#187) Three HBO Veterans appear in the ABT Framework Course: View their Sessions

The 7th round of the ABT Framework course wrapped up with a rather amazing triple play of HBO veterans (all three Emmy nominees) talking about the ABT dynamic in acting, producing and directing. Here, for your Thanksgiving viewing, are all three fascinating discussions — the ABT Framework course at its very finest.

ONLY THE BEST for the ABT Framework course of 2020.

 

THE AND, BUT, THEREFORE OF A RATHER FASCINATING YEAR

What a year, right? Sheesh. It’s been the worst of times (the pandemic), but in some ways … well, I just can’t say it — not the best of times, but definitely some interesting times.

In April, our Story Circles Narrative Training program was derailed by the pandemic. Having nothing better to do, we decided to take a shot at an online course.

Eight months later here we are, wrapping up the 7th and final round of the course. Each round has featured a half dozen or so guests. The last round culminated with this amazing triple play of HBO veterans, all talking about the central role of narrative structure in their work.

We’ve never shared the content of the course, but these three discussions were just so fascinating, high energy and substantive that it would be a crime to not make them available to a wider audience. Each one is about 40 minutes — like three episodes of a podcast. I’m sure you’ll enjoy them.

 

VIEW THE SESSIONS

CHAPMAN DOWNES

 

CHERYL HINES (and Brian Palermo)

 

PETER LOGRECO

 

HAVE A HAPPY AND SAFE THANKSGIVING

Have a Happy Thanksgiving, to the best of your abilities. There is definitely a better time ahead AND with the vaccines, things will return to normal by next summer, BUT for now, realize this is our COVID YEAR that requires sacrifice, THEREFORE do all you can to protect yourself and others, starting with one simple instruction which is to STOP SWAPPING AIR. You’ll be hearing more about this message in the near future.

 

THE ABT FRAMEWORK COURSE: A MEMORABLE YEAR

#186) The Banality of Evil: Stephen Miller has Lousy Narrative Intuition

Trump speechwriter Stephen Miller is not just qualitatively dull — you can actually see his dullness in the narrative metrics of the speeches he writes. It’s been on display since the start of his speechwriting for Trump. The Democrats should hope he continues to be the (uninspiring, confused and narratively amateurish) voice of Trump.

DONALD TRUMP’S RNC ACCEPTANCE SPEECH, just like all of his speeches that are written by Stephen Miller, was dull, flaccid, and devoid of narrative strength. This is not just me saying this — it’s the numbers.

 

NARRATIVE METRICS REVEAL ALL

Communication has two parts: CONTENT and FORM. Everyone talks about the content of Trump’s speeches, but it’s the form of speeches that determine whether they have lasting impact. Or not.

There’s a new book about Trump’s speechwriter, Stephen Miller, titled, “Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, and the White Nationalist Agenda.” The author, Jean Guerrero has an article in the NY Times yesterday discussing Miller’s speeches, but her focus is only on content. Which means there’s more to the story. Much more.

In 2015 I published my book, “Houston, We Have A Narrative” (University of Chicago Press) in which I first presented the ABT Framework. This led to two simple metrics for analyzing narrative structure which are:

NARRATIVE INDEX — the BUT/AND ratio

“AND” FREQUENCY (AF) — % of total words that are “and”

As a candidate, Trump’s values for the Narrative Index were exceptionally high (always above 20, frequently above 30) and his scores for the A.F. were impressively low (rarely above 3.0, sometimes even below the ideal value of 2.5).

I spent 2016 warning of the dangers of his communication skills. I teamed up with James Carville and we tried to explain this to the Hillary Clinton campaign, but hit the same brick wall everyone else did trying to communicate to them. Trump won. I ended up on Park Howell’s podcast, “The Business of Story,” telling about this which became one of his most popular episodes.

The poor communication skills of Clinton’s campaign were examined in painful detail in the 2017 bestseller, “Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign.” In contrast, Trump communicated skillfully right up until March of this year when he finally ran aground with the problem of split narratives (economy vs health, which Dr. Dianna Padilla and I quantified in May in an article in Medpage titled, “COVID Leadership: Trump vs Cuomo).

So there’s been this shift in Trump’s communication dynamics, but it’s actually the second major shift. The first one took place back in 2016 once he secured the Republican nomination. It was the appointment of Stephen Miller as his main speechwriter.

 

STEPHEN MILLER: THE VOICE OF DULLNESS

In June, 2016 Trump secured the Republican nomination and two things occurred. First, he shifted to using a teleprompter for his speeches which previously had been wildly spontaneous and off-the-cuff. Second, he brought on Stephen Miller to write his more formal speeches.

From then on, his speeches fell largely into two groups:

FORMAL (written by Stephen Miller) – safe, boring, low N.I., high A.F.

INFORMAL (written by Trump or unscripted) – barn burning rants, high N.I., low A.F.

Look at the formal speeches — routinely below 10 for the N.I., often above 4.0 for the A.F. What that shows is the “And, And, And” structure which is largely non-narrative — just expositional.

Then look at the informal rants — rocketing up in the 40’s for the N.I., with the sparse use of “and” producing A.F. scores below 3.0. That is Trump at his most powerful when it comes to mass communication (and I’m not talking about communicating to the academics who are nauseated by him — I’m talking about the masses of America). The prevalence of the word “but” reflects the ABT (And, But, Therefore) narratively structured form.

 

THEREFORE … MY ABT STATEMENT ON STEPHEN MILLER

It’s very cut and dried. The bottom line is that when Stephen Miller is involved, there’s little narrative structure, just a lot of “And, And, And” (I had several friends text me during Trump’s RNC speech asking, “Doesn’t this seem like a lot of And, And, And?”)

But when Trump sidelines Miller and takes control, he’s very ABT — punching away, producing the version of him that his followers love. Which leads me to my own ABT about Stephen Miller:

Stephen Miller is indeed the voice of a lot of unpleasant content in Trump’s speeches AND those speeches are offensive to Democrats, BUT he’s not good — he has no grasp of narrative structure, THEREFORE Democrats should hope Miller continues to write Trump’s speeches.

BUT … watch out if Trump eventually stops using a speechwriter and reverts back to doing it all by himself. If that happens, it will not just be offensive content, it may be delivered in a dangerously powerful way.

Which means things will get ugly … -er.

#184) Business Meets Science: What Scientists Writing Proposals Can Learn from the Business World

In our ABT Framework course we hit a moment where two of the team members — a marketing expert and a scientist — realized the similarities in the communication dynamics of what they do. Here they match notes on three topics: 1) PERSUASION, 2) CONTROLLING THE NARRATIVE, and 3) THE NARRATIVE SPIRAL (as developed by Park Howell). There is great wisdom for scientists in these parallels.

THE COMMUNICATION OF BUSINESS, THE COMMUNICATION OF SCIENCE — not really that different in the end.

 

THE SYNERGY SPIRAL

We’ve run the ABT Framework course four times since April. In the second round marine scientist Dr. Dianna Padilla listened to the presentation from Park Howell who is a business/marketing guy, and host of the popular podcast, “The Business of Story.” He has no science background, but she heard things in his presentation that resonated with her years of writing research grant proposals as well as having served a year as a rotator at the National Science Foundation headquarters in Arlington, VA.

They talked a bit further, then I asked them to address these three similarities in communications dynamics for business versus science. Here’s their parallel takes on three aspects of narrative.

 

1) PERSUASION

We all know that business is about persuading people to buy your product, but grant writing is also about persuading — as in persuading the funding source to fund your project. We can actually use the Dobzhansky Template to say it concisely like this: Nothing in Business and/or Proposal Writing makes sense except in the light of Persuasion.

BUSINESS GUY (Park Howell): Persuasion is everything when it comes to business. Here’s my Dobzhansky Template: Nothing in GROWING A PURPOSE-DRIVEN BRAND makes sense except in the light of PERSUASION. If you can’t connect with and convince your internal, external and partner audiences to buy into your vision and participate in your mission, then you will not make the impact in the world you seek and your organization will suffer.

SCIENTIST (Dr Dianna Padilla): This is where I made my first connection with what Park had to say about business. As in business, the key to a successful scientific research proposal is persuasion. The job of a proposal writer is to persuade critical reviewers and a program director that the work you propose is the best, most exciting, will advance science the furthest, and/or is the key piece of information we need to make important advances. Furthermore, you and your team not only have the skills to get it done, you are in a position to really move things forward, answer important questions, and fulfill the goals and mandates of the granting agency. Just as Park is saying about business, you need to pursued the client (granting agency) to buy into your goals and project.

 

2) CONTROLLING THE NARRATIVE

BUSINESS GUY (Park Howell): CONTROLLING THE NARRATIVE means tell a true story well, and then supporting it with the facts and figures you need to become THE trusted source. You sell to the heart through telling a story on purpose to get the head to follow. I mean, when was the last time you were bored into buying anything? I use the terms audiences and customers interchangeably because in every audience you are trying to get them to buy into your way of thinking and with every customer, you are trying to sell them something. Both interaction is a transaction. Audiences/customers show up with their own stories; perhaps stories about you, your industry, your competition and their own baggage. Sometimes these stories are true, but mostly they are false because they are made up by your audience from current beliefs built on past experiences. Therefore, if nothing in business makes sense except in the light of persuasion, then you MUST control the narrative. I’ve learned that if you don’t intentionally tell a story, your audience will leave with a story you did not intend. They’ll make something up because you didn’t control the narrative.

SCIENTIST (Dr Dianna Padilla): Again, this is similar to the dynamic for writing of a successful research proposal. You are presenting your narrative, and you need to do your best to keep reviewers following along. But reviewers are scientists, each with their own background, ideas of what is important (their research, of course), and will read your proposal through their personal lens. YOUR JOB is to keep the reviewer following your narrative, and not get distracted or allow them to pull away to their own interests, and wonder why you are not trying to answer another question they find more interesting. With a well crafted narrative, you can pull the reviewer to follow your path of logic, and see that your questions or system are the only ones to follow, and you are proposing something that should be funded. As with business, if you don’t provide a compelling narrative for readers to follow, they will find another path that will not result in success for your proposal.

 

3) THE NARRATIVE SPIRAL (SEE FIGURE BELOW)

BUSINESS GUY (Park Howell): So here’s how it all comes together. To be persuasive by controlling the narrative, you need a system to organize and guide your communications. This is where I found the Story Cycle System™ narrative spiral to be invaluable to guide long-form communications and presentations. It is inspired by Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey but is mapped to business and intellectual pursuits versus just dramatic storytelling. In my book Brand Bewitchery, I describe the organizational device of the Narrative Spiral. The Story Cycle is distilled from the timeless narrative structure of the ancients, inspired by the story artists of Hollywood, influenced by masters of persuasion, guided by trend spotters, and informed by how the human mind grapples for meaning.”

SCIENTIST (Dr Dianna Padilla): This is where I also see amazing similarities between the path of developing a narrative for business as Park describes it and the writing of scientific research proposals. There are direct parallels. Applying his Narrative Spiral concept to a research proposal, the process begins with the background state of knowledge, putting your proposed work in that context. You lay out how your work will advance knowledge, and what is at stake (if we knew x, then we could….), but we do not know this, some approaches will not get us the answers, etc. Then you use strong narrative to lead the reader to your path of logic on what you are proposing to do and why it will solve those important problems. You then move to the research you want to do, experiments to conduct, data and then how you will interpret the results of your work. The journey ends with how your work will advance science, answer a critical question, or provide essential data that moves science forward. And then, of course, you repeat the whole cycle, only you’re now at the next level up as our knowledge of science continues to spiral upwards.


Story Cycle System™ Narrative Spiral developed by Park Howell in his new book, Brand Bewitchery. It’s Joseph Campbell’s Heroes Journey model, but with a twist — or actually a spiral structure instead of circular. Read his book for the specific details.

#183) Go with the Flo: A Great Discussion of Improv Acting with Two Major Improv Veterans

It was 17 years ago that improv actor Stephanie Courtney (better known as “Flo” from Progressive Insurance) was one of the winners of our Shifting Baselines Stand Up Comedy Contest. It was 10 years ago that I first stood in shock and awe as I watched Brian Palermo teach improv to ocean conservationists with a level of energy I had never seen before in any instructor. Both of them are veterans of the world famous Groundlings Improv Comedy Theater. On Friday they joined a session of our current round of the ABT Framework course with the National Park Service. Check out the video of the session, it’s fun viewing.

THE POWER OF AFFIRMATION. Friday’s session of our ABT Framework course (this round with National Park Service) featuring veteran improv actors Brian Palermo and Stephanie Courtney (“Flo” of Progressive Insurance).

 

YES, AND …

I’ve been working with the legendary Groundlings Improv Comedy Theater for nearly two decades. In 2002 I formed a partnership with one of their most talented comic actors, Jeremy Rowley as part of my Shifting Baselines Ocean Media Project (Jeremy’s enormously popular and hilarious Dating Video shows a bit of his comic brilliance).

That eventually led to recruiting Brian Palermo as a workshop co-instructor, which in 2013 produced our book, “Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking.” Brian has gone on to build his own business teaching improv acting to scientists over the past decade, now working with everyone from JPL to AGU and the Ocean Sciences Meeting.

On Friday I had Brian and Stephanie Courtney (whom I’ve known since 2003, before she was “Flo” of Progressive Insurance, when she won our Shifting Baselines Stand Up Comedy Contest) as guests in our ABT Framework course. The session was so energy-packed and fun that we’ve decided to share it with everyone (above).

It gives you a sense of Brian’s energy, plus you can hear Stephanie talk about what it’s like to be the most popular corporate representative ever.

#182) Climate “Contrarian” Marc Morano, 13 years later: Winning?

It’s 13 years since I first interviewed Marc Morano for my movie, “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy.” Last year Nature quantified his media impact and found him to be #1 (by a factor of almost 3) for the climate “contrarians” (the descriptor they chose, rather than “deniers”) and almost as widely covered as the #1 climate scientist. I’ve spent a decade warning about the media power of this guy. Did anyone listen? Perhaps a little. The good news? Maybe he’s slowing down in his speaking speed, from auctioneer to used car salesman.

NOT WINNING? Marc Morano starts off making you think maybe he’s changed, but eventually hits full “Gish Gallop climate contrarian speed. What is perhaps most fascinating in this 13.5 minute interview I did with him last week is his answer to my question of, “Are you winning?”

 

SOME THINGS NEVER CHANGE, MUCH

What’s different about Marc Morano? In 2007 when I first interviewed him for my movie, “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy,” he only had a handful of appearances in major media under his belt.

Now? When I asked him how many times he’s been on Fox News (in the video above), I expected him to say a couple dozen. Look at his answer — hundreds. He’s truly “a regular” there.

Who, among the climate movement, can be called “a regular” on any television network? Being “a regular” on a TV channel is media power, pure and simple.

In 2010 I launched my blog of 4 years, The Benshi, with a lengthy interview of Marc. Two weeks later I offered up my bottom line analysis — that no one should debate him, other than a major comedian like Bill Maher.

Of course, media-obsessed Bill Nye ignored this warning. He was on the board of the Union of Concerned Scientists at the time. My friends there tried to talk to him about this but they told me, “He’s just gonna do what he’s gonna do when it comes to media exposure — he can’t get enough.” In 2012 he debated Morano on CNN with Piers Morgan as host. It wasn’t good.

 

INTERVIEWING MARC MORANO FOR OUR ABT FRAMEWORK COURSE

We’re in the 5th round of my new ABT Framework Course that my team of 6 associates from our Story Circles Narrative Training program and I put together in April. It’s been popular, running twice with open participation, once with USFWS, once with Park Howell and the business community, and now with the National Park Service, as well as booked into the fall.

The course is 10 one hour sessions. I bring in a series of “likely suspects” as guests in the second half (scientists, filmmakers, actors, political strategists, business consultants, journalists, etc.). But this time decided to spice things up a bit by bringing in an inconvenient guest.

The powers that be got a little nervous at the possibility of a scene. The sessions include a chat log where the participants can type in comments and questions live. We all know the climate issue can get heated, so I opted to avoid potential drama by doing only a recorded interview which was 30 minutes. I cut down the interview to the 13.5 minute clip above which we showed to the course then discussed in depth.

 

MARC MORANO, THICK-SKINNED VETERAN

When I made my movie, “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy,” I ended up trading emails with legendary techno-thriller author-turned-climate “skeptic” (the term of choice at the time), Michael Crichton. He warned me in his first email that what I had experienced for criticism and trolling for my movie “Flock of Dodos,” about the attacks on evolution science, would pale in comparison to doing a film on climate.

He was pretty much right. Lots of scientists and environmentalists said rotten things to me because I gave “screen time” to climate skeptics (though by 6 years later when Robbie Kenner did the same thing with “Merchants of Doubt” where I guided him to Morano, the critics had gone silent — btw, wanna see one interesting detail — look at the Wikipedia page for this film — the two photos are of Oreskes and Singer with Morano getting only a trivial mention as one of the cast — then look at the trailer for the movie — it opens with, has quotes throughout, and ends with one guy — Marc Morano — what does that tell you?).

Some of my critics suggested I was somehow giving climate skeptics a big break. I wasn’t — my film never went much beyond the science world, and having accomplished all the goals I had (made back the money I spent on it, did over 100 public screenings at everywhere from NASA to the Smithsonian, had huge fun, and verified how utterly, utterly, utterly humorless so many environmentalists can be — the number of times my crew in Hollywood sat in our office shaking our heads at angry emails was tragic) I opted to never release it.

But yes, climate is an ugly, intensely polarized issue, that is not helped by the poor communication style of so much of the climate action crowd (exemplified in recent years by their decision to label their opponents as “deniers” in an effort to associate them with Holocaust deniers). Over the years, they have chosen to spew hatred from a distance while failing to ever engage in any sort of sophisticated analysis or experimentation when it comes to communication.

And they wonder why they fail.

 

MAYBE HE’S AT LEAST SLOWING DOWN

If you watch the video, you’ll see by the end I fall into pretty much of a “here we go again,” routine with him on each issue. I’ve heard it all before. His science on the ocean acidification issue is wrong (there are not as many winners as losers for this issue). His science on the California wild fires is wrong (there’s not much of a climate signal for the fires, but the experts agree there’s at least some). His science on coral bleaching is WAY wrong — trust me on this, I used to be a coral reef scientist, he has zero legs to stand on for this one.

The bottom line is that there is no point in engaging a climate skeptic on CONTENT. The engagement needs to be about FORM. If this isn’t clear to you, take our ABT Framework course.

The climate crowd never did show one ounce of communications savvy. If there’s one core principle to the legendary text, “The Art of War” which has been the bible for Hollywood players for a generation, it’s “Know your enemy.” I’ve seen no evidence of climate activists attempting to know their enemy.

Marc and I have chuckled for years at the complete absence of his opponents knowing much of anything about him. That’s part of why one of my initial questions to him was how much does he make. From the very start of my first getting to know him I’ve listened to environmentalists tell me with complete certainty that if you “follow the money,” you’ll see he’s making millions off of payments from the oil industry.

No, he’s not.

Anyhow, here’s your one silver lining. I timed his WORDS PER MINUTE rate of speaking for my interview with him from 2007. It was 225 WPM. I did the same thing for part of the last bit of this interview, 13 years later. I was a mere 210 WPM (normal conversation is about 150 max).

Maybe he’s slowing with age. Which might mean that some day, the age old “strategy” of climate activists of “Ignore him and he’ll eventually go away,” might finally happen. Maybe sometime around 2050.

#178) Play Along at Home: Our Story Circles Demo Session

Yesterday, to enjoy 90 minutes of escapism, we ran a Story Circles “Demo Session” with 5 of our recent graduates.  It was fun, interesting, and a valuable thing to do in a time where the communication of science has never, ever been more important.  You can listen to the audio of the session here, and “play along” using the four abstracts and one narrative below to get a feel for how the training works.

STARS OF THE SHOW:  Clockwise from top left:  Michael Bart (National Park Service, Colorado), Andrea Taylor (School of Psychology, University of Waikato, NZ), Alison Mims (National Park Service, Colorado), Randy Olson (scientist-turned-filmmaker), Mevagh Sanson (School of Psychology, University of Waikato, NZ), Elizabeth Stulberg (Agronomy, Crops, and Soil Science Societies).

 

THE STANDARD ONE HOUR STORY CIRCLES SESSION

Story Circles Narrative Training consists of 10 one hour sessions of five people meeting, usually once a week.  The goal of the training is to strengthen your “narrative intuition” — a term I coined in my 2015 book, Houston, We Have A Narrative, which provides background on all of the concepts presented in the training.

The first half hour is Narrative Analysis where they are given 5 texts to analyze using the ABT Framework (for this demo session we only used four).  The second half of the hour is Narrative Development where each participant has an assignment.  For this session the assignment were as follows and the materials analyzed are below.

MODERATOR – Michael

NARRATIVE – Mevagh

WORD TEMPLATE /ARGUMENT – Andrea

SENTENCE TEMPLATE –  Elizabeth

PARAGRAPH TEMPLATE – Alison

 

NARRATIVE ANALYSIS

Abstract 1

Neuron:glial ratios were determined in specific regions of Albert Einstein’s cerebral cortex to compare with samples from 11 human male cortices. Cell counts were made on either 6- or 20-μm sections from areas 9 and 39 from each hemisphere. All sections were stained with the Klüver-Barrera stain to differentiate neurons from glia, both astrocytes and oliogdendrocytes. Cell counts were made under oil immersion from the crown of the gyrus to the white matter by following a red line drawn on the coverslip. The average number of neurons and glial cells was determined per microscopic field. The results of the analysis suggest that in left area 39, the neuronal:glial ratio for the Einstein brain is significantly smaller than the mean for the control population (= 2.62, df 9, < 0.05, two-tailed). Einstein’s brain did not differ significantly in the neuronal:glial ratio from the controls in any of the other three areas studied. 

Abstract 2

Tumor cells can spread to distant sites through their ability to switch between mesenchymal and amoeboid (bleb-based) migration. Because of this difference, inhibitors of metastasis must account for each migration mode. However, the role of Vimentin in amoeboid migration has not been determined. Since amoeboid, Leader Bleb-Based Migration (LBBM) occurs in confined spaces and Vimentin is known to strongly influence cell mechanical properties, we hypothesized that a flexible Vimentin network is required for fast amoeboid migration. Tothisend,here we determined the precise role of the Vimentin intermediate filament system in regulating the migration of amoeboid human cancer cells. Vimentin is a classic marker of epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition and is therefore an ideal target for a metastasis inhibitor. Using a previously developed PDMS slab-based approach to confine cells, RNAi-based Vimentin silencing, Vimentin over-expression, pharmacological treatments, and measurements of cell stiffness, we found that RNAi-mediated depletion of Vimentin increases LBBM by ~50% compared with control cells and that Vimentin over-expression and Simvastatin-induced Vimentin bundling inhibit fast amoeboid migration and proliferation. Importantly, these effects were independent of changes in actomyosin contractility. Our results indicate that a flexible Vimentin intermediate filament network promotes LBBM of amoeboid cancer cells in confined environments and that Vimentin bundling perturbs cell mechanical properties and thereby inhibits the invasive properties of cancer cells.

Abstract 3

Thirteen-year-old Kayla hosts a YouTube series called “Kayla’s Korner” where she gives advice to an imagined audience of her peers. She picks topics like “Being Yourself” and “Putting Yourself Out There” and stumbles her way through a pep-talk peppered with “like” and glances at her notes. A glimpse of the subscriber count shows that Kayla’s Korner hasn’t exactly taken off. Kayla airbrushes out her acne, and swoops on heavy eyeliner. This is a young girl trying to understand what she is going through, and she does so by positioning herself as an expert and a helper to others.

Abstract 4

Four male friends who live an ordinary existence in Kentucky come up with a scheme to make their lives more interesting. After a visit to Transylvania University, they concoct the idea to steal the rarest and most valuable books from the school’s library. As one of the most audacious art heists in U.S. history starts to unfold, the men question whether their attempts to inject excitement and purpose into their lives are simply misguided attempts at achieving the American dream.

 

NARRATIVE DEVELOPMENT

This is the narrative from Mevagh Sanson (a brief description of her dissertation research) that is the focus of the second half hour of the session. 

Narrative:

We can be mentally whisked away from the present, back to re-live our past, or forward to “pre-live” our hypothetical future. Re-living our negative past too intensely and frequently can impair us in the present, as Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. But PTSD is conceptualised only as a disorder in which people are haunted by their past. Given that re-living and pre-living are closely related abilities, I propose that pre-living our hypothetical negative future too intensely and frequently similarly impairs us, as “pre-traumatic stress disorder.” I will investigate the ways in which people are haunted by their future.

#177) What the Democratic Party Lost with Al Franken: Narrative Intuition

We live in a media society, yet the members of congress have almost no in-depth media skills. Specifically, Senate.gov in 2018 said, “the dominant professions of Members of Congress are public service/politics, business, and law.” Those are not media/entertainment professions. And yet, we live in a media society where the head politician, the president, does himself have a background in media and entertainment which has clearly given him a huge, huge advantage over the past four years in working the media in his favor. The Democrats had one senator from the entertainment world who could match the president because he understood the importance of “performance” for today’s government. But they got rid of him.

AL KNOWS NARRATIVE. Of course he does. He comes from the entertainment world. He was a priceless resource for the Democratic party. He has deep narrative intuition. Still. (Photograph by Geordie Wood for the New Yorker)

 

SHOOT THE LAWYERS (NOT THE ENTERTAINER)

I am of the opinion that the obliteration of Senator Al Franken was the worst political event I’ve witnessed in all of my years of following politics, going back to the early 1960’s. The injustice of it was revealed powerfully in, “The Case of Al Franken,” the excellent New Yorker article last year by Jane Mayer.

After resigning from the senate (which still feels surreal), Franken went away for a while, but last year returned a little bit with his new podcast which I thoroughly enjoy. Last month he had as a guest MSNBC host and long time political writer Lawrence O’Donnell. It’s an excellent episode — lots of fun, lots of substance, but then eventually a sequence that I found once again heart wrenching.

It’s heart wrenching because Al Franken was the only Democrat with the skills to match communication wits and style with the worst of the loudmouth right. He took on Rush Limbaugh with his books and Bill O’Reilly in person.

Why was Franken so exceptional with opponents like that? Because of irrationality. Those sorts of characters are not bounded by the truth. They are completely irrational, which drives rational, honest people crazy.

But comedy is an irrational force, and is the proper match for them. I said this a decade ago when highly rational and honest climate scientists were being driven crazy by engaging in debates with climate skeptics.

In 2010 I did a lengthy interview with climate skeptic Marc Morano and concluded that the ONLY people who should engage in a “debate” with him should be comedians like Bill Maher. And Al Franken — who at least was a serious politician who still had comic skills. Before they banished him.

 

PERFORMANCE ENHANCER

Franken understands theatrics, and theatrics are at the heart of today’s politics. He gave a little glimpse into this in his discussion with Lawrence O’Donnell. Here’s a sequence where they are talking about senate hearings. I’ve put the best parts in red.

 

AL FRANKEN: I was disappointed with some of the judiciary hearings — on Kavanaugh, on Bill Barr — that was a real opportunity — and, you know, I had a performing background and knew how to create a moment and … I feel like my former colleagues don’t.

LAWRENCE O’DONNELL – No, they don’t have performing backgrounds, and so they’re not going to be able to deliver this the way that television critics want them to —

AL FRANKEN – Actually, it’s not television critics so much — it’s about creating a moment that gets on TV.

LAWRENCE O’DONNELL – Right. Yeah. They don’t know how to do that. That’s performing. You’re both a writer and a performer. You need senators who have staffers who think that way and know how to think that way and they don’t, generally, you then need senators who know how to deliver it, and they don’t generally, even if you laid it out for them — this is exactly how they should perform this — they wouldn’t know how to perform it. And then it’s interactive, and the way you planned to do it with this particular witness might now work.

AL FRANKEN – Oh, you have to listen to the witness, all the time.

LAWRENCE O’DONNELL – Well now you’re talking about improvising, which just about no one can do.

AL FRANKEN – What I’m saying is, moments get on TV.

 

There you have it. “Moments get on TV.” That is what good storytelling is about — building to moments.

And this, once again, is the basic divide between the ABT and the AAA structure. The ABT sets up a context with the AND material. Then it builds tension with the BUT, and then … if it’s done well, there comes “a moment” with the THEREFORE.

AAA is just flatlining — laying out fact after fact after fact, never really quite building to “a moment.” It’s what prevails in congress, and why C-SPAN coverage of Congress has been a running joke for decades.

Franken is absolutely right. Members of congress don’t get this, and they don’t get it in a big way. The Democrat senators demonstrated it brilliantly with the Kavanaugh hearing as I discussed on a podcast — a gigantic scattershot mess of “everyone doing their own thing” that never built to anything other than yet another gigantic defeat for the Democrats.

Franken was the great dramatic hope for the senate.

And actually, he did finally get his one big moment. It was recounted in painful detail in Jane Mayer’s New Yorker article. It was the story of the week, the day, the hour and the moment when Senator Chuck Schumer visited Franken in his apartment in DC and told him he had until 5:00 that afternoon to announce his resignation.

That was definitely a dramatic a moment. Which sucked.

#176) MICHAEL CRICHTON: The Lost Opportunity

Last week I published this article in Ensia about science fiction author Michael Crichton.  It was criticized from both the left (“You implied the science community made him into a climate skeptic” –  yes, the science community wore him down), and the right (“You called him the divisive, insulting label of ‘climate denier’” – yes, the editors changed my label of “skeptic” to “denier” — boo hoo).  

Below I list 5 main sources I’ve drawn on for insight on Michael Crichton’s climate experience.  Yes, he eventually wrote an unforgiveably bad novel about climate and deserved rebuke for drifting into a camp that was beneath him.  But that said, the science world is still guilty of an enormous MISSED OPPORTUNITY for communication caused by the myopia that always plagues scientists in the subject of climate change.  

Michael Crichton’s final interview with Charlie Rose in 2007:  Two old friends, both sadly headed to ignominy.

 

A GIANT OF A MISSED OPPORTUNITY

Michael Crichton was a giant of a man, both figuratively with all his writings, and literally with his enormous height of six foot nine.  He died shortly after turning 66.  In the final act of his career he turned against the environmental movement resulting in his death having a fair amount of “good riddance” vibe to it.  

People like climate blogger Joe Romm essentially dumped hydrochloric acid into his grave with an “obituary” titled, “Michael Crichton, World’s Most Famous Global Warming Denier, Dies.”  That was in 2008 when the derogatory term “denier” was first being suggested for climate skeptics.

But Crichton was incredibly smart, charismatic, and widely liked by all who knew him.  Michael Ovitz, who was probably the best businessman Hollywood has known in the past five decades, ran Creative Artists Agency which represented Crichton for most of his filmmaking career.  Ovitz wrote an entire chapter about Crichton in his autobiography that came out in 2018.  The last line of that chapter said it all for Ovitz, “I miss him every fucking day.”

Michael Crichton was better than Carl Sagan when it came to science communication.  Sagan was fun, but he was a doofus that I remember Johnny Carson making fun of constantly.  Nobody made fun of Crichton.  All the way up to Steven Spielberg — they listened and respected him when he spoke.  

I weighed in last week on the environmental site Ensia arguing that, yes, Crichton did bad things in promoting the anti-environmental agenda in his final decade, but before he was bad, he was good.  He offered up powerful insights on the communication of science, but scientists were basically blind to him.

The science community can be blind at times.  Science suffers from a lack of leadership.  A good leader would have, in 1980, known that communication was already being identified as a major challenge to science, which it was — I remember it vividly, it’s when I first started getting interested in the subject.  Anyone with an open mind would have surveyed the landscape, spotted Crichton’s split background of science and cinema, plus seeing that his 1975 paper on “Medical Obfuscation,” showed that he already knew the problem — then set to work doing whatever it took to recruit him to be a major constructive, positive asset to science.

But that didn’t happen.  Here’s at least three reasons why.

 

THREE REASONS WHY CRICHTON WAS IGNORED

1) IVORY TOWER –  Michael Crichton left the Ivory Tower of academia in the late 1970’s.  As soon as you do that, you’re viewed as inferior.  It’s an age old syndrome.  It’s simply what academics do.  It even happens when you stay in the Ivory Tower and dabble outside of it as Carl Sagan did.  Academics look down on non-academics.  How do I know?  Because I did it when I was a tenured professor of marine biology.  I thought people at government agencies were second rate — people who couldn’t cut it in academia.  That wasn’t based on experience, it was the mindset drilled into me by the faculty and grad students above me.  There is no avoiding it.  When you go to church, you are programmed with the doctrine.  Academia is a church.  Furthermore, Crichton went to Hollywood, meaning he joined the circus.  Nobody wants to seek the wisdom of a Hollywood clown.

2) HERO WORSHIP –  Scientists love being worshipped.  It’s another age old syndrome.  And again, I know this because I was one.  They gather their knowledge, then hold it over the heads of the public.  It’s fun!  It’s a game the public likes to play as well — turn to the scientists, as if they are the mystical, flawless soothsayers of our society.  But they aren’t.  They make a mess of just as much stuff as average citizens.  Furthermore, today’s information overloaded society has produced a science world that is filled with massive amounts of publication flaws and shortcomings.  It’s all run by humans, there are no flawless heroes.  Again, this was Crichton’s life’s theme.

3) NO LEADERSHIP –  Science is run by committees, top to bottom.  Committees don’t lead, they facilitate.  They don’t come up with good ideas and make them happen, they wait for individuals to come to them with good ideas that they can support or reject.  Given the mountains of money and good times Crichton was having in Hollywood, he wasn’t about to ask a committee if they wanted his help.

The result by 2007 was the dark demise of a brilliant man with a brilliant mind.  He spent the last decade of his life trying to follow the basic practice of his life’s work — which was to question science and scientists.  But this time he found himself ending up as an enemy of science.

Here are 5 sources that I draw on in forming my impression of who Michael Crichton was, and why his life presents a story that the science world, if it really is interested in creating a healthy, human society for the future, should learn from.  Of course I’m probably dreaming, but so was Crichton.

 

FIVE SOURCES OF MY INSIGHTS INTO WHO MICHAEL CRICHTON WAS

1) THE 2007 CHARLIE ROSE INTERVIEW –  everyone should watch this sad, sad record of who Michael Crichton was near the end of his life.  In 2007, a year before his death, Crichton did a final interview with his friend, Charlie Rose (who is now disgraced and disowned for his work place behavior).

You’ll see two things on display.  First, that he had been beaten down by his critics, but also second that he wasn’t a raving madman.  He was very civil, very dignified, very respectful, and was only asking for what the entire practice of science is supposed to be — an exercise in rational thought.  By 2007 he had been the target of a great deal of irrational rage, delivered in the name of science.

Granted, he brought it on himself.  It began with his questioning of the environmental movement, then ultimately ridiculing the movement in his poorly crafted novel, “State of Fear.”  

For me, the act of learning about his writing that novel was like learning that one of your favorite interviewers of smart people turns out to be a serial sexual harasser (Charlie).  The novel wasn’t just transparent in it’s anti-environmental agenda, it was pathetic in it’s lack of human depth of characters.  As much as I’d like to defend Crichton’s questioning of climate science, that novel makes it impossible at a human level.  He proved himself to be utterly tone deaf with it.

But still, he was always civilized and wanting only to be a provocateur.  I think his core problem is that he was designed for a different era where the major discourse took place through written media that had editors who restrained the inner demons of writers.  As I myself experienced in 2005, the internet allowed for the bypassing of editors for many venues, unleashing a Pandora’s Box of hatred on the public in a way that humanity still hasn’t figured out how to deal with (though comedian Ricky Gervais, in his brilliant and aptly titled Netflix special, “Humanity,” has plenty to say about it that’s wonderful).

Crichton spent his last decade as a target and victim of roving packs of online trolls that he never made sense of.

Here’s transcription of some of the most powerful and insightful moments of the interview with regard to the climate issue.  I’ve added red for some of the most interesting bits.

31:00 –  ON THE MEDIA …
Michael Crichton: The media is not interested in a balanced perspective
Charlie Rose:  I am
MC:  But you’re very rare.

32:00 –  ON THE SUBJECT OF AL GORE’S MOVIE …
MC:  If I want to make a movie — that said what he said — I could make a much better movie.
MC:  Attitudinally it (Gore’s movie) is wrong.  It is a scientific matter that we need to look at as dispassionately as possible.

35:00 –  ON AL GORE AND “THE DATA” …
MC:  I think he relies on the expert witness, and I don’t.
CR:  You do the work yourself?
MC:  Yes
CR:  And you don’t think he does the work himself?
MC:  I don’t think he goes and looks at the data.

35:50 – ON THE FUTURE …
MC:  I believe the future is unknowable.
MC:  Climate, according to the last UN report, is a coupled, chaotic, non-linear system.  They say long term prediction of climate is not possible.

36:30 –  ON THE NEED FOR DRAMA …
MC:  Most people I know haven’t looked at the data at all.

37:00
MC:  People always — it’s not just America — people line up for the catastrophe.

37:30
MC:  I’ve done this as a test — sit down at a dinner party and say, “The world is coming to an end and you get immediately the aroused attention at the table.  Alternatively you say, basically everything is good. The world is getting better …
CR:  Nobody cares.
MC:  No, they get angry.  Or they turn away.  It’s not what we want to hear.  We want to hear disaster.
CR:  But isn’t that true about writing books and making movies?
MC:  Yeah.  Crisis.  Crisis.  Tension.  Drama.   You don’t want to read a story that doesn’t have a story.  That doesn’t have consequences.

39:00 –  ON HIS OWN COURAGE …
MC:  I didn’t want to write it.  I decided I wouldn’t write it.  I said “I’ll keep my opinions to myself.”  I had breakfast with a scientist friend of mine I hadn’t seen for 30 years.  He said you have to write it.  I said, “No, no, I’m gonna get killed for this.”  I’d like to say as a result of that conversation I decided to write it.  I went home and thought, “You know, I’m not writing this.  I’ll keep my opinion to myself.”  I started to work on something else and I felt like a coward.

39:50 –  ON REDUCING EMISSIONS …
CR:  You’re not arguing we shouldn’t reduce the amount of fossil fuel we’re putting in the atmosphere?
MC:  No.
CR:  You’d be happy with tougher standards on auto emissions and all that stuff?
MC:  Should have done it decades ago.  I was in favor of a carbon tax, 25 years ago.  Still waiting for it.  It’s a very logical thing to do.

40:20 –  ON ENVIRONMENTALISM …
MC:  I want an environment that’s great.  I don’t think this is as an important of a problem as other people do.  That’s the essence of it.

50:30 –  ON THE HATRED HE RECEIVED …
MC:  I proud of having done the book about global warming.  I knew everybody was going to be against me, and I thought, this is what I believe, and I’m sorry, and I said it, and I did it, and I’ve taken just flack for it.  You know what, it is what I believe.
CR:  You went into rough seas.
MC:  Very rough seas.  Nasty and personal and brutal and unfair and mean.
CR:  What was nasty and brutal and unfair and mean?
MC:  Oh, Charlie, this is — you want to look at what people will say — for example, when I started talking about genetics, people would say you might get some criticism for this.  Well, I haven’t gotten any criticism for genetics, let me tell you.  I know what criticism is.  But …… I’ve had the experience of having had books in print for 40 years, so I can go back and look at the stand I took when I was in favor of abortion when I was a medical student in Boston in 1967, six years before Roe v. Wade and I can look at that and go was I right or not and I can say dammit I was right.  And when I wrote “State of Fear,” I was imaging, what’s it gonna look like in 40 years?  I think I’m gonna come out just fine.

 

2) MY 28 YEAR FRIENDSHIP WITH A CLOSE ASSOCIATE OF CRICHTON –   In 1992 I met a screenwriter who worked closely with Michael Crichton for 15 years, giving notes on his novels, writing screenplays for his movies, even founding a video game company with him in the late 1990’s.  In 1999 he gave me a copy of Crichton’s AAAS speech before he delivered it.  We’re still close friends.  He’s shared a great deal of insights into what Crichton went through over the years.

 

3) MY EMAILS WITH CRICHTON IN 2007 – In 2007 — the same time as the Charlie Rose interview, a year before Crichton died and I was filming my movie “Sizzle:  A Global Warming Comedy,” my friend introduced me to Michael Crichton via email.  We traded 4 months of emails.  They reflect exactly what he’s saying in the Charlie Rose interview.

I wrote my first email expecting a two sentence reply wishing me well.  What I got back was double the length of my email, saying it was probably already “too late” for the issue of global warming, and with a PS that warned me that the personal politics of global warming would be much worse than what I had encountered with intelligent design.  He was right.

He also warned me at one point, “I am probably the most cynical person on this entire planet.”

There were about 20 emails from him over the next three months.  Suffice it to say it reflected a man who wanted to engage in civilized discussion, but was worn out by all the rage he had endured.  HOWEVER, I do think it’s worth asking how much of that rage was global warming versus the new found killing ground of the internet, blogging and posting comments.  Had he published some of his earlier books in 2004 he probably would have received just as much troll action.

I certainly lived three decades of professional life and never experienced any of the mass insanity that erupted around 2005 with the advent of blogging.  I think Crichton died long before everyone began to realize how mostly stupid and trivial social media arguing ends up being.

One pretty bad element was his line in one email, “Mark my words, four years from now global warming will be the WMD of today.”  He was referring to the over-blown hype around Weapons of Mass Destruction and the war in the middle east.  His quote looks pretty bad 13 years later.  Whoops.

 

4) MIKE STRAUSS –  My Story Circles co-developer Mike Strauss, who worked at AAAS in the 1990’s, was the guy who thought up, made happen, and hosted Crichton’s 1999 keynote speech to AAAS that was so prescient.  He has shared with me all the details of that event — including the A/V problems during his speech (back in the old days of slide projectors that blew bulbs during talks), and the lame Q&A where nobody asked about the speech.  They only wanted to know, “How can we make more Jurassic Park movies that will recruit more kids to science?”

 

5) HIS 2003 CAL TECH LECTURE “ALIENS CAUSE GLOBAL WARMING” –  read his 2003 Cal Tech lecture — it is EXTREMELY smart and most of it hard to argue with.

In the end, Michael Crichton’s downfall was a lack of a deeper sense of people as deeply flawed humans.  It’s reflected in his novels.  He was extremely good with story structure, but at the same time, extremely weak on character development.  

He was a shy, awkward man who really didn’t understand humans as well as might be expected of someone so successful with communicating TO humans.  His novels were stories populated by stick figures.

He didn’t get it when it came to human nature, and is guilty of having done damage to the serious cause of environmentalism in general.  But the climate community still needs to be faulted for being so single minded/myopic as to not having been able to pick out the good from the bad in what he had to say.

That was the point of my Ensia article.  Before he was bad, he was good.  Don’t be so myopic that you can’t look past the bad to make use of what was good.  You don’t have to respect him, just learn from the experience.

#175) Fighting Obfuscation: Communicating About Science Communication, but with Poor Narrative Structure

I’m sure this isn’t appreciated, but what can you do.  It’s very simple.  Look at the molasses of their abstract, then look at the clarity and simplicity that the ABT structure brings.  It’s a prime example of the obfuscation problem identified 45 years ago by Michael Crichton.  

 

OBFUSCATION IS THE PROBLEM

There’s no need for detailed explication.  In 1975, then-biomedical researcher Michael Crichton (later to be the author of “Jurassic Park,” among a wealth of science communication feats), published an appropriately concise paper identifying “obfuscation” as the prime target for effective science communication.
 
His paper was ignored, and as a result, today we have authorities on science communication practicing obfuscation as they try to explain how it works.
 
Just look at these two versions of the abstract for a paper appearing this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences titled, “Scientists’ Incentives and Attitudes Towards Public Communication.”  It’s not that their version is wrong, it just has poor narrative structure, making it difficult to read (i.e. poorly communicated).
 
This is what the ABT Framework is about.  It’s not easy, but it’s essential if anyone is ever going to make any progress against the problem of obfuscation that was identified so simply so long ago.

#174) Nicholas Cage and “Robert McKee” explore the AAA versus ABT divide

Five years ago I thought the non-narrative AAA (And, And, And) structure was bad.  I’ve slowly come to realize it’s not intrinsically bad, it’s just different.  Also, it’s a central part of art.  In this great clip from the 2002 movie “Adaptation,” Nicholas Cage plays a student who innocently asks screenwriting guru Robert McKee (played by an actor) about the basic non-narrative “slice of life” type of movie where “nothing happens,” which is what AAA structure is.  McKee unloads on him with an ABT rant.

SO HOW DOES HE REALLY FEEL ABOUT AAA STRUCTURE?

 

CONFLICT ISN’T ESSENTIAL TO REACH THE MASSES, BUT CONTRADICTION IS

This is a great clip from the 2002 movie, “Adaptation,” (a movie that I originally I found boring and need to re-watch).  The scene is a bullseye in capturing the simple divide between non-narrative approaches to material (AAA) and standard strongly narrative structure (ABT) found in popular mass media.

It’s the same basic divide I presented in my 2013 TEDMED Talk.  It’s the simple divide that everyone needs to know these days.  It was at the core of my examination of the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.  One candidate spoke with honesty about the real world, ending up with a largely boring AAA campaign that Robert McKee must have despised.  The other was a relentless liar, endlessly distorting the real world to suit his campaign rhetoric.  I was able to show quantitatively with the Narrative Index (But/And ratio) this difference, and even tried to convey it to the Clinton campaign with the help of Democratic strategist James Carville, but they were running too fast to listen.

One note from the scene — you often hear people bemoaning the fact that the media is “conflict-driven.”  Which is true.   But mass entertainment isn’t.  It is “contradiction-driven.”   Conflict is just one of many forms of contradiction.  Others include mystery, suspense, intrigue — basically everything that makes you sit up and take interest.  That’s how narrative works — three forces — agreement, contradiction, consequence.

It’s a great clip.  And yes, the structure of most real world mass communication is indeed this simple (sorry journalists).  Hollywood figured it out decades ago.  It’s why their knowledge is so essential for dealing with the Information Society of today, as politicians will some day grasp.

PS –  Thanks to former Nat Geo writer Alan Mairson for posting the “Adaptation” clip in a Twitter discussion we were having about narrative structure.