of the second act in addition to a third act.
The key point is the story abandoned us in the middle of the journey, which meant that no matter how tremendous her story skills might be — and lord knows she is brilliant and hilarious — unless she made stuff up, she just didn’t have the material she needed to bring the story home.
To put it in simple terms, imagine a sports highlight reel scene of a player shooting the winning basket where we see him pull off a wild move stealing the ball from his opponent, spinning to his left, jumping up, shooting the ball, following the ball in mid-air, then cutting to a commercial. That’s kind of what she does with the abrupt ending.
And this, once again, is why scientists have good reason to fear storytelling dynamics. There is often an irrepressible desire to fill in all that missing stuff in order to have a story that will go viral. When a scientist gathers all the data to tell half the story, there can be a temptation to over-reach for the last parts to make the story arc complete. It’s only human. Which is what makes it dangerous.
But at the same time, when it comes to scientists and storytelling, the most important thing is not to blindly shun the whole of “story,” but rather to confront your fears and gain an understanding of what causes the problems.
THE POWER OF STORYTELLING RESTS IN THE SPECIFICS
One final tidbit. She does a great job of demonstrating this absolutely fundamental rule of how the power of storytelling rests in the specifics. I repeat this endlessly in Story Circles. It’s the little details that are so powerful — namely her referring to his “little tiny butt” and his “little six and a half shoe.” So classic. She’s awesome.
It wasn’t the greatest story ever told, but it was a perfect front end of what could have been one for the ages. And now you see why Hollywood is such a fickle place. They want perfect stories, and they get them — either through the shaping of fact or the manufacturing of fiction.
Filmmaker Josh Fox is the embodiment of misguided environmental good intentions. His recent environmental “documentary” on HBO titled, “How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change” was labeled “conceptually scattered” by Variety, “scattershot” by the NY Times, and Village Voice called it an exercise in, “exasperating self-importance.” It is people like Josh Fox who give the entire field of “environmental filmmaking” an unwatchably bad reputation. He needs to quit.
DEAR “UNEVEN” ENVIRONMENTAL FILMMAKER …
Please stop. I recorded Josh Fox’s recent HBO film (the lengthy title is above) and tried to watch it, but I honestly couldn’t make it through the opening self-loving credits of him dancing alone in his home. So I’ll just let Village Voice, Variety, and the NY Times provide the details with their reviews.
I disliked his first movie, “Gasland” enough. It featured his stooooopid “breathy voiceovers” (as the Village Voice review calls them) that automatically speak of distortion, dishonesty and exaggeration with every breathy word. This is not “documentary” filmmaking by any stretch of the word. It is biased, self-certain editorializing at a level beyond even Michael Moore. It’s the sort of polemics that chase away people who are on the fence about the severity of environmental concerns.
“Gasland” at least had enough storytelling to garner good reviews. But here’s the problem — both the Motion Picture Academy (it was nominated for an Oscar) and the majority of film critics are lefty do-gooders who are more than willing to give these sort of boring “documentaries” a positive review simply because the films carry their values and politics. The reviews are generally characterized by a “YOU NEED TO SEE THIS MOVIE” attitude.
The truth is, nobody needs to see any movie, ever, unless it is truly interesting, coherent and engaging. Not “scattershot.” It really doesn’t work to have “some good sequences” buried in a boring mess. The entire film needs to be watchable. The planet really does need tightly scripted, well told narratively structured filmic essays on these issues of the sort that even environmental opponents can concede are well made.
And what is it with these “critics” that they don’t grasp the fact that a film needs to both have the right message AND be watchable to actually advance their beloved causes?
There is no excuse for what Josh Fox does other than self-indulgence, laziness, distraction, and self-delusion. The goal of good filmmaking is “to tell a good story.” This is even more important when the credibility of an extremely important issue like environmentalism is at stake.
Supporters of environmentalism need to realize that Josh Fox is hurting, not helping. If you care about the planet, you should ask him to stop. What he’s doing is worse than Exxon. I know that sounds like an exaggeration, but it really is true.
As some great scholar once said (I think), “To err is human, to bore is unforgivable.”
STORY CIRCLES NARRATIVE TRAINING. As Mike Strauss, Director of the Office of Scientific Quality Review at USDA says, “Story Circles doesn’t teach writing, it teaches thinking.”
My favorite scientist of all time is gone. I dedicated my first book to him. He taught me the importance of “asking good questions” as a scientist. And he told me a lotta funny stories.
A GIANT OF THE OCEAN WORLD HAS LEFT US
Let me start with a story. I think the greatest joy I ever brought to the heart of Bob Paine was in the summer of 1978 when I was working as his field assistant on Tatoosh Island, had to take a dump out in the field, and told him I didn’t have any toilet paper so I used a few pages from Wilson and Bossert’s “Primer on Population Biology.”
Oh my goodness did he love that. I was headed to Harvard that fall to start my PhD in the same department as the co-authors (in fact would end up being teaching fellow for both in my first year) and he just couldn’t get over it — daring me to tell them about how I had defiled their landmark book.
I spent a lot of evenings that summer sitting around the campfire next to the lighthouse on Tatoosh listening to Bob tell stories about his travels, science, fishing and bird watching, and seeking his advice as I drove him crazy with questions. That was really all I knew to do in his presence. His intellect was so great and I was such an utter peon that all I could ever think to do was ask him yet another question, though he was also a good listener (a key trait of a good storyteller), equally interested in talking about General Douglas MacArthur (my grandfather was his Chief-of-Staff for part of World War II), my upbringing in Kansas, and what it was like to live in a fraternity (he was a Harvard undergrad and never knew the experience).
Bob Paine was the greatest. I kept in touch with him constantly over the years — sending him letters from distant ports of call in my field work, then reconnecting with him a decade ago when we had a massive screening of “Flock of Dodos” in the huge 1,000 seat auditorium on the University of Washington campus. He helped organize that event and my mother (the star of the movie who is now 92) sat next to him during the screening which was just plain wonderful. I told her yesterday that he passed away. She remembers vividly chatting with him that evening.
Just last fall I traded emails with Bob and he wrote this great bit that I’m sure he wouldn’t mind my sharing with everyone. He played a huge part in my life — quite possibly the most important part as I ended up doing my PhD with one of his students, Ken Sebens at Harvard.
This bit made me very happy that I had developed something he was finding useful. And look at how, in his early 80’s, he was still deep in thought on how ocean ecosystems work. I will miss his voice for the rest of eternity.
I’ve found that your ABT approach to be very useful in organizing my thoughts on a new writing project about which I know very little. There’s lots written about networks [about which I’m naive], food webs are a network, Pisaster is a node in some of them, and there are now 6-7 experiments tweaking Pisaster, and Pisaster plays the network game differently. ABT will help me organize my thoughts and possibly avoid being tarred and feathered. But possibly this is just more procrastinating.
Trust me on this, I used to be a scientist. I spent years studying Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. What is happening this year is shocking. Based on what we witnessed in Jamaica in the 1980’s, it’s going to have lasting effects.
THE “GREAT BERRY REEF” IS ROTTING
Years ago I gave a slide show to a group of second graders in Los Angeles where I showed my favorite photos from my years of studying marine biology on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. A week later the teacher sent me the drawings the kids did after my talk. One little girl very earnestly thanked me for telling them about “The Great Berry Reef.”
Now the northern third of the Great Berry Reef, where I spent a year living on Lizard Island, is just plain rotting to death. There’s no better way to express it. Look at the photos in this Guardian article focusing on the work of some of my old friends.
The next time you run into a climate denier, ask them to account for this. It’s been fun laughing at their stupidity until now, but this changes things. At least for me it does. It’s very bad.
AS WENT JAMAICA, SO WILL PROBABLY GO AUSTRALIA
What was well documented for the demise of coral reefs in Jamaica is probably relevant to what is now happening to the Great Barrier Reef.
I spent the summer of 1980 at Discovery Bay Marine Lab on the north shore of Jamaica. In August the island was devastated by Hurricane Allen, the largest hurricane of the century up until then. Along with my life long close friends, marine biologists Jeremy Jackson, Nancy Knowlton, and Mark Patterson, we hid out in the Blue Mountains and listened to trees crash down all night as Hurricane Allen passed over our heads. At sunrise we looked down and in the distance saw 25 foot waves crashing on the reef — a bit of a contrast to normal conditions as none of us could remember anything bigger than about waist high waves hitting the reef.
The next day we went diving and saw complete devastation. In a single day all the beautiful coral formations that had gone by such nicknames as “The Haystacks” and “The Emerald City” had vanished. Left behind, down to about 50 foot depth, was little more than scoured bottom — no corals, almost no fish.
The reefs became overgrown by algae. I returned 12 years later with my graduate students when I was a professor at University of New Hampshire. The place was still an unsightly mess as very little coral had returned and everything was overgrown by seaweed. To this day, 36 years later, it still bares no resemblance of the underwater splendor that it used to be. Coral reefs take a long time to recover.
AT LEAST SOME OF THIS PARTICULAR FUTURE CAN BE PREDICTED
In 2007, as I was shooting my mockumentary, “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy,” science fiction author Michael Crichton told me, “No one can predict the future.” He had become a huge climate skeptic and this was one of his favorite things to say. And it’s true. But …
We can now predict some very bad things for the northern third of the Great Barrier Reef. It’s going to look bad for a long time to come. The Guardian article, like everything else I’ve been reading, is horrifying. I remember the reefs around Lizard Island so vividly. Today’s photos, from that same area, bare no resemblance to anything I ever saw. They really are kind of beyond the imagination.
Take it from me, it’s really, really bad.
“They don’t have a plan” is not a valid criticism. If you think it is, you’re an over-thinker, and I’d like you to meet two people whose success you’re probably baffled by.
Okay, my relaxed morning was ruined today by a phone call with my Story Circles co-producer Jayde Lovell in which she got me angry, starting with remembering my Jack Black Ocean Symphony PSA, then remembering the Occupy Wall Street movement, then connecting the dots to the present Presidential campaign.
NO PLACE FOR HUMOR?
It starts with the overly-analytical, largely humorless people who manage to bore everyone so painfully that after a while nobody wants to listen to them moan about the demise of nature. In 2003 I tried to explain to them how this works — that mass communication needs to begin with a voice that people want to listen to.
In that spirit I wrote and directed “The Ocean Symphony,” a Public Service Announcement (PSA) starring Jack Black and 20 comic actors creating a bad symphony for the oceans. It was the pre-Youtube days so we hired a distributor who sent the PSA out to 1,000 TV stations. They then used Nielsen tracking to record the airing of it for the next 18 months. It was aired by over 350 stations for free (as a public service).
We got lucky (something that does actually happen to people when they try things). The same week they sent out the PSA was also the week that Jack Black’s movie “School for Rock” debuted at #1 at the box office so there was lots of awareness of him. The distributor sent us big fat monthly reports which multiplied the airings by the individual costs of air time in each market had we paid for it. By the end of the 18 months the reports showed that the PSA scored over $10 million in free air time. It also played on the giant SONY video screen in Times Square, once an hour for two months.
Guess what all that success resulted in for my next ideas for humorous PSAs. Bupkis.
Nothing but a bunch of overly-analytical conservation people who launch stillborn campaigns yet think every piece of media attention MUST have a detailed action plan attached to it to have any value. Such people are the masterminds of endless failed campaigns. This was much of the message of my first book, Don’t Be Such a Scientist; Talking Substances in an Age of Style.
Yes, it is important to have at least some plan, but the idea of picking apart a good front end product because the back end is not yet completely nailed down is a recipe for cautious, uninspired failure.
As I explained in that book, the principle is AROUSE and FULFILL. If you don’t arouse, there will be no fulfillment. And more importantly, yes, it is possible to arouse without a detailed plan to fulfill. It happens all the time. But it will never happen if you are one of the brainiacs who prides themselves on critiquing projects before they can get off the ground because you think there’s not a good enough action plan.
OCCUPY SUCCESS STREET
So, along these same lines I found myself in September, 2011 in Portland, Oregon as the keynote speaker at a meeting on business sustainability where a group went out to dinner. Everyone was talking about the Occupy Wall Street movement that had erupted and was only three days old. The entire group of smartypantses at the table were condescending about the whole effort, saying the Occupy people were wasting everyone’s time because “They have no plan.”
I listened for a bit, and then I ruined the whole evening by taking on the entire table, trying to explain to them and all of their over-educated sensibilities that lots of mass movements erupt with little more than passion which can eventually be harnessed and turned into action. They thought I was stupid. I thought they were stupid. And even the next week I heard my media hero Chris Matthews echo the same sentiment on his MSNBC show “Hardball.” He said the same thing — that he didn’t get it with the Occupy Wall Street movement — they have no plan — how are they going to stop rich people from getting rich — they are clueless.
And by the way, imagine if the action plan in September, 2011 had included, “We plan in 2016 to have Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders run for President espousing our basic principles.” How much ridicule do you think that would have drawn.
This has become a trademark of the overly analytical, overly planning, overly controlling, overly educated types who may very well get their asses handed to them this fall by Donald Trump as they laugh at his lack of specifics in his political agenda so far. You can find their type running wild all over the Huffington Post and tons of political blogs that have been 100% wrong on Trump for almost a year now. They are smug, self-assured, and absolutely certain that if you don’t know EXACTLY what your plan is, there is zero chance you will ever succeed.
These are the people who kill innovation, destroy good ideas, and feel entitled because they are so heavily educated. And they are now totally flummoxed by the success of two candidates who essentially do not “have a plan” other than “we’ll get it done.”
BERNIE AND TRUMP ARE BLIND ENTHUSIASM COME TO LIFE
Guess what the Occupy Wall Street movement produced … Bernie Sanders. Plus a single word narrative — “Occupy” — one word that speaks their entire philosophy. His political agenda is not much more specific than “eat the rich.” It’s easy to pick what he has to say apart with “how’s he going to pay for it all?” Same for Trump and his stupid wall, and stupid muslim ban, and stupid nuclear plans, and stupid stupidity. But guess who has all the energy and momentum.
Everyone is trying to blame the popularity of these two candidates on the anger and frustration voters feel towards “the establishment.” At the core of much of that rage is the frustration of listening to the know-it-alls who think they can see what doesn’t work. And in fact that has been the overall pattern for the past year — the know-it-alls saying over and over again there’s no way Trump and Bernie can succeed — the numbers are against them.
Well, Trump has now officially kicked their asses and Bernie is still in the fight. This election is about more than just anger. It’s a referendum on the know-it-all negators who spend their lives squelching people’s plans because they aren’t “thought out” enough. People are tired of being told their ideas can’t work. A lot of people are ready to either make America great again or eat the rich. They don’t quite know how, but they really don’t care. Their enthusiasm is blind, and sometimes that’s all that’s needed.
Wow, how much would it suck to be “The Love Doctor” Paul Zak this week after John Oliver made him the laughing stock on his popular HBO show on Sunday night. Zak has ridden to fame with his book about oxytocin being “the moral molecule” and his TED Talk where he claims that hugs unleash the joys of oxytocin. Oliver and highly acclaimed science writer Ed Yong end up being a sort of tag team of humiliation — Oliver with the big, broad, simple message that Zak is a clown, then Yong last fall in The Atlantic with a powerful, detailed disassembly of Zak’s oxytocin story. Ouch. I think the Love Doctor gonna need some hugs.
THE HUG-LY TRUTH. If you haven’t seen this brilliant synthesis from John Oliver this past Sunday night, it’s worth watching the whole 20 minutes. Or, if you want to skip right to the razzing of Zak, go to 10 minutes in where he begins the public shaming of “The Love Doctor.”
“I RECOMMEND EIGHT HUGS A DAY AND — OH, CRAP, HERE COMES JOHN OLIVER!”
Busted. This past Sunday evening John Oliver delivered a wonderful and simple essay on the problem of “false positives” (saying you see a pattern when in fact it’s either not there or you don’t have enough data to say it is) that increasingly plagues the world of science — especially biomedical science.
The false positive problem was given a blast of major attention in 2005 by Jon Ioannidis, a professor at Stanford University Medical School who boldly stated that, “Most biomedical papers published are false.” The medical community recoiled at this, tested it themselves, found out he was right, then it was translated brilliantly for the public by one of my all-time favorite journalists David H. Freedman in The Atlantic in a 2011 foundation-shaking article titled, “Lies, Damn Lies and Medical Science.”
If you are interested in this topic in general, you really have to read Freedman’s article. It made my jaw drop when I first read it on the way to speak at an epidemiology conference in 2011 where I asked the experts if what he said was true and they reluctantly nodded yes.
So John Oliver’s segment is really just the even-more-popular version of Freedman’s article. Oliver digs in deep with one specific example which is the excitement in recent years over “the moral molecule” oxytocin and the most enthusiastic promoter of this story, The Love Doctor, Paul Zak. What’s great is that before you question whether Oliver has his facts right, all you have to do is look to award-winning science writer Ed Yong who gave the detailed take down of Zak last fall in The Atlantic. Together they make it kinda painful to think about being The Love Doctor this week.
And of course I like this because the overall message of my book last fall, “Houston, We Have A Narrative,” was that scientists are humans and have this Achilles Heel of (similar to all humans) desperately wanting to tell big, fun, exciting, and CERTAIN stories. Paul Zak clearly fell victim to this. Here’s the basic story points of his downward journey into the clutches of John Oliver.
THE RESEARCH – In 2011 Zak was the third of five authors on a paper in Nature titled, “Oxytocin increases trust in humans.” I guess this is where he thought, “Wowser, I’m in Nature, what we’re saying must be right, I’m taking it all the way to the stars!”
THE TED TALK – Also 2011 (maybe a little soon on the heels of the research publication?) Zak found himself on the TED stage telling people about the joys of oxytocin — how hugs release it and cause good things in your body — even though a cloud of doubt was beginning to enshroud the molecule’s reputation.
THE BOOK – In 2012 Zak published, “The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity” and hit the road with more TEDx talks and appearances on everything from The Dr. Phil Show to Good Morning America.
THE SCOURGE -That same year science journalist Ed Yong began training his skeptical eye on Zak and his oxytocin party. His article in Slate that summer said it all with the subtitle, “Why the hype about oxytocin is dumb and dangerous.” He quoted an analysis of the work Zak’s oxytocin campaign was based upon which said, “some conclusions are too enthusiastic.”
OXYTOCIN, CORTISOL AND STORYTELLING – By 2014 he was entering into my area of interest, weaving big yarns about the role of oxytocin and cortisol in “The Power of Storytelling.”
MY IRRITATION – I began getting irritated last year at what I was hearing about Zak giving talks on the role of oxytocin and storytelling. I found it irritating because I had found my own interesting angle on neurophysiology and brain science in 2012 when I first spoke with Uri Hasson of Princeton University about his work establishing the field of “Neurocinematics.” I cite his work in both of my last two books. Unlike the boldness of Zak and his “Neuroeconomics” label, Hasson seemed very cautious about his neurocinematics term and constantly warned me that the science was very, very limited, in part because Functional MRI is such a crude tool. Every time I tried to get him to commit to a simple, bold statement he seem to answer with words of caution and warning that the science is very preliminary. No such concerns seemed to have ever bothered Zak.
KABOOM – Cut to this past Sunday where John Oliver uses the dubiousness of Zak’s work to cast general aspersions at TED Talks as a whole, ending up with The TODD Talks as a parody. The highlight of his parody is a scientist asking a volunteer to rub butts with him to unleash oxytocin.
“OUR YEARNING FOR CERTAINTY” AND THE POWER OF STORYTELLING
You wanna know what’s at the core of Zak’s popularity — the same thing that works for religion and confidence men — certainty. In January I raved about Kathryn Schultz’s great article in The New Yorker on the popularity of true crime shows. What I loved most about her article was the phrase near the end about “our yearning for certainty.”
That’s the human weakness that The Love Doctor is guilty of exploiting. People are desperate to understand what drives our behavior — so much that they are vulnerable to anyone in a white lab coat or handsome enough to be believable who is willing to explain how it all works WITH CERTAINTY.
If you look at this Youtube video by Dr. Paul Zak all you hear is certainty. There’s no words of qualification, limitations of confidence or tenuousness in the narration. It’s all as certain as the sun will rise every morning. Which is fine, until Ed Yong puts in the detective work, like a good private eye, and reveals that none of it is that certain. End of story for now.
STEVE GOULD WOULD HI FIVE JOHN OLIVER
I was a graduate student at Harvard in the years when legendary evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin were at war with the founder of the new field of sociobiology, E.O. Wilson. At the core of sociobiology was a lot of wonderfully fun stories about how so much of our behavior today is the result of things that natural selection “selected for” back in the early days of hominids.
But Gould and Lewontin came at them with the accusation of “Just So Stories” referring to Rudyard Kipling’s bedtime tales for children such as “How the Camel Got His Hump” where the story would give a silly explanation for the origins of animal anatomy (the camel was punished with a hump for being lazy). They tore up much of sociobiology and left clouds of doubt over the field that persist today, serving as a monument to this weakness we all have for “good stories.”
Steve Gould would love what John Oliver did on Sunday night. Sociobiology was underpinned by the basic assumption that pretty much everything about us today is there because “it was selected for.” What Gould taught us so well (I was a teaching assistant for him twice) was that a great deal of pattern that exists in nature today is due to random, chance factors rather than the result of some orderly selective process.
The main thing with The Love Doctor is that there may eventually be fascinating stories to tell about the role of oxytocin in our bodies some day, but for now, as both Oliver and Yong pointed out, the jury is still out. So while the jury is still out, the doctor ought to be a little more restrained on the storytelling and not be giving TED Talks full of tall tales.
Donald Trump is a master of narrative. In “Houston, We Have A Narrative,” I offer up a very simple, albeit crude, definition of the word narrative as, “The series of events that occur in the search for a solution to a problem.” By this definition, Trump lives and breathes narrative.
Trump is legendary as a “dealmaker.” What does that term mean? It is a person who sits down at the table, quickly figures out the problem that needs to be solved, then solves it with the deal. It’s what he does all day long and is how he approaches the world, endlessly.
When you start to listen to him from the perspective of narrative dynamics (again, narrative, not storytelling) you see how much he embodies the core principles. Here is my list of the top 5 narrative traits I see in him.
1) ADVANCING THE NARRATIVE
This is the antidote to boredom. Boring people get stuck on one topic and fail to move forward or “advance the narrative.” Avoiding this problem is built into the ABT structure. It’s what happens with the word “therefore” — the word of consequence. If somebody describes a problem, then keeps going, talking on and on about just the problem, eventually someone will blurt out, “THEREFORE … ? Therefore what are you going to do about it?” That is advancing the narrative.
I’ve heard a number of eggheaded political pundits over the past few months trying to diminish Trump’s communication skills by saying, “he just rambles all over the place in his speeches.” Well, yes, to some extent, but what they are failing to perceive is the tight ABT structure (And, But, Therefore) on the fine scale which holds the interest of listeners. And actually, he does have a clear overarching narrative which is the following …
2) SINGULAR NARRATIVE
Trump has a single message of “Make America Great Again.” You may think it’s ludicrous, but if you do you’re just identifying yourself as someone who doesn’t get how the public thinks. They don’t want to hear complex, subtle messages. One of the main critiques of Hillary has been that she’s too caught up in “nuance.” To Trump, “nuance” is like a cockroach, meant to be stepped on.
At the top of McKee’s Triangle (see Chapter 12 of the new book) is Archplot which I’ll talk about in detail in a bit. One of the key characteristics is the “singular narrative” — meaning for example that in epic stories, there is still the one character, from Luke Skywalker to Dorothy to Spartacus, who provides the singular overarching narrative structure.
Trump has accomplished singularity from the very start of his campaign with his simple slogan. That slogan wasn’t something his pollsters figured out halfway through. It was him, him, him from the start. Don’t you see it? The guy has deep narrative intuition. He opens his mouth, what comes out is narratively structured. This is why he has scored TV ratings for the debates like no one has ever seen. There has never been a candidate with this deep of a connection to narrative structure.
The one piece pointing this out at the most superficial level to date that I’ve seen was a writer at Vox who noted the recurrent problem/solution structure of Trump’s speeches. But all that writer did was make a note of it. He didn’t attempt to quantifying it or pinpoint how the dynamic works or why it’s important.
3) ONE WORD THEME: GREATNESS
In my new book I offer up what I have labeled as The Dobzhansky Template. For Trump, he would use it to say, “Nothing in America makes sense except in the light of greatness.”
The more specific term for him for this would probably be, “exceptionalism,” but he’s gone with “great.” This is his one, singular, unifying term which becomes incredibly powerful. I could easily see the masses at his rallies just shouting, “Great! Great! Great! Great!”
That one word conveys his entire message and agenda. He truly gets this stuff.
4) THE ABT & ARCHPLOT
As Robert McKee tells about in his landmark 1997 book, “Story,” there is a consistent structure to the great stories that persist over the ages reaching all the way back 4000 years to the epic story of Gilgamesh. This structure he terms “archplot” and identifies it’s key characteristics. These traits include the singular narrative (making American great again), an active hero (Trump is seen as a fighter), linear time sequence (he rarely jumps back into history), complete causality (everything in his world is simple and makes sense), and closed ending (everything’s going to have a happy ending).
Trump opens his mouth, what flows out is pure archplot. The simpler version of archplot is the ABT (And, But, Therefore) structure. Over and over again, you can hear it in everything Trump says. “We love the Mexicans AND we want the good ones to be part of our society, BUT there are too many illegals, THEREFORE we have to build a wall.”
It is how he views the world — simple problem, simple solution — custom made for the ABT.
This is where he goes off into the land of fiction. Everyone knows “the wall” with Mexico is not realistic. It is fiction. But it is simple and thus powerful.
One extension of the ABT is the simple Narrative Index I have devised. He scores a 29 which is higher than any politician I’ve analyzed, and his score is double that of Hillary (14) which I promise you will be a major factor this fall.
5) THE POWER OF STORYTELLING RESTS IN THE SPECIFICS
He knows this rule sooooo well. He uses it to his advantage on offense — naming names in his attacks on opponents, and even further by coming up with SPECIFIC nicknames for Lyin’ Ted, Little Marco, and Crooked Hillary. Those names are incredibly specific.
But then he also uses the reverse of this rule in his statements on policy, at least right now, holding off on specifics and thus weakening what he’s saying, leaving less to attack. This week on Meet the Press he was vague, waffling, and two-sided on everything from minimum wage to tax cuts. He knows better than to get pinned to specifics this early.
BOTTOM LINE: NARRATIVE EQUALS ENTERTAINMENT
Not sure how many times I can keep repeating this. People who are thought of as “entertaining” over the long term achieve that label for one main reason — they succeed with narrative. If they fail with narrative, no matter how outlandish they are, they will ultimately bore then annoy the public. That’s because they do the same repetitive schtick, meaning they fail to “advance the narrative.”
No one major is calling Trump annoying or boring (aside from those who hate him for his politics) in terms of his communication style. More importantly, no television network is calling him annoying or boring. They continue to give him endless free coverage. Why not, he generates huge ratings.
THE MEDIA IS STUPID IN IT’S ANALYSIS OF DONALD TRUMP
This past week the media critic Jim Rutenburg at the NY Times talked about the shoddy job the media, including NY Times, has done in covering Donald Trump. He said, “… this season has been truly spectacular in it’s failings.” He added, “The mistakes piled up the bad predictions, the overplaying of every slight development of the horse race to the point of whiplash, the lighthearted treatment of what turned out to be the most serious candidacy of the Republican field. The lessons learned did not.”
The analysis of Trump’s communication skills have been pathetically bad. Just as Ruttenburg says — the media have laughed at Trump and done silly, substance-lacking “analysis” such as talking repeatedly about the level of grade school he communicates at or his tendency to use “we” and “us” more than other politicians.
Stupid media analysis. That’s what it’s been. Incredibly lame and stupid.
I have warned since last summer that this guy knows media better than ANY politician in history. As Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio was quoted in USA Today on Sunday, “Trump is the most manipulative person in the world.” Amen, brotha.
The New York Times should be ashamed of themselves for the shallow, lame job they have done in analyzing Trump.
Three things. 1) I’m not a fan of climate skeptics, ever, 2) there is no “jugular” for anti-science movements when it comes to communication — the zinger logic works both ways, 3) “Climate Hustle” (and Marc Morano) scored it’s highest pinnacle of media exposure Monday night in being mentioned on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Way to go, Jimmy.
JIMMY KIMMEL GIVES AIR TIME TO “CLIMATE HUSTLE”
On Monday night ABC comic host Jimmy Kimmel delivered a 7 minute comic rant about Sarah Palin and “Climate Hustle,” the new “documentary” from climate skeptic Marc Morano. While some people inside the bubble of the climate community thought it was “devastating,” I would suggest it was more of a major coup for Morano to receive such high profile attention. And for free.
Everyone talks about how much free “earned” media exposure Donald Trump receives. This is the same thing. The Trump exposure is mostly about what a fool he is, yet has been a major key to his success. The content of what is said is irrelevant, it’s that they are talking about him at all. Same thing for Morano.
THE MOVIEMETER RATING FOR “CLIMATE HUSTLE”
How well is “Climate Hustle” doing in Hollywood terms? Here’s a list of current rankings of a variety of recent documentary feature films according to the Moviemeter score calculated by the industry website IMDB Pro. It includes all the Oscar-nominated documentaries for this year. It’s already scoring on the same level with one of them, “Winter on Fire.” I’m sure if you check next week it will have jumped ahead of lots of these films, in part thanks to scoring a mention from Jimmy Kimmel.
ZINGER LOGIC WORKS BOTH WAYS
I’m so tired of people in the climate community bubble celebrating non-victories. Much of the “look how dumb climate skeptics are” humor relies on logic that can just as easily be tossed back at the science community. Kimmel says he’s going to deny the existence of yogurt saying, “I’ve seen the containers, I just don’t believe there’s anything in them.”
Well, sorry, but you find the same logic throughout the science world. I’m dealing right now with methods of teaching that common sense tells you they work, but running up against scientists who say they are not going to believe it works until they see data to show it. Same thing.
On a broader scale, this is the same way that the climate skeptics learned “doubt casting” from Rachael Carson and her attacks on pesticide use. Andy Revkin gave a nice review of this in 2012. Both sides are using the same basic logic when it comes to humor.
THERE IS NO “JUGULAR”
Academics and scientists have a tendency to think there is a way to “slit the jugular” of their opponents simply by out-arguing them. It was one of the most annoying comments I heard about my movie “Flock of Dodos,” in 2006, coming from some of the top academic evolutionists — that they found the movie disappointing in that they had hoped it would have “gone for the jugular” more. As if there was some way to make a movie about academic discourse that could somehow with a single zinger or dramatic moment bring about the collapse of the entire opposition. There ain’t.
Yes, “Blackfish” did do an amazing job of crippling Sea World, but they had stories of death to use for ammunition. That’s different. When a comedian like Jimmy Kimmel ridicules an anti-science movement it’s not in the same league.
So as funny as Jimmy Kimmel may be, and as admirable as it is for him to take on social issues seriously at times, he is not the person who can actually damage the climate skeptic crowd. He has no real gravitas, and more importantly, all he did was create an equally silly scene of humble scientists using profanity.
STILL ONLY ONE GOOD PIECE OF CLIMATE COMEDY
To date I have still seen only one truly brilliant piece of climate comedy, which was the prank the Australian group “The Hamster Wheel” pulled on climate skeptic Lord Monckton. I just now watched it again. If only anyone in this country had the cojones to create that sort of comic material. So brilliant. So utterly, utterly brave and brilliant. If someone went after the climate movement with that level of coldheartedness it might actually be possible to slit their jugular. But it ain’t gonna happen in America.
“MEANS WELL” MEANS “FILM WARNING”
Last night Marc Morano’s film “Climate Hustle” screened in nearly 400 theaters across the country while on MSNBC’s “Hardball” Chris Matthews very generously gave prime time exposure to the new movie “The Congressman” starring Treat Williams. Both films have high political aspirations, but neither is very good in terms of basic filmmaking.
I wrote a review of “Climate Hustle” last week on Andy Revkin’s NY Times blog Dot Earth in which I said my heart is with Morano as a fellow filmmaker, but I found the film weak on both story and visuals (not to mention most of climate skepticism is bunk starting with the fundamentally dishonest portrayal of “global cooling” in the 70’s as a major story — it wasn’t).
For “The Congressman,” while Rotten Tomatoes has it teetering on the edge of a rotten tomato overall with a score of 60%, the Hollywood Reporter is more direct in their assessment. They concede that the film “means well,” but they also say, “… the film is rather overstuffed, with Mrazek injecting too many themes and subplots into the mix. And to say that some of those elements don’t quite work dramatically is an understatement …”
Filmmaking is incredibly difficult. Anyone charging out to make a “documentary” simply by interviewing everyone they can find who has something to say about a subject really needs to be aware of this. No one talks about the cost of boring an audience of like-minded thinkers.
Nothing worse than ending up with a group who previously might have cared about your issue, but after viewing your painfully dull film end up saying to themselves they never want to hear anything further. Which happens all the time.
Nice guys (with good intentions) finish last, a lot, when it comes to making movies. Sad, but true.
Nothing like a challenging 14 hour day. Things started at 8:30 in the morning and finished after dinner at 10:30. In between was one fascinating discussion after another with the brightest group of scientists I’ve been around in a long time. It was the perfect place for the message of striving for excellence by reaching for the ABT.
“CAN’T I TALK TO ONE DUMMY?”
I was expecting a challenging day at Genentech, but it kind of exceeded expectations. I guess it’s what you get in the corporate world — no laggards.
The place is huge — about 50 buildings split into north and south campuses right on the San Francisco Bay. It was one meeting after another with folks working on drug development, structural biologists, neurophysiologists — on and on. Lots and lots of science that was beyond me, but all of which could benefit from narrative structure.
The most interesting story I heard all day was from a woman who had worked a couple years ago at Theranos. Wow, what a mess. I had no clue about that scandal. Among many things it’s kind of an indictment of the bullshit nature of so many TED Talks.
If you don’t know the bizarre story of Theranos and it’s weird “visionary” leader Elizabeth Holmes, here’s a video from just a few days ago that tells the whole strange scandal of their massive valuation over a product they don’t appear to be able to deliver.
The toughest part of the day was a neurophysiologist who had read my book and grilled me for a half hour, unconvinced that teaching narrative would move the needle in the right direction. He was concerned that teaching scientists to be “better storytellers” would just make them more adept at publishing false positives. But that’s not what I’m advocating.
The book is not about “storytelling for scientists.” That’s what people who do a shallow job of not reading it think it’s about. But if you really dig into it you will see it is about “narrative knowledge for scientists” with the belief that the better you understand narrative, the more you will be aware of the blind spots towards positive narratives that come with being human and lead to telling big stories that are wrong (i.e. Theranos). He understood this and I think by the end I had allayed his fears at least a bit, but a tough discussion for sure.
It was after that session that I asked my host, “Don’t you have one dummy I could meet with just to get a break?” The answer was no. Awesome place.
UPDATE TODAY: A good OpEd in the NY Times on the Theranos mess which Silicon Valley had enough good sense to avoid.
I don’t mean any disrespect, I’m just talking narrative structure here. The Gettysburg Address is a structural masterpiece. Tyson’s exercise, while having a nice point to it, is narratively muddled. Although Neil Degrasse Tyson is a fun media icon, it’s worthwhile to point out he does not have deep narrative intuition — not like novelist Michael Crichton nor Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman. And did he really mean to say, “comprised of”?
For three years now I’ve been holding up the Gettysburg Address as a model of the ABT structure. I examined it in detail in my book last year. I’m willing to argue with anyone who wants to disagree that the number one reason the speech retains it’s power and has stood the test of time is it’s narrative structure.
Nobody has really pointed to this attribute of the Gettysburg Address so far, or if they have they’ve done it in a overly-complicated way. Ken Burns did an entire NOVA episode about the Gettysburg Address, but narrative structure wasn’t even on his radar screen. You kind of need to have some feel for ABT structure to really see it.
GETTYSBURG ADDRESS: A PARAGON OF ABT STRUCTURE
The speech is simple and has a solid ABT form. The first paragraph is exposition. The second paragraph begins by stating the problem (“Now we are engaged in a great civil war”). The third paragraph has more than one “therefore” but is essentially “it is for us the living” to make sure that “these dead shall not have died in vain.”
This narrative structure, more than anything else, accounts for it’s enduring power. Joseph Campbell would be the first to agree with this. It’s about story, dude.
Which means that anyone wanting to put themselves in the same company of Lincoln and his great speech really ought to attempt an equally clean and powerful ABT structure.
SAME LENGTH DOES NOT EQUAL SAME LEAGUE
Astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson, who is a great promoter of science and lots of fun, attempts exactly this with a new video. He delivers his own speech of the same length as the Gettysburg Address. He has a very nice point to it — that Lincoln also created the National Academy of Sciences which is today very important. But the way he presents his argument is muddled.
His first paragraph is an ABT, sort of, using “yet” instead of “but.” But the “therefore” is disconnected in terms of logic — opening with war, then suddenly jumping to science.
From there he slumps solidly into “and, and, and” mode stating a series of facts about science. The net result of his speech conforms to the section in my book I titled, “And, And, And, not that there’s anything wrong with it.”
There’s not anything informationally wrong about Tyson’s speech, it’s just that narratively it’s a jumbled mess. The over-arching ABT structure is lacking because the “problem” is not clearly laid out.
With the Gettysburg Address Lincoln laid out the problem clearly in the second paragraph — that we are torn apart by war. The whole paragraph elaborated on the problem, leading to the build that was paid off in their third paragraph with the clear admonishment (the “therefore”) that “these dead shall not have died in vain.”
There is a “therefore” in Tyson’s last paragraph, but it’s not all that compelling. Basically he says “the time has come” rather than, “we must,” as Lincoln did.
Therefore … I’m sorry to be rude, but there is a science to great communication. A major part of it is narrative structure. Without it, it’s hard to ascend to the greatest heights.
NEIL’S GETTYSBURG REPLY
Here’s the text of what Neil says in his short video. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this, it could just be more powerful with some attention to narrative structure, as I do in the next section.
One and a half centuries ago, civil war divided these united states of America, yet in it’s wake we would anneal it as one nation indivisible. During the bloody year of his Gettysburg address President Lincoln charted the NAS comprised of 50 distinguished American researchers whose task was then, as now, to advice Congress and the executive branch of all the ways the frontiers of science could contribute to the health, wealth and security of it’s residents.
As a young nation, just four score and seven years old, we had plucked the engineering fruits of the industrial revolution that transformed Europe, but Americans had yet to embrace the meaning of science to society. Now with more than 2000 members the National Academy encompasses dozens of fields undreamt of at the time of Lincoln’s charter. Quantum physics discovered in the 1920’s now drives nearly one third of the world’s wealth, forming the basis for our computer revolution and the creation, storage and retrieval of information. And as we continue to warm our planet, climatology may be our only hope to save us from ourselves. During the centennial of it’s charter, President Kennedy addressed the Academy, noting the range and depth of scientific achievement in this room constitutes the seabed of our nation’s future.
In this, the 21st century, innovations in science and technology form the primary engines of economic growth. While most remember Honest Abe for war and peace, for slavery and freedom, the time has come to remember him for setting our nation on a course of scientifically enlightened governance, without which we all may perish from this earth.
MY REWRITE OF HIS FIRST TWO PARAGRAPHS
Hate to be a school marm, but this is for the benefit of everyone interested in seeing the power of the ABT approach. Here’s a rewrite of his first section, and the start of the second. I’m not attempting any flowery prose, just laying out the fact of the “argument” that ought to be made. The object is to keep the exposition singular and clean — meaning no narrative twists. The story begins with the second paragraph.
America is a great and mighty nation with a complex history. Certain aspects of it’s founding were misguided and resulted in a tragic civil war. Abraham Lincoln presided over those most painful years. He was a visionary who played a fundamental role in righting those societal offenses.
But there is something more to what Lincoln gave us during his truncated presidency — something that plays an enormous role in our society today. He created the National Academy of Sciences. (details on what this has meant)
Therefore today …
THE GETTYSBURG ADDRESS
And here is the actual Gettysburg Address — one paragraph of exposition, one paragraph of contradiction, one paragraph of consequence. A veritable masterpiece, though not perfect as Abe was clearly conflicted in the third paragraph — torn between his feeling of impotence of a mere speech (“the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here …”) versus the enormity of what the deceased had done.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Lest anyone think Wednesday was a fluke, here you see it again — the ABT structure in the opening of almost all stories on the front page of the NY Times. For today you see 3 of 6 stories start their second paragraph with “but.” Two of the others have the ABT structure without saying “but.”
BUT IT HAPPENS EVERY DAY
There it is, in story after story. Of the 6 stories on the front page of the NY Times today, 3 of them start their third paragraph with “But.” Two others clearly have the ABT structure without using the word “but.” The last one has an AAA (and, and, and) opening leading to a summary statement. When will journalism programs start teaching the ABT? Like it or not, it’s right there in plain view on the front page of the NY Times.
DRAMATIC STRUCTURE ON DISPLAY
I’ve been noticing this for the past few months. Pick up any issue of the NY Times, look at the stories on the front page and you’ll see the ABT structure, loud and clear.
Are the writers and editors consciously following the ABT Template as they craft these articles? Of course not. They just all have deep “narrative intuition,” from countless years of writing and rewriting stories. This is what happens — you work on the narrative part of your brain for enough years, it eventually takes this form.
Once you have narrative intuition I think there’s a tendency to assume everyone see things the same way as you. I call this “narrative elitism.” It’s the “let them have cake” attitude of writers towards those who have never really developed the narrative parts of their brains.
I’m making this stuff up as I go along, but I think I see the exact parallel of narrative intuition with what could be called “IMRAD Intuition.” The IMRAD Template (I – Introduction, M – Methods, R – Results, A – And, D – Discussion) is the narrative structure forced on scientists by almost every journal.
Virtually every working scientist has IMRAD intuition. When they sit down to start writing a research paper they don’t need to look at the “Guidelines for Writers” that every journal provides. In the Guidelines they would be told that they must shape their paper into the four standard sections. They don’t need their brains to know that — it’s already present in them at the gut/intuition level from so many years of reading and writing these papers.
In fact, it is programmed so deeply into them that they don’t even know there’s a name for the structure. As I tell about in “Houston, We Have A Narrative,” when I asked huge groups of scientists how many knew what IMRAD stands for, less than one percent raised their hands.
This turns out to be the same thing with journalists. I’m sure if I asked a large group of them how many know the ABT, almost no one would raise their hands. Yet when I explained it they would all say, “Oh, yeah, that thing.” Just as scientists do with the IMRAD.
THOU SHALT ABT
And so there you see it, on the front page of the NY Times — the ABT structure, over and over again. As a result those stories are never boring or confusing. Which means that if scientists could absorb the ABT structure as deeply as the IMRAD there would be an end to boredom and confusion in the communication of science.
Hate to say it but a TED Talk without strong narrative structure is a boring TED Talk. In “Talk Like Ted: The 9 Secrets of the World’s Top Minds” the author leaves out the most important “secret” — how to make the jump from the non-narrative to the narrative worlds. There’s even a chapter on “Mastering Storytelling” that does exactly what happens everywhere — she tells you to tell great stories but doesn’t give one analytical clue of how to do it (i.e. using the ABT). This is exactly the problem I hear about everywhere I go. So much excitement about “storytelling” yet so much arm waiving. She even thinks “narrative” and “storytelling” are the exact same thing. Nope.
HOCUS POCUS, AMAZE (AND BORE)
A couple years ago I was invited to run our “Connection Storymaker Workshop” with Deloitte in Boston by an executive who said, “Our executives are being told these days they need to do a better job of ‘telling their story’ but nobody seems to know how exactly to instruct you on telling better stories other than by ‘telling better stories.’”
I hear it all the time. But if you want to see exactly this conundrum in print just look at the book “Talk Like TED” where the author lets you in on “Secret #2: Master the Art of Storytelling.” Shhhh — don’t tell anyone, it’s a secret. In fact, it’s such a secret she doesn’t even tell you about how to cross the divide from the boredom of the non-narrative world into the power of the narrative world.
Instead, what you get is a fun hodge podge of encouragement to tell personal stories, and tell stories about heroes and villains, and tell stories that are full of surprises, and … zzzz.
IT’S ALL STYLE
These are all elements of style. They are all great things, but without structure even the most surprising and personal and enthusiastic storyteller eventually gets boring. Years ago I visited a university where they had me meet with a professor who works on frogs because “he’s an incredible storyteller!”
What they actually meant was that he was incredibly enthusiastic, which he was because he luv, luv, luvs his frogs. But after about ten minutes I was bored out of my head, wondering why I had to listen to “story” after “story” about his frogs that were all just conglomerations of facts. There was no story structure to any of it — just non-narrative facts, facts, facts.
NARRATIVE ELITISM AND ARROGANCE
This is a lot of the problem. People who are already good at narrative structure (and thus probably good storytellers) tend to assume everyone else can sense the structure of good stories as easily as they do. The result is they end up doing what this and so many other books do, which is to basically tell you to “tell good stories by telling good stories.”
This is why I’m such a rabid fan of the ABT. There is almost a class element to it — sharing the story wealth of the rich people with the story poor — those people who haven’t spent their whole lives in an intensely narrative environment. The ABT is what’s missing from all of these books (and there are now a TON of them) on storytelling.
The books all mean well, but they simply don’t know about the structural, analytical side of narrative. That knowledge is just starting to emerge from Hollywood. It takes time.
DUDE, IT REALLY IS ALL THE SAME STORY
In the meanwhile, just know that the dictum of, “Dude, it’s all the same story,” (which irked so many science bloggers when they read it in my new book) will hit you harder and harder the more analytically you look at pretty much everything everyone has to say on the topic of story. It’s the basic message of John Yorke’s great 2014 book, “Into the Woods” which takes an analytical look at how everyone is teaching screenwriting today. He shows that they are all teaching “the same story,” they just each have their own little way of making their stuff seem different. But it ain’t.
And it’s much wider than that. A friend wrote to me last week and said, “I just realized The Message Box is just a more complicated version of the ABT.” Yep. Same as “Made to Stick.” Why do you think things stick — it’s because they have strong narrative structure. Why do you think the story of Gilgamesh from 4,000 years ago has persisted?
Dude, it really is all the same story. Give it enough time and you’ll see it’s true.
Bill McKibben spoke at Pepperdine on Tuesday night. I was deeply impressed. He has powerful narrative intuition.
BIG MONEY ENVIRONMENTALISM MEANS BIG WASTAGE
In the 1960’s the American environmental movement came of age and crystallized with the first Earth Day in 1970. But in the 1980’s it lost its way, as was so perfectly documented in Mark Dowie’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated book, “Losing Ground,” which every student of environmentalism should read.
By the 2000’s the landscape was cluttered with big eco-corporations — meaning the large NGO’s like the big three: Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International. They had become heartless machines employing marketing and communications professionals straight out of the corporate world bringing competitive practices against each other in the relentless search for donor dollars.
By 2003 when I launched my Shifting Baselines Ocean Media Project I had grown so disgusted with the NGOs that I figured there was little hope for conservation in the long run. In 2007 they demonstrated their ineptitude when they put together their “Design to Win” master plan for combatting global warming (analyzed and critiqued by Matt Nisbet who did such a good job of pointing out their neglect for the importance of effective communication).
They drove the climate bus into the ditch by putting all their chips on Cap and Trade. Because it had worked so well for acid rain, they figured it would work for climate and be an easy sell requiring almost no communication effort. Wrong. By 2010 the last piece of climate legislation had collapsed and the movement was blaming it all on the evil oil corporations when in fact they had bungled their side of it.
As the environmental movement was squandering upwards of a billion dollars on their sadly misguided efforts, one guy began to emerge at the grassroots level in a more humble, 1960’s style of environment activism — Bill McKibben. I’ve been somewhat of a fan of him over the years, but on Wednesday night he spoke at Pepperdine University and I became a complete convert.
He’s a unique mixture of soft spoken, friendly camp counselor demeanor, but inside there’s a firmness and conviction that makes it not surprising how successful he’s been. I first started becoming a fan when he led a group of youngsters in asking why the solar panels that were installed on the White House during the Carter Administration, then removed by Reagan, couldn’t be re-installed. That’s what I mean by 60’s style activism. He’s awesome.
“IT’S ABOUT THE CONFLICTS”
So before Bill’s talk I was invited to a small gathering with him where he answered questions for about an hour. I asked him my standard whiny question about the non-collaborative spirit of the big environmental NGO’s — does it have to be that way.
Instead of launching into a bitchfest (as I would have done), he took a far more positive direction. He said he’s come to the realization that “it’s all about the conflicts.” He realized that when the groups get together at big meetings to waste countless hours blabbing about what to do, the non-collaboration does emerge and it can get frustrating. BUT, when you have a clear conflict and action coming together, that’s when the groups actually will join in and collaborate.
In particular, he talked about the Keystone Pipeline protests that he’s led. I was actually in DC in November, 2011 and was in a taxi as I suddenly realized why we were moving so slow — we were driving through Bill’s big action of circling the White House. It was amazing and I did a blogpost on it.
BILL KNOWS NARRATIVE AS WELL AS MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. DID
In the discussion some of his answers to questions were a little rambling and lacking in specifics, but when it came time for his big talk he was truly amazing and inspiring. I really can’t think of any better speaker for the environment today. He was funny, articulate, incredibly knowledgeable on religion (which was appropriate given the religious orientation of Pepperdine), and as I said, firm in his convictions.
But here’s what’s coolest. In preparation for his visit I ran my Narrative Index on his 2011 “Power Shift” speech. He scored an exceptionally high 51 (a typical score is in the teens, great communicators are in the 20’s, exceptional in the 30’s). That’s amazing. But not surprising. Just look at the ABT structure of his opening. He begins by saying how “easy” the science of climate is. He lays out all the facts that everyone agrees on — we have a bad situation. Then he says this: “But if the scientific method has worked splendidly to outline our dilemma, that’s how badly the political method has worked to solve it. ”
If you were an editor on a TV show you would call that “the turn.” He presents his overarching ABT narrative — basically “we’ve done the science, but the change isn’t happening because of the politics THEREFORE we are here today to do the politics.”
And guess what — that’s the same basic narrative structure as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech of 1963. In his opening paragraph he basically said, “100 years ago Lincoln set in motion a process, BUT we still have problems with making the change happen, THEREFORE we are here today to make it happen.”
NARRATIVE IS LEADERSHIP
That’s the bottom line. Great leaders know narrative. They have narrative intuition. Nobody follows a bore. Bill McKibben is a great leader and the best hope for the planet.
Chris Palmer, one of the leading lights of wildlife filmmaking, gave a great speech recently in which he offered up his choices for the five best conservation films of all time. To give contrast to his top choice he cited some of my rotten comments. Yay!
YOUR STORY NEVER STARTED
In 1990, four years before I left my tenured professorship of marine biology to become a filmmaker, a friend introduced me to Chris Palmer who was head of media production at National Audubon. He was already a big cheese in the wildlife filmmaking world while I was a non-existent cheese as a filmmaker.
I sent him a copy of my very first screenplay I had written after taking part in an intensive weekend screenwriting workshop at the Boston Film and Video Cooperative taught by Christopher Keane (whom I would track down 20 years later to co-teach a fun storytelling workshop). I met with Chris Palmer, he pulled out some notes and said, “I had one of our writers read over your screenplay — do you want to hear what he had to say?”
The comments were horrible and devastating. Plus they were based on only the first ten pages of my script, which was all the guy said he could stand to read. His major complaint was, “Nothing happens in the first ten pages.” I thought lots of stuff happened, but I was young and very stoopid.
It was my first experience with the idea that, “A story begins when something happens” which I didn’t know back then. So while the guy’s comments clobbered me on the head, today I realize he was painfully correct — I was in love with all the “and, and, and” details I had opened with.
Anyhow, I circled back to Chris many years later and became a “Uge, Uge,” fan of his books and essays that strive to set ethical standards for wildlife filmmakers — especially his book, “Confessions of a Wildlife Filmmaker.” He’s done a ton of great and important work where others fear to tread, and I have a world of respect for him as I tried to convey in this 2013 Benshi post.
TOP 5 CONSERVATION FILMS
Chris is now a professor at American University and contacted me a couple months ago about a speech where he wanted to talk about the five best conservation films of all time. He asked for my suggestions, for which I pushed hard for my favorite, “DamNation” which I reviewed on the Benshi.
But it turned out the comments from me he liked best were my standard pooping on “An Inconvenient Truth.” So he ends up using me as his “villain” in his speech — the one person who does anything other than gush and rave about nature films (which, btw, have a longstanding tradition of being bo-ho-horing).
Here’s his whole speech which is great.
“An Evening with Chris Palmer”
THE BEST CONSERVATION FILMS OF ALL TIME
Presentation at the Environmental Film Festival in DC
By Chris Palmer (email@example.com)
Tuesday, March 22, 2016
This event is pretentiously called “An Evening with Chris Palmer.” The Festival first asked me to do this event ten years ago, and I’ve been doing it annually ever since.
Tonight I want to talk about the five best conservation films of all time.
Now everyone please stand up, find someone you’ve never met before, and discuss for two minutes the best conservation or environmentally-themed films you’ve ever seen. Go!
Ask audience members for their ideas!
You may have noticed that I didn’t give you much structure for this question, and so coming up with answers is challenging because the question begs further questions. What do I mean by conservation films? What do I mean by best? How do you define success? By acclaim? Effectiveness? Total viewership? Actions taken? Links shared or liked? Stories told or lives changed? Public policy or laws made? What about fiction films? Or old films from early cinema before we understood many of our current environmental issues?
Now, if you’ve heard me speak before or read my two books on this issue, you might be familiar with some of my thoughts on these questions. I have said that what really matters is whether a film achieves any impact.
Films which have no impact are not worth making. The only reason to make a film is to change the world.
What do I mean by that? I mean the only reason to make a film is to change the minds of the audience, to inspire them to think differently, and ultimately to move them to take new action.
So what are the most impactful films, then? With the help of one of my top grad students, Sam Sheline, I came up with an idea. I wrote to over a dozen of my most successful filmmaking friends and ask them for their opinions.
These folks included Dereck and Beverly Joubert from Botswana, Mark Deeble and Vicky Stone from Kenya, Bob Poole from Idaho, Adam Ravetch from Vancouver, Howard and Michele Hall from California, and Tim Martin from the BBC in England.
They are among the best wildlife filmmakers in the world and have all been honored with top prizes at Jackson Hole, Wildscreen, and other highly esteemed film festivals. Derek and Beverly Joubert, for example, have not only produced some of the best films ever made on big cats, but have also performed pioneering conservation work for animals like rhinos.
As you can imagine, I received a variety of replies. My filmmaking friends recommended films that were at the top of my list, but also some new ones. Here is a compilation of clips from their recommendations, along with others that Sam and I came up with during our discussions. Let’s watch that now and see how many you can recognize.
Show 7-10 minute compilation of clips and trailers.
Okay, let’s see who recognized any films. (Call on audience members)
Read out list of films in compilation tape. The clips in the compilation are (in order): The Plow that Broke the Plains, Food Inc., Die Serengeti darf nicht Sterben (Serengeti Will Never Die), Virunga, To Fly, Never Cry Wolf, Eternal Enemies: Lions and Hyenas, Born Free, The Emerald Forest, The Trials of Life, Wall-E, DamNation, Whale Wars, End of the Line, Mission Blue, Green, Miss Gooddall and the Wild Chimpanzees, Whale Rider, Grizzly Man, Racing Extinction.
Those are all great films. But as promised, I want to tell you my top five conservation films of all time.
Let’s show the first clip. SHOW CLIP OR TRAILER (An Inconvenient Truth)
Now, my friend Dr. Randy Olson, who is both a scientist and a filmmaker, dismisses Al Gore’s film, calling it “stupid.”
Randy says, “Laurie David panicked in the fall of 2005, grabbed Al Gore, and with almost no story development filmed him giving his slide show. She ended up with the predictable “and, and, and” presentation with no story that wowed the choir but bored the masses.”
But I include An Inconvenient Truth in my list because it came up in responses from my filmmaking friends more than any other film, and it changed the discussion over climate change. A Nielsen and Oxford University survey found that two-thirds of people who saw the film changed their minds about climate change, and three-fourths said they had changed some of their habits because of the film. And many people saw it: in the US it’s the 10th highest-grossing documentary of all time.
It also broke the mold as far as conventional wisdom about documentaries goes. It’s a film about a scientific process, based on a PowerPoint presentation. It appeals to our heads more than our hearts—long thought to be a mistaken approach for documentary filmmaking. It gives me hope that we can continue to use meaningful science to talk about big issues in films that lots of people will see.
Take questions from the audience.
Let’s show the second clip. SHOW CLIP OR TRAILER (Blackfish)
Blackfish also came up on many of my colleagues’ lists.
Blackfish brought an important ethical issue about the mistreatment of some of the world’s most intelligent creatures into the international spotlight. Most people were not aware of the issue before the film, and afterwards it created a huge dialog around the subject. SeaWorld has been severely impacted. The number of visitors has sharply declined. I wrote about this extensively in my recent book Confessions of a Wildlife Filmmaker. Just last week, SeaWorld announced it will stop breeding orcas and phase out theatrical orca shows. I believe captivity should end and that all the remaining captive orcas should be released to seaside sanctuaries or pens.
Take questions from the audience.
Let’s show the third clip. SHOW TRAILER (The Cove)
The Cove came up on many lists, including mine and Sam’s.
The ingenious structure of the film, which ramps up in tension until the final reveal of its grisly footage, leaves a lasting impression. The Cove made over a million dollars during a limited box office run, and won both the audience award at Sundance and the Oscar for best documentary in 2010. Although the Taiji dolphin slaughter has not been completely stopped, it recently reached its lowest levels ever, and the film increased awareness of cetacean conservation around the world.
Take questions from the audience.
Let’s show the fourth clip. SHOW CLIP OR TRAILER (Bambi)
I wanted to include an old classic to highlight the fact that environmental themes have been coming up in films, including mainstream fiction films, for ages. Bambi, the 1942 Disney animated film, was the first film to show animals with family lives destroyed by man. It allowed audiences to form an emotional connection to wild animals. Many of my own films have followed in Bambi’s footsteps in showing the familial relationships and personalities of wild animals. This film is still having an impact on how children think about animals.
Take questions from the audience.
Let’s show the fifth and final clip. SHOW CLIP OR TRAILER (Cousteau’s Silent World)
Although there were ethical issues during the filming of this 1956 classic, it began a new era in ocean conservation. It was the first film to show the ocean depths in color, and Jacques Cousteau went on to have one of the most distinguished careers in the history of conservation or filmmaking. Ted Turner even calls him the father of the environmental movement. It was also the only documentary to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes until Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 repeated the feat almost 50 years later.
Take questions from the audience.
There are many films which were close contenders to get on my list of the five best conservation films of all time. For example, Whale Wars, Grizzly Man, Racing Extinction, Avatar, Born Free, Local Hero, Whale Rider, DamNation, The Day After Tomorrow, The Plow That Broke the Plains, Miss Goodall Among the Wild Chimpanzees, Wall-E, Planet Earth, The Trials of Life, Emerald Forest, Green, Eternal Enemies, Never Cry Wolf, To Fly, End of the Line, Gasland, Food Inc, Cowspiracy, Last Call at the Oasis, Serengeti Shall Not Die, Mission Blue, Year of the Wildebeest, Disney’s Living Desert, Chasing Ice, and Virunga.
I could list many more of course, and I apologize if I did not mention your favorite.
Sam and I both got a lot out of this thought exercise, trying to decide what makes a truly effective and impactful conservation film.
I hope you enjoyed it too. Remember that the only reason to make a film is to change the world.
Thank you very much.
Here’s a nice circular exercise in seeing who has true “narrative intuition” (the goal I identify in my book). Guess what the Narrative Index was for Michael Crichton, the only creative artist ever to have his work rank #1 in television, film and books, when it came time to give a speech to AAAS. He scored a 35 — nearly the highest I’ve found so far — eclipsed only by Texas congresswoman Barbara Jordan with her legendary 1976 DNC speech which scored a 36. He knew narrative. Of course. And when you look at the text of what he said, guess what you see over and over again — yep, the ABT. He who lives by the ABT speaks with the ABT.
ARGUING ABT TO AAAS
In the late 1990’s, in the afterglow of the cultural tsunami of his novel “Jurassic Park,” Dr. Michael Crichton gave a keynote address to the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. They had asked his advice on how to improve the public perception of scientists in the media. Science magazine published the transcript of his talk in 1999.
In recent weeks I’ve presented what I have termed The Narrative Index which is a derivation of the ABT structure. It’s simply the ratio of the total number of “buts” to the total number of “ands” in a given text. As I’ve shown for politicians, it produces stunningly clear patterns reflecting who is delivering strong narrative content (a Narrative Index over 20) versus weak (under 10).
Not surprisingly, Crichton’s speech rings the narrative bell with a value of 35. The only higher value I’ve found for a speech so far was Barbara Jordan’s legendary address to the Democratic National Convention in 1976 which is in many lists of the Top Ten most important speeches in American history. She, of course, opened with a powerful ABT and overall scored a 36.
BOTH QUANTITATIVE AND QUALITATIVE
So the Narrative Index gives you a single number reflecting narrative structure, but once you’ve found a text with a high Narrative Index, the next question is can you see the structure in the text qualitatively? With Crichton it’s clear as ABT.
Look how he opens his speech — not with some ambling “and, and, and” discourse. No, he gets right down to business with “but” in his second sentence.
CRICHTON: Scientists often complain to me that the media misunderstands their work. But, in fact, the reality is just the opposite: It is science that misunderstands media.
As you read through the text you can feel the strength of his arguments, all built around the word “but,” over and over again. Jump to any random section and you’ll see the ABT structure at work. Like this bit where I’ve added the A and T in parentheses:
CRICHTON: Point three. Why are the stories about science always so negative? Why can’t we have positive stories? One answer is that people like scary movies. (AND) They enjoy being frightened. But the more important answer is that we live in a culture of relentless, round-the-clock boosterism for science and technology. (THEREFORE) With each new discovery and invention, the virtues…
It’s a very clearly argued presentation. The only sad thing about it is that 17 years later I don’t see any evidence in the world of science that anyone listened to or acted on any of his well thought out advice. Oh, well, what a surprise — science organizations not listening.
Was the AAAS talk a fluke score? Nope. In November, 2005 he gave a lengthy address to The Independent Institute of nearly 7,000 words (that’s a lot). He scored 31. The guy breathed narrative.
BTW, A FOOTNOTE
The Narrative Index scores for three speeches I’ve found by Neil Degrasse Tyson are 9, 11 and 14. Great guy, but no narrative monster.
And a final note. In the making of my movie “Sizzle” in 2007 I traded a string of emails with Crichton about climate change for which he forced me to read his novel “State of Fear” in order to continue our discussion. Yuck. That’s all I can say about it.
How long is this going to take — maybe 50 years, as I said in my book? Wherever you find effective communication, you’ll find the ABT. You can see it in biologist Edward O. Wilson’s NY Times opinion piece yesterday. It’s so universal and yet, because it’s simple and new, some people seem so skeptical.
MUST IT REALLY BE THIS DIFFICULT?
On a daily basis, down in the trenches, people are now instantly improving their communications ability through the use of the ABT. It’s at the core of our Story Circles Narrative Training which is spreading with USDA, USFWS, USGS and at least three other government agencies are working on getting involved.
And yet … how do you actually get the science world behind something new? I no longer care because the ABT is just so self-validating — I don’t have to sell it, people put it to work and there’s no going back. But still, I continue to be baffled by the anti-innovative nature of science.
Actually, change that — the truth is I don’t find it surprising. It’s a lot of the reason why I left my tenured professorship long ago. My first seven NSF grant proposals were rejected. The comments of reviewers were full of statements saying, “All of his work to date has been novel and innovative, but what he’s proposing here has problems because …”
After a few rounds of that nonsense I realized it was time to skeedaddle off to Hollywood. Life is short. Innovation is fleeting. Science kills it. And now the great irony for me is watching this happen with the one useful discovery I made in my 25 year journey through Hollywood — the ABT.
It was a perfect day in Fort Collins, Colorado as 35 scientists and communications folks from three government agencies (USDA, USFWS and USGS) spent 6 hours with the ABT Framework.
JUST LIKE ZIKA VIRUS, STORY CIRCLES IS SPREADING
In February two Story Circles with USDA wrapped up in Florida while last week a new Story Circle within USFWS launched. Another is due soon and Tuesday’s Demo Day will probably produce more. Story Circles is fun, it goes to the heart of the communications challenge, and an article in Sunday’s NY Times magazine about Google’s realization of the power of social interactions in work settings helps underscore one of the greatest attributes of Story Circles — the group dynamic.
Here’s a quote from the article that tells about why the sort of small group dynamics fostered by Story Circles is so much in line with today’s work environment:
As commerce becomes increasingly global and complex, the bulk of modern work is more and more team-based. One study, published in The Harvard Business Review last month, found that ‘‘the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50 percent or more’’ over the last two decades and that, at many companies, more than three-quarters of an employee’s day is spent communicating with colleagues.
YES, IT IS POSSIBLE TO BOTH ENGAGE AND BORE AT THE SAME TIME
With every Story Circles event we seem to have at least one major new revelation. On Tuesday, it dawned on me that you can put together a series of really engaging ABT’s, and yet, if the overall structure is AAA, guess what — you will both engage on the fine scale as you ultimately end up boring overall due to narrative emptiness on the larger scale.
It happens all the time with TV shows (especially on channels like Discovery and National Geographic). The show is made up of a series of absolutely fascinating ABT vignettes that pull you in and hold your interest. But you get to the end and realize there’s no overall significance to what has been presented — it’s just a bunch of cool stuff. In ABT terms, there’s no “therefore” (also kinda like a lot of social media, btw).
Which is okay. I have a section in the book titled, “AAA, Not That There’s Anything Wrong With It.” And that’s the deal. There’s nothing wrong with an hour long show about what sharks feed on. But it’s just a little bit better if the individual ABTs eventually work together to create an over-arching ABT rather than just a bunch of “and, and, and” material. This is also about the fractal nature of story structure which I mentioned in the book.
So once again, the power of narrative is about mediocrity versus excellence. If you’re happy with a half baked one day storytelling workshop, that’s fine, BUT … if you’re a fan of full baked (as Dustin Hoffman was in “The Graduate” — one of my favorite scenes is him telling his dad that his crazy ideas are fully baked), then you better bite the bullet with Story Circles and get the full ten weeks of training.
Sorry it can’t be quicker and easier, but the cruel fact is that you get back what you put in. Which makes it like life in general, right?
The Narrative Index pretty well tells the story — too little too late for Rubio and Cruz.
TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE
In the previous three posts I explained The Narrative Index. I’ve been analyzing the Republican debate performances since the start. The data now tell the story pretty clearly.
Bush and Cruz were wimps from the start, scoring below 10 repeatedly. Rubio has had some fight all along, and in the last three debates has been swinging hard (though notice how he dropped when Trump wasn’t there to push him in Debate 7).
But Trump knows narrative. There’s no getting around it. He is a powerhouse. Love him or hate him (as most of my friends do), he knows narrative better than all the others. He will continue to be a force to be reckoned with.
TRUMP: THE HIGHEST NARRATIVE BATTING AVERAGE … EVER
I’ve been following Trump’s performances for nearly a year using The Narrative Index which I laid out in the previous two blogs. At first I thought his high values were curious. Now I find them alarming.
There has never been a politician like Trump. Lots of political pundits are now trying to say this, but the problem is they are inarticulate, non-analytical, and just plain simplistic (NOT the same as simple) in their assessments. They analyze his speech and use of language, but fail to come up with anything more sophisticated than the idea that he talks on the level of a 3rd grader (Politico), a 4th grader (Newsweek), a 5th grader (NY Daily News), or uses lots of “us” and “they” pronouns (NY Times). Gee, way to bring out the heavy guns of analysis.
NONE of the shallow, silly analyses are worth reading nor have sustained any useful lines of thought.
But narrative is different. It is the core of human culture. It goes back at least 4,000 years. It is the essence of how we communicate. So let’s begin with one important point.
REAGAN WAS A STORYTELLER, TRUMP IS A MASTER OF NARRATIVE
This is the simplest way to convey the distinction between these two terms. Storytelling and narrative are not the same.
Reagan, who came to be adored as “The Great Communicator,” was beloved for his storytelling skills. But in contrast, nobody has ever loved a story told by Trump. He’s not a good storyteller. His stories are choppy, not much fun, and waste little time in getting to the point (which is what he lives for). Yet Trump is a master of narrative.
How could this be? Aren’t storytelling and narrative the same thing? No.
In my book I offered up the simple definition of narrative as, “The series of events that occur in the search for a solution to a problem.” That’s it. That’s what the narrative dynamic is about.
Narrative is the driving force at the core of a story. All good stories are built around the search for the solution to a problem. Whether it’s figuring out the murderer, finding your way home, or defeating a threat, it is all about problem/solution. But a story involves many more elements wrapped around the narrative core.
Reagan was a storyteller. He knew how to present stories with all their warmth, humor and emotion. His stories were always about problems. Trump doesn’t give much of a crap about the warmth, humor or emotion. He’s mostly just about problem-solution, over and over again, all day long.
You hear it in Trump’s speeches and debate performances — very tight narrative loops of problem-solution. “Jeb’s a great guy, but he’s weak (PROBLEM), therefore he needs to go home (SOLUTION).” “We love our Mexican friends, but too many are illegal (PROBLEM), therefore we need to build a wall (SOLUTION).” “Muslims are mostly okay, but some are terrorists (PROBLEM), therefore we need to stop their entry (SOLUTION).” “Our country used to be great, but now it’s slipped in the world (PROBLEM), therefore we need to Make America Great Again (SOLUTION).”
You hear narrative structure in almost everything he says, and it manifests itself in part through the use of the word “but.” It’s not the only important narrative word, but as I explained in the earlier posts, it’s the most common. Trump uses it more than any other politician. Ever.
THE REPUBLICAN DEBATES
There have been nine Republican debates so far. Trump has scored a Narrative Index above 20 for every performance. No one else has done this. Same thing for all his speeches. Same thing for all his press conferences. I’ve analyzed a total of 23 performances. Not just always above 20, he’s scored as high as 58 in his June 28 interview with Jake Tapper. The man breathes narrative structure.
TRUMP OWNS MSNBC
Of course he doesn’t own the network, but I’ve watched in disbelief since last summer as MSNBC has literally given over their network to him. Has anyone spoken out about this? Trump brags of all the free media exposure he scores. I thought MSNBC is left leaning. And yet, since last summer, night after night they have literally pre-empted their programming to cover just about every speech or press conference Trump has given.
They haven’t done this for ANY other candidate. Not even close. Not Hillary, not Bernie — not a one of them. Why?
The simple, non-quantitative answer is that “Trump is entertainment.” What does this mean? That he is funny? He’s not really that funny — not like a stand up comic, or any funnier than several other candidates. Is it that he’s crude and outlandish? There have been plenty of crude and outlandish politicians in the past. None have ever earned free air time by the hour.
The simple answer is that Trump delivers “concision.” He is physically constructed for the medium of television. He speaks in closed loops that have narrative structure. Yes, he repeats the same stuff, but so what. It’s about the smaller scale dynamic of each narrative loop. He starts a loop (addressing a problem), gets quickly to the “but” then quickly to the “therefore.” This is what I’ve been talking about with the Narrative Index. He has deep narrative intuition. And this is what television doesn’t just seek — it demands.
TELEVISION DEMANDS NARRATIVE, TRUMP DELIVERS
I don’t have the time and resources for massive data analysis. Hopefully someone else does. It would be nice to have a larger sample size than this. But look at the pattern for the N.I. for three PBS documentary shows plus “Cosmos.” I analyzed 4 of each and all 13 episodes of “Cosmos.” All of them average over 20 for their N.I. More data are needed to say it with complete confidence, but I’d be willing to bet there is a functional “narrative threshold” to television programming which is probably about 20. TV just has no tolerance for “and, and, and” drivel. Nor does Trump.
TRUMP (THE DEALMAKER) KNOWS NARRATIVE
Trump embodies every principle of my book. He breathes narrative. Why? Because he’s a dealmaker. We all know this. It’s what his book is about. He wants to get to the “but” (what’s the problem that’s holding us up?) then immediately get to the “therefore.” He wants to advance the narrative, yet he also wants to “stay on narrative.”
What do we mean by staying on narrative? It means stating your narrative theme at the start of your journey (“To Make America Great Again”). Repeating it endlessly throughout the journey. Then eventually coming full circle by achieving it, which is his dream. He is the only one with this clearly defined narrative dynamic.
This is what I mean between simple versus a simpleton. If you think Trump is a simpleton with how he is running his campaign it is you who is the simpleton. This man knows the power of simplicity, and there is an age old adage that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
YOU SHOULD PUT THE NARRATIVE INDEX TO WORK
As I explained in the first of these three blogposts, the Narrative Index is very simple to calculate. Just copy, paste, count and divide.
You should put it to work with lots of stuff. Think of any text in the world. How much narrative strength does it have? You definitely need over 1,000 words, and I’d still be cautious until you’re getting closer to 10,000 words. But when you’re past 50,000 words the patterns appear pretty robust — as was the case for the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
One immediate application is my friend Bill Dennison who has applied it to the works of the co-discoverers of The Theory of Evolution By Means of Natural Selection, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace. He just posted his very nice essay using the N.I. which provides at least one explanation of why one man became famous for eternity while the other largely vanished.
You can also put it to work with literary texts. Remember last year when literary experts were debating whether the new novel from Harper Lee, “Go Set A Watchman,” might simply be an early draft of her masterpiece, “To Kill A Mockingbird”? If you go with the assumption that the revision process for a story involves in part a variation of The Rule of Replacing (replacing “ands” with “buts”) then you would predict Watchman would be more of an AAA work while Mockingbird is more ABT.
The Narrative Index matches this prediction.Watchman scores an N.I. of 17 while Mockingbird scores a 24. It’s not the definitive proof, but is at least quantitative and in the case of these novels the sample size of total words is pretty large.
THE ULTIMATE CHALLENGE: HILLARY VERSUS TRUMP
From the start of the current Presidential campaign, Hillary has lacked the basic narrative elements that Trump has a mastery of. She never developed a simple, singular slogan. Even Bernie managed it with his “eat the rich” theme. When quizzed on Bernie’s approach to Wall Street she takes the AAA approach of “it’s not that simple.” She doesn’t drill into problem-solution dynamics the way Trump does, and now, most distressing, the numbers are stark for The Narrative Index.
Trump is never below 20 in the more than 20 performances of his I have analyzed. She ends up with an average of 14 (for 21 performances) with 6 of the scores being below 10, and only 5 over 20. In simple terms, she delivers half the narrative heft of Trump.
So what does this mean? It’s pretty simple. Do the math. She needs to get more focused, even at the finest scales of how she communicates. It’s a short attention span world today. Trump is pre-adapted to it. Hillary is communicating like the 90’s.
But here’s one glimmer of hope. The highest score I’ve ever found for her was a 27, which is right at Trump’s level. Guess where it was from. Her Wellesley College student commencement speech of 1969.
I have proposed a Narrative Index for evaluating the “narrative strength” of any given text. It needs a substantial amount of text (at least a few thousand words) to have much reliability. But when you analyze large amounts of material throughout history, clear patterns emerge — especially for great communicators.
LINCOLN THE TORTOISE VS. DOUGLAS THE HARE
The famous Lincoln-Douglas debates provide the perfect starting point for seeing how much The Narrative Index reveals. In the summer of 1858 Abraham Lincoln — the Republican candidate for Senator from Illinois — squared off in seven debates with the incumbant Stephen Douglas.
All of the debates used the format of 60:90:30 — the opening candidate spoke for 60 minutes, the opponent got a 90 minute rebuttal, then the opener was given a half hour to finish. Just speeches, no questions from moderators. The debates drew huge audiences (tens of thousands) with the texts being widely printed in newspapers. There was some fudging of the transcripts by papers favorable to each candidate, but only minor variations. For my analysis I have used the version presented on the website of the National Park Service.
The result for each debate is a solid sample size of the candidates’ rhetoric — around 10,000 words for each debater’s individual performance. What you see in the figure above for their Narrative Index values is that they barely even overlapped. Douglas’ highest value (15) was only a little more than Lincoln’s lowest (13). Most of the time they weren’t even close.
In simple terms, Abe was telling ABT’s while Douglas was “Anding.” Lincoln had much greater narrative strength. When you read the accounts of witnesses you hear color commentary bringing these data to life. Observers told about how confident and arrogant Douglas was at the start, viewing Lincoln as much less experienced and thinking he would be easily out-witted. But by the fourth debate the audiences were rallying for Abe as Douglas began to sweat. You can see when it came to narrative strength, he was dwarfed by Abe for the first four debates. In the fifth debate he stepped things up a bit, but by then it was too late and he was starting to get ill. By the end he was collapsing in defeat.
THE AAA’er VS. THE ABT’er
For the first four debates Douglas was below 10 while Abe was spiking up to 25. What does this mean specifically?
Look at their opening lines of the first debate. Douglas begins with a string of statements — he’s pure “and, and, and” (AAA) in form:
Prior to 1854 this country was divided into two great political parties, known as the Whig and Democratic parties. Both were national and patriotic, advocating principles that were universal in their application. An old line Whig could proclaim his principles in Louisiana and Massachusetts alike. Whig principles had no boundary sectional line, they were not limited by the Ohio river, nor by the Potomac, nor by the line of the free and slave States …
Now look at Lincoln’s opening — it’s an ABT:
My fellow citizens: When a man hears himself somewhat misrepresented, it provokes him. At least, I find it so with myself; but when misrepresentation becomes very gross and palpable, it is more apt to amuse him. (THEREFORE) The first thing I see fit to notice, is the fact that Judge Douglas alleges, after running through the history of the old Democratic and the old Whig parties, that Judge Trumbull and myself made an arrangement in 1854 …
There you have the fundamental difference in style between the two speakers. Even more telling was one reporter who said, “Lincoln’s “words did not flow in a rushing, unbroken stream like Douglas.”
That says it all. The whole thing about the AAA is that it is the easy, default mode of communication — easy to spew out quickly (i.e. comes out as “a rushing, unbroken stream”) because it doesn’t involve the narrative parts of the brain — it’s just shooting out statements.
Activating the narrative regions slows things down. Lincoln was clearly the more thoughtful speaker, constructing his ideas with more narrative structure.
Though he lost to Douglas in the 1859 election, he of course beat him for President the next year and went down in history as a great speaker. His two inaugural speeches scored 16 and 21, respectively for the N.I. His “House Divided” speech was a 21, his Cooper Union speech was 20, and of course his most famous speech, the Gettysburg Address, while too short to justify analysis (it has just 6 “ands” with 2 “ buts” for an unusually high N.I. of 33) is just one big ABT of three paragraphs total.
Clearly Lincoln had deep narrative intuition. The Narrative Index gives us a means of quantifying this comparatively.
THE KENNEDY-NIXON DEBATES: RADIO VERSUS TELEVISION
Perhaps the second most famous set of debates in American History were the four held in 1960 between Presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. You can see Nixon out-scored Kennedy in terms of the Narrative Index for the first three debates, yet by the third one there was widespread agreement that Kennedy was winning. How could that have been? This is the exception that proves the rule.
For the first debate it was widely reported that polls of people listening on the radio had Nixon as the winner. There’s your narrative content at work. When all that people received was the words through their radio, the narrative structure won out.
But television viewers scored it differently. They scored the handsome, relaxed, young Kennedy — who came to be known as the first “telegenic President” — as much more effective than the nervous, sweaty Nixon with the five o’clock shadow. These were elements of communication left out of radio or the written text.
The Kennedy-Nixon debates (as wonderfully presented in David Halberstam’s, “The Powers That Be”) defined the beginning of “The Age of the Television President.” Things were never the same. The divide between radio and television scoring for the first debate shows the relative importance of substance (what they were saying) versus style (how they looked).
INAUGURATION AND STATE OF THE UNION SPEECHES
Broader patterns emerge when you look at all the inauguration speeches of the Presidents. There’s substantial variation and at least a few scores that are minor head scratchers. For example, Calvin Coolidge was known as “Silent Cal” — you wouldn’t really expect him to have one of the highest values of all time (he scored a 29). But on the other hand, despite his penchant for few words, he was actually known as a skilled speaker. More importantly, of the six other of his speeches I’ve analyzed, the lowest was still a 14, so he wasn’t devoid of narrative intuition.
Equally somewhat disappointing is Obama. You’d hope he would score highly, but his two inaugurals are 11 and 15 while his State of the Union speeches range from 12 to 19. It seems to be the case he doesn’t draw heavily on narrative structure. Of the 10 speeches I’ve analyzed, they range only from 9 to 18. I wish I could say his Reverend Wright speech was a barn burner — it’s my favorite of his speeches — but it’s only 15. I’m afraid the numbers are very consistent for him — never into the 20’s. Which means you don’t have to have a huge N.I. to be a great speaker, but it’s still a significant characteristic of most effective communicators, and nobody has labeled Obama “The Great Communicator” as they did with Reagan.
It’s clear a lot of early Presidents hardly ever said “but.” But … there are interesting spikes with Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and eventually the ultimate monster of ambition, Nixon, who set the bar highest.
What’s more interesting and even fun are the dishrags. Some folks just don’t seem to bring any narrative content to what they have to say. Not surprisingly, they are all known as kind of wishy washy.
I’m talking about not just those early, polite Presidents, and not just Eisenhower who didn’t score above 10 for either of his inaugurals nor any of his first five State of the Union speeches. The guy I’m talking about is George W. Bush.
Not only did Bush score a mere 5 for his second inaugural, it turns out none of his seven State of the Union speeches — not even after 9/11 — managed to score above 10. They were: 4, 2, 3 4, 5, 4, 4. Is that a surprise? Would anyone ever have called him a great speaker? He was the ultimate “And, And, Ander.” It’s kind of the whole spin Will Ferrell put on him — the guy speaking vacuous statements, reaching for something clever, ultimately only able to say, “strategery” — unable to turn a phrase.
In contrast, Nixon’s State of the Union speeches for 1970 to 1974 were 27, 16, 23, 18. He always had something urgent and important to say. But did Nixon really have that good of a feel for narrative structure? Yes. Just look at how he opens his record-setting first inaugural (scored a 46).
He begins with an eloquent ABT:
“I ask you to share with me today the majesty of this moment. In the orderly transfer of power, we celebrate the unity that keeps us free. Each moment in history is a fleeting time, precious and unique. But some stand out as moments of beginning, in which courses are set that shape decades or centuries. This can be such a moment.” (ominous opening words from the eventual captain of the Titanic)
MODERATORS: THE ABT DRIVERS
As you can imagine, countless fascinating observations begin to emerge from this single index. In the third and final post I will get deeply into the current Presidential Debates. But before I do, let’s take a look at the basic dynamic of “ABT Driving.” What I mean by this is using the ABT elements to basically “advance the narrative.”
This is the fundamental need for narrative, in order to keep it interesting — it must be advanced. You must constantly be adding sources of contradiction, then driving for consequences. We can see this at work clearly with the moderators of today’s television debates.
Television producers live in dread fear of boring their audience. It’s the job of the moderators to prevent this by interrupting the debaters, and more importantly, interjecting conflict by squaring them off against each other. You hear the moderators saying over and over again, “Candidate A, last week you said X, BUT your opponent said Y, how do you reconcile this?” If they are doing their job properly they are constantly driving the narrative dynamics.
This ends up showing clearly in the collective N.I. value for the moderators of each debate. Look at the third Democrat Debate — they reached 56, which is unheard of for a speaker. And you can even add to that a fair amount of non-narrative logistics explanations and pleasantries. Clearly their job is to drive the conflict.
SO WHAT IF THERE WAS A PRESIDENT WHO NEVER, EVER SLIPPED BELOW A NARRATIVE INDEX OF 20?
Guess where this all leads. I’ve analyzed hundreds of speeches since last summer. I’ve found only one politician who has NEVER given a speech or debate performance below 20. Guess who …
This is the first of three posts about what I believe to be a new and valuable communications tool. I have been trying since last September to interest the major political blogs in The Narrative Index (or N.I.) but they seem to be skeptical of both its newness and simplicity. Let’s see what you think. The data speak for themselves.
AN INDEX OF NARRATIVE STRENGTH
Some texts grab your attention and don’t let you go. Other texts put you to sleep. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a single number that reflected this property?
Just over four years ago when I came across the extremely simple concept of “The Rule of Replacing” (as espoused by the co-creators of the animated series “South Park”) I found myself saying “surely it can’t be that simple.” Since then I’ve put that skepticism to the test though countless talks, a TEDMED presentation, a letter in Science, a webinar, and finally an entire book about it last fall titled, “Houston, We Have A Narrative.”
My main activity this year is fulfilling the vision of the book — propagating the ABT Framework by creating Story Circles Narrative Fitness Training which you can read about on our website. The next event will involve 40 biologists from USDA, USFWS and USGS next week in Ft. Collins, Colorado.
As a result of all this effort, I’m now certain that narrative structure, at it’s core, is indeed as simple as ABT. So what’s next?
Last summer I had a new revelation about the ABT template. It was the thought that if you were to use the Rule of Replacing, all else equal, when you finished with a given text you would have altered the ratio of the number of “buts” to “ands.” This ratio becomes a single number reflective of the strength of the narrative content of the material. Here’s how it works.
THE “BUT” WORD
“But” is the word of contradiction in the ABT. It is the heart and soul of narrative. There are lots of other words of contradiction (however, despite, yet), BUT … if you were to quantify it, you would easily see that BUT is the most common.
In fact there is a website that presents the 5,000 most common words in The Corpus of Contemporary English. Here’s how a few interesting words score on that list (how frequently they are used in the English language):
and – 3
but – 23
or – 32
while – 153
yet – 276
however – 285
despite – 772
instead – 997
“But” is the only connector word of contradiction in the top 100, aside from “or” which doesn’t have any narrative strength.
More importantly, all you have to do is look at the front page of a newspaper to see that most stories (if they are written well) begin with a few facts then a “but” (I’m looking at the front page of the NY Times for Feb. 13, 2016 and I see three of the four stories above the fold have this structure — two using “but,” one using “instead,” — and now I’m looking at Sunday Feb. 21 and see 3 of the 5 stories on the front page open with the ABT structure — again two “buts” and an “instead”).
“But” is central to having good narrative strength. At the other end of the spectrum (specifically “The Narrative Spectrum” as I labeled it in my book) is the template of, “And, And, And” text or AAA. This is text that is almost devoid of narrative content — just a string of comments tied together by the word of agreement, “and.”
The bottom line is that the more times you are saying “but” relative to “and” the more narrative strength there is to the content you are presenting. To quantify this ratio I have created this single calculation:
THE NARRATIVE INDEX = Buts/Ands X 100
I’ve had lengthy discussions with colleagues — especially my old buddy Bill Dennison at University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, who will be posting his own essay tomorrow on applying the Narrative Index to the co-discoverers of the theory of evolution by means of natural selection, Charles Darwin versus Alfred Russell Wallace. Out of those discussions I’ve opted for simplicity by just keeping it as the ratio of buts to ands, multiplied by 100 to make it a whole number.
To calculate it for a given text, all you do is copy the material into a word processor, search for “and” and “but,” record their abundances, then divide.
Here, let’s do it for the story on Scalia on the front page of the Feb 15, 2016 NY Times.
But – 10
And – 27
Narrative Index (But/And) X 100 = 37
That’s actually a pretty high value, but to be expected for the front page of the NY Times — no room for ambling, unfocused AAA presentations there.
So that’s how simple it is to calculate. Try it for yourself on a body of text. In the next post I’ll set to work showing you the patterns that emerge for everyone from scientists to politicians.