#39) Trump Knows Narrative

Donald Trump knows narrative better than any politician, ever.  He doesn’t know storytelling.  It’s not the same.  He knows narrative, which is the problem/solution dynamic.  Here are 5 ways in which he shows he has deep — very deep — narrative intuition.  Trust me on this.  I published a book about narrative last fall.  Since the start of his campaign I have been astonished at how he communicates.  He is the embodiment of the ABT Framework, and he speaks in the simple archplot structure the masses embrace.  Which means I haven’t been surprised at his steady success, though the NY Times has been.


PastedGraphic-1 (11)

MAKE AMERICA ARCHPLOT AGAIN. To speak in pure archplot structure you almost have to engage in fiction — it’s just too hard if you’re constrained by the truth. Trump laughs at the truth, and is a master of archplot.



Donald Trump is a master of narrative.  In “Houston, We Have A Narrative,” I offer up a very simple, albeit crude, definition of the word narrative as, “The series of events that occur in the search for a solution to a problem.”  By this definition, Trump lives and breathes narrative.

Trump is legendary as a “dealmaker.”  What does that term mean?  It is a person who sits down at the table, quickly figures out the problem that needs to be solved, then solves it with the deal.  It’s what he does all day long and is how he approaches the world, endlessly.

When you start to listen to him from the perspective of narrative dynamics (again, narrative, not storytelling) you see how much he embodies the core principles.  Here is my list of the top 5 narrative traits I see in him.



This is the antidote to boredom.  Boring people get stuck on one topic and fail to move forward or “advance the narrative.”  Avoiding this problem is built into the ABT structure.  It’s what happens with the word “therefore” — the word of consequence.  If somebody describes a problem, then keeps going, talking on and on about just the problem, eventually someone will blurt out, “THEREFORE … ? Therefore what are you going to do about it?”  That is advancing the narrative.

I’ve heard a number of eggheaded political pundits over the past few months trying to diminish Trump’s communication skills by saying, “he just rambles all over the place in his speeches.”  Well, yes, to some extent, but what they are failing to perceive is the tight ABT structure (And, But, Therefore) on the fine scale which holds the interest of listeners.  And actually, he does have a clear overarching narrative which is the following …



Trump has a single message of “Make America Great Again.”  You may think it’s ludicrous, but if you do you’re just identifying yourself as someone who doesn’t get how the public thinks.  They don’t want to hear complex, subtle messages.  One of the main critiques of Hillary has been that she’s too caught up in “nuance.”  To Trump, “nuance” is like a cockroach, meant to be stepped on.

At the top of McKee’s Triangle (see Chapter 12 of the new book) is Archplot which I’ll talk about in detail in a bit.  One of the key characteristics is the “singular narrative” — meaning for example that in epic stories, there is still the one character, from Luke Skywalker to Dorothy to Spartacus, who provides the singular overarching narrative structure.

Trump has accomplished singularity from the very start of his campaign with his simple slogan. That slogan wasn’t something his pollsters figured out halfway through.  It was him, him, him from the start.  Don’t you see it?  The guy has deep narrative intuition.  He opens his mouth, what comes out is narratively structured.  This is why he has scored TV ratings for the debates like no one has ever seen.  There has never been a candidate with this deep of a connection to narrative structure.

The one piece pointing this out at the most superficial level to date that I’ve seen was a writer at Vox who noted the recurrent problem/solution structure of Trump’s speeches.  But all that writer did was make a note of it.  He didn’t attempt to quantifying it or pinpoint how the dynamic works or why it’s important.



In my new book I offer up what I have labeled as The Dobzhansky Template.  For Trump, he would use it to say, “Nothing in America makes sense except in the light of greatness.”

The more specific term for him for this would probably be, “exceptionalism,” but he’s gone with “great.”  This is his one, singular, unifying term which becomes incredibly powerful.  I could easily see the masses at his rallies just shouting, “Great!  Great! Great! Great!”

That one word conveys his entire message and agenda.  He truly gets this stuff.



As Robert McKee tells about in his landmark 1997 book, “Story,” there is a consistent structure to the great stories that persist over the ages reaching all the way back 4000 years to the epic story of Gilgamesh.  This structure he terms “archplot” and identifies it’s key characteristics.  These traits include the singular narrative (making American great again), an active hero (Trump is seen as a fighter), linear time sequence (he rarely jumps back into history), complete causality (everything in his world is simple and makes sense), and closed ending (everything’s going to have a happy ending).

Trump opens his mouth, what flows out is pure archplot.  The simpler version of archplot is the ABT (And, But, Therefore) structure.  Over and over again, you can hear it in everything Trump says.  “We love the Mexicans AND we want the good ones to be part of our society, BUT there are too many illegals, THEREFORE we have to build a wall.”

It is how he views the world — simple problem, simple solution — custom made for the ABT.

This is where he goes off into the land of fiction.  Everyone knows “the wall” with Mexico is not realistic.  It is fiction.  But it is simple and thus powerful.

One extension of the ABT is the simple Narrative Index I have devised.  He scores a 29 which is higher than any politician I’ve analyzed, and his score is double that of Hillary (14) which I promise you will be a major factor this fall.



He knows this rule sooooo well.  He uses it to his advantage on offense — naming names in his attacks on opponents, and even further by coming up with SPECIFIC nicknames for Lyin’ Ted, Little Marco, and Crooked Hillary.  Those names are incredibly specific.

But then he also uses the reverse of this rule in his statements on policy, at least right now, holding off on specifics and thus weakening what he’s saying, leaving less to attack.  This week on Meet the Press he was vague, waffling, and two-sided on everything from minimum wage to tax cuts.  He knows better than to get pinned to specifics this early.



Not sure how many times I can keep repeating this.  People who are thought of as “entertaining” over the long term achieve that label for one main reason — they succeed with narrative.  If they fail with narrative, no matter how outlandish they are, they will ultimately bore then annoy the public.  That’s because they do the same repetitive schtick, meaning they fail to “advance the narrative.”

No one major is calling Trump annoying or boring (aside from those who hate him for his politics) in terms of his communication style.  More importantly, no television network is calling him annoying or boring.  They continue to give him endless free coverage.  Why not, he generates huge ratings.



This past week the media critic Jim Rutenburg at the NY Times talked about the shoddy job the media, including NY Times, has done in covering Donald Trump.  He said, “… this season has been truly spectacular in it’s failings.”  He added, “The mistakes piled up the bad predictions, the overplaying of every slight development of the horse race to the point of whiplash, the lighthearted treatment of what turned out to be the most serious candidacy of the Republican field.  The lessons learned did not.”

The analysis of Trump’s communication skills have been pathetically bad.  Just as Ruttenburg says — the media have laughed at Trump and done silly, substance-lacking “analysis” such as talking repeatedly about the level of grade school he communicates at or his tendency to use “we” and “us” more than other politicians.

Stupid media analysis.  That’s what it’s been.  Incredibly lame and stupid.

I have warned since last summer that this guy knows media better than ANY politician in history.  As Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio was quoted in USA Today on Sunday, “Trump is the most manipulative person in the world.”  Amen, brotha.

The New York Times should be ashamed of themselves for the shallow, lame job they have done in analyzing Trump.


#38) Jimmy Kimmel helps “Climate Hustle”

Three things.  1)  I’m not a fan of climate skeptics, ever, 2) there is no “jugular” for anti-science movements when it comes to communication — the zinger logic works both ways, 3) “Climate Hustle” (and Marc Morano) scored it’s highest pinnacle of media exposure Monday night in being mentioned on Jimmy Kimmel Live.  Way to go, Jimmy.

PastedGraphic-1 (10)

NOT CLEVER, NOT HELPING. This is the current “Moviemaker” plot for “Climate Hustle” from IMDB Pro (you have to subscribe to get access to it). It’s the Hollywood scorecard for a movie. This is up to May 1, the day before “Climate Hustle” scored it’s highest profile media hit as the subject of a 7 minute rant on Jimmy Kimmel Live! on ABC. Next week’s rank will be higher.



On Monday night ABC comic host Jimmy Kimmel delivered a 7 minute comic rant about Sarah Palin and “Climate Hustle,” the new “documentary” from climate skeptic Marc Morano.  While some people inside the bubble of the climate community thought it was “devastating,” I would suggest it was more of a major coup for Morano to receive such high profile attention.  And for free.

Everyone talks about how much free “earned” media exposure Donald Trump receives.  This is the same thing.  The Trump exposure is mostly about what a fool he is, yet has been a major key to his success.  The content of what is said is irrelevant, it’s that they are talking about him at all.  Same thing for Morano.



How well is “Climate Hustle” doing in Hollywood terms?  Here’s a list of current rankings of a variety of recent documentary feature films according to the Moviemeter score calculated by the industry website IMDB Pro.  It includes all the Oscar-nominated documentaries for this year.  It’s already scoring on the same level with one of them, “Winter on Fire.”  I’m sure if you check next week it will have jumped ahead of lots of these films, in part thanks to scoring a mention from Jimmy Kimmel.

Cartel Land – 2,724
Amy  –  3,266
Racing Extinction –  4,012
Blackfish – 5,122
The Look of Silence – 7,105
What Happened …  –  7,499
The Cove – 9,405
Winter on Fire  –  11,390
Climate Hustle –  11,699
Particle Fever – 15,384
An Honest Liar – 16,817



I’m so tired of people in the climate community bubble celebrating non-victories.  Much of the “look how dumb climate skeptics are” humor relies on logic that can just as easily be tossed back at the science community.  Kimmel says he’s going to deny the existence of yogurt saying, “I’ve seen the containers, I just don’t believe there’s anything in them.”

Well, sorry, but you find the same logic throughout the science world.  I’m dealing right now with methods of teaching that common sense tells you they work, but running up against scientists who say they are not going to believe it works until they see data to show it.  Same thing.

On a broader scale, this is the same way that the climate skeptics learned “doubt casting” from Rachael Carson and her attacks on pesticide use.  Andy Revkin gave a nice review of this in 2012. Both sides are using the same basic logic when it comes to humor.



Academics and scientists have a tendency to think there is a way to “slit the jugular” of their opponents simply by out-arguing them.  It was one of the most annoying comments I heard about my movie “Flock of Dodos,” in 2006, coming from some of the top academic evolutionists — that they found the movie disappointing in that they had hoped it would have “gone for the jugular” more.  As if there was some way to make a movie about academic discourse that could somehow with a single zinger or dramatic moment bring about the collapse of the entire opposition.  There ain’t.

Yes, “Blackfish” did do an amazing job of crippling Sea World, but they had stories of death to use for ammunition.  That’s different.  When a comedian like Jimmy Kimmel ridicules an anti-science movement it’s not in the same league.

So as funny as Jimmy Kimmel may be, and as admirable as it is for him to take on social issues seriously at times, he is not the person who can actually damage the climate skeptic crowd.  He has no real gravitas, and more importantly, all he did was create an equally silly scene of humble scientists using profanity.



To date I have still seen only one truly brilliant piece of climate comedy, which was the prank the Australian group “The Hamster Wheel” pulled on climate skeptic Lord Monckton.  I just now watched it again.  If only anyone in this country had the cojones to create that sort of comic material.  So brilliant.  So utterly, utterly brave and brilliant.  If someone went after the climate movement with that level of coldheartedness it might actually be possible to slit their jugular.  But it ain’t gonna happen in America.


#37) Good Intentions Count for Little In Filmmaking

From “Climate Hustle” on the right to “The Congressman” on the left, the fact is, you gotta tell a good story and pull of high production value if you want your movie to change the world.


CEREBRAL BROWN OUT. I felt the synapses in my brain momentarily go dim as the Grizzly Mama, former-governor of Alaska Sarah Palin walked within ten feet of me and I took this snapshot. On the far right is Marc Morano, writer-director of “Climate Hustle.” This was after the premiere two weeks ago of “Climate Hustle” in Washington DC at the Rayburn building.


Last night Marc Morano’s film “Climate Hustle” screened in nearly 400 theaters across the country while on MSNBC’s “Hardball” Chris Matthews very generously gave prime time exposure to the new movie “The Congressman” starring Treat Williams.  Both films have high political aspirations, but neither is very good in terms of basic filmmaking.

I wrote a review of “Climate Hustle” last week on Andy Revkin’s NY Times blog Dot Earth in which I said my heart is with Morano as a fellow filmmaker, but I found the film weak on both story and visuals (not to mention most of climate skepticism is bunk starting with the fundamentally dishonest portrayal of “global cooling” in the 70’s as a major story — it wasn’t).

For “The Congressman,” while Rotten Tomatoes has it teetering on the edge of a rotten tomato overall with a score of 60%, the Hollywood Reporter is more direct in their assessment.  They concede that the film “means well,” but they also say, “… the film is rather overstuffed, with Mrazek injecting too many themes and subplots into the mix. And to say that some of those elements don’t quite work dramatically is an understatement …”

Filmmaking is incredibly difficult.  Anyone charging out to make a “documentary” simply by interviewing everyone they can find who has something to say about a subject really needs to be aware of this.  No one talks about the cost of boring an audience of like-minded thinkers.

Nothing worse than ending up with a group who previously might have cared about your issue, but after viewing your painfully dull film end up saying to themselves they never want to hear anything further.   Which happens all the time.

Nice guys (with good intentions) finish last, a lot, when it comes to making movies.  Sad, but true.


#36) Genentech: The Cutting Edge

Nothing like a challenging 14 hour day.  Things started at 8:30 in the morning and finished after dinner at 10:30.  In between was one fascinating discussion after another with the brightest group of scientists I’ve been around in a long time.  It was the perfect place for the message of striving for excellence by reaching for the ABT.

photo (4)

SRO. Nothing better than Standing Room Only where just about every seat is taken by someone with a PhD in science. I took this photo as Alex, my host, was introducing me at the start of my talk. Amazing group. And best of all, they laughed in all the right places.



I was expecting a challenging day at Genentech, but it kind of exceeded expectations.  I guess it’s what you get in the corporate world — no laggards.

The place is huge — about 50 buildings split into north and south campuses right on the San Francisco Bay.  It was one meeting after another with folks working on drug development, structural biologists, neurophysiologists — on and on.  Lots and lots of science that was beyond me, but all of which could benefit from narrative structure.

The most interesting story I heard all day was from a woman who had worked a couple years ago at Theranos.  Wow, what a mess.  I had no clue about that scandal.  Among many things it’s kind of an indictment of the bullshit nature of so many TED Talks.

If you don’t know the bizarre story of Theranos and it’s weird “visionary” leader Elizabeth Holmes, here’s a video from just a few days ago that tells the whole strange scandal of their massive valuation over a product they don’t appear to be able to deliver.

The toughest part of the day was a neurophysiologist who had read my book and grilled me for a half hour, unconvinced that teaching narrative would move the needle in the right direction.  He was concerned that teaching scientists to be “better storytellers” would just make them more adept at publishing false positives.  But that’s not what I’m advocating.

The book is not about “storytelling for scientists.”  That’s what people who do a shallow job of not reading it think it’s about.  But if you really dig into it you will see it is about “narrative knowledge for scientists” with the belief that the better you understand narrative, the more you will be aware of the blind spots towards positive narratives that come with being human and lead to telling big stories that are wrong (i.e. Theranos).  He understood this and I think by the end I had allayed his fears at least a bit, but a tough discussion for sure.

It was after that session that I asked my host, “Don’t you have one dummy I could meet with just to get a break?”  The answer was no.  Awesome place.

UPDATE TODAY:  A good OpEd in the NY Times on the Theranos mess which Silicon Valley had enough good sense to avoid.


#35) Neil Degrasse Tyson Versus Abe Lincoln: Nope

I don’t mean any disrespect, I’m just talking narrative structure here.  The Gettysburg Address is a structural masterpiece.  Tyson’s exercise, while having a nice point to it, is narratively muddled. Although Neil Degrasse Tyson is a fun media icon, it’s worthwhile to point out he does not have deep narrative intuition — not like novelist Michael Crichton nor Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman.  And did he really mean to say, “comprised of”?

PastedGraphic-1 (9)

LINCOLN KNEW NARRATIVE (TYSON NOT SO MUCH). Lincoln had a Narrative Index of around 21. Neil Degrasse Tyson is more in the range of 11 (the three speeches I’ve found score 9, 11, 14). It shows when he attempts to emulate Lincoln.



For three years now I’ve been holding up the Gettysburg Address as a model of the ABT structure. I examined it in detail in my book last year. I’m willing to argue with anyone who wants to disagree that the number one reason the speech retains it’s power and has stood the test of time is it’s narrative structure.

Nobody has really pointed to this attribute of the Gettysburg Address so far, or if they have they’ve done it in a overly-complicated way. Ken Burns did an entire NOVA episode about the Gettysburg Address, but narrative structure wasn’t even on his radar screen. You kind of need to have some feel for ABT structure to really see it.



The speech is simple and has a solid ABT form. The first paragraph is exposition. The second paragraph begins by stating the problem (“Now we are engaged in a great civil war”). The third paragraph has more than one “therefore” but is essentially “it is for us the living” to make sure that “these dead shall not have died in vain.”

This narrative structure, more than anything else, accounts for it’s enduring power. Joseph Campbell would be the first to agree with this. It’s about story, dude.

Which means that anyone wanting to put themselves in the same company of Lincoln and his great speech really ought to attempt an equally clean and powerful ABT structure.



Astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson, who is a great promoter of science and lots of fun, attempts exactly this with a new video. He delivers his own speech of the same length as the Gettysburg Address. He has a very nice point to it — that Lincoln also created the National Academy of Sciences which is today very important. But the way he presents his argument is muddled.

His first paragraph is an ABT, sort of, using “yet” instead of “but.” But the “therefore” is disconnected in terms of logic — opening with war, then suddenly jumping to science.

From there he slumps solidly into “and, and, and” mode stating a series of facts about science. The net result of his speech conforms to the section in my book I titled, “And, And, And, not that there’s anything wrong with it.”

There’s not anything informationally wrong about Tyson’s speech, it’s just that narratively it’s a jumbled mess. The over-arching ABT structure is lacking because the “problem” is not clearly laid out.

With the Gettysburg Address Lincoln laid out the problem clearly in the second paragraph — that we are torn apart by war. The whole paragraph elaborated on the problem, leading to the build that was paid off in their third paragraph with the clear admonishment (the “therefore”) that “these dead shall not have died in vain.”

There is a “therefore” in Tyson’s last paragraph, but it’s not all that compelling. Basically he says “the time has come” rather than, “we must,” as Lincoln did.

Therefore … I’m sorry to be rude, but there is a science to great communication. A major part of it is narrative structure. Without it, it’s hard to ascend to the greatest heights.



Here’s the text of what Neil says in his short video. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this, it could just be more powerful with some attention to narrative structure, as I do in the next section.

One and a half centuries ago, civil war divided these united states of America, yet in it’s wake we would anneal it as one nation indivisible. During the bloody year of his Gettysburg address President Lincoln charted the NAS comprised of 50 distinguished American researchers whose task was then, as now, to advice Congress and the executive branch of all the ways the frontiers of science could contribute to the health, wealth and security of it’s residents.

As a young nation, just four score and seven years old, we had plucked the engineering fruits of the industrial revolution that transformed Europe, but Americans had yet to embrace the meaning of science to society. Now with more than 2000 members the National Academy encompasses dozens of fields undreamt of at the time of Lincoln’s charter. Quantum physics discovered in the 1920’s now drives nearly one third of the world’s wealth, forming the basis for our computer revolution and the creation, storage and retrieval of information. And as we continue to warm our planet, climatology may be our only hope to save us from ourselves. During the centennial of it’s charter, President Kennedy addressed the Academy, noting the range and depth of scientific achievement in this room constitutes the seabed of our nation’s future.

In this, the 21st century, innovations in science and technology form the primary engines of economic growth. While most remember Honest Abe for war and peace, for slavery and freedom, the time has come to remember him for setting our nation on a course of scientifically enlightened governance, without which we all may perish from this earth.



Hate to be a school marm, but this is for the benefit of everyone interested in seeing the power of the ABT approach. Here’s a rewrite of his first section, and the start of the second. I’m not attempting any flowery prose, just laying out the fact of the “argument” that ought to be made. The object is to keep the exposition singular and clean — meaning no narrative twists. The story begins with the second paragraph.

America is a great and mighty nation with a complex history. Certain aspects of it’s founding were misguided and resulted in a tragic civil war. Abraham Lincoln presided over those most painful years. He was a visionary who played a fundamental role in righting those societal offenses.

But there is something more to what Lincoln gave us during his truncated presidency — something that plays an enormous role in our society today. He created the National Academy of Sciences. (details on what this has meant)

Therefore today …



And here is the actual Gettysburg Address — one paragraph of exposition, one paragraph of contradiction, one paragraph of consequence. A veritable masterpiece, though not perfect as Abe was clearly conflicted in the third paragraph — torn between his feeling of impotence of a mere speech (“the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here …”) versus the enormity of what the deceased had done.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

# 34) ABT on Front Page of NY Times, Again

Lest anyone think Wednesday was a fluke, here you see it again — the ABT structure in the opening of almost all stories on the front page of the NY Times.  For today you see 3 of 6 stories start their second paragraph with “but.”  Two of the others have the ABT structure without saying “but.”

photo (3)

COUNT THE BUTS. Stories on the front page of the NY Times cannot afford to ramble or confuse. They need to engage the narrative part of the brain. They do this with the ABT structure. The writers and editors all know it, they just haven’t had a simple term for it.



There it is again, the ABT in plain sight on the front page of the NY Times.  Three of six stories start their second paragraph with “But.”  It’s not a coincidence.  It’s the ABT.  It’s everywhere.

# 33) ABT on the Front Page of the NY Times

There it is, in story after story. Of the 6 stories on the front page of the NY Times today, 3 of them start their third paragraph with “But.” Two others clearly have the ABT structure without using the word “but.” The last one has an AAA (and, and, and) opening leading to a summary statement. When will journalism programs start teaching the ABT? Like it or not, it’s right there in plain view on the front page of the NY Times.

photo (2)

HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT. This is today’s NY Times. The numbered circles are the three stories that begin their third paragraph with “But.” The other two circles are articles that have the ABT narrative structure but not “but” — but … you could drop it in and it would read just fine. Look at the articles — each one starts by setting up the “ordinary world” before establishing the narrative direction with the most common word of conflict, “but.”



I’ve been noticing this for the past few months.  Pick up any issue of the NY Times, look at the stories on the front page and you’ll see the ABT structure, loud and clear.

Are the writers and editors consciously following the ABT Template as they craft these articles?  Of course not.  They just all have deep “narrative intuition,” from countless years of writing and rewriting stories.  This is what happens — you work on the narrative part of your brain for enough years, it eventually takes this form.

Once you have narrative intuition I think there’s a tendency to assume everyone see things the same way as you.  I call this “narrative elitism.” It’s the “let them have cake” attitude of writers towards those who have never really developed the narrative parts of their brains.



I’m making this stuff up as I go along, but I think I see the exact parallel of narrative intuition with what could be called “IMRAD Intuition.”  The IMRAD Template (I – Introduction, M – Methods, R – Results, A – And, D – Discussion) is the narrative structure forced on scientists by almost every journal.

Virtually every working scientist has IMRAD intuition.  When they sit down to start writing a research paper they don’t need to look at the “Guidelines for Writers” that every journal provides.  In the Guidelines they would be told that they must shape their paper into the four standard sections.  They don’t need their brains to know that — it’s already present in them at the gut/intuition level from so many years of reading and writing these papers.

In fact, it is programmed so deeply into them that they don’t even know there’s a name for the structure.  As I tell about in “Houston, We Have A Narrative,” when I asked huge groups of scientists how many knew what IMRAD stands for, less than one percent raised their hands.

This turns out to be the same thing with journalists.  I’m sure if I asked a large group of them how many know the ABT, almost no one would raise their hands.  Yet when I explained it they would all say, “Oh, yeah, that thing.”  Just as scientists do with the IMRAD.



And so there you see it, on the front page of the NY Times — the ABT structure, over and over again.  As a result those stories are never boring or confusing.  Which means that if scientists could absorb the ABT structure as deeply as the IMRAD there would be an end to boredom and confusion in the communication of science.

# 32) The “Secret” the TED Folks Don’t Know: The ABT (of course)

Hate to say it but a TED Talk without strong narrative structure is a boring TED Talk.  In “Talk Like Ted: The 9 Secrets of the World’s Top Minds” the author leaves out the most important “secret” — how to make the jump from the non-narrative to the narrative worlds. There’s even a chapter on “Mastering Storytelling” that does exactly what happens everywhere — she tells you to tell great stories but doesn’t give one analytical clue of how to do it (i.e. using the ABT).  This is exactly the problem I hear about everywhere I go.  So much excitement about “storytelling” yet so much arm waiving.  She even thinks “narrative” and “storytelling” are the exact same thing.  Nope.

PastedGraphic-1 (8)

WHAT I LEARNED FROM THE SOUTH PARK GUYS: Narrative structure is so important, yet so, so hard to get right (even though this book makes no mention of that part of it).



A couple years ago I was invited to run our “Connection Storymaker Workshop” with Deloitte in Boston by an executive who said, “Our executives are being told these days they need to do a better job of ‘telling their story’ but nobody seems to know how exactly to instruct you on telling better stories other than by ‘telling better stories.’”

I hear it all the time.  But if you want to see exactly this conundrum in print just look at the book “Talk Like TED” where the author lets you in on “Secret #2:  Master the Art of Storytelling.”  Shhhh — don’t tell anyone, it’s a secret.  In fact, it’s such a secret she doesn’t even tell you about how to cross the divide from the boredom of the non-narrative world into the power of the narrative world.

Instead, what you get is a fun hodge podge of encouragement to tell personal stories, and tell stories about heroes and villains, and tell stories that are full of surprises, and … zzzz.



These are all elements of style.  They are all great things, but without structure even the most surprising and personal and enthusiastic storyteller eventually gets boring.  Years ago I visited a university where they had me meet with a professor who works on frogs because “he’s an incredible storyteller!”

What they actually meant was that he was incredibly enthusiastic, which he was because he luv, luv, luvs his frogs.  But after about ten minutes I was bored out of my head, wondering why I had to listen to “story” after “story” about his frogs that were all just conglomerations of facts.  There was no story structure to any of it — just non-narrative facts, facts, facts.



This is a lot of the problem.  People who are already good at narrative structure (and thus probably good storytellers) tend to assume everyone else can sense the structure of good stories as easily as they do.  The result is they end up doing what this and so many other books do, which is to basically tell you to “tell good stories by telling good stories.”

This is why I’m such a rabid fan of the ABT.  There is almost a class element to it — sharing the story wealth of the rich people with the story poor — those people who haven’t spent their whole lives in an intensely narrative environment.  The ABT is what’s missing from all of these books (and there are now a TON of them) on storytelling.

The books all mean well, but they simply don’t know about the structural, analytical side of narrative.  That knowledge is just starting to emerge from Hollywood.  It takes time.



In the meanwhile, just know that the dictum of, “Dude, it’s all the same story,” (which irked so many science bloggers when they read it in my new book) will hit you harder and harder the more analytically you look at pretty much everything everyone has to say on the topic of story.  It’s the basic message of John Yorke’s great 2014 book, “Into the Woods” which takes an analytical look at how everyone is teaching screenwriting today.  He shows that they are all teaching “the same story,” they just each have their own little way of making their stuff seem different.  But it ain’t.

And it’s much wider than that.  A friend wrote to me last week and said, “I just realized The Message Box is just a more complicated version of the ABT.”  Yep.  Same as “Made to Stick.”  Why do you think things stick — it’s because they have strong narrative structure.  Why do you think the story of Gilgamesh from 4,000 years ago has persisted?

Dude, it really is all the same story.  Give it enough time and you’ll see it’s true.


# 31) Bill Mckibben has Narrative Intuition

Bill McKibben spoke at Pepperdine on Tuesday night. I was deeply impressed. He has powerful narrative intuition.

photo (1)




In the 1960’s the American environmental movement came of age and crystallized with the first Earth Day in 1970.  But in the 1980’s it lost its way, as was so perfectly documented in Mark Dowie’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated book, “Losing Ground,” which every student of environmentalism should read.

By the 2000’s the landscape was cluttered with big eco-corporations — meaning the large NGO’s like the big three: Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International.  They had become heartless machines employing marketing and communications professionals straight out of the corporate world bringing competitive practices against each other in the relentless search for donor dollars.

By 2003 when I launched my Shifting Baselines Ocean Media Project I had grown so disgusted with the NGOs that I figured there was little hope for conservation in the long run.  In 2007 they demonstrated their ineptitude when they put together their “Design to Win” master plan for combatting global warming (analyzed and critiqued by Matt Nisbet who did such a good job of pointing out their neglect for the importance of effective communication).

They drove the climate bus into the ditch by putting all their chips on Cap and Trade.  Because it had worked so well for acid rain, they figured it would work for climate and be an easy sell requiring almost no communication effort.  Wrong.  By 2010 the last piece of climate legislation had collapsed and the movement was blaming it all on the evil oil corporations when in fact they had bungled their side of it.



As the environmental movement was squandering upwards of a billion dollars on their sadly misguided efforts, one guy began to emerge at the grassroots level in a more humble, 1960’s style of environment activism — Bill McKibben.  I’ve been somewhat of a fan of him over the years, but on Wednesday night he spoke at Pepperdine University and I became a complete convert.

He’s a unique mixture of soft spoken, friendly camp counselor demeanor, but inside there’s a firmness and conviction that makes it not surprising how successful he’s been.  I first started becoming a fan when he led a group of youngsters in asking why the solar panels that were installed on the White House during the Carter Administration, then removed by Reagan, couldn’t be re-installed.  That’s what I mean by 60’s style activism.  He’s awesome.



So before Bill’s talk I was invited to a small gathering with him where he answered questions for about an hour.  I asked him my standard whiny question about the non-collaborative spirit of the big environmental NGO’s — does it have to be that way.

Instead of launching into a bitchfest (as I would have done), he took a far more positive direction. He said he’s come to the realization that “it’s all about the conflicts.”  He realized that when the groups get together at big meetings to waste countless hours blabbing about what to do, the non-collaboration does emerge and it can get frustrating.  BUT, when you have a clear conflict and action coming together, that’s when the groups actually will join in and collaborate.

In particular, he talked about the Keystone Pipeline protests that he’s led.  I was actually in DC in November, 2011 and was in a taxi as I suddenly realized why we were moving so slow — we were driving through Bill’s big action of circling the White House.  It was amazing and I did a blogpost on it.



In the discussion some of his answers to questions were a little rambling and lacking in specifics, but when it came time for his big talk he was truly amazing and inspiring.  I really can’t think of any better speaker for the environment today.  He was funny, articulate, incredibly knowledgeable on religion (which was appropriate given the religious orientation of Pepperdine), and as I said, firm in his convictions.

But here’s what’s coolest.  In preparation for his visit I ran my Narrative Index on his 2011 “Power Shift” speech.  He scored an exceptionally high 51 (a typical score is in the teens, great communicators are in the 20’s, exceptional in the 30’s).  That’s amazing.  But not surprising.  Just look at the ABT structure of his opening.  He begins by saying how “easy” the science of climate is. He lays out all the facts that everyone agrees on — we have a bad situation. Then he says this: “But if the scientific method has worked splendidly to outline our dilemma, that’s how badly the political method has worked to solve it. ”

If you were an editor on a TV show you would call that “the turn.”  He presents his overarching ABT narrative — basically “we’ve done the science, but the change isn’t happening because of the politics THEREFORE we are here today to do the politics.”

And guess what — that’s the same basic narrative structure as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech of 1963.  In his opening paragraph he basically said, “100 years ago Lincoln set in motion a process, BUT we still have problems with making the change happen, THEREFORE we are here today to make it happen.”



That’s the bottom line.  Great leaders know narrative.  They have narrative intuition.  Nobody follows a bore.  Bill McKibben is a great leader and the best hope for the planet.



# 30) Chris Palmer’s “Top 5 Environmental Movies”

Chris Palmer, one of the leading lights of wildlife filmmaking, gave a great speech recently in which he offered up his choices for the five best conservation films of all time.  To give contrast to his top choice he cited some of my rotten comments.  Yay!

PastedGraphic-1 (7)

WITH A VOICE LIKE A FINE MERLOT. Somebody made that comment about Al Gore in a flattering article about “An Inconvenient Truth” a few years ago. My mother read the comment and said, “Merlot puts me to sleep.”



In 1990, four years before I left my tenured professorship of marine biology to become a filmmaker, a friend introduced me to Chris Palmer who was head of media production at National Audubon.  He was already a big cheese in the wildlife filmmaking world while I was a non-existent cheese as a filmmaker.

I sent him a copy of my very first screenplay I had written after taking part in an intensive weekend screenwriting workshop at the Boston Film and Video Cooperative taught by Christopher Keane (whom I would track down 20 years later to co-teach a fun storytelling workshop).  I met with Chris Palmer, he pulled out some notes and said, “I had one of our writers read over your screenplay — do you want to hear what he had to say?”

The comments were horrible and devastating.  Plus they were based on only the first ten pages of my script, which was all the guy said he could stand to read.  His major complaint was, “Nothing happens in the first ten pages.”  I thought lots of stuff happened, but I was young and very stoopid.

It was my first experience with the idea that, “A story begins when something happens” which I didn’t know back then.  So while the guy’s comments clobbered me on the head, today I realize he was painfully correct — I was in love with all the “and, and, and” details I had opened with.

Anyhow, I circled back to Chris many years later and became a “Uge, Uge,” fan of his books and essays that strive to set ethical standards for wildlife filmmakers — especially his book, “Confessions of a Wildlife Filmmaker.”  He’s done a ton of great and important work where others fear to tread, and I have a world of respect for him as I tried to convey in this 2013 Benshi post.


Chris is now a professor at American University and contacted me a couple months ago about a speech where he wanted to talk about the five best conservation films of all time.  He asked for my suggestions, for which I pushed hard for my favorite, “DamNation” which I reviewed on the Benshi.

But it turned out the comments from me he liked best were my standard pooping on “An Inconvenient Truth.”  So he ends up using me as his “villain” in his speech — the one person who does anything other than gush and rave about nature films (which, btw, have a longstanding tradition of being bo-ho-horing).

Here’s his whole speech which is great.

“An Evening with Chris Palmer”


Presentation at the Environmental Film Festival in DC

By Chris Palmer (palmer@american.edu)

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

This event is pretentiously called “An Evening with Chris Palmer.” The Festival first asked me to do this event ten years ago, and I’ve been doing it annually ever since.

Tonight I want to talk about the five best conservation films of all time.

Now everyone please stand up, find someone you’ve never met before, and discuss for two minutes the best conservation or environmentally-themed films you’ve ever seen. Go!

Ask audience members for their ideas!

You may have noticed that I didn’t give you much structure for this question, and so coming up with answers is challenging because the question begs further questions. What do I mean by conservation films? What do I mean by best? How do you define success? By acclaim? Effectiveness? Total viewership? Actions taken? Links shared or liked? Stories told or lives changed? Public policy or laws made? What about fiction films? Or old films from early cinema before we understood many of our current environmental issues?

Now, if you’ve heard me speak before or read my two books on this issue, you might be familiar with some of my thoughts on these questions.  I have said that what really matters is whether a film achieves any impact.

Films which have no impact are not worth making. The only reason to make a film is to change the world.

What do I mean by that? I mean the only reason to make a film is to change the minds of the audience, to inspire them to think differently, and ultimately to move them to take new action.

So what are the most impactful films, then? With the help of one of my top grad students, Sam Sheline, I came up with an idea. I wrote to over a dozen of my most successful filmmaking friends and ask them for their opinions.

These folks included Dereck and Beverly Joubert from Botswana, Mark Deeble and Vicky Stone from Kenya, Bob Poole from Idaho, Adam Ravetch from Vancouver, Howard and Michele Hall from California, and Tim Martin from the BBC in England.

They are among the best wildlife filmmakers in the world and have all been honored with top prizes at Jackson Hole, Wildscreen, and other highly esteemed film festivals. Derek and Beverly Joubert, for example, have not only produced some of the best films ever made on big cats, but have also performed pioneering conservation work for animals like rhinos.

As you can imagine, I received a variety of replies. My filmmaking friends recommended films that were at the top of my list, but also some new ones.  Here is a compilation of clips from their recommendations, along with others that Sam and I came up with during our discussions. Let’s watch that now and see how many you can recognize.

Show 7-10 minute compilation of clips and trailers.

Okay, let’s see who recognized any films. (Call on audience members)

Read out list of films in compilation tape. The clips in the compilation are (in order): The Plow that Broke the Plains, Food Inc., Die Serengeti darf nicht Sterben (Serengeti Will Never Die), Virunga, To Fly, Never Cry Wolf, Eternal Enemies: Lions and Hyenas, Born Free, The Emerald Forest, The Trials of Life, Wall-E, DamNation, Whale Wars, End of the Line, Mission Blue, Green, Miss Gooddall and the Wild Chimpanzees, Whale Rider, Grizzly Man, Racing Extinction.

Those are all great films. But as promised, I want to tell you my top five conservation films of all time.

Let’s show the first clip. SHOW CLIP OR TRAILER (An Inconvenient Truth)

Now, my friend Dr. Randy Olson, who is both a scientist and a filmmaker, dismisses Al Gore’s film, calling it “stupid.”

Randy says, “Laurie David panicked in the fall of 2005, grabbed Al Gore, and with almost no story development filmed him giving his slide show. She ended up with the predictable “and, and, and” presentation with no story that wowed the choir but bored the masses.”

But I include An Inconvenient Truth in my list because it came up in responses from my filmmaking friends more than any other film, and it changed the discussion over climate change. A Nielsen and Oxford University survey found that two-thirds of people who saw the film changed their minds about climate change, and three-fourths said they had changed some of their habits because of the film. And many people saw it: in the US it’s the 10th highest-grossing documentary of all time.

It also broke the mold as far as conventional wisdom about documentaries goes. It’s a film about a scientific process, based on a PowerPoint presentation. It appeals to our heads more than our hearts—long thought to be a mistaken approach for documentary filmmaking. It gives me hope that we can continue to use meaningful science to talk about big issues in films that lots of people will see.

Take questions from the audience.

Let’s show the second clip. SHOW CLIP OR TRAILER (Blackfish)

Blackfish also came up on many of my colleagues’ lists

Blackfish brought an important ethical issue about the mistreatment of some of the world’s most intelligent creatures into the international spotlight. Most people were not aware of the issue before the film, and afterwards it created a huge dialog around the subject.  SeaWorld has been severely impacted. The number of visitors has sharply declined. I wrote about this extensively in my recent book Confessions of a Wildlife Filmmaker. Just last week, SeaWorld announced it will stop breeding orcas and phase out theatrical orca shows. I believe captivity should end and that all the remaining captive orcas should be released to seaside sanctuaries or pens.

Take questions from the audience.

Let’s show the third clip. SHOW TRAILER (The Cove)

The Cove came up on many lists, including mine and Sam’s.

The ingenious structure of the film, which ramps up in tension until the final reveal of its grisly footage, leaves a lasting impression. The Cove made over a million dollars during a limited box office run, and won both the audience award at Sundance and the Oscar for best documentary in 2010. Although the Taiji dolphin slaughter has not been completely stopped, it recently reached its lowest levels ever, and the film increased awareness of cetacean conservation around the world.

Take questions from the audience.

Let’s show the fourth clip. SHOW CLIP OR TRAILER (Bambi)

I wanted to include an old classic to highlight the fact that environmental themes have been coming up in films, including mainstream fiction films, for ages. Bambi, the 1942 Disney animated film, was the first film to show animals with family lives destroyed by man.  It allowed audiences to form an emotional connection to wild animals. Many of my own films have followed in Bambi’s footsteps in showing the familial relationships and personalities of wild animals.  This film is still having an impact on how children think about animals.

Take questions from the audience.

Let’s show the fifth and final clip. SHOW CLIP OR TRAILER (Cousteau’s Silent World)

Although there were ethical issues during the filming of this 1956 classic, it began a new era in ocean conservation. It was the first film to show the ocean depths in color, and Jacques Cousteau went on to have one of the most distinguished careers in the history of conservation or filmmaking. Ted Turner even calls him the father of the environmental movement. It was also the only documentary to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes until Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 repeated the feat almost 50 years later.

Take questions from the audience.

There are many films which were close contenders to get on my list of the five best conservation films of all time. For example, Whale Wars, Grizzly Man, Racing Extinction, Avatar, Born Free, Local Hero, Whale Rider, DamNation, The Day After Tomorrow, The Plow That Broke the Plains, Miss Goodall Among the Wild Chimpanzees, Wall-E, Planet Earth, The Trials of Life, Emerald Forest, Green, Eternal Enemies, Never Cry Wolf, To Fly, End of the Line, Gasland, Food Inc, Cowspiracy, Last Call at the Oasis, Serengeti Shall Not Die, Mission Blue, Year of the Wildebeest, Disney’s Living Desert, Chasing Ice, and Virunga.

I could list many more of course, and I apologize if I did not mention your favorite.

Sam and I both got a lot out of this thought exercise, trying to decide what makes a truly effective and impactful conservation film.

I hope you enjoyed it too. Remember that the only reason to make a film is to change the world.

Thank you very much.


# 29) Michael Crichton had deep “narrative intuition” (duh)

Here’s a nice circular exercise in seeing who has true “narrative intuition” (the goal I identify in my book).  Guess what the Narrative Index was for Michael Crichton, the only creative artist ever to have his work rank #1 in television, film and books, when it came time to give a speech to AAAS.  He scored a 35 — nearly the highest I’ve found so far — eclipsed only by Texas congresswoman Barbara Jordan with her legendary 1976 DNC speech which scored a 36.  He knew narrative.  Of course.  And when you look at the text of what he said, guess what you see over and over again — yep, the ABT.  He who lives by the ABT speaks with the ABT.


JURASSIC ABT. It’s a little bit sad that the guy who so thoroughly dominated popular science fiction culture in books and movies in his prime ends up on hardly anybody’s lists of most influential science fiction writers. Regardless, he knew how to tell a tight narrative.


In the late 1990’s, in the afterglow of the cultural tsunami of his novel “Jurassic Park,” Dr. Michael Crichton gave a keynote address to the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  They had asked his advice on how to improve the public perception of scientists in the media.  Science magazine published the transcript of his talk in 1999.

In recent weeks I’ve presented what I have termed The Narrative Index which is a derivation of the ABT structure.  It’s simply the ratio of the total number of “buts” to the total number of “ands” in a given text.  As I’ve shown for politicians, it produces stunningly clear patterns reflecting who is delivering strong narrative content (a Narrative Index over 20) versus weak (under 10).

Not surprisingly, Crichton’s speech rings the narrative bell with a value of 35.  The only higher value I’ve found for a speech so far was Barbara Jordan’s legendary address to the Democratic National Convention in 1976 which is in many lists of the Top Ten most important speeches in American history.  She, of course, opened with a powerful ABT and overall scored a 36.


So the Narrative Index gives you a single number reflecting narrative structure, but once you’ve found a text with a high Narrative Index, the next question is can you see the structure in the text qualitatively?  With Crichton it’s clear as ABT.

Look how he opens his speech — not with some ambling “and, and, and” discourse.  No, he gets right down to business with “but” in his second sentence.

CRICHTON:   Scientists often complain to me that the media misunderstands their work. But, in fact, the reality is just the opposite: It is science that misunderstands media.

As you read through the text you can feel the strength of his arguments, all built around the word “but,” over and over again.  Jump to any random section and you’ll see the ABT structure at work.  Like this bit where I’ve added the A and T in parentheses:

CRICHTON:  Point three. Why are the stories about science always so negative? Why can’t we have positive stories? One answer is that people like scary movies. (AND) They enjoy being frightened. But the more important answer is that we live in a culture of relentless, round-the-clock boosterism for science and technology. (THEREFORE) With each new discovery and invention, the virtues…

It’s a very clearly argued presentation.  The only sad thing about it is that 17 years later I don’t see any evidence in the world of science that anyone listened to or acted on any of his well thought out advice.  Oh, well, what a surprise — science organizations not listening.

Was the AAAS talk a fluke score?  Nope. In November, 2005 he gave a lengthy address to The Independent Institute of nearly 7,000 words (that’s a lot). He scored 31. The guy breathed narrative.


The Narrative Index scores for three speeches I’ve found by Neil Degrasse Tyson are 9, 11 and 14. Great guy, but no narrative monster.

And a final note.  In the making of my movie “Sizzle” in 2007 I traded a string of emails with Crichton about climate change for which he forced me to read his novel “State of Fear” in order to continue our discussion.  Yuck.  That’s all I can say about it.


# 28) The ABT is everywhere, except for classrooms

How long is this going to take — maybe 50 years, as I said in my book?  Wherever you find effective communication, you’ll find the ABT.  You can see it in biologist Edward O. Wilson’s NY Times opinion piece yesterday.  It’s so universal and yet, because it’s simple and new, some people seem so skeptical.


THE ABT OF BIODIVERSITY. Just like the Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, yesterday biodiversity’s grandaddy Edward O. Wilson published this Opinion piece in the NY Times. Look how he starts it — with the ABT structure (using “so” instead of “therefore” as is more common). Show me good communication, I’ll show you the ABT at work. Show me bad communication, I’ll show you a lotta AAA and DHY.


On a daily basis, down in the trenches, people are now instantly improving their communications ability through the use of the ABT.  It’s at the core of our Story Circles Narrative Training which is spreading with USDA, USFWS, USGS and at least three other government agencies are working on getting involved.

And yet … how do you actually get the science world behind something new?  I no longer care because the ABT is just so self-validating — I don’t have to sell it, people put it to work and there’s no going back.  But still, I continue to be baffled by the anti-innovative nature of science.

Actually, change that — the truth is I don’t find it surprising.  It’s a lot of the reason why I left my tenured professorship long ago.  My first seven NSF grant proposals were rejected.  The comments of reviewers were full of statements saying, “All of his work to date has been novel and innovative, but what he’s proposing here has problems because …”

After a few rounds of that nonsense I realized it was time to skeedaddle off to Hollywood.  Life is short.  Innovation is fleeting.  Science kills it.  And now the great irony for me is watching this happen with the one useful discovery I made in my 25 year journey through Hollywood — the ABT.

Ah, science.

# 27) ADVENTURES IN ABT-LAND: Story Circles Demo Day in Ft. Collins

It was a perfect day in Fort Collins, Colorado as 35 scientists and communications folks from three government agencies (USDA, USFWS and USGS) spent 6 hours with the ABT Framework.


THE WINNING TABLE. Their scores for the Abstract Analysis exercise were shockingly close to ours, earning them copies of the good book, signed by the madman with the broken thumb in the distance.


In February two Story Circles with USDA wrapped up in Florida while last week a new Story Circle within USFWS launched.  Another is due soon and Tuesday’s Demo Day will probably produce more. Story Circles is fun, it goes to the heart of the communications challenge, and an article in Sunday’s NY Times magazine about Google’s realization of the power of social interactions in work settings helps underscore one of the greatest attributes of Story Circles — the group dynamic.

Here’s a quote from the article that tells about why the sort of small group dynamics fostered by Story Circles is so much in line with today’s work environment:

As commerce becomes increasingly global and complex, the bulk of modern work is more and more team-based. One study, published in The Harvard Business Review last month, found that ‘‘the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50 percent or more’’ over the last two decades and that, at many companies, more than three-quarters of an employee’s day is spent communicating with colleagues.


With every Story Circles event we seem to have at least one major new revelation.  On Tuesday, it dawned on me that you can put together a series of really engaging ABT’s, and yet, if the overall structure is AAA, guess what — you will both engage on the fine scale as you ultimately end up boring overall due to narrative emptiness on the larger scale.

It happens all the time with TV shows (especially on channels like Discovery and National Geographic).  The show is made up of a series of absolutely fascinating ABT vignettes that pull you in and hold your interest.  But you get to the end and realize there’s no overall significance to what has been presented — it’s just a bunch of cool stuff.  In ABT terms, there’s no “therefore” (also kinda like a lot of social media, btw).

Which is okay.  I have a section in the book titled, “AAA, Not That There’s Anything Wrong With It.”  And that’s the deal.  There’s nothing wrong with an hour long show about what sharks feed on.  But it’s just a little bit better if the individual ABTs eventually work together to create an over-arching ABT rather than just a bunch of “and, and, and” material.  This is also about the fractal nature of story structure which I mentioned in the book.

So once again, the power of narrative is about mediocrity versus excellence.  If you’re happy with a half baked one day storytelling workshop, that’s fine, BUT … if you’re a fan of full baked (as Dustin Hoffman was in “The Graduate” — one of my favorite scenes is him telling his dad that his crazy ideas are fully baked), then you better bite the bullet with Story Circles and get the full ten weeks of training.

Sorry it can’t be quicker and easier, but the cruel fact is that you get back what you put in.  Which makes it like life in general, right?


# 26) Republican Debates Go To Trump

The Narrative Index pretty well tells the story — too little too late for Rubio and Cruz.




In the previous three posts I explained The Narrative Index.  I’ve been analyzing the Republican debate performances since the start.  The data now tell the story pretty clearly. 

Bush and Cruz were wimps from the start, scoring below 10 repeatedly.  Rubio has had some fight all along, and in the last three debates has been swinging hard (though notice how he dropped when Trump wasn’t there to push him in Debate 7).

But Trump knows narrative.  There’s no getting around it.  He is a powerhouse.  Love him or hate him (as most of my friends do), he knows narrative better than all the others.  He will continue to be a force to be reckoned with.

# 25) THE NARRATIVE INDEX 3: Trump Knows Narrative

The idea of a media-savvy Presidency began with Kennedy — the first “Television President.”   Then there was Reagan, someone trained for decades in television.  Now there is Trump, a veteran creator of television.  This is not a laughing matter.  Television lives and dies on narrative.  There has never been a politician with this deep of an intuition for narrative.  There is a reason he has bamboozled the political establishment.  Don’t look to the standard political pundits for insight, their record on Trump is a mess at this point.  His strength is clearly revealed by The Narrative Index.  Beware.



I’ve been following Trump’s performances for nearly a year using The Narrative Index which I laid out in the previous two blogs. At first I thought his high values were curious. Now I find them alarming.

There has never been a politician like Trump. Lots of political pundits are now trying to say this, but the problem is they are inarticulate, non-analytical, and just plain simplistic (NOT the same as simple) in their assessments. They analyze his speech and use of language, but fail to come up with anything more sophisticated than the idea that he talks on the level of a 3rd grader (Politico), a 4th grader (Newsweek), a 5th grader (NY Daily News), or uses lots of “us” and “they” pronouns (NY Times). Gee, way to bring out the heavy guns of analysis.

NONE of the shallow, silly analyses are worth reading nor have sustained any useful lines of thought.

But narrative is different. It is the core of human culture. It goes back at least 4,000 years. It is the essence of how we communicate. So let’s begin with one important point.


This is the simplest way to convey the distinction between these two terms. Storytelling and narrative are not the same.

Reagan, who came to be adored as “The Great Communicator,” was beloved for his storytelling skills. But in contrast, nobody has ever loved a story told by Trump. He’s not a good storyteller. His stories are choppy, not much fun, and waste little time in getting to the point (which is what he lives for). Yet Trump is a master of narrative.

How could this be? Aren’t storytelling and narrative the same thing? No.

In my book I offered up the simple definition of narrative as, “The series of events that occur in the search for a solution to a problem.” That’s it. That’s what the narrative dynamic is about.

Narrative is the driving force at the core of a story. All good stories are built around the search for the solution to a problem. Whether it’s figuring out the murderer, finding your way home, or defeating a threat, it is all about problem/solution. But a story involves many more elements wrapped around the narrative core.

Reagan was a storyteller. He knew how to present stories with all their warmth, humor and emotion. His stories were always about problems. Trump doesn’t give much of a crap about the warmth, humor or emotion. He’s mostly just about problem-solution, over and over again, all day long.

You hear it in Trump’s speeches and debate performances — very tight narrative loops of problem-solution. “Jeb’s a great guy, but he’s weak (PROBLEM), therefore he needs to go home (SOLUTION).” “We love our Mexican friends, but too many are illegal (PROBLEM), therefore we need to build a wall (SOLUTION).” “Muslims are mostly okay, but some are terrorists (PROBLEM), therefore we need to stop their entry (SOLUTION).” “Our country used to be great, but now it’s slipped in the world (PROBLEM), therefore we need to Make America Great Again (SOLUTION).”

You hear narrative structure in almost everything he says, and it manifests itself in part through the use of the word “but.” It’s not the only important narrative word, but as I explained in the earlier posts, it’s the most common. Trump uses it more than any other politician. Ever.


There have been nine Republican debates so far. Trump has scored a Narrative Index above 20 for every performance. No one else has done this. Same thing for all his speeches. Same thing for all his press conferences. I’ve analyzed a total of 23 performances. Not just always above 20, he’s scored as high as 58 in his June 28 interview with Jake Tapper. The man breathes narrative structure.



Of course he doesn’t own the network, but I’ve watched in disbelief since last summer as MSNBC has literally given over their network to him. Has anyone spoken out about this? Trump brags of all the free media exposure he scores. I thought MSNBC is left leaning. And yet, since last summer, night after night they have literally pre-empted their programming to cover just about every speech or press conference Trump has given.

They haven’t done this for ANY other candidate. Not even close. Not Hillary, not Bernie — not a one of them. Why?

The simple, non-quantitative answer is that “Trump is entertainment.” What does this mean? That he is funny? He’s not really that funny — not like a stand up comic, or any funnier than several other candidates. Is it that he’s crude and outlandish? There have been plenty of crude and outlandish politicians in the past. None have ever earned free air time by the hour.

The simple answer is that Trump delivers “concision.” He is physically constructed for the medium of television. He speaks in closed loops that have narrative structure. Yes, he repeats the same stuff, but so what. It’s about the smaller scale dynamic of each narrative loop. He starts a loop (addressing a problem), gets quickly to the “but” then quickly to the “therefore.” This is what I’ve been talking about with the Narrative Index. He has deep narrative intuition. And this is what television doesn’t just seek — it demands.


I don’t have the time and resources for massive data analysis. Hopefully someone else does. It would be nice to have a larger sample size than this. But look at the pattern for the N.I. for three PBS documentary shows plus “Cosmos.” I analyzed 4 of each and all 13 episodes of “Cosmos.” All of them average over 20 for their N.I. More data are needed to say it with complete confidence, but I’d be willing to bet there is a functional “narrative threshold” to television programming which is probably about 20. TV just has no tolerance for “and, and, and” drivel. Nor does Trump.

PRE-ADAPTED TO THE TV LANDSCAPE. Trump’s average Narrative Index of 28 matches what television demands. He is truly the candidate for today’s media-driven society. No other candidate is close.


Trump embodies every principle of my book. He breathes narrative. Why? Because he’s a dealmaker. We all know this. It’s what his book is about. He wants to get to the “but” (what’s the problem that’s holding us up?) then immediately get to the “therefore.” He wants to advance the narrative, yet he also wants to “stay on narrative.”

What do we mean by staying on narrative? It means stating your narrative theme at the start of your journey (“To Make America Great Again”). Repeating it endlessly throughout the journey. Then eventually coming full circle by achieving it, which is his dream. He is the only one with this clearly defined narrative dynamic.

This is what I mean between simple versus a simpleton. If you think Trump is a simpleton with how he is running his campaign it is you who is the simpleton. This man knows the power of simplicity, and there is an age old adage that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”


As I explained in the first of these three blogposts, the Narrative Index is very simple to calculate. Just copy, paste, count and divide.

You should put it to work with lots of stuff. Think of any text in the world. How much narrative strength does it have? You definitely need over 1,000 words, and I’d still be cautious until you’re getting closer to 10,000 words. But when you’re past 50,000 words the patterns appear pretty robust — as was the case for the Lincoln-Douglas debates.


One immediate application is my friend Bill Dennison who has applied it to the works of the co-discoverers of The Theory of Evolution By Means of Natural Selection, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace. He just posted his very nice essay using the N.I. which provides at least one explanation of why one man became famous for eternity while the other largely vanished.

You can also put it to work with literary texts. Remember last year when literary experts were debating whether the new novel from Harper Lee, “Go Set A Watchman,” might simply be an early draft of her masterpiece, “To Kill A Mockingbird”? If you go with the assumption that the revision process for a story involves in part a variation of The Rule of Replacing (replacing “ands” with “buts”) then you would predict Watchman would be more of an AAA work while Mockingbird is more ABT.

The Narrative Index matches this prediction.Watchman scores an N.I. of 17 while Mockingbird scores a 24. It’s not the definitive proof, but is at least quantitative and in the case of these novels the sample size of total words is pretty large.


From the start of the current Presidential campaign, Hillary has lacked the basic narrative elements that Trump has a mastery of. She never developed a simple, singular slogan. Even Bernie managed it with his “eat the rich” theme. When quizzed on Bernie’s approach to Wall Street she takes the AAA approach of “it’s not that simple.” She doesn’t drill into problem-solution dynamics the way Trump does, and now, most distressing, the numbers are stark for The Narrative Index.

Trump is never below 20 in the more than 20 performances of his I have analyzed. She ends up with an average of 14 (for 21 performances) with 6 of the scores being below 10, and only 5 over 20. In simple terms, she delivers half the narrative heft of Trump.

So what does this mean? It’s pretty simple. Do the math. She needs to get more focused, even at the finest scales of how she communicates. It’s a short attention span world today. Trump is pre-adapted to it. Hillary is communicating like the 90’s.

But here’s one glimmer of hope. The highest score I’ve ever found for her was a 27, which is right at Trump’s level. Guess where it was from. Her Wellesley College student commencement speech of 1969.

# 24) THE NARRATIVE INDEX 2: The Baseline

I have proposed a Narrative Index for evaluating the “narrative strength” of any given text. It needs a substantial amount of text (at least a few thousand words) to have much reliability. But when you analyze large amounts of material throughout history, clear patterns emerge — especially for great communicators.


THE LINCOLN-DOUGLAS DEBATES: The perfect showcase for The Narrative Index



The famous Lincoln-Douglas debates provide the perfect starting point for seeing how much The Narrative Index reveals. In the summer of 1858 Abraham Lincoln — the Republican candidate for Senator from Illinois — squared off in seven debates with the incumbant Stephen Douglas.

All of the debates used the format of 60:90:30 — the opening candidate spoke for 60 minutes, the opponent got a 90 minute rebuttal, then the opener was given a half hour to finish. Just speeches, no questions from moderators. The debates drew huge audiences (tens of thousands) with the texts being widely printed in newspapers. There was some fudging of the transcripts by papers favorable to each candidate, but only minor variations. For my analysis I have used the version presented on the website of the National Park Service.

The result for each debate is a solid sample size of the candidates’ rhetoric — around 10,000 words for each debater’s individual performance. What you see in the figure above for their Narrative Index values is that they barely even overlapped. Douglas’ highest value (15) was only a little more than Lincoln’s lowest (13). Most of the time they weren’t even close.

In simple terms, Abe was telling ABT’s while Douglas was “Anding.” Lincoln had much greater narrative strength. When you read the accounts of witnesses you hear color commentary bringing these data to life. Observers told about how confident and arrogant Douglas was at the start, viewing Lincoln as much less experienced and thinking he would be easily out-witted. But by the fourth debate the audiences were rallying for Abe as Douglas began to sweat. You can see when it came to narrative strength, he was dwarfed by Abe for the first four debates. In the fifth debate he stepped things up a bit, but by then it was too late and he was starting to get ill. By the end he was collapsing in defeat.


For the first four debates Douglas was below 10 while Abe was spiking up to 25. What does this mean specifically?

Look at their opening lines of the first debate. Douglas begins with a string of statements — he’s pure “and, and, and” (AAA) in form:

Prior to 1854 this country was divided into two great political parties, known as the Whig and Democratic parties. Both were national and patriotic, advocating principles that were universal in their application. An old line Whig could proclaim his principles in Louisiana and Massachusetts alike. Whig principles had no boundary sectional line, they were not limited by the Ohio river, nor by the Potomac, nor by the line of the free and slave States …

Now look at Lincoln’s opening — it’s an ABT:

My fellow citizens: When a man hears himself somewhat misrepresented, it provokes him. At least, I find it so with myself; but when misrepresentation becomes very gross and palpable, it is more apt to amuse him. (THEREFORE) The first thing I see fit to notice, is the fact that Judge Douglas alleges, after running through the history of the old Democratic and the old Whig parties, that Judge Trumbull and myself made an arrangement in 1854 …

There you have the fundamental difference in style between the two speakers. Even more telling was one reporter who said, “Lincoln’s “words did not flow in a rushing, unbroken stream like Douglas.”

That says it all. The whole thing about the AAA is that it is the easy, default mode of communication — easy to spew out quickly (i.e. comes out as “a rushing, unbroken stream”) because it doesn’t involve the narrative parts of the brain — it’s just shooting out statements.

Activating the narrative regions slows things down. Lincoln was clearly the more thoughtful speaker, constructing his ideas with more narrative structure.

Though he lost to Douglas in the 1859 election, he of course beat him for President the next year and went down in history as a great speaker. His two inaugural speeches scored 16 and 21, respectively for the N.I. His “House Divided” speech was a 21, his Cooper Union speech was 20, and of course his most famous speech, the Gettysburg Address, while too short to justify analysis (it has just 6 “ands” with 2 “ buts” for an unusually high N.I. of 33) is just one big ABT of three paragraphs total.

Clearly Lincoln had deep narrative intuition. The Narrative Index gives us a means of quantifying this comparatively.


Perhaps the second most famous set of debates in American History were the four held in 1960 between Presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. You can see Nixon out-scored Kennedy in terms of the Narrative Index for the first three debates, yet by the third one there was widespread agreement that Kennedy was winning. How could that have been? This is the exception that proves the rule.

For the first debate it was widely reported that polls of people listening on the radio had Nixon as the winner. There’s your narrative content at work. When all that people received was the words through their radio, the narrative structure won out.


KENNEDY-NIXON. People heard Nixon win, but they saw Kennedy win.

But television viewers scored it differently. They scored the handsome, relaxed, young Kennedy — who came to be known as the first “telegenic President” — as much more effective than the nervous, sweaty Nixon with the five o’clock shadow. These were elements of communication left out of radio or the written text.

The Kennedy-Nixon debates (as wonderfully presented in David Halberstam’s, “The Powers That Be”) defined the beginning of “The Age of the Television President.” Things were never the same. The divide between radio and television scoring for the first debate shows the relative importance of substance (what they were saying) versus style (how they looked).


Broader patterns emerge when you look at all the inauguration speeches of the Presidents. There’s substantial variation and at least a few scores that are minor head scratchers. For example, Calvin Coolidge was known as “Silent Cal” — you wouldn’t really expect him to have one of the highest values of all time (he scored a 29). But on the other hand, despite his penchant for few words, he was actually known as a skilled speaker. More importantly, of the six other of his speeches I’ve analyzed, the lowest was still a 14, so he wasn’t devoid of narrative intuition.

PastedGraphic-1 (3)

FIREBRANDS AND DISHRAGS. Nixon bruises while Bush snoozes.

Equally somewhat disappointing is Obama. You’d hope he would score highly, but his two inaugurals are 11 and 15 while his State of the Union speeches range from 12 to 19. It seems to be the case he doesn’t draw heavily on narrative structure. Of the 10 speeches I’ve analyzed, they range only from 9 to 18. I wish I could say his Reverend Wright speech was a barn burner — it’s my favorite of his speeches — but it’s only 15. I’m afraid the numbers are very consistent for him — never into the 20’s. Which means you don’t have to have a huge N.I. to be a great speaker, but it’s still a significant characteristic of most effective communicators, and nobody has labeled Obama “The Great Communicator” as they did with Reagan.

It’s clear a lot of early Presidents hardly ever said “but.” But … there are interesting spikes with Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and eventually the ultimate monster of ambition, Nixon, who set the bar highest.


What’s more interesting and even fun are the dishrags. Some folks just don’t seem to bring any narrative content to what they have to say. Not surprisingly, they are all known as kind of wishy washy.

I’m talking about not just those early, polite Presidents, and not just Eisenhower who didn’t score above 10 for either of his inaugurals nor any of his first five State of the Union speeches. The guy I’m talking about is George W. Bush.

Not only did Bush score a mere 5 for his second inaugural, it turns out none of his seven State of the Union speeches — not even after 9/11 — managed to score above 10. They were: 4, 2, 3 4, 5, 4, 4. Is that a surprise? Would anyone ever have called him a great speaker? He was the ultimate “And, And, Ander.” It’s kind of the whole spin Will Ferrell put on him — the guy speaking vacuous statements, reaching for something clever, ultimately only able to say, “strategery” — unable to turn a phrase.

In contrast, Nixon’s State of the Union speeches for 1970 to 1974 were 27, 16, 23, 18. He always had something urgent and important to say. But did Nixon really have that good of a feel for narrative structure? Yes. Just look at how he opens his record-setting first inaugural (scored a 46).

He begins with an eloquent ABT:

“I ask you to share with me today the majesty of this moment. In the orderly transfer of power, we celebrate the unity that keeps us free. Each moment in history is a fleeting time, precious and unique. But some stand out as moments of beginning, in which courses are set that shape decades or centuries. This can be such a moment.” (ominous opening words from the eventual captain of the Titanic)



As you can imagine, countless fascinating observations begin to emerge from this single index. In the third and final post I will get deeply into the current Presidential Debates. But before I do, let’s take a look at the basic dynamic of “ABT Driving.” What I mean by this is using the ABT elements to basically “advance the narrative.”

This is the fundamental need for narrative, in order to keep it interesting — it must be advanced. You must constantly be adding sources of contradiction, then driving for consequences. We can see this at work clearly with the moderators of today’s television debates.

Television producers live in dread fear of boring their audience. It’s the job of the moderators to prevent this by interrupting the debaters, and more importantly, interjecting conflict by squaring them off against each other. You hear the moderators saying over and over again, “Candidate A, last week you said X, BUT your opponent said Y, how do you reconcile this?” If they are doing their job properly they are constantly driving the narrative dynamics.

This ends up showing clearly in the collective N.I. value for the moderators of each debate. Look at the third Democrat Debate — they reached 56, which is unheard of for a speaker. And you can even add to that a fair amount of non-narrative logistics explanations and pleasantries. Clearly their job is to drive the conflict.


THE ABT DRIVERS: Clinton and Sanders are kind of a big whatever in narrative terms, but far more interesting is the role of the Moderators. It’s their job to “advance the narrative.” This is reflected in the N.I.



Guess where this all leads. I’ve analyzed hundreds of speeches since last summer. I’ve found only one politician who has NEVER given a speech or debate performance below 20. Guess who …

#23) THE NARRATIVE INDEX 1: A New Communications Tool

This is the first of three posts about what I believe to be a new and valuable communications tool. I have been trying since last September to interest the major political blogs in The Narrative Index (or N.I.) but they seem to be skeptical of both its newness and simplicity. Let’s see what you think. The data speak for themselves.

DO THE MATH: Guess where these posts are going to lead.



Some texts grab your attention and don’t let you go. Other texts put you to sleep. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a single number that reflected this property?

Just over four years ago when I came across the extremely simple concept of “The Rule of Replacing” (as espoused by the co-creators of the animated series “South Park”) I found myself saying “surely it can’t be that simple.” Since then I’ve put that skepticism to the test though countless talks, a TEDMED presentation, a letter in Science, a webinar, and finally an entire book about it last fall titled, “Houston, We Have A Narrative.”

My main activity this year is fulfilling the vision of the book — propagating the ABT Framework by creating Story Circles Narrative Fitness Training which you can read about on our website. The next event will involve 40 biologists from USDA, USFWS and USGS next week in Ft. Collins, Colorado.

As a result of all this effort, I’m now certain that narrative structure, at it’s core, is indeed as simple as ABT. So what’s next?

Last summer I had a new revelation about the ABT template. It was the thought that if you were to use the Rule of Replacing, all else equal, when you finished with a given text you would have altered the ratio of the number of “buts” to “ands.” This ratio becomes a single number reflective of the strength of the narrative content of the material. Here’s how it works.



“But” is the word of contradiction in the ABT. It is the heart and soul of narrative. There are lots of other words of contradiction (however, despite, yet), BUT … if you were to quantify it, you would easily see that BUT is the most common.

In fact there is a website that presents the 5,000 most common words in The Corpus of Contemporary English. Here’s how a few interesting words score on that list (how frequently they are used in the English language):

and – 3
but – 23
or – 32
while – 153
yet – 276
however – 285
despite – 772
instead – 997

“But” is the only connector word of contradiction in the top 100, aside from “or” which doesn’t have any narrative strength.

More importantly, all you have to do is look at the front page of a newspaper to see that most stories (if they are written well) begin with a few facts then a “but” (I’m looking at the front page of the NY Times for Feb. 13, 2016 and I see three of the four stories above the fold have this structure — two using “but,” one using “instead,” — and now I’m looking at Sunday Feb. 21 and see 3 of the 5 stories on the front page open with the ABT structure — again two “buts” and an “instead”).

“But” is central to having good narrative strength. At the other end of the spectrum (specifically “The Narrative Spectrum” as I labeled it in my book) is the template of, “And, And, And” text or AAA. This is text that is almost devoid of narrative content — just a string of comments tied together by the word of agreement, “and.”

The bottom line is that the more times you are saying “but” relative to “and” the more narrative strength there is to the content you are presenting. To quantify this ratio I have created this single calculation:

      THE NARRATIVE INDEX = Buts/Ands X 100

I’ve had lengthy discussions with colleagues — especially my old buddy Bill Dennison at University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, who will be posting his own essay tomorrow on applying the Narrative Index to the co-discoverers of the theory of evolution by means of natural selection, Charles Darwin versus Alfred Russell Wallace. Out of those discussions I’ve opted for simplicity by just keeping it as the ratio of buts to ands, multiplied by 100 to make it a whole number.

To calculate it for a given text, all you do is copy the material into a word processor, search for “and” and “but,” record their abundances, then divide.

Here, let’s do it for the story on Scalia on the front page of the Feb 15, 2016 NY Times.

But – 10
And – 27
Narrative Index (But/And) X 100 = 37

That’s actually a pretty high value, but to be expected for the front page of the NY Times — no room for ambling, unfocused AAA presentations there.

So that’s how simple it is to calculate. Try it for yourself on a body of text. In the next post I’ll set to work showing you the patterns that emerge for everyone from scientists to politicians.

#22) Hillary is Too Much of a Scientist

I want to support Hillary but she simply does not have the communication style that is needed for today’s world. Yesterday on Meet the Press, and last week on Hardball and Bill Maher they focused on her tendency to give nuanced answers. It just doesn’t work in a world of too much noise.

THE PRICE OF AND, AND, AND.   Hillary’s approach to communication is not suited for today.



Trump has punched his way to the top through the use of one key element: simplicity. Bernie Sanders has followed in his footsteps. But Hillary still hasn’t quite figured it out.
Trump had it nailed from the outset with his simple moronic narrative slogan “Make America Great Again.”  Bernie has had an equally simple message all along which he boiled down to one line last week.  Here is Chuck Todd quoting his line yesterday on Meet The Press.
CHUCK TODD:  Senator Sanders called the entire business model of Wall Street a fraud …
HILLARY CLINTON:  I think it’s kind of an extreme statement that once you take a hard look at it is hard to understand.  When we talk about Wall Street are we talking about every bank or are we talking about a particular part of New York? That’s never really clarified. What I believe is that there are good actors and bad actors, actors in every part of our economy.


That exchange is a sad portrait of what I’m afraid the future holds for Hillary. She just doesn’t get it when it comes to concision. That’s why she has had no slogan to her campaign. I wish today’s world was as decent and intelligent and thoughtful and listening as the world for which she is designed. But it’s not.
Look at what Sanders said — that Wall Street is built on fraud. Is that not the broad sentiment of today? Is that not the core message of the movie “The Big Short” that is about to clean up at the Oscars?
Yes, I know the situation is more nuanced than that, but when it comes to mass communication nuance is death, unless you’re going to put together an entire detailed communications campaign that is structured around conveying nuance. Which is not impossible, but it takes more effort than just throwing all the details out using the “and and and” (AAA) form.
Hillary is going to get whomped tomorrow night in New Hampshire. She essentially got whomped last week in Iowa despite “winning.” Regardless of the actual politics of what she stands for I’m afraid her approach to communication is more suited to the 1970’s than today.


A final sad comment on Hillary. Chuck Todd confronted her about Madeline Albright’s semi-humorous statement last week that there is a special place in hell for women who don’t support women candidates. Hillary should have embraced that statement firmly saying that’s right, it’s time for a woman in the presidency. But instead she backpedaled, dismissed it to some extent as “that’s just Madeline” and passed up yet another opportunity for simplicity in her messaging. It is time for a woman president, she ought to be the one, and she should just take a chance and go with the gender element. But she’s not.  I’m guessing it’s because of some polling data she’s following.

#21) “Our yearning for certainty”: The Narrative Dynamic of True Crime TV

Kathryn Schultz in The New Yorker has a great article about the driving force of today’s true crime tv/radio obsession.  At the core of the trend is the same desire for “positive patterns” I discussed at length in my book.  She sums it up as “our yearning for certainty.”  Same same.  It’s inevitable and it drives a lot of tragic misdeeds, including how some TV shows are made.

UNSAVORY AVERY.  Who knows if he’s innocent, but he’s clearly no saint.



If you’re into the latest true crime TV series, “Making a Murderer,” you should read the excellent article in The New Yorker yesterday by Kathryn Schultz.  I binge watched 8 of the 10 episodes over the holidays, which was enough to get me to the point of feeling the story is interesting, however … there was a definite stench of confirmation bias in how it was put together.
That bias led to a form of mass hysteria as over 400,000 people stampeded (via the internet) to the White House signing a misguided petition begging Mr. Obama to fix everything using his magic powers.  As Schultz points out, it wasn’t even a federal case so there’s zippo the President could do even if he wanted to.
Schultz nails the bottom line with a single phrase — “our yearning for certainty.”  It is a phrase that is so deep.  It underpins everything from false positives in science to all of religion.  It is a basic human need that can overpower even the greatest physical evidence.  And it ultimately overpowered the filmmakers.
Her article is tremendous in so many ways — not the least of which is near the end as she points out the veritable lack of moral conscience from the makers of both “Making a Murderer” and NPR’s hit “Serial” with this great passage:
But neither “Serial” (which is otherwise notable for its thoroughness) nor “Making a Murderer” ever addresses the question of what rights and considerations should be extended to victims of violent crime, and under what circumstances those might justifiably be suspended.  Instead, both creators and viewers tacitly dismiss the pain caused by such shows as collateral damage, unfortunate but unavoidable. Here, too, the end is taken to justify the means; someone else’s anguish comes to seem like a trifling price to pay for the greater cause a documentary claims to serve.

#20) Hillary Does Not Have A Narrative

She doesn’t. A shopping list of “things to do” is not a narrative. Trump has a narrative. It may sound stupid to many, but he has one and it’s on his hat. Yes, effective mass communication is that simple. Sorry.





Last night on MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews he had on Senator Tammy Baldwin (D, Wisconsin) who is a big supporter of Hillary Clinton.  In response to the other guests on the show saying that Hillary is lacking a clear message/narrative, she said this about the thoughts of Hillary’s followers:
“… they do think she has a very clear message … she’s about jobs and equal pay and all the renewable energy jobs that we have the potential to create, she’s about healthcare and she’s about healing some of the deep divides we have in our nation.”
That is NOT a narrative.  That is a shopping list.  That is an “And, And, And” statement.


You want to know what “having a narrative is about” just look at Donald Trump’s hat.  Yes, I know it seems moronic, but the fact is he has a clear ABT structure to his campaign which is basically, “America used to be a great AND mighty nation, BUT we’ve slipped in the world, THEREFORE it’s time to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.”
That is what is called having a singular narrative — a singular voice that the masses can rally around.  Obama had HOPE.  Hillary has … a bunch of stuff.
It’s bad enough that Hillary has not been able to formulate any sort of singular theme, but it’s even worse that major supporters like this Senator don’t even see the mistake she is making.  I wanted to support Hillary initially but now I’ve shifted to Bernie who at least has a clear theme of EAT THE RICH!
Go Bernie!

#19) It’s the Problems, Dummy

Trump says the country is falling apart, but White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough says he’s baffled why Trump and the other Republican Presidential candidates would say this.  Really?  Don’t you think they kind of need some problems to match their solutions if they want to have “a narrative”?  As I continue to say, Donald Trump embodies every principle of narrative presented in my new book.  He is the living demonstration of the power of narrative — NOT storytelling — is everyone aware of the difference?


“I DON’T REALLY GET IT.”  Well, that’s the truth, Mr. McDonough.  At least he’s honest about it.  But what’s not to get about Trump?



It’s about narrative.  Trump has a mastery of it, people on the left don’t.  It’s kind of that simple.  His speech last Thursday in Vermont was a tour de force of his narrative skills.  Not storytelling.  He’s a lousy, choppy storyteller.  He’s no Ronald Reagan.  But what he knows is narrative.
Narrative is about “problem-solution.”  It is at the core of storytelling, but it’s only one part of a story.
Yesterday on “Meet the Press” White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough sat there sounding totally confused as Chuck Todd asked him about Trump’s penchant for saying the nation is on fire and about to explode.
Here’s what he said:  “I don’t really get it.  What I see is an America that’s surging.”  He lists all the FACTS of how vibrant and successful our society is at the moment (as if Trump cares).  He continues by saying, “I do not understand why the Republicans — each of them — continue to run down America.”
Well, I understand why.  It’s kind of simple.  Without problems, you can’t have solutions.  And without problems and solutions, you have no narrative.
Trump gets this better than all the rest — so much that he has his narrative on his hat, “Make America Great Again.”  There’s the statement of the problem in his view — that America has slipped.  He gets this stuff.  He’s spinning absolute circles around his opponents and the left is utterly lost.
There are dark days ahead.  That’s my fear-mongering statement of the problem.

#18) Trump Language Analysis: Analysts Bringing AAA’s to an ABT Fight

Donald Trump knows narrative. That’s the simple bottom line, with the emphasis on simple. At the core of effective narrative is the ability to find the simple singular theme — which is not what happens when people on the left take to analyzing Trump’s use of language. They end up with shopping lists of all the things Trump does, then usually package that with a tone of derision and dismissal. Trump has one huge advantage over the left that boils down to one word that he truly grasps — “simplicity.”


AND, AND, AND … here’s a guy presenting a shopping list of all the things Trump does. This doesn’t help things. His analysis is on the right track, but is so complicated as to be useless — not deserving of the smug voice he delivers it with — as if he’s solved the riddle of Trump.



Question: What’s the one asset Donald Trump has above all the other candidates, and really, pretty much all of today’s politicians? Answer: He has deep narrative intuition. He understands narrative and he wields it like a bat.

He’s not a great storyteller. Narrative and storytelling are not the same. Ronald Reagan was a great storyteller. Trump doesn’t tell great stories. But what he has is a powerful grasp of narrative, meaning the basic problem-solution dynamic.

He speaks in tight loops of problem-solution. And he gets to the solutions immediately and simply. No beating around the bush. No answers of “It’s complicated.” Just simple answers, producing tight, closed narrative loops, which people really like. Even if the solutions are unrealistic and dishonest.

You won’t find the same pattern in any of the other candidates. Ted Cruz has almost none of this intuition. Jeb Bush has even less.

There has never been a politician like Trump. He is custom made for today’s media-driven world — which is why Fox and MSNBC swoon over him.

The Democrats had better stop ridiculing him, stop making predictions that he could never win, and start understanding this thing called narrative that he has a mastery of. I published a book on it last fall. He embodies everything that I wrote about. He’s not someone to be laughed at.

#17) Yet another ABT Speech: MLK’s “I Have A Dream”

Everywhere you find effective communication you’ll almost certainly find the ABT at work. There’s a lot of reasons Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I Have A Dream …” speech is one of the greatest speeches in American history, but one of them is strong narrative structure. Look how it opens — pure ABT.

CLARITY OF MESSAGE. Yes, it is that simple. He could have gone off in ten different directions right from the start, but he didn’t. After an opening greeting, he delivered three sentences of exposition, then got right down to business, stating the problem followed by a statement of consequence.



It’s kind of hard to say which part of a narrative is most important. If you confuse or bore people at the start, you’ve lost them. If you don’t close well, the whole effort can be a waste. And it kind of helps to not make a mess of things in the middle.

But in a world of short attention spans, it is increasingly crucial to have a strong opening. People are making their minds up whether to listen from the start.

Lots of people over the ages have analyzed MLK’s great speech. There’s tons to praise in it, and given the seriousness of the moment and enormity of his audience in front of the Lincoln Monument, he pretty much couldn’t go wrong. But regardless, it still mattered whether he bored, confused or drew the audience in from the start. By opening with solid ABT structure, he guaranteed the latter.



Once you recognize that the speech opens pretty close to perfectly with solid ABT structure, I think it’s worth conceding that the rest of it, while powerful and effective, isn’t so air-tight for narrative structure as to deserve the label of “perfect.” What is good is the basic messaging of using a lot of repetition.

About two thirds through he hits a stretch where he starts eight consective sentences with “I have a dream …” That’s a little bit “And, and, and-ish,” but that’s okay. By that point he’s hammering home his message through repetition.

What’s worth considering is that there might have been a story he could have told. As great as the speech was, there could well have been an even better, more powerful version with tighter narrative structure. Who knows. That’s the thing about the narrative challenge — you can never prove that there doesn’t exist a better version.

But the key point is that MLK had deep narrative intuition, and that showed itself by how he opened the speech. He started simple, drew his audience in, then let loose with the exhortations they needed and wanted to hear.



In my next blogpost I’m going to go to the opposite end of the spectrum by looking at what is considered by many scholars to be the worst speech ever given by a U.S. President — Jimmy Carter’s 1979 speech on malaise. Guess what he opens with — a defective ABT mess that is basically a “double but” situation. Ugh. Case in point.

#16) FOR STUDENTS OF THE ABT: The delicate power of the ABT words

We’re breaking new ground with the ABT. You won’t find any of this in textbooks. For those of you who have taken part in Story Circles or read, “Houston, We Have A Narrative,” you should find this extra interesting. It’s an example of what I think is the subconscious avoidance of the BT words (BUT, THEREFORE) in a delicate situation. Check out what I’m saying here and see if you agree. If you have thoughts, please send me an email at info@randyolsonproductions.com

The words “but” and “therefore” (or “so”) are powerful in conversation. They are the core words of narrative — the words that cause the brain to activate the narrative centers. It’s a standard rule of thumb in dispute resolution to avoid the word “but” and most improv instructors (who are trying to work in the direction of affirmation) also ban the word. “But” is the prime word of contradiction, and “therefore?” is a word that people use in frustration when they are wanting to know what the speaker is getting at. Which means when things are delicate, you probably want to use them sparingly.



The New Yorker had a fairly painful and delicate article over the weekend about rape. The author, Jeannie Suk, was herself involved in the issue of a sexual assault case at Harvard that was presented in a new documentary. The article is both reporting on the politics of the documentary, as well as a statement of her opinion.

Because of the extremely sensitive nature of the issue, you can tell she has chosen every single word very carefully. What is interesting is to examine the ABT structure of her final paragraph.

Looking at it from the ABT perspective (and this is what I mean by the term “the ABT Framework”) you can get a feel for how delicate her word selection is. I’ve dropped in BUT and THEREFORE where you can sense they could go if you wanted to use them.


Sexual assault is a serious and insidious problem that occurs with intolerable frequency on college campuses and elsewhere. Fighting it entails, among other things, dismantling the historical bias against victims, particularly black victims—and not simply replacing it with the tenet that an accuser must always and unthinkingly be fully believed. It is as important and logically necessary to acknowledge the possibility of wrongful accusations of sexual assault as it is to recognize that most rape claims are true. And if we have learned from the public reckoning with the racial impact of over-criminalization, mass incarceration, and law enforcement bias, we should heed our legacy of bias against black men in rape accusations. The dynamics of racially disproportionate impact affect minority men in the pattern of campus sexual-misconduct accusations, which schools, conveniently, do not track, despite all the campus-climate surveys. Administrators and faculty who routinely work on sexual-misconduct cases, including my colleague Janet Halley, tell me that most of the complaints they see are against minorities, and that is consistent with what I have seen at Harvard. (BUT) The “always believe” credo will aggravate and hide this context, aided by campus confidentiality norms that make any racial pattern difficult to study and expose. (THEREFORE) Let’s challenge it. Particularly in this time of student activism around structural and implicit racial bias pervading campuses, examination of the racial impact of Title IX bureaucracy is overdue. We are all fallible—professors, students, and administrators—and disagreement and competing narratives will abound. But equating critique with a hostile environment is neither safe nor helpful for victims. We should be attentive to our history and context, and be open to believing, disbelieving, agreeing, or disagreeing, in individual instances, based on evidence.

The first six sentences of the paragraph are a series of “and’s” with the fourth sentence even starting with the word “and.” This material is all exposition, setting up the overall argument using the ABT structure.

The seventh sentence is the statement of opinion. In the language of Gerald Graff, author of “They Say, I Say,” the first six sentences are the “they say,” the seventh sentence is the “I say.”

Try reading the sixth and seventh sentences the way she has written it, then try it again including the BUT. You can feel that the latter version is a little more powerful, a little more aggressive, a little more pushy — which is what she didn’t want to finish with given the sensitivity of the issue.

And then look at the next sentence — it is the clearly the statement of consequence or action. She is offering up her recommendation of what to do about this predicament (“Let’s challenge it.”). Of course hardly anyone uses the word THEREFORE, but you could definitley drop in “So, let’s challenge it.” But again, if you did, you’d be making the text more pushy.

This is what I’m saying about the delicate use of language here. Remembering that “the power of storytelling rests in the specifics,” you can see she went the opposite way, intentionally making her content less powerful.



The last paragraph is, of course, her summary statement of the article. It is also structured not just with the ABT, but actually with the five parts referred to by screenwriting guru Frank Daniel in his 1986 speech that I quote in my book. Here’s what Daniel said:

THE FRANK DANIEL QUOTE: In a dramatic story the pattern usually for the connecting scenes is: “and then,” “but,” “therefore,” “but,” and towards the culmination “mean­ while.” If you don’t have this “but” and “therefore” connection between the parts, the story becomes linear, monotonous. Diaries and chronicles are written that way, but not scripts.

If you look at the remainder of the text, you see the final two sentences match the five part structure described by Frank Daniel. Sentence #11 actually starts with BUT, and Sentence #12 is the culminating statement, “We should be attentive …”

This is what I’m talking about with the term ABT Framework. Once you learn these words and realize the narrative roles they play, you can start to break down the narrative structure of individual sections of text.

In this case, the ABT structure is present throughout the article, and nowhere more than in the final, wrap up paragraph.



I’ve now formed an Advisory Committee for Story Circles who are sort of my sounding board for the development of these sorts of thoughts and observations. One of them felt the BUT should be dropped into the third sentence, but … I disagreed. I think all the opening six sentences are statements of fact, including the third sentence. It’s the seventh sentence that says, “will aggravate,” which is basically a prediction, meaning it’s her statement of opinion.

And here’s one last narrative dimension of this one paragraph. I think those first six sentences are kind of convoluted with much of it being extraneous to her more important point. And actually, I have a feeling the very nature of it being so indirect and muddled as she’s trying to summarize her argument further reflects the delicate and hesitant nature of what she’s trying to say. It’s a very volatile subject at the moment for which I would expect even a well written essay like this one to have these sorts of narrative features.

#15) Fun with Climate in Paris?

As a rule, environmentalists are largely humorless. When it comes to climate, this is compounded by an air of self righteousness, making them prime targets for ridicule. Tonight in Paris we’ll see if Marc Morano is able to take advantage of this. It shouldn’t be too hard.

HELPING YOUR ENEMY’S CAUSE? Whoever is behind these posters in Paris, do they realize what they are doing? Have they not heard of Richard Lanham’s book, “The Economics of Attention”? Attention is money. They might as well donate to Marc Morano’s climate skepticism cause to help him with publicity.



When it comes to climate and humor it’s pretty much of a contradiction in terms. The only humor in “An Inconvenient Truth,” was Gore making fun of his clueless elementary school science teacher who, “probably grew up to become the science advisor to the current (Bush) administration” (way to alienate the Republicans you’re hoping to reach in the first ten minutes of your movie).

There are stacks of climate documentaries over the past decade, almost none of them funny. My friend Robbie Kenner did manage to finally bring a smidgen of humor earlier this year to “Merchants of Doubt,” but only a smidgen as it was still set in the overall holier than thou tone that has characterized the climate movement from the start.

There’s actually only one truly brilliant piece of climate comedy over all these years, which is the group in Australia behind, “The Hamster Wheel: Lord Monckton,” a four minute video in 2011 that punked oddball climate skeptic Lord Monckton at a level as skilled or better than “The Daily Show” in the old days. It was a true masterpiece.

But all the rest are overly-somber pronouncements on how we’re all doomed — the lecturing voice of a largely humorless community. So now let’s see how they deal with someone making fun of them.



In 2008 I took my shot at having fun with the climate issue. Following my movie “Flock of Dodos” in 2006 lots of people asked if I could make an equally entertaining movie about the attacks on climate science. I gave it a shot. I made, “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy.” You know what happened? Most environmentalists hated it.

The word got out I had made a piece of “climate humor.” Initially there was interest. I was invited to submit it to at least five “environmental film festivals,” in DC, Georgia, California, Wyoming and Colorado. But all of them rejected it. Two of them even wrote emails implying the overall tone of it was inappropriate. Climate bloggers were even worse, and the scientific journal Nature (that bastion of cinema savvy) gave it the only rotten review of my entire filmmaking career out of more than 100 published.

In the end we premiered the movie in Hollywood at the Outfest Gay and Lesbian Film Festival (two of the leads were gay and the festival values humor and not taking oneself too seriously) and the Woods Hole Film Festival (they were open minded enough to realize the movie was pro-climate movement, it just had an irreverent attitude, which is largely forbidden in the traditionally reverential environmental world).

One of the most memorable characters of the movie was budding climate skeptic Marc Morano. At the time he was the spokesman for the loudest climate skeptic in Congress, Senator James Inhofe. We had fun interviewing him in a senate hearing room. He was intrigued with filmmaking and seemed to have an inate feel for entertainment. I enjoyed his sense of humor and as a result have stayed in touch with him over the years, including having him on a panel discussion at a screening at Syracuse University. Also, I lobbied Robbie Kenner to include him in “Merchants of Doubt.”



In 2010 I opened my new blog, The Benshi, with a four part series about Marc Morano which angered a number of climate folks. But I concluded it with a clear warning to watch out for Morano and more importantly to quit debating him on TV. It is a no-win situation to engage Marc in debate. He is faster than any climate advocate, and because he has the power of ridicule on his side, the whole field is tilted. I said back then the only people who should engage with him are trained comedians.

Nevertheless, just last year Bill Nye simply couldn’t resist the Morano bait and went down in flames to him on CNN. Excerpts of the debate were in “Merchants of Doubt,” prompting Indiewire (the most highly respected news source in the independent film world) to say, “There’s a reason Bill Nye isn’t known as The Public Relations Guy.”

A friend of mine with NPR said he was in their newsroom of his studios where the debate was up on the TV live as everyone in the room laughed at Nye while asking about Morano, “who is this guy?” — realizing the power of his ability to attack. He is a machine and has been literally unstoppable over the past decade — just as I warned in 2010.

Now, tonight, Marc Morano is in Paris, reaching for his highest achievement to date.



Marc enjoyed “Sizzle.” On the Syracuse panel he told about how he received the DVD of “Sizzle” in 2008 just as everyone he knew on Capitol Hill was getting worn down and fed up with the climate issue. The humor of the film proved popular as the DVD was passed around from one congressional office to another.

He was intrigued by the power of humor, was intrigued by the power of film, has a natural ability with humor (many of the reviews of “Merchants of Doubt” called him the best thing in the movie, including a kid at the test screening I attended who said, “I know I’m not supposed to like him, but the guy in the movie I’d most want to have a beer with is Marc Morano”).

His new movie “Climate Hustle” premieres tonight in Paris. I’m willing to bet money that at least it won’t be boring, which is a whole lot more than can be said for the vast majority of the well intentioned, generally-sucky efforts of environmentalists. I’m not a supporter of Marc’s agenda and never have been, but I do appreciate that he is at least a soldier in the War on Boredom, which is what I think is truly the greatest threat to humanity.


#14) “The Big Short” is an Excellent Educational Film

The filmmakers would probably hate it to be labeled as “an educational film,” but it’s true and is the highest praise. They pulled out all the stops to help the public understand the enormity and permanence of Wall Street’s crimes of the past decade.

Would you buy a used car from either of these two guys? Great movie.



I went to an advance screening of the upcoming movie, “The Big Short,” (coming Dec. 11) based on the Michael Lewis book. It’s a fascinating and challenging movie — forcing you to run full speed with them as they do their best to explain all the tricks and cons at work on Wall Street in 2006, when the housing market bubble was getting ready to burst.

It almost feels like a Discovery Channel show at times as they bring on all sorts of fun non sequitur cameos to explain the most complex concepts — like chef Anthony Bourdain at his chopping block using squid and halibut to explain derivatives (I think) or Margot Robbie in a bathtub explaining another concept while of course sitting in a tub full of bubbles.

There’s also a lot of breaking the fourth wall — actors looking into camera to explain what’s going on — almost like having a “benshi” at times (the name of my old blog!). It’s very complex material, yet they don’t shy away from trying to get the audience to understand what happened.



If you read the section in my new book about the fundamental divide between the more narrative form of archplot versus the more truthful form of miniplot, this is a movie that draws on all its muscle of star power and creativity to do an honest, as-accurate-as-possible miniplot job of conveying the truth. At one point, for one particular sequence, an actor talks into the camera and admits the real events didn’t happen like this for this bit, but that only strengthens the credibility of the rest of the film — that they would concede the few places where they did significant fabrication for dramatic purposes.

It’s really an excellent movie. It won’t reach as large of an audience as if they had gone the more archplot route of synthesizing a fictitious character who could then experience all the stages of The Hero’s Journey. And that’s just more reason to admire the filmmakers.

One more interesting twist — it’s directed by Adam McKay. Let’s see, what great hard hitting dramatic epics is he known for? Let’s start with “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” and “Step Brothers.” That’s how much the producers pulled out all the stops to make this very difficult yet important material watchable for the masses — they knew they had the solid factual story from the book by Michael Lewis. To that they added an incredible team of actors topped off with a director who knows how to lighten things up.

In the end, it’s a fairly sad and cynical story. There really aren’t any winners. Even the guys who became billionaires from their investment savvy ended up feeling at least a twinge of guilt that they did it off the savings, homes and retirements of all the less fortunate of America. And as most people know, only one of the culprits from Wall Street ever went to jail while the corrupt system underwent just about no reform. It’s a tragi-comedy of Shakespearean proportions.


#13) Great Article in the New Yorker on the B.S. Nature of Polling

A metrics-driven society inevitably ends up with metrics-driven debacles. For polling, the tradition of bogus results goes back to the 1940’s and is stronger than ever today. What’s the consequence? In a “Trumpian culture” (as the article terms it) the power is to those who have a command of narrative.




In 1992 I helped with running phone polling for Bill Clinton’s Presidential campaign in New Hampshire. I was a professor at UNH and it was still the first in the nation primary state. For probably a dozen nights I did phone calls with about five other people in the small campaign office in Portsmouth.

What struck me the most was the number of hang-ups. Not many rude comments, just the majority of people not wanting to answer the questions we were calling to ask. That was the start of my big time susipicion of all polling data. Why weren’t we concerned about the biases of this huge level of non-participation?

This is a major dimension of Jill Lepore’s excellent article in this week’s issue of The New Yorker titled, “Politics and the New Machine: What the turn from polls to data science means for democracy.” She has just the sort of critical perspective I subscribe to The New Yorker for, diggin waaaay back into the history of polling in America to show how much of it has been bogus for at least 70 years.



You would have thought polling itself would have gone extinct in 1948 when Gallup himself said of his prediction that Dewey would beat Truman the whole world would see, “how good we are.” He should have been tarred and feathered back then with “Gallup” being as culturally discredited as Benedict Arnold, instead of giving rise to the sacred Gallup Polls of today.

The article points out how the process of polling in America (which emerged in the 1920’s, back when it was exciting to be asked your opinion, resulting in over 50% participation), has now dwindled to “single digits” for almost all phone polling. Meaning I wasn’t alone with my New Hamphire “no thank you” experience.



In 2005 when I set to work on my documentary “Flock of Dodos” about the evolution controversy in Kansas I listened to my interview subjects talk about the “statewide” polls on support for the teaching of evolution. Which seemed impressive except for one minor detail — my younger brother, who at the time worked in the oil fields of Kansas — kept reminding me, “NOBODY in this state cares about this stupid issue — they care about jobs — it makes them angry when they see evolution on the front page of the newspaper.” Which I had already sensed just from talking to my old high school and college friends there. The public concern was largely manufactured by journalists.

The thought that kept running through my head ends up being exactly what Lepore addresses. She writes, “The first question a pollster should ask,” the sociologist Leo Bogart advised in 1972, is, “Have you thought about this at all? Do you have an opinion.” EXACTLY!!!

That is exactly what I kept thinking — how many of these working class people in Kansas have really digested this issue of evolution versus creationism and decided they have a clear and strong opinion. The number was probably statistically indistinguishable from zero. So much bogusness.



Thus my concerns for today. Who are the people being polled for the endlessly quoted and worshipped climate polls? So much bogusness. So much time and resources spent on numbers, some of which become self-fulfilling — “Well, we were going to launch a campaign and actually DO something, but … our polling shows …”

The concern is sample size. How do you extrapolote a poll of 200 Americans to a population of 200 million voters? Lepore addresses these very concerns in her article. The answers she encounters further define the bogosity of it all — especially quoting Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies saying, “The people we have trouble getting are less likely to vote.”

He’s saying they are confident that their tiny sliver of the population who will actually answer their questions are enough to gauge the entire voting public. Says who? What’s that based on? Probably a poll of voters asking them who they think are most likely to vote. Piles of endless circularity.

The fact is people worship data. I still love the quote from uber-cynical climate skeptic Fred Singer in my movie, “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy,” who talked about models he was commissioned to create to predict the price of oil 50 years in the future. The people paying him knew the models were bogus, he knew the models were bogus, and nobody cared — he got paid and they got their numbers to argue with. Ugh.

There are not enough critical journalists in the world like Jill Lepore. Which is a shame. Her article is excellent. At the core it is questioning of “scientism,” (the worshipping of science, including metrics) which is what the world needs more of.



Anyhow, do the math (bad pun), add it all up, and the net result ends up being Trump. Very simple. In my webinar on Dec. 1 I’ll mention how with the ABT you can show quantitatively that Trump has a far better grasp of narrative than the other candidates. And actually, you don’t even need the numbers — just understanding narrative structure a bit you can see how he is a master of it, talking in tight loops of problem-solution (albeit cheating), in a way that the masses love. In the language of Robert McKee, Trump talks archplot, the other candidates (especially Democrats) talk miniplot.

He’s dropped a bit in the polls, but he still has the commanding presence. As Lepore mentions, the polls these days are based on such small sample sizes and have so much noise they are virtually meaningless. Which is why, as she points out, there were recent total poll shockers in the UK and Isreal, not to mention poor old Mitt Romney thinking he was going to win. It’s all cuckoo.

The best line of the article is quoting Arthur Lupia who says that horse-race polls (like the current Presidential polls) should be labeled, “For entertainment purposes only.”


#12) Fallout 4: A Victim of DHY

Most video games are about story — some more than others. The LA Times review of the new game “Fallout 4” dings it for errors of both AAA and DHY, though they don’t have the terms for it.

This is what we’re talking about with the ABT Framework. Once you get down the basic elements of the Narrative Spectrum, you start seeing them everywhere. Like the LA Times review of the new video game “Fallout 4.”



Stories begin with AAA (and, and, and). It’s called exposition — an assemblage of neutral facts that don’t yet engage the narrative centers of the brain. Not enough exposition and the story is confusing. Too much, it’s boring.

The LA Times reviewer for the new video game Fallout 4 says it took him 10 hours just to get to “the game’s first major city,” which he says was the first moment he began to actually warm to the game. That’s kind of like the end of the first act — the story is finally up and running, the audience is engaged.

He goes on to lament about that being just too much time — pretty much like a movie that takes forever to get to the first dead body. That’s an AAA problem — too much, “AND then we learn about this, AND then we learn about this, AND then we learn about this …” Enough already, get on with the story.



What’s a bigger concern is the overall feel of the game being just too complex. After 10 hours of play the reviewer says, “It still feels as if I’ve opened a board game for the first time, and before me lies the virtual equivalent of hundreds of tiny plastic pieces and the overwhelming dread that mastery won’t come easy.” This is the situation I’ve described in my new book as DHY — Despite, However, Yet — representing the situation of too many narrative directions at once.

It’s clear that the game is just too muddled — too much narrative, too many directions, too much detail. It lacks the simplicity of narrative that make stories popular. He reflects this by making references to simpler games of which he is more fond, by saying, “I miss the ease with which Lara Croft traversed ruins, and I miss the relative svelte nature of its story.”

The point of this post is not about video games (I don’t have the time to spend 10 hours just getting into one, though I wish I did). The point is how broadly the Narrative Spectrum applies to any world in which story is present. Show me a story, any story, and I’ll show you the forces of AAA, DHY and ABT at work.


#11) Story Circles Goes Operational at USDA/ARS

Last week we launched two new Story Circles with the U.S Department of Agriculture/Agriculture Research Service (USDA/ARS). Story Circles is past the experimental phase of last spring and is now operational.

STORY CIRCLES KITS. This is where the training begins, including the new ABT Dice.



Last spring we developed our Story Circles Narrative Fitness Training, running four prototypes at three locations. They ran surprisingly smoothly with only a few bumps to iron out over the summer.

Of all the locations, the one that emerged as the best was with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in their Agricultural Research Services program (ARS). Specifically, their Office of Scientific Quality Research (OSQR, they call it Oscar) is heading up the effort. They are the folks with the greatest vested interest in improving the narrative quality of their project proposals (called Project Plans). They, more than any other group, quickly took to Story Circles.



Now we’ve moved out of the development phase — Story Circles is now operational. We just launched two new Story Circles with the southeast region of USDA/ARS — one “local” with five research scientists at their Fort Pierce, Florida research station, the other “remote” — five research scientists from several other locations who will hold their sessions via teleconferencing which will be the first time for this.

I was in Ft. Pierce last week to run the one day orientation session for both Circles. Unlike last spring, where it felt like we were making things up as we went along, now it is feeling firmly established. It works, it’s relatively simple, and now it’s up to the participants to put in the effort to make it effective.

If there’s one thing we learned from the prototypes, it’s that you get back what you put in. The harder people worked on the materials, the deeper the feel for narrative structure they gained. There are several other government agencies now talking to me about introducing Story Circles to their employees. It looks like USDA/ARS will be the model for all the others.



Last Saturday night CBS 48 Hours Mystery (one of my favorite shows) presented a fascinating case if you’re a fan of story structure. A prosecutor tried once and failed. Then on his second try, he basically shrank the river of story and won.

THE TRUTH SWIMS AGAINST STORY. (Figure 15 from “Houston, We Have A Narrative”). The fish of truth has a hard time when forced to swim upstream against the river of story, BUT … what if you shrink the river of story?



Last Saturday night my favorite TV show, 48 Hours Mystery aired a seemingly silly, but ultimately fascinating case. It fits right in to the dynamic of the fish of truth and river of story dynamics I present at the end of, “Houston, We Have A Narrative.”

The murder case itself was pretty weird. A woman shot her husband of 15 years in the head twice, then claimed it was an accident, caused by their imitating a Bugs Bunny episode.

The story she spun in the initial trial was so unusual, specific and almost plausible that it ended up overriding the huge body of forensic evidence presented. The proscuting attourney, similar to so many prosecutors who present mountains of science-based evidence, was fairly stunned when the jury voted to acquit — as stunned as an evolutionist with all the science-based evidence who loses a debate to a creationist telling great stories.

Some of the jurors bought her story. She claimed that she and her wacky husband routinely quoted Bugs Bunny scenes to each other. In this case she picked up his handgun, he said, “no buwwets,” quoting Elmer Fudd, then she started “fan firing” the gun (similar to old western gunslingers holding down the trigger while “fanning” the hammer for multiple rapid shots). He leaned forward into the line of fire and oof, took two in the head, lights out.



Years later the woman was retried for the murder. This time around the prosecutor made a savvy decision. He opted to not present any of her post-arrest interrogation where she told about the Elmer Fudd thing in detail. Because of this, the whole wacky buwwets element never came up. The defense kept expecting him to get into it. He never did. As a result, all the jury got was the science-based forensics information.

Unlike the first trial where the jury ended up deadlocked after several days, in the second trial the jury took only one day to reach a decision — guilty. The prosecutor attributed it entirely to the removal of the Bugs Bunny element.

Bottom line, in the language of story — if you shrink the river of story (if it goes against the truth), the truth stands a better chance.


#9) Operation ABT: The War on Boredom

It’s time to begin the all-out offensive on boredom.  We have found the enemy (the dreaded “and, and, and” structure) and we have the weapon with which to destroy it (the ABT).  Next month in workshops with USDA and USFWS, then a webinar in December, we will unleash the first stage of the campaign.  Some day, boredom will be a thing of the past.


ABT:  THE DNA OF STORY.  Most of what you need to know about narrative dynamics, boiled down to just three words.



Don’t panic.  Just having some fun here.  The first wave of reviews on the book are out and they all have one thing in common: an appreciation of the power of the ABT.  Nature called it “the backbone of story” and the Science review at least quotes me saying it’s awesome (good enough).

It is indeed awesome, and is the central element of most everything I do now.  Next week I’ll be launching two new Story Circles with USDA in Florida (training built around the ABT), then a couple weeks later will be in Madison, Wisconsin to run an ABT session with 50 scientists from US Fish and Wildlife Service and other government agencies.

In addition to these training sessions, at the start of December I’m going to do a webinar on the ABT with a number of organizations.  If you haven’t watched the 2 minute animated ABT video, here it is — share it with everyone who is bored with boredom.

Lots more to come as we seek to rid the world of the “bo-ho-horing.”


#8) The Nature Review

The book was selected as one of five Books in Brief this week in Nature. Coming soon is the Science review.

Nature Paragraph for Book

HOUSTON, WE HAVE A BOOK REVIEW (albeit tiny).  Nice that they picked out the ABT elements and called it “the Hollywood formula.”  What they meant is, “Aristotle’s and all of humanity’s formula.”



#7) The IPCC Needs the ABT Framework (#ABTFramework)

NEWS UPDATE:  Journalists are now telling us that scientists are saying something about “the end is near,” but they can’t quite make out exactly what the scientists are saying because they are so hopelessly confusing and boring.  

A report last week in Nature says communication by the IPCC has gotten worse over the past decade, not better.  The IPCC needs the ABTFramework.  We are now propagating the ABT approach at USDA (I’ll be running another two Story Circles next month).  One science group has already used the ABT to fix their statement to the upcoming Paris climate meetings.  People have been complaining about the poor communication efforts of the IPCC for years (John Sterman had a note about it in Science in 2008). They need the ABT Framework.    Actually, so does the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test, developed in 1975 (it’s 2015, we now know things about the importance of narrative structure).  Come on, everybody, we can do better than this.



INCREDIBLY PERMANENT COMMUNICATION CHAOS (IPCC).  Apparently the journalists are getting better at communication as the IPCC gets worse.  What a great way to watch the world end — journalists telling us really clearly that they can’t understand what the scientists are saying.



It was 2008 when my good friend John Sterman had his MIT math and science grad students read the executive summary of the last IPCC report and try to translate it into understandable language.  In so doing, about half of them got wrong the basic contents of what the summary was saying.  He published a great short essay about it in Science, saying if MIT grad students can’t understand what you’re saying, how do you expect the public to.  You would have thought the IPCC might have improved things in response to being called out.  Not even close.



This isn’t me doing the criticizing — it’s in Nature last week in an article titled, “UN Climate Reports are Increasingly Unreadable.”  And you want to know what’s really sad in that article — they quote senior climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer saying, ““If newspapers and other intermediaries are doing a progressively better job of communicating IPCC findings to the larger public, and if governments are happy, is there really a problem?”

Really?  This is serious business.   And no, it doesn’t work to let the science folks communicate poorly just because you think the journalists are some sort of miracle workers.  Ever hear the expression “Garbage in, garbage out”?  If the process starts with garbage communication, you’re going to run a substantial risk of ending up with something being wrong down the line.  It’s kind of like the old Telephone Game.  Honestly.



So just last week a scientist told me about a committee of 20 people from a scientific organization he’s part of, putting together their climate statement for the upcoming Paris climate meetings.  They had a classic case of “herding cats” with everyone wanting their separate message to be part of the statement.  But he stepped in with the ABT, and bingo — they came up with a clear, easy to read 6 paragraph statement with solid ABT structure.  It has two simple paragraphs of set up, one paragraph that lays out a single narrative direction, then the remaining paragraphs of consequence and action needed.

Yes, it is that seemingly simple, though doing it skillfully takes time and training.  The IPCC doesn’t need to be hopeless (unlike what Oppenheimer is suggesting).  It just needs the ABT Framework.



#6) The Union of Concerned Scientist’s Review of “Houston”

Aaron Huertas of Union of Concerned Scientists has written an accurate/spot-on/pretty much perfect review of “Houston, We Have A Narrative.” UCS was the first NGO to “get it” for my first book. I can now say the same thing for this book, which is why I’ve been a fan and running workshops with them for six years now. Thank you, Aaron, for listening well.


BOOK REVIEW.  It’s so nice to feel like someone has heard what you were saying.  That’s called “communication.”



When my first book, “Don’t Be Such A Scientist,” came out in 2009 the very first major organization to contact me and ask me to come speak with them was the Union of Concerned Scientists.  It’s six years later and they’ve pretty much done it again with the review of my new book by Aaron Huertas, one of their long time science communication folks (who has just left to work in the private sector — he will be sorely missed).

It takes a lot of time and effort to write and publish a book.  It can be really frustrating when it finally comes out and you hear some people completely misread and misinterpret the contents.  It happened occasionally for my first book — one major review accused me of advocating “bending the science to tell better stories,” a group of scientists at a major research institution tried to have me un-invited because they thought it was an anti-science book (helps if you actually open the book).  And without saying who, there has already been one blog review for the new book by someone who also seems to have done little more than flip through a few pages and get offended at my critical comments about the humanities.

But Aaron Huertas has written a review that shows not only that he read and absorbed the message of the book, he also adds heft and validity to his review by applying part of the contents to the issue of vaccination.



I guess there’s an element of “takes one to know one” — meaning that Aaron understands the book so well because he’s dealt with the same challenges I address.  He hits on so many of the most important points of the book — like “Working the storytelling muscle.”  Thank you for highlighting this point.

It’s one of the biggest frustrations I contend with right now — people saying, “right, got it, ABT, three words, I’m all set.”  We got this with our Story Circles prototypes last spring — one participant asked why there needed to be ten meetings — basically saying, “I got the ABT on the first day and was done.”  What can you do.

That’s like lifting a barbell twice at the gym and saying, “right, got it, barbells, you lift them up, I’m all set,” then going home and never returning, yet thinking you’re buff.



It’s about “narrative fitness training” — that’s what Story Circles is about.  I had one scientist at a major institution tell me this summer, “our comms people have done a great job running us through their one day storytelling workshop over the past couple years — we’ve got it down.”

No, you don’t.  Sorry.  It doesn’t happen in one day.  It doesn’t happen in three years of film school.  It doesn’t even happen in an entire lifetime, even if you win an Oscar.  Last spring I asked Eric Roth, author of the screenplays for “Forrest Gump” “Munich” and countless other heavy weight movies, if at age 70 he feels like he’s “got it” on the storytelling thing — he chuckled and said, “are you kidding?”

I’m still figuring this stuff out and I’ve now written three books about it.  Please don’t tell me you’ve learned all there is to know about narrative.  If you have, you ought to be making millions of dollars in Hollywood.  Let me know when that happens.

(FINAL NOTE:  be sure to read Aaron’s account of the ABT Paul Offit tells about his wife administering a vaccination — it’s a powerful demonstration of the faulty thinking of anti-vaccinationists)


#5) The ABT Walk of Life

It’s pretty true.


Ever listen to a kid tell you what he did today?  Ever listen to a professor drone on and on?



My good friend, screenwriter and author Mike Backes pointed this out to me and suggested this figure.

The AAA, which is the non-narrative default state, is common in kids who tell you about what they did today — “And then we went to the store, and then we saw a man, and then he said hello, and then we bought some ice cream, and then …”

At the other end of the spectrum is the learned academic whose thinking is so complex he ends up communicating on five separate narrative planes at once — “the classics are quite challenging despite their popularity, however some people would just as soon study poetry, yet I have a good friend who is fond of making his own haikus, but he’s not the only one who spends his spare time engaged in such activities, nevertheless …”

The real goal is right in the middle of the narrative spectrum.  People hit it at the prime of their lives.  That is when the brain is experienced enough, yet still sharp enough to construct clear, broadly understandable popular singular narratives.  That is when we have the best grasp of the ABT.

Such is the fate of humanity.

#4) #ABTframework: The new home base for ABT learning

My new book has a section titled “The ABT Way of Thinking,” but a simpler term for this is just “The ABT Framework.” When you get to know the ABT structure, you begin to see it all around you. It’s in the narrative structure of stories in the news, it’s present in written communication, literature, history, business — basically everywhere. This is part of the message of the book, which we’ll now start to compile at #ABTFramework.


SCIENCE INNOVATES AS FAST AS SENIOR CITIZENS CHANGE FASHIONS.  You want evidence of how slow things change in science?  This is the first figure from my new book.  It shows how long it took the four top medical journals to adopt the narrative template of IMRAD (Introduction, Methods, Results And Discussion).  Today they all use it, but it took FIFTY YEARS … a half century … for them to fully adopt it.  Change in science happens sloooooooowwwwww.



Next month will make four years since I heard Trey Parker describe his “Rule of Replacing” in which he told about the simple editing principle they use.  He was talking about the idea of replacing “and’s” with “but’s” and “therefore’s.”

Within a couple weeks I molded it into a single sentence template — one sentence built around the words, “and, but, therefore” which we now call “The ABT.”  In 2013 I gave a TEDMED talk on it, then had a letter in Science Magazine about it.

In my new book, “Houston, We Have A Narrative,” I run through a number of examples of putting the ABT to work in the real world such as helping panelists on a sea level rise panel, working with the AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors, and assisting an ocean scientist on her presentation.  Since writing those accounts, there are heaps more examples coming in every day.



There are about a dozen “early adopters” of the ABT who have been a big help to me.  These are people who took one look at it and said, “I get it,” then set to work using it and propagating it.  Are they communications heroes?  Not really, given how simple and common sense the ABT is.  They are just people who don’t care about “where did this come from” — they figure if it works, they’ll use it.

People like Park Howell who teaches storytelling to MBAs in the business school at Arizona State University.  He not only “got it” a couple years ago, he’s the guy who pointed me to the Gettysburg Address and labeled the ABT “the DNA of story.”

And Shirley Malcom, head of Education at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as this year’s winner of the prestigious UCLA Medal.  Shirley got the ABT at first glance.  She’s brought me in to work with a number of groups of speakers at AAAS and watched as the ABT has helped them find the narrative of what they have to say.

And Peter Griffith of NASA.  He, too, grasped the power of the ABT the first time he heard about it.  In February he had me speak on a panel at the North American Carbon Meeting which he co-organized.  I presented the ABT, the next day a number of scientists used it in their talks — some even bolding the words “And, But, Therefore.”

And Jayde Lovell who has been my co-producer of Story Circles.  This spring she applied for and was chosen as one of the twelve finalists out of nearly 2,000 submissions for the National Academy of Engineering’s “Next MacGyver” contest.  Her entire pitch was structured using the ABT, as was her live presentation in Hollywood which resulted in her winning one of the five slots which paid a cash prize and has her now working with folks in Hollywood on the TV pilot of her pitch.

And Mike Strauss who is head of the Office of Scientific Quality Review at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  He is in charge of overseeing quality control of research proposals.  He immediately saw the value of the ABT to the construction of good proposals.  After having me speak at their annual convention, he sponsored one of our Story Circle prototypes, then a workshop with 75 plant pathologists, and now two more Story Circles launching next month with plans for lots more within USDA.

There’s countless more.  In fact, just this week a scientist who is part of a 20 member group putting together a statement for the Paris climate meeting showed me how the ABT was the magic tool that enabled them to come up with a summary statement that is clear, cohesive and delivers a solid punch.  He said with that one tool they went from “herding cats” to unity.

Every day these stories now roll in, as well as people telling me about the latest “And, And, And,” presentation they got stuck in.  Lots more ahead for the ABT.  It’s just a matter of time.  There is no alternative narrative model.  It’s just the way that narrative has worked since 4,000 years ago when someone carved the story of Gilgamesh on cuneiform tablets in Mesopotamia.  It’s not a surprise it is the narrative magic bullet the science world, and pretty much everyone else, needs.

You can follow everything related to the ABT at the new hashtag, #ABTFramework.  


#3) Acquiring Narrative Intuition Painlessly: The ABT Dice

They’re fun, but also, they’re definitely not a gimmick.  A little bit of time with them and you will get a clear feel for the dynamics of the whole spectrum, from AAA to ABT to DHY.  They are a new addition to Story Circles.

LET THE GOOD TIMES ROLL.  The ABT Dice are like a simple improv game that introduces you to the Narrative Spectrum.


We’ll be launching two new Story Circles with USDA next month with lots more in the works (for a description of Story Circles go here).  For these groups we will include the new ABT Dice.  They are a simple tool for learning the basic dynamics of the three narrative templates.

Above is an amusing video that presents the dice and how they work.  Notice all the smiles in the shots from our workshop in August with 75 USDA Plant Pathologists.  Those shots are not faked.  It’s a workshop that’s actually fun.


#2) My “Business of Story” Podcast

Business/Story/Communications expert Park Howell did a podcast with me for his program, “The Business of Story.”  Park has been, not just an early adopter of the ABT (using it in his classes at the Arizona State Business School), but also a fellow researcher of the ABT.


BUSINESS NEEDS STORY.  That’s pretty much the argument of Park Howell of the Arizona State University business school.  He’s telling MBA’s the same thing I’m telling science folks, and not surprisingly he has been an early adopter of the ABT.



Two years ago when my book, “Connection,” with Dorie Barton and Brian Palermo came out, one of the first people to read it and contact us was Park Howell, a faculty member in the business school at Arizona State University.  He flipped over the ABT.

Over the past two years he has made MAJOR contributions to my development of the ABT — including spotting it in the Gettysburg Address and labeling it “The DNA of Story,” which I cited him for in the book and is the title of the animated video.

So it was only logical that he would have me on his podcast, “The Business of Story,” to talk about the ABT in all its facets.  I come off as a little bit of a late night infomercial spokesman (“It slices!  It dices!”), which is only fitting because I feel that way about the ABT.

Here’s the episode, titled, “The Science of Storytelling.



#1) “Science Needs Story” Begins!

New book, new video, new blog (hopefully new things to say).


SCIENCE NEEDS STORY.  Or at least that’s what this new book argues.



Welcome to my new blog, “Science Needs Story.”  After running The Benshi for 5 years and 400 posts it felt like time to move on.   Plus, at the end of a 25 year journey, I have a clear and simple message for the world:  Science Needs Story, the subject of my new book, “Houston, We Have A Narrative:  Why Science Needs Story.”


This blog is going to be the same as the Benshi, yet different.  It’s the same old me, writing the same old posts, with the same basic interest in mass communication, and the same absence of comments (similar to recent developments on major blogs like The Daily Beast that have gotten rid of comments).  But it’s going to be different in that it will be more focused on a single topic — narrative.

 I’ve got plenty to say, so subscribe and stay tuned, it’s going to be a fun fall with the new book.