#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.  

#171) 4 COMEDIANS: THE Most Interesting/Important Discussion of Communication I’ve Ever Heard

Comedians have the ability to be the most important communicators in our society.  Why?  Because people actually WANT to hear them talk (unlike politicians, environmental activists, and scientists among others).  Why is this?  It’s not just because “they make us laugh.”  It’s also because they are masters of narrative structure as I present here by examining an hour long HBO discussion of four hugely successful comedians.  This begs the question, if comics know how to communicate best, why don’t others draw on their talents beyond just laughter?

MASTER COMMUNICATORS.  Nobody knows narrative structure better. 

 

HAWKING VERSUS SEINFELD?

Who would you rather listen to for an hour — the late Stephen Hawking or Jerry Seinfeld?  How about acclaimed climate scientist Mike Mann or Jerry Seinfeld?  How about even entertaining scientist Neil Degrasse Tyson or Jerry Seinfeld?   And what about scientist-turned-filmmaker Randy Olson or Jerry Seinfeld?

I promise you the answer for the average American citizen (not American academic) is Seinfeld, Seinfeld, Seinfeld, Seinfeld.

Neil Postman knew this dynamic back in the 1980’s with his landmark book, Amusing Ourselves To Death, whichsmarter people have referenced in recent years (here, here, and herein relation to the current entertainer/president.

 

LEARN FROM THE GREATS, EVEN IF THEY OFFEND

The main point of this post is that nobody has deeper “narrative intuition” (the ability to feel, intuitively, narrative structure) than comedians and comic writers.  This actually isn’t that big of a surprise if you consider that the ABT Narrative Template came partly from the co-creators of the animated series, “South Park.”

So HBO recorded a discussion in 2012 which drew little attention until recently when it was discovered it had several offensive bits.  But if you’re really, really serious about understanding communication then you’ve got to be able to section off the part of your brain that was offended and study this tremendous discussion of four brilliant stand up comics.  Just avoid the content around 16 minutes in if you don’t want to hear the worst stuff.  You can bet they wouldn’t make those comments today.  So skip that part, but learn from the rest.

I’m going to guide you to some of their best comments when it comes to communication.

 

NARRATIVE SHAPING:  COMICS KNOW SHAPE

Here’s the first tremendous thing said.  It’s from Jerry Seinfeld around 5:00.  He says, “No one is more judged in civilized society than comedians — every 12 seconds you’re judged.” 

This is why these folks are so skilled.  Being judged that much results in narrative shaping.  Comedians are “narratively shaped,” over and over again, night after night.  If they bore or confuse they are given immediate feedback.  If they feel a joke drag or lose everyone, the next morning they are reshaping it.  And mostly through the quickest, most efficient way which is verbally, not written (as we’ve been learning over the past 5 years in our Story Circles Narrative Training program).

What is the result of all this iteration, night after night, of the narrative structure of comic material?   Look at this table from my new book, Narrative Is Everything.  What you see is that the best stand-up comics score incredibly high values for the Narrative Index (the BUT/AND ratio).  For comparison, few politicians score over 20 and almost none ever score above 30.

What this means is that they are presenting material that is packed with twists, turns and surprises (it’s what the “but’s” provide) — the very material that keeps audiences ENGAGED.  

 

Look at the scores.  The most popular comedians are at the top of the heap.  At the bottom are a group of much less popular performers, some of whom aren’t even professional comedians.  And also, the great Philadelphia Incident of Bill Burr where all he did was hurl insults at the audience, no attempt at telling stories (though if you think about it, his entire “act” was one big contradiction to all the expected norms of a comedian).

 

STRUCTURE, STRUCTURE, STRUCTURE:  FURNITURE AND STEEL WALLS

In the discussion Jerry Seinfeld says, “You can put in all kinds of furniture, but you gotta have steel in the walls.”  There you have it, in simple language — narrative has to have solid structure.  These guys aren’t professors and they don’t think all that analytically, but their entire discussion is all about structure.

It makes me think of three years ago when I asked acclaimed screenwriter Eric Roth, who won the Oscar for “Forest Gump,” how important narrative structure is.  He basically said you can get really creative as a screenwriter, but at the end of the day, you still have to respect those basic principles of narrative first noted thousands of years ago by the Greeks. 

He is talking about the same thing as the “Christmas Tree” and “ornaments” that Dave Gold uses as the metaphor in his great Politico article in 2017.

 

NARRATIVE SELECTION:  YOU BORE, YOU DIE

Louis C.K. says, “It’s like Darwinists, really, because you have your thing that you do and people flock to it, and if they don’t, you die.”   He’s talking about the very concept of “Narrative Selection” that I introduced in my new book.  Yes, this is what it’s all about — material gets selected over time.  If it’s good, it persists.  If it’s boring or confusing it either changes or dies.

It’s not that complicated, as good comedians know.

 

CONCISION:  RICKY GERVAIS IS A MASTER

Ricky Gervais says, “I think of a joke as the minimum amount of words to get to a punch line.”  He would know.  Watch his brilliant Humanity special on Netflix.   He tells about his Twitter wars he engages in.  He gets to the point where his punch line is boiled all the way down to just five words, “I should have left it.”

It’s hilarious.  He tells about something someone tweeted at him.  Then all he has to say is, “I should have left it,” to score the next roar of laughter.  That’s what he means by the minimum number of words.

But what’s more important about this is it’s the same thing that Park Howell and I discerned for the ABT — that “the quicker you can get through the A and B, the more we’ll let you have all day with the T.”  Exact same thing — Ricky is saying to get through the set up and twist quickly because we’re here for the punch line, which is the THEREFORE.

 

“THESE YOUNG GUYS” – IT’S JUST LIKE STORY CIRCLES

Chris Rock says, “That’s the problem with these young guys — they think it’s all attitude — but it’s GOT to have jokes under it all.”   What he’s talking about is the same thing we’ve seen with Story Circles Narrative Training.  Over the course of 5 years we’ve learned that Story Circles is not that useful or rewarding for young, early stage students.  They get bored with the repetition element and the simplicity of the ABT template.

As one of the UC Davis 5th year graduate students says in our Bodega Marine Lab video, it’s not until you’ve had some experience with communicating science that you come to realize both how important structure is and how challenging it is.  Younger students think the science itself is good enough — just like comics thinking it’s just attitude.

When he says, “it’s GOT to have jokes,” he’s talking about structure — it’s GOT to have structure.  Good students eventually figure this out.  It only took me about 20 years from when I first heard it in 1989 from the great screenwriting instructor Christopher Keane.

 

THE NEED FOR “THEME”

The other essential element of story is the need for a central theme or premise.  They talk just as much about this.  Jerry Seinfeld says, “You gotta have a voice.”

Louis CK points out the essential element of repetition, which is what our Story Circles training is built around.  Admiring Chris Rock, he says, “Chris will even keep repeating it if he has a premise.  Like women can’t go down in lifestyle.  Then he’ll explain it from 50 different angles.”  

That is exactly what “messaging” is about.  You have a central premise, then you message around it — repeating the basic point from a multitude of angles.

Underscoring how well Chris Rock knows the importance of premise, he says, “A lot of comedians have great jokes, but they’ll be thinking why is this not working?  It’s not working because the audience doesn’t understand the premise.” 

He adds, “If I set this premise up right, this joke will always work.” 

And then Ricky Gervais brings the theme element home by saying, “Really good bits go deep into your head and keep coming back.”

 

THE GROUP DYNAMIC

Gervais hits on exactly the group element that lies at the heart of Story Circles Narrative Training by saying, “You can’t be the one who decides why you like something.”  This is what we constantly tell participants in Story Circles.  You can’t sit alone at your desk and write something with perfect narrative structure.  As he’s saying, you can’t be the one who decides something is great — it has to be other people.  This is really hard to fully appreciate, but is essential in a sometimes anti-social profession like science.

This is such a great discussion.  Not just funny.  It’s fascinating — four artists, doing their best to be analytical about their craft.  It’s packed full of communications wisdom.

 

BOTTOM LINE:  POLITICIANS NEED COMIC WRITERS

I’ve been saying this for a while now.  Politicians need comic writers, NOT for their humor (though that’s an added bonus) but because they, more than anyone else, grasp the power, importance and technique of narrative structure.

There is NO REASON for politicians to bore and confuse, as they do endlessly.   If you care about your favorite politician, ask him or her if there’s a comic writer in the mix of the speech writing.  And I mean a good comic writer — one whose work scores consistently above 30 for the Narrative Index — as is the case with Bill Maher’s writers.

This is the absolute core of effective communication today.

#169) Neil Degrasse Tyson Demonstrates that Science Actually Can’t Solve All the Problems of the World

We know he had the best of intentions, but lacked the best of instincts.  There’s more to life than science.

In 2011 Neil Degrasse Tyson showed the programming flaws in his brain with his first appearance on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher.”  Science without a solid grounding in the humanities is dangerous.

 

“I RIPPED OFF MY MASK”

In February, 2011 a friend brought me along to back stage at HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher” on the night of Neil Degrasse Tyson’s first appearance on the show (along with the soon to be ignominious Anthony Weiner).  During the show Tyson had a classic moment.

The discussion had drifted into politics.  When it hit on civil rights everyone turned to Neil for the African American perspective.  He made a couple of valid points and had everyone’s attention, but then he said something along the lines of, “Look, it’s as simple as running a randomized double blind replicated experiment on …” Basically a bunch of science jargon out of nowhere.

There was a pause, then Bill Maher said, “What the fuck?” and everyone exploded into laughter at the scientist who had lost his audience.  

At the party in the green room after the show I mentioned that moment to him.  He laughed wildly saying, “I know, I had them in the palm of my hand, and then it was like I ripped off my mask and shouted, I’M A SCIENTIST!”

He’s a great guy, that was a hilarious moment, and he’s certainly a priceless asset for the science world, but … he’s no Obama.  As he unfortunately demonstrated in grand fashion yesterday witha tactless tweet in the wake of the mass shootings, prompting a half baked apology today.

The Obama comparison is an important point for everyone to keep in mind because it underscores the bigger point of how science is not going to solve all our problems any time soon, so why are we letting the sciences trample the humanities in our society?

I could go on at length about this, as I did a bit last year in the 2nd edition of “Don’t Be SUCH A Scientist”(and btw, Tyson 100% embodied the title yesterday).  But instead I’ll just end with the plea I made in the book, “Make Science Human.”

#166) Defining “Story” versus “Narrative”

If you combine the accumulated knowledge of Hollywood and neuroscience, you end up with a clear, albeit analytical pair of definitions for the words “story” versus “narrative.”  It’s not a very nice thing for art, but it’s essential for strategic communication.  Here is Appendix 1 from my new book, Narrative Is Everything: The ABT Framework and Narrative Selection, where I present the divide between the two words.

NEUROCINEMATICS.   This is from the 2008 paper by Hasson et al. that introduced the term “neurocinematics” (the link is below).   They identified “structured” versus “unstructured” films.  I would call them “narrative” versus “non-narrative” films.  Keep in mind, you can have a film full of actors and scenes that does not tell a story and is thus non-narrative.  Just because you have actors and fiction doesn’t mean you’re telling a story or that it’s a narrative piece.

 

TWO WORDS:  “STORY” VERSUS “NARRATIVE”

I have a lot to say on this very important divide that most humanities folks have no interest in, but is very important for more analytical/strategic folks.  Six years ago my thoughts on the divide were tenuous, but these days I feel certain about this and know that it’s essential for clear, strong communication.  

To this point, when we titled our group-written book, Connection, in 2013, this was exactly what we were referring to with the subtitle, “Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking.”  It’s critical thinking that brings you to the realization that these two words are NOT the same.

Below is the first appendix from my recent book where I at last laid out my explanation of how the two words differ.  What I don’t get into in this section is the fact that “the brain is lazy” (as per Daniel Kahneman) which means we live most of our lives blabbing away in the non-narrative world, making endless statements, ESPECIALLY when it comes to social media, which is largely a non-narrative medium and ultimately shallow and largely non-memorable.

 

ONE MORE THING:  NEUROPHYSIOLOGY

In my books I’ve gone into this in greater detail.  So far, neurophysiology tells us VERY LITTLE about “narrative and the brain” (though most journalists are not in the business of telling you very little so they tend to over-interpret the minimal findings — case in point the bunk of Paul Zak that has been roundly criticized).  But there are a few simple findings that are clear — namely that non-narrative material is not very stimulatory and causes the brain to wander, while narrative material activates a large amount of the brain and produces very focused patterns of activity.

The best work I’ve found on this to date is that of Uri Hasson at Princeton, starting with his foundational presentation of his field of “neurocinematics” in his multi-authored 2008 overview paper.

So here is my formal parsing of the two words.

 

APPENDIX 1 – Defining “Story” Versus Narrative 

In 2011, my improv-instructor buddy Brian Palermo began making a bit of a noodge of himself in our workshops. I would use the words “story” and “narrative” liberally. He finally asked, “What’s the difference?”

I scoffed, obfuscated (the very thing I complained about in this book’s Introduction) and said, “You can’t separate them.” I told him the terms are too broad and all-encompassing to parse. He said bullshit.

We had that exchange enough times that I began to think about what he was saying. He was right. I was being lazy. So I put the same question to a senior communications professor at USC who had been a huge help over the years. He scoffed, obfuscated and dismissed me, saying, “You can’t separate them.” I wanted to say bullshit, but was a little more polite.

By 2014, I had figured out what I feel is an effective set of working definitions for the two terms which I presented in Houston, We Have a Narrative. It’s now five years later. I not only stick with the definitions, I also think they are important, and that most people using these terms are just being lazy in not thinking this through.

We live in an information-overburdened world now. We know that narrative structure is at the core of what we have to say. But you can sense the two words are not identical just by how people respond to them. Story has a sense of human warmth to it, while narrative is more cold and analytical.

So here are my analytical definitions of the two.    

 

THE MONOMYTH-BASED DEFINITIONS

Famed mythologist Joseph Campbell did a comparative study of storytelling among the various religions and cultures of the world and found that their stories follow a basic form, which he called “the monomyth.”

JOSEPH CAMPBELL’S MONOMYTH MODEL FOR A STORY. A “story” is this entire diagram. “Narrative” refers to just the bottom half—the problem-solution part of the journey—which is the driving force of a story.

 

Campbell defined the structure of a story as a circular journey that begins and ends at the same place. Along the way, it passes through three phases:

1) THE ORDINARY WORLD (NON-NARRATIVE) – The first phase is what he called the “Ordinary World.” I would re-label this the “Non- Narrative World.” This is the initial part of the story, which is usually called “exposition.” It is largely intellectual. Information is presented, but there has yet to be a problem encountered, which means that the problem-solution part of the brain has not yet been activated. This is the A material in the ABT template. If it goes on for too long it will become the AAA template and bore everyone. We’ve all seen movies that left you wondering, “When is this going to start to get interesting?”

 

2) THE SPECIAL WORLD (NARRATIVE) – The second phase begins when the problem is encountered. This is usually referred to as, “When the story begins.” The common expression in Hollywood is, “A story begins when something happens.” This is where that something happens. Before this we weren’t really telling a story.

The “something” that initiates the problem can be finding a dead body, having the ship hit an iceberg, or having a tornado take a little girl to a new world. The corresponding problems are: whodunnit, how are we going to save everyone on the ship, and how is the little girl going to get back home?

All of these problems activate the narrative process, which activates the narrative part of the brain. Joseph Campbell called this part of the journey the “Special World.” I would rename it the “Narrative World.”

 

3) RETURN TO THE ORDINARY WORLD (NON-NARRATIVE) – The third part of the story starts when the problem is solved. The murderer is found, the people are saved, and the little girl returns home. This allows the narrative part of the brain to relax (mission accomplished) and return to a resting state. The final part is similar to the first part—i.e., more intellectual—now synthesizing and philosophizing about what was learned in the course of the journey.

So this becomes the distinction. “Story” is the entire package. It’s the whole journey, from start to finish. It consists of both narrative and non- narrative material. It’s warm, human and multi-dimensional.

As I mentioned in Chapter 2, Ronald Reagan was a storyteller. He would take the time to set up a story, providing human details to make it relatable. Then he would end it with some element of how the story relates to our world.

Donald Trump is not a storyteller. He hates small talk, which is what he would call the details of the Ordinary World (the intellectual part—not his strength). He prefers to just “cut to the chase,” by starting with the problem.

 

THE DEFINITIONS

So here is how I roughly define the two terms:

NARRATIVE – The series of events that occur in the search for the solution to a problem.

STORY – The complete circular journey from non-narrative to narrative, then back to non-narrative.

What this means is that a series of events that never get out of the And, And, And mode of the non-narrative world are not, technically speaking, a story. This means that a resume or chronology is not a story. A series of events doesn’t become a story until a problem is established, which sets up the narrative part of the journey, which is the heart of the story. 

#164) Beto’s Problem: No narrative depth (get a new speech writer)

Beto O’Rourke’s candidacy for president has hit a rough patch.  This week The New Yorker asked, “Can Beto Bounce Back?”  He’s got one clear problem — his speeches lack narrative depth.  The article alludes to it.  His scores for the Narrative Index point the same way — stuck in dullsville. 

SPEECH NI AF TOTAL WORDS
Concession 6 4.2 1,153
Announcement 13 3.8 4,007
IDEAL 25 2.5

NARRATIVE INDEX (NI) is the ratio of the word “but” in the speech to the word “and” multiplied by 100 to make it a round number.    The AND FREQUENCY (AF) is the number of occurrences of the word “and” divided by the total number of words in the speech.

 

ANEMIC NARRATIVE SCORES

Next week I will be releasing my new eBook, “Narrative Is Everything,” on Amazon and elsewhere.  It will, at last, be the in-depth presentation of 4 years now of calculating the Narrative Index (But/And ratio) for everything from political speeches and editorials to novels and Nobel Laureate addresses.  

The Narrative Index is a robust reflection of narrative depth.  Speeches that score above 20 generally present strong, compelling arguments.  Speeches that score below 10 don’t.  It’s that simple.

I’ve found the transcripts for two significant speeches so far from Beto O’Rourke — his concession speech last November and his announcement speech in March in El Paso, Texas.  The latter provides a solid amount of text at over 4,000 words. The signs are not good.

Not only is a Narrative Index of 13 pretty limp, more concerning is the And Frequency of 4.0.  That’s getting up to the level of government reports (read the stuff about the World Bank in 2017 for background on the And Frequency).  Good speeches score over 15 for the Narrative Index. Well edited texts score very close to 2.5 for the And Frequency (you can read about this in the Stanford Literary Lab study of World Bank reports by Moretti and Pestri).

 

HE’S NOT DIGGING DEEP

Look at this first line of the New Yorker article:  “It’s not easy to get Beto O’Rourke to speak disparagingly about anyone.” 

That’s bad.  Nice guys finish last.  He’d better start identifying problems, then getting specific about who is causing them and proposing how to confront them.  That’s what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been doing all along — it’s called fighting, and it’s what’s needed.

But for now he might as well be reading the phone book to audiences.

#163) The Story Circles Core Principle: “Stop thinking and DO THE WORK!”

Communication and acting are one in the same, AND … thinking is the enemy of both.  I’ve learned this over the past 25 years from the acting classes, filmmaking and communications work I’ve done since leaving my tenured professorship of biology.  It is now the core principle of our Story Circles Narrative Training program.  It was difficult for me to absorb in 1994 when (still an academic) I first heard it.  To someone with a graduate education it feels alien.  But it really is the central conundrum that is like the Observer Effect:  How can a thinky person communicate well when thinking ruins the process itself?

THE FONZ IN ACTION.  This was a key moment in the first episode of the acclaimed HBO series, “Barry.” Acting teacher, Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) manipulates a student to get her into character, then right when her anger is peaking, he tells her to go into the scene she had been performing poorly, and don’t let thinking get in the way.  Season Two of “Barry” is starting soon.  Can’t wait.  

 

THE CORE PRINCIPLE FOR ACTING/COMMUNICATION:  DON’T THINK

The opening paragraph of my first book, “Don’t Be Such A Scientist,” is a string of profanity from my “crazy acting teacher” on the first night of my first acting class in 1994.  The source of the tirade was her realization that she had an academic (me) in the class.  Academics think, thinking ruins acting, therefore academics must be chased out of an acting class.

Nobody had warned me.

It would take roughly 20 years for me to make sense of what happened that night, but it did eventually make sense.  And it makes even more sense when I see the dynamic repeated on a popular TV show.

It occurred last year in the acclaimed HBO series, “Barry.”  The persona of my crazy acting teacher (and countless others) is brought to life as Gene Cousineau, an acting teacher played brilliantly by the great Henry Winkler.  In the first episode he brings a student to tears of anger.  She was performing a scene poorly — failing to show the anger the performance needed.  He ignites her emotions, then at just the right moment says to her, “Don’t think, just finish the scene.” 

It was the “Don’t think” part that gave me flashbacks to my acting class. 

Henry Winkler’s character is so perfect.  In Vanity Fair last year he talked about the sources he draws on for the role, with the most obvious being the legendary Stella Adler.  Pretty much all acting teachers have at least a little bit of nuttiness to them.  But so does human behavior in general.  

And that’s why actors, more than anyone else, have a deep understanding of how humans behave — way more than people with PhD’s.  The academics can theorize about behavior, but the good actors actually know it so well they can recreate it themselves.  

 

YOU HAVE TO GET “OUT OF YOUR HEAD”

So this ends up being the big challenge.  Humans are mostly driven viscerally.  Yes, there’s a small percentage who are more cerebral, but they’re not that abundant and most of them turn out to be less logical than they think they are.  All you have to do is look at a major academic squabble.  I was on an email years ago with a group of professors who suddenly turned on each other over a political issue.  An actor friend who read the emails commented, “When eggheads crack …”

Or read my buddy Jerry Graf’s great book, “Clueless in Academe.”

Thinking is humanity’s greatest asset, yet also has a down side.  When it comes to science, thinking is essential for half of it (doing research), yet at the same time, is disastrous for the other half (communicating).  The first part requires enormous amounts of thinking and seeks perfection as the ultimate goal — i.e. a scientist wants to measure things to the n-th degree.

But communication is the opposite.  It needs to be human, alive and visceral.  Thinking fouls it up.

The same is true when it comes to training, as we have learned.

 

“STOP THINKING AND DO THE WORK!”

It’s been 25 years now since my crazy acting class.  I’ve forgotten major parts of it.  But a couple months ago, a friend reminded me what the crazy acting teacher used to shout at us, night after night — “Stop f-ing thinking and DO THE WORK!”

The cause of her frustration was watching students, who were there to learn from her, fall into the habit of hearing her instructions, THINKING to themselves, “Let’s see, does what she says make sense to me?” then ending up hesitating, doing things wrong, and even criticizing her, even though they had no background in acting. 

Her training program was at its core very simple — it just required that everyone do the simple exercises the right way, over and over and over again.  Which is exactly the same principle I built our Story Circles Narrative Training on.

And so now, all these years later, I find myself wanting to channel her voice.  We work with academics.  Some groups — like National Park Service, USDA, USGS, and US Fish and Wildlife Service — do an incredibly good job of exactly what she always asked for — trusting us, listening as close as possible, then doing the simple exercises as best as possible.  With time — with repetition — they begin to develop the very “narrative intuition” that is the goal of the training (we’re getting ready to release our first survey of graduates).

But there are some institutions where the participants are not able to get “out of their heads.”  They can’t seem to stop themselves from constantly thinking, “Does this make sense — is this the way I would do this — is there a better way to do it that I should recommend to them?”

Those groups are sad to watch.  They make a mess out of the training, learning little, then hand us back a stack of critical comments based on how they would do the training — even though they are not good at narrative.  It was the same problem that drove the acting teacher crazy.  I now feel her pain.

So I guess sometimes I wish I could just bring Gene Cousineau to our training sessions.  He would know exactly what to say to them.  “Don’t think — just do the work.” 

FLASHBACK TO 15 YEARS AGO.  This was my one great morning I got to spend working with the wonderful Henry Winkler in the spring of 2003 in the filming of our Ocean Symphony PSA with Jack Black.  He was as awesome back then as he is today (also pictured: Madeline Stowe on violin, Michael Hitchcock behind her, Sharon Lawrence on kettle drums, and Mindy “Frau Farbissina” Sterling seated next to her).

#162) John Oliver on Shaming: He Cites, “Agreement, Contradiction, Consequence” (= ABT)

They are the three fundamental forces of narrative.   Last night John Oliver, talking about a specific case of social media shaming, said, “ … but, at some point, it’s incumbent on everyone to consider both CONTEXT and CONSEQUENCE if you’re going to pile on in a shaming.”  He’s talking about the ABT dynamic.  He’s addressing what happens if all you present is the CONTRADICTION — the “but.”  He grasps the ABT Framework.  It’s the same thing I pointed out about Twitter in 2015 — presenting only contradiction ends up being non-narrative and won’t work in the long run.  Such are the brainless inefficiencies of a short attention-spanned society.

JOHN OLIVER TALKS ABT AND SOCIAL MEDIA.

 

THE THREE FORCES OF NARRATIVE

When I finished, “Houston, We Have A Narrative,” in 2014 I had not yet figured out that the ABT elements (And, But, Therefore) are simply manifestations of what  I have come to call the Three Forces of Narrative.  The three forces are:

AGREEMENT –  And
CONTRADICTION  –  But
CONSEQUENCE  –  Therefore

In the second appendix of the Houston book I made the prediction that Twitter wouldn’t last long at 140 characters.

My reasoning for that was 140 characters was too short to allow all three forces, and instead was selecting for mostly the most attention-grabbing element — contradiction.  My prediction came true in 2017 when Twitter shifted to 280 characters.

 

PILING ON EFFECTIVELY IN A SHAMING

Last night John Oliver, on his often-brilliant HBO show Last Week, made the same point.  He was talking about internet shaming, and the specific case of “Worst Aunt Ever.”  He synthesized his thoughts by saying:

But, at some point, it’s incumbent on everyone to consider both CONTEXT and CONSEQUENCE if you’re going to pile on in a shaming.

Truly effective communication, to have a lasting impact and not produce a society of lemmings chasing one source of contradiction after another, needs to make time for all three elements.  This is the inefficient brainlessness of social media — it’s largely non-narrative.  You can’t do that and expect to communicate well.  Our brains need all three elements of narrative to make proper sense of things.  They were designed thousands of years ago and are still the rate-limiting element for communication.