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

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

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



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

All we can say is yes, it works.

To learn more:  ATBFramework.com

#180) ABT FRAMEWORK COURSE, ROUND TWO: The Course So Nice, We’re Running It Twice!

Welcome to the most fun and rewarding teaching experience of my entire career.  We’ve had such a great time with the first round that we’re doing it again.  AND … at least 13 of the participants are joining us as members of The Platinum Club (elite status for the mileage they’ve accrued) to do the entire course for a second time.  Why?  Because they got the message — you don’t master narrative in a one day workshop.  Or even one course.  It’s a long term commitment, BUT worth it, THEREFORE …  

THE ABT FRAMEWORK COURSE IN ACTION.  To the right is the Chat Log that allows for continuous comments and questions which we reply to later in the day on the website.



Who knew an online “course” could be so interesting and fun.  

Notice I’ve put the word “course” in quotes from the start.  It’s not your basic hour online lecture.  Half of each session is our ABT Build sessions where each of the 50 participants in the course get their 5 minutes to share their ABT with the others, then have me do our “build” process where we poke and prod it with a series of questions and suggestions.  

So how good has the course turned out to be?  We’re running it again — immediately — starting next Monday.  We’ve already filled 38 of the 50 slots (will probably be full in the next few days), AND, most incredible of all — we’ve got 13 members from the first group — a quarter of the participants — coming back to do the entire course a second time.  

I can’t think of any better endorsement than that.  Second time is going to be even more fun than the first!  If you want in, here’s the link, enroll now before it’s full again. 

And here’s the basic outline of the course.  It’s the same course as the first time, which you can read about in the last post.

#179) It’s Time for The ABT Framework “Course”

Want to climb into the ABT sandbox and build some narrative sand castles?  We’re about to do it in a big way, for the first time ever, starting next Monday, April 20.  This will be an online “course” but I say the word in quotes because it’s going to be so PARTICIPATORY.  And fun.  Here’s the details.  You can ENROLL HERE — it’s open to everyone — and I do mean EVERYONE.  It’s cheap and I sincerely promise, it will expand your mind.




We’ve had a wonderful run with Story Circles Narrative Training 1.0 over the past 5 years.  We’ve completed roughly 100 circles of 5 (or more occasionally) individuals each, producing over 500 graduates.  The proof of how powerful and effective it has been is visible in the results of our Survey of Graduates last year.

Now it’s time to “advance the narrative.”

It’s also time for a little synthesis.  I started assembling what we’ve learned last year with the book, “Narrative Is Everything.”  Now we’re all stuck at home, so why not have some fun sharing the knowledge.



This is going to be something more than just a “course.”  It’s going to be a participatory journey.  And not just for the participants, but for me, as well.  

I formulated the ABT Narrative Template in 2012, gave a TEDMED Talk about it in 2013, laid it out in detail in my book, “Houston, We Have A Narrative,” in 2015, then began implementing it with our Story Circles Narrative Training program ever since.

The whole concept is still a work in progress, as the participants in this “course” type thing will realize.  There are no textbooks (yet) on the ABT Framework, but at this point, there are countless people putting it to work in trying to figure out the narrative core of their work, which means the AND (the context), the BUT (the problem being addressed), and the THEREFORE (what needs to be done).

There is so much to the ABT Framework that it’s definitely time to pull it all together into a “course” that in part is an argument along these lines:  The ABT is a powerful communications tool AND lots of people are beginning to see how ubiquitous it is in our culture, BUT I’m going to argue even further — that it is everything, THEREFORE … I hope you’ll join us and hold my feet to the fire because … I might be wrong.



Each hour session will begin with a 25 minute lecture, followed by 25 minutes of my working with 5 individuals LIVE on their ABTs as the rest of the group listens in and offers up comments and questions in the CHAT BOX.  At the end I’ll address a few of the questions in the 10 minutes of Q&A, but then later (probably that afternoon) I’ll also address other comments and questions from the Chat Box in writing, in an online forum we’ll be maintaining along with the “course.”

Here’s a little bit of teaser material for what each of the lectures will be about.

1 INTRO:  AND (Agreement)

Seriously?  An entire 25 minutes just for the one word, “AND”?  Yes, starting with the 2015 study from the Stanford Literary Lab that documented the frequency of the use of this one seemingly meaningless word in the legendarily boring annual reports of the World Bank.  Sadly, it’s a word with a big future, if we don’t realize how boring it is.  And … tune in to hear lots more, about this, the most common word of agreement.

2 INTRO:  BUT (Contradiction)

Is there a more important word in the entire English language?  You might think so, BUT … I would argue not.  The word “BUT” is the most common word of contradiction, and contradiction is at the center of narrative structure.  AND … narrative structure goes back thousands of years — it’s how we communicate.  I’ve got hours to say about this one word, BUT …  

3 INTRO:  THEREFORE (Consequence)

This is the real meat of what you’re here to hear.  By the end of the first week of the course, everyone is going to want an answer to the basic question of, “So what’s the THEREFORE of this course?”  It’s basically the old, “Where’s the beef?” question.  And it turns out to be the real substance of the ABT — basically, enough with the A and the B, we want to know the T.  THEREFORE, what are we going to learn with this course?   

4 The ABT in Business

Business is branding, and branding is ABT.  Yes, it’s that simple.  It’s what makes your product sell.  “Lots of companies make widgets that do this AND this, BUT nobody makes a widget that does this, THEREFORE, you need to buy my widget.”  Yes, there’s a million more facets to the elusive art of branding, but at the core, it’s as simple as ABT because business is argument, and argument is ABT.   

5 The ABT in Politics

From the iconic Gettysburg Address onward, where you find great speeches, you’ll find the ABT at work.   Narrative is leadership.  People don’t follow leaders who are boring or confusing.  From MLK, Jr to Richard Nixon’s megalomaniacal first inauguration address, every great speech is built around the ABT elements.  In this lecture we’ll use the Narrative Index (the BUT/AND ratio) to reveal this.

6 The ABT in Entertainment

This is where it started.   Aristotle and the Greeks first recognized the 5 part (which was essentially 3 part) structure of their plays.  The rest … as they say … is … you guessed it — history.  From Joseph Campbell to George Lucas to Oprah Winfrey delivering a Golden Globes speech for the ages.  We live in a media society.  Media is ABT.  Today, narrative intuition is obligatory for success in all facets of life.

7 The ABT in Science

A century ago scientists “got it” on the ABT.  They came together and established a structure for their communication that came to be known as the IMRAD Template (standing for Introduction, Methods, Results, And, Discussion).  Today … a lot of that collective consciousness of narrative intuition has been lost in our information drenched sea of obfuscation.  Guess what the result is for the communication of science in today’s world (not good).

8 The ABT in Medicine

For a teaser of this lecture read my article in Scientific American last month titled, “A New Tool for Humanizing Medicine:  It’s called the ABT Template, and if you want to talk to patients simply and clearly, it’s ideal.”

9 Narrative Selection

It’s a big concept, but by the time I get here, you’ll hopefully be right there with me in the realization  that this is the most important shaping force of our entire culture.  The brain is narrative.  The brain selects what persists.  Our culture is made up of what has persisted.  Narrative is our culture.

10 Narrative is Everything

In the end, it’s not about the ABT.  It’s about the three forces that underlie the three words — Agreement, Contradiction, Consequence.  These are the forces you see at work in all communication.  They are the elements that ultimately determine whether humans compete or cooperate.  They are everything.



The “course” will be limited to 50 participants because that’s the maximum number of 5 minute time slots we can fit.  When you enroll, you have to submit your one sentence ABT (a one sentence statement using the words And, But, Therefore that is the narrative core of a project you’re working on).  

For each session, 5 individuals will be chosen for the “ABT Build” part which will be 25 minutes in length.  For each person, they will join me on screen to read their ABT once or twice or more, then I’ll start to work, dissecting it, using the set of tools we’ve developed in Story Circles to poke, probe, revise and hopefully ultimately strengthen it.  

All the while, the rest of the group will be listening in, adding comments, questions and suggestions to the Chat Box.  Eventually everyone will get their 5 minute session, which is always fun.



Yeah.  Bummer.  I know.  You were hoping you could sign up, go for a walk during the time slot, then listen to the session that evening.  Not gonna happen.  You miss it, you miss it.

I want all participants present for every session.  Even if there’s only ten people who enroll, it’s going to be about EVERYONE taking part — listening, thinking, contributing. 

And all “of the moment.”  Experiential.  You’ll want to be listening with every neuron in the narrative part of your brain, and then some.

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

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

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



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

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








Abstract 1

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

Abstract 2

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

Abstract 3

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

Abstract 4

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



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


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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Franken was the great dramatic hope for the senate.

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

That was definitely a dramatic a moment. Which sucked.

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

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



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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

#173) BUILDING A BETTER ABT: A 14 Minute “ABT Build Session” from my San Diego Keynote

Here’s the last 14 minutes of the keynote address I gave last month at the combined conferences of eScience and Science Gateways in San Diego.  I had several volunteers send me their ABTs the night before.  I presented them to the audience, then did my standard breakdown/analysis making a few points about the various desired attributes of a strong ABT.  

ABT IN ACTION.  The basic challenge is to find the balance between the two opposing goals of being CONCISE but also COMPELLING.



First off, if you aren’t familiar with the ABT Narrative Template you should watch our AAAS Video that provides the basics.  It’s the tool for constructing the narrative structure of any project, presentation, program or proposal.

This is how you build good, strong ABT’s.  You can write a first draft of an ABT in less than a minute, but making it truly effective can take you months of thought and revision.

In the above video, taken from the end of a keynote address a couple weeks ago, I offer up suggestions on ABT’s written by three volunteers.  Each example I chose demonstrates a different attribute of a good ABT.

1) Wants vs Needs (cyberinfrastructure ABT) –  This examines in the context of the ABT the basic dynamic you hear from screenwriters about crafting the story of a single character on a journey in search of a goal.  The fundamental divide is between what the character WANTS in the long term, and what the character NEEDS to achieve the goal (Note:  in looking at some screenwriting websites I see that some people define these two words the opposite way — that “need” is your deep, inner life goal and “want” is what you’re seeking to help you fulfill the need — either way, it’s the same divide, the big picture versus the more immediate).

For example, you might WANT to be the world boxing champion, but you’re going to NEED some big muscles and a lot of punching skill to achieve your goal.  Watching you attain what you need to fulfill your goal is the recipe for a great story.

The same dynamic is true for science.

2) Specifics (online citizen science ABT) –  One of the fundamental rules for narrative is, “The power of storytelling rests in the specifics.”  Stories that are general (“I had a great day yesterday.”) are not as powerful as stories full of specifics (“I won $18 million in the lottery yesterday that will pay for my son’s heart transplant.”).

This was the main recommendation I had for this ABT.  Some of the “And” material wasn’t “on the narrative,” while the other material would benefit from a few more details.

3) The Real Problem (ice sheet melting ABT) –  You want to make sure you’ve dug down and found the real problem you’re interested in solving.  In this first draft, the problem is identified as the need for “unity.”  But the real problem is dealing with what is preventing unity.

Also, this ABT is more about the way research is conducted (with a unified approach) rather than the topic itself (ice sheet melting).  It’s essential that you’ve pinpointed the exact problem you’re working on and know how to state it simply and clearly.

#170) Climate Communication Imbalance: The term that’s needed is “Narrative Equivalence” (not “false equivlance”)

A new paper in Nature (that’s characterized by the standard obfuscation-rich academic style) seems mystified by how climate contrarians can get so much of the public’s attention when they are so few in numbers.  The authors don’t seem to understand the difference between data and narrative, much less know how to consider “narrative strength.”  Yes, in the world of data, it looks out of balance.  But in the world of narrative — where a single anecdote out-weighs a massive sample size — it makes total sense.   This is what should be called “Narrative Equivalence.”  Nothing false about it to the average, non-intellectual.  The challenge is for intellectuals to grasp this.

CLIMATE ENEMY #1.  Marc Morano is the most prolific voice of climate skepticism, by far.  His total publications are 35% more than his closest competitor.


A WORLD OF NOISE.  Climate skeptics sure do know how to make noise.



For about 15 years I’ve listened to bloggers complain about “false equivalence” when it comes to climate reporting.  In articles like this they bemoan the idea that 97 percent of scientists agree on climate, yet so many articles present the two perspectives as if they were equal in validity.  This is what they call “a false equivalency.”

Here’s how wikipedia defines the term:

False equivalence is a logical fallacy in which two completely opposing arguments appear to be logically equivalent when in fact they are not.

But what if the two perspectives on climate change (that it’s real versus fake) are equal if you use a different criteria than just data (meaning sample size)?  What if the story of a record setting blizzard is more convincing to someone that the climate isn’t warming than a graph showing a net warming of winters.  

The blizzard might have one great, dramatic, painful anecdote of someone freezing to death in the snow.  Such a story might be fairly convincing to many that the climate isn’t warming.  The graph is only information. 

Everyone should read the extremely simple, extremely powerful, extremely broadly written classic 2009 article by three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Nicholas Kristof of the NY Times.  I use it endlessly in my workshops and trainings.  He presents this basic property of narrative that it reaches it’s greatest strength with the story of only one person.  He cites the age old adage (attributed by some to Stalin) that, “The death of one person is a tragedy, the death of a million is just a statistic.”



The bottom line, as I’ve lectured and written on for more than a decade now, is that the brain has faulty programming.  Narrative overwhelms the analytical part of the brain.  It sucks, but it’s a fact.  And it leaves scientists handicapped when it comes to communication.  And even further handicapped by the desire to ignore that they have programming faults rather than admit it and work on it.

Here’s the detailed treatment I gave the problem in my recent book, “Narrative Is Everything.”



Scientists actually are different from non-scientists in how they think. That’s what we need to begin with. Remember Jerry Graff’s book title and general template for argumentation? His book is titled They Say, I Say. Let’s use that as our template for where we are so far in our journey through these five broad topics.

“They say” is our first three chapters (business, politics, entertainment). Just about everyone involved in those worlds accepts the importance of the singular narrative. Business people know you want to focus on the one main thing that distinguishes your product from the pack. Politicians know they need a clear singular message. And for the entertainment world, the question of “Whose story is it?” is the basic concession that you need to have one central narrative thread and stick to it if you want to tap into the power of Archplot (classical design) to reach a large audience (meaning the Outer Circle).

In 2012, the bestselling book The One Thing was voted one of the top ten business books of all time on the website Goodreads. It was custom-made for the business world, but it didn’t begin to suggest applying singular thinking to the world of science. Here’s why.


Scientists love big numbers—especially when it comes to sample size. As a scientist, you spend your life gathering and analyzing data. There is always this relentless force driving you to obtain larger sample sizes. It gets programmed into your psyche: big number good, small number bad. The worst number of all is one, the “anecdote.”

When you listen to a talk and the speaker says “exactly 40 percent of the moths were white,” you get a squeamish feeling. You think, “please don’t tell me you observed only five moths, and two were white …”

But then the speaker puts up the data and the value mentioned is actually 40.246%. You begin to relax. And then you see the sample size was 1,283,472 moths, and you say to yourself, “Wow. Over one milllllllion moths!”

You feel very, very good just looking at that large number on the screen. At the same time, you retain your dread fear of a sample size of just one. And of course that’s what an anecdote is: a single instance. It’s “n equals one,” in the parlance of scientists.


Storytellers love the singular narrative, which means they love the anecdote. Take a look at any issue of The New Yorker, and you’ll find at least one article that opens with an anecdote about one person.

In fact, let’s put this to the test right now. I’m opening up the March 18, 2019, issue of The New Yorker, which I just received yesterday. I’m seeing an article called, “The Perfect Paint: Farrow and Ball’s Selective Palette Is Creating a New Kind of Decorating Anxiety.” I’m turning to the article, and I’m reading the first paragraph, which begins with, “When Haley Allman and her husband bought an Edwardian town house … ” And there you have it—it opens with the story of one person, Haley (her husband is just an added detail)—the classic anecdote.

You can find at least one major article in just about every issue of The New Yorker that starts like this. The singular anecdote provides immediate focus and locks in your interest while conveying the basic theme of what’s about to be explored. But to scientists, it’s fundamentally wrong.

I developed an intimate familiarity with this in my science career. For example, one of my marine biological projects involved diving under the ice in Antarctica. The climate there was brutally cold, and for one starfish species we studied, I was only able to find one individual of the species and make one measurement. When it came time to publish a paper about the project, there was discussion over whether I should be allowed to mention that one observation, since it was “just an anecdote.”

The discussion came down to the question of whether the world of science would be better off knowing this one tidbit of unreplicated information, or whether science would be better if no one ever even heard it. It’s a bit like a judge ruling on whether hearsay evidence is admissible in court. We chose to not mention it. (P.S. The only recording of that one measurement was in a notebook that was in my house that burned down, so the world will never know that tiny piece of starfish data, boo hoo.)

This is how scientists are absolutely different from non- scientists. You are trained to be suspect and spurn anecdotes and be suspicious of them. And yet, the brain of the average human loves them—as exemplified in the extreme with the examples from Nicholas Kristof I mentioned in the first chapter about the advertisements of children dying in Africa. That communication was at its most powerful when the sample size of individuals being talked about was one.

So scientists dream of communicating in this somewhat non- human, anecdote-free manner that involves the luxury of running through all 43 points you want to make. When I work with them I can usually convince them that 43 is too much. But when you start to get down to their wanting to tell three stories versus my recommending they yield to Dave Gold’s single Christmas-tree model—that’s where it can get ugly .

They will push back, saying there is no one single story. I will push forward, saying, “Maybe there is, and you just haven’t realized it yet.” They will say three is good enough, I will try to point out there is greater power in the singular narrative and they will start to glare at me as though I am the enemy. I’ve been through it many times.

Scientists are different this way. I know because I used to be one. They yearn for an AAA-accepting world, but the truth is, they are the ones who have produced the technology that has glutted our world with information, resulting in even less tolerance for the AAA form. The world used to be more AAA, but narrative selection has changed the landscape — which will be our major topic for Chapter 6. 

#166) Defining “Story” versus “Narrative”

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

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



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

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

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



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

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

So here is my formal parsing of the two words.


APPENDIX 1 – Defining “Story” Versus Narrative 

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

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

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

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

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

So here are my analytical definitions of the two.    



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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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



So here is how I roughly define the two terms:

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

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

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