#201) Using the right tool: A “HOWEVER HAMMER” for diplomacy, a “BUT BOMB” for the masses

Scientists love their HOWEVERs. It’s the more diplomatic, less forceful word of contradiction with which to introduce the problem portion of your ABT. We have data to show how much scientists love it. BUT … the more powerful and more widely used word of contradiction is THE BUT BOMB. Keep that in mind in matching your content to your INNER CIRCLE versus OUTER CIRCLE audiences.

TONE DEAF? Okay, maybe this wasn’t the most tactful t-shirt for us to make for our World Bank friends given current world events, BUT … come on, have a sense of humor (please insert in your mind a smiley face emoji here). The term BUT BOMB was coined by the graduate students of Drs. Marlis Douglas and Keisha Bahr and first presented in our latest version of the NARRATIVE GYM series of books.



Narrative structure consists of three forces: AGREEMENT, CONTRADICTION, CONSEQUENCE. The ABT Narrative Template embodies these three forces. It uses the most common word of agreement (AND), the most common word of contradiction (BUT), and the most powerful word of consequence (THEREFORE). These three elements add up to AND, BUT, THEREFORE which is the ABT.

So here’s what’s fascinating about the central element. BUT is the most commonly used word of contradiction, but … there are other words that can work as well. The most common alternative to BUT is HOWEVER.

So why use BUT versus HOWEVER?

Here’s why…



Last fall a group of us from the ABT Framework course compiled a few stats on our two Narrative Metrics (the AND Frequency and the Narrative Index of BUTs to ANDs). Early on, Marlis Douglas suggested that we also count the use of the word HOWEVER by scientists. Sure enough, there was a pattern.

We analyzed 25 articles each from three publications which we designated as BROAD (The New Yorker), RESEARCH (Molecular Ecology), and TARGETED (research reports from IUCN).

What we found was that writers in the New Yorker almost never use the word HOWEVER. Their average ratio of HOWEVERs to BUTs was 0.02.

The IUCN reports had a much higher usage with the average score of 0.53.

But the highest use of HOWEVER was the pure research papers of Molecular Ecology which averaged 0.78 — approaching 1.0 which would be using HOWEVER as much as BUT. In fact, a few of the papers did have more HOWEVERs than BUTs.



In 2015 I did an ABT workshop with 15 diplomats from the State Department. They told me that one of the first things they are taught in their training is to never use the word BUT. The same thing happens with improv actors.

Why? Because BUT is so powerful, and is a word of negation.

BUT … they had nothing to say about HOWEVER, nor do improv actors. Why? Because it is a softer, less forceful word, which makes it perfect for diplomacy (or beating around the bush).



So here’s the big point. Think about your audience. If they are your INNER CIRCLE they’re already listening closely to you. They don’t need to have their attention grabbed. In fact, they would appreciate if you’d respect their knowledge and be a little more gentle with them. That’s the whole idea of diplomacy — speaking softly. So you use HOWEVER as your word of contradiction in the ABT structure.

Think of it as THE HOWEVER HAMMER — a delicate tool for fine detail work. It’s a much softer tool than the BUT BOMB.

Now think about your OUTER CIRCLE — they’re not listening as closely, are not as clued in on what you’re saying, and more likely to need a jolt to get their attention. Writers at The New Yorker know this intuitively, and that’s why they use BUT almost exclusively as their word of contradiction.

So that’s what you need to learn here.

Chose the right tool for the right job. If you’re talking to scientists or diplomats, use more HOWEVERs. If you’re talking to the general public, you want lots of BUTs.

It’s a simple difference, BUT … is a fundamental element of effective communication.

You can learn lots more about narrative metrics in my 5th book, Narrative Is Everything.

#200) 2023 is the Tipping Point Year for the ABT Framework

There’s lots of excitement around Chat GPT AND it’s clear Artificial Intelligence will soon put an end to human culture (as Maureen Dowd conceded yesterday in the NY Times), BUT in the meanwhile Narrative Structure is still everything, THEREFORE we’re hard at work in 2023 propagating the ABT everywhere possible.

Suddenly the ABT is being put to work in a lot of places. Yay.



It’s taken a decade. From the World Bank to Pfizer to the Smithsonian to Cornell University … people are seeing the power and application of the ABT Framework as a tool for finding the narrative core of your material.

All we can say is yes, it works.

To learn more:  ATBFramework.com

#199) Al Gore’s “Wrong Problem” 16 Years Later: Wants vs Needs

Hollywood screenwriters like to talk about wants versus needs for characters. In 2006 Al Gore announced his “want” with his landmark movie, “An Inconvenient Truth.” He pointed to the ultimate problem of global warming and announced that he wanted very much to stop it. But then the question to ask (that he never really did) was, “What do we NEED to achieve this goal?” The specific answer was 60 votes in the U.S. Senate for significant climate legislation. And even more specific would have been a plan for how to change minds to achieve those votes. That was never addressed. Lots of science, very little politics. And now, on Meet the Press this week, he was once again blaming the right for everything and calling them “deniers,” but not addressing that fundamental question of how to change minds. Still.

For decades Al Gore has talked about how he wants to end global warming, but he’s never answered the question of how to change minds. Still.



One of my best friends from my science days, now a senior scientist at NIH, sent me an email yesterday asking me this simple question. He, of course, asked it in reference to all the work I’ve done with narrative structure, the structure of stories, and the anti-science movement in general. My answer was basically I don’t know.

This is the same question that Al Gore should have been addressing in 2006 with, “An Inconvenient Truth,” but he didn’t. He hosted a movie that presented a huge amount of scientific evidence, wrapped in a moralizing tone of shame on us if we don’t fix this.

The result, 16 years later was his appearance yesterday on NBC’s Meet the Press where host Chuck Todd seemed to call him a visionary for having foretold all the climate mess we have today.



Yes, Al Gore foretold disaster, but he failed to provide a realistic plan to avert it. What happened?

Why wasn’t a couple hundred million spent on experimentation to see how to actually change minds on the climate issue?

At the core of changing minds is communication. Why wasn’t there an explosion of experimentation and exploration on communication, sponsored by the major foundations who by 2011, when I gave my, “Dude, Where’s My Climate Movement,” talk at the 50th anniversary of World Wildlife Fund were already spending hundreds of millions of dollars on climate. Why wasn’t there a gigantic initiative underway to answer this most important question of changing minds?

But there never has been. The climate movement has spent a fortune throwing science at the public, but where have been the experimental, exploratory projects on communication? At the end of that 2011 talk (at 22 minutes) I told the story of the group at CDC who created the Zombie Disaster Preparedness Kits project that won the “Wow, Innovation” Award from a professional advertising society then asked verbatim, “Why isn’t the climate community winning Wow Innovation awards?”



More important to me — as we prepare this fall to run our ABT Framework Narrative Training program with major organizations like Pfizer, Genentech, the World Bank, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Georgia Medical School Consortium, the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, and lots and lots more … I have one over-riding question, still.

Why are none of the foundations interested in even talking about the ABT, and why is there not an initiative to address the real question that Gore never has been able to answer.

How do you change minds?

#193) Elegant vs Clumsy: Why Climate Communication Fails

Sorry, but somebody needs to point this stuff out. Last month the U.N. released a Public Service Announcement (PSA) in advance of COP 26 that had almost all the same narrative elements of the greatest television commercial ever produced. All but one thing — NARRATIVE INTUITION. Dummies. Boring dummies. Worse, LECTURING boring climate dummies. Since when do we need a lecturing dinosaur?

Two Short Pieces intended for the entire planet. One, concise and smart. The other … a lecturing dinosaur who went on and on and on with a confused lecture. Why?

Here’s what the dinosaur (sadly, voiced by comic genius Jack Black) said. White is off the narrative. Blue is set up. Red is problem. Purple is sidebar. Green is solution.



Who wants to be lectured to in this day and age? Not me. Not anyone young who isn’t a climate worshipper.

Once upon a time there were leaders with powerful NARRATIVE INTUITION who roamed the planet. One of them was the great innovator Steve Jobs.



In 1984, Steve Jobs’ company, Apple, produced a television commercial that many experts point to as the great television commercial of all time (though important to know that his board hated it). It had simple narrative structure which was basically this:

AND – gray zombie workers lifelessly view a giant screen giving commands
BUT – a rebellious woman in red shorts runs in and throws a hammer that shatters the screen
THEREFORE – tag line, “Apple is introducing MacIntosh, 1984 won’t be like 1984”



Last month the U.N. produced a PSA for COP 26 with similar structure, almost…

AND – the UN general assembly is meeting as per usual
BUT – a dinosaur takes the podium
THEREFORE – therefore we get … a 1.5 minute rambling lecture???

Do you see the similarities in the first two parts — the set up and twist? Then do you see the difference between the CONSEQUENCE elements?

One had the narrative sensibility to know to get out quick once the point is made.

The other droned on and on and on, wasting the talents of a great comic actor (Jack Black, the voice of the dinosaur) and then even worse, the day it was released, Rachael Maddow on MSNBC raved about the spot, basically calling it a masterpiece.



Look at the narrative structure of the 1.5 minute lecture. It’s a big stinking pile of DHY (Despite, However, Yet — the overly narrative structure).

It’s all so symbolic of the entire climate movement of the past two decades, sort of beautifully so. It’s been one big movement of lecturing the public, scolding them, bombarding them, and then retreating in confusion as nobody listens.

As veteran Democratic party strategist James Carville talked about last spring in VOX, it’s really been the worst communicating movement in the history of the planet. He said, “Let me give you my favorite example of metropolitan, overeducated arrogance. Take the climate problem. Do you realize that climate is the only major social or political movement that I can think of that refuses to use emotion? Where’s the identifiable song? Where’s the bumper sticker? Where’s the slogan? Where’s the flag? Where’s the logo?”

I gave a talk a decade ago titled, “Dude, Where’s My Climate Movement?,” for the 50th anniversary of the World Wildlife Fund. Things were bad back then. They’ve only gotten worse.

And now the hero and presumed darling of the entire climate movement, Greta Thunberg, is turning on the entire movement with her “Blah, Blah, Blah,” critique, which sounds a lot like, “And, And, And.” She’s labeling them as boring, and failing to solve problems.

Greta gets it.

#189) The ABT Framework Course to Complete Round 11

A year ago the idea of an ABT course wasn’t even a twinkle in the eyes of the dozen of us now running it. We’re probably at about 400 graduates with the course sizes ranging between 30 and 50 participants. Next week we will complete our 200th Working Circle (the spin-off exercise that goes with the course). The ABT Framework is spreading, the course is booked into the summer, it produced a book and model for development, and we’re now at work on a big event with National Park Service for April 14 — details to emerge soon!

A NEW 4 MINUTE VIDEO on the strengths of the ABT Framework from two of our long time instructors Drs. Nancy Knowlton (Smithsonian Institution, Member of National Academy of Sciences) and Dianna Padilla (Dept of Ecology and Evolution, Stony Brook University)

Narrative Gym Cover

GET THEE TO THE NARRATIVE GYM! The exceptionally short book that has arisen from the ABT Framework Course.



Last March the pandemic set in and I decided to commit the rest of my life to nothing more than playing tennis and surfing. But by April I was bored.

A surf buddy was describing the online course he was developing for his work in child behavior. Before he could finish I caught the next wave in, called my Story Circles co-instructors to pitch the idea, within three days we announced it on Twitter and by the end of the week had filled all 50 slots.

This week we finished the 10th round of the course (with fisheries folks), next week we’ll finish the 11th round (sponsored by NSF, with museum systematists and taxonomists). The following week we’ll begin the 12th round (with National Park Service). The next month will be the 13th round (with Ecological Society of America). Several more rounds are coming together, heading into the summer.

I could say tons of great things about it, but the best things said to date are in the 4 minute video above featuring Nancy Knowlton and Dianna Padilla. Both have been part of the course from the start. Their set presentations in the course (on the Narrative Spiral and Proposal Writing, respectively) have become mainstays, as we continue to evolve our understanding of this incredibly powerful communications tool, the ABT Framework.

For details on running the course, contact us at the Story Circles website.

#188) THE DOBZHANSKY DANCE: Somebody smart is writing speeches for Biden

NEWS FLASH: No president has ever given an inauguration speech like this. Somebody smart is writing speeches for Biden that have PUNCH. Not even Trump gave speeches like this.




Someday the NY Times and Washington Post will learn how to analyze the FORM of speeches instead of only CONTENT. They don’t seem to grasp that communication consists of two parts. The result is dull inductivist random walks like this one in the Washington Post where they just searched key words (any junior high school student could do the same).

But something is going on with the FORM of Biden’s speeches. His inauguration speech was unlike ANY other inauguration speech in form, and I’m willing to bet ANY speech from a president, ever. Total. All of them.

Even Trump, with all his bellicose bleetings, still produced speeches of mostly paragraphs. Just look at the structure below of Biden’s speech compared to a sample from one of Obama’s inauguration speeches. It’s fascinating.



The Dobzhansky Template is a tool to help find the one word theme at the core of a text. Whoever is writing Biden’s speeches, they found lots of one words for him to present.

Previous to Wednesday’s Inauguration speech I heard two speeches from Biden that made me sit up and say wow, something’s different here. The Narrative Index scores have not been that high (the Inauguration was an 18, see figure below), but they’ve had a punchiness to them that stands out.

Here are representative samples of the inauguration speeches of Obama and Biden. Whoever wrote the Biden speech, that person has my automatic respect, admiration and interest. Let’s hear more of it — way to make traditional dull communications punchy.





The Narrative Index is the ratio of BUTs to ANDs, multiplied by 100 to make it a whole number.

#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.



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:


“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.



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.



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.

#185) BIDEN: The Amorphous Narrative vs the SINGULAR Narrative

Look … (I hate it when politicians use that word, but sometimes I guess it’s needed) … this stuff isn’t that complicated. It’s about the ONE THING. It just needs to be a CLEAR one thing — not some vague statement about “building back.” Cuomo knew this in March when he began his daily press briefings (as Dianna Padilla and I pointed out in MedPage). Sadly, it’s still the same story. Why don’t Biden’s people realize this? This is THE DOBZHANSKY TEMPLATE for him: NOTHING IN AMERICA TODAY MAKES SENSE, EXCEPT IN THE LIGHT OF THE PANDEMIC. nothing. nothing. nothing. #NarrativeIsLeadership




It just isn’t that complicated. There is ONE single overriding, over-arching story in this country right now — THE PANDEMIC.

Yes, the economy is a mess, but it clearly is not going to recover until the pandemic is dealt with properly. This needs to be the message. It needs to be the ONE THING (which is the title of the best selling book from 2012).

It’s the CHRISTMAS TREE that Dave Gold referred to in his important Politico article of 2017.

Biden needs to be running on ONE CLEAR SIMPLE MESSAGE — that he’s going to focus the entire nation’s effort on one top priority — returning this country to a HEALTHY state.

It needs to be his NARRATIVE, plain and simple. Narrative is leadership. “BUILD BACK BETTER” is … what? Build what back? And better than when? And what does that vision of the future look like?

HEALTHY is as much of a vision of the future as is needed.

Come on, Biden people, FIND THE SINGULAR NARRATIVE that everyone can rally behind (and know that more than a decade ago Nicholas Kristof pointed out the overriding importance of the singular narrative). Tell the public a STORY about how there will never be a vibrant economy until PROBLEM #1 — THE PANDEMIC — gets solved.

It … is … not … that … complicated.


#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?”



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.



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.



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.



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.

#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)



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.



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.