Sorry, but somebody needs to point this stuff out. Last month the U.N. released a Public Service Announcement (PSA) in advance of COP 26 that had almost all the same narrative elements of the greatest television commercial ever produced. All but one thing — NARRATIVE INTUITION. Dummies. Boring dummies. Worse, LECTURING boring climate dummies. Since when do we need a lecturing dinosaur?
Two Short Pieces intended for the entire planet. One, concise and smart. The other … a lecturing dinosaur who went on and on and on with a confused lecture. Why?
Here’s what the dinosaur (sadly, voiced by comic genius Jack Black) said. White is off the narrative. Blue is set up. Red is problem. Purple is sidebar. Green is solution.
WANNA SEE HOW CLUELESS THE CLIMATE MOVEMENT IS?
Who wants to be lectured to in this day and age? Not me. Not anyone young who isn’t a climate worshipper.
Once upon a time there were leaders with powerful NARRATIVE INTUITION who roamed the planet. One of them was the great innovator Steve Jobs.
THE APPLE COMMERCIAL (1984)
In 1984, Steve Jobs’ company, Apple, produced a television commercial that many experts point to as the great television commercial of all time (though important to know that his board hated it). It had simple narrative structure which was basically this:
AND – gray zombie workers lifelessly view a giant screen giving commands BUT – a rebellious woman in red shorts runs in and throws a hammer that shatters the screen THEREFORE – tag line, “Apple is introducing MacIntosh, 1984 won’t be like 1984”
THE UN DINOSAUR COMMERCIAL (2021)
Last month the U.N. produced a PSA for COP 26 with similar structure, almost…
AND – the UN general assembly is meeting as per usual BUT – a dinosaur takes the podium THEREFORE – therefore we get … a 1.5 minute rambling lecture???
Do you see the similarities in the first two parts — the set up and twist? Then do you see the difference between the CONSEQUENCE elements?
One had the narrative sensibility to know to get out quick once the point is made.
The other droned on and on and on, wasting the talents of a great comic actor (Jack Black, the voice of the dinosaur) and then even worse, the day it was released, Rachael Maddow on MSNBC raved about the spot, basically calling it a masterpiece.
WHO WRITES THIS STUFF?
Look at the narrative structure of the 1.5 minute lecture. It’s a big stinking pile of DHY (Despite, However, Yet — the overly narrative structure).
It’s all so symbolic of the entire climate movement of the past two decades, sort of beautifully so. It’s been one big movement of lecturing the public, scolding them, bombarding them, and then retreating in confusion as nobody listens.
As veteran Democratic party strategist James Carville talked about last spring in VOX, it’s really been the worst communicating movement in the history of the planet. He said, “Let me give you my favorite example of metropolitan, overeducated arrogance. Take the climate problem. Do you realize that climate is the only major social or political movement that I can think of that refuses to use emotion? Where’s the identifiable song? Where’s the bumper sticker? Where’s the slogan? Where’s the flag? Where’s the logo?”
I gave a talk a decade ago titled, “Dude, Where’s My Climate Movement?,” for the 50th anniversary of the World Wildlife Fund. Things were bad back then. They’ve only gotten worse.
And now the hero and presumed darling of the entire climate movement, Greta Thunberg, is turning on the entire movement with her “Blah, Blah, Blah,” critique, which sounds a lot like, “And, And, And.” She’s labeling them as boring, and failing to solve problems.
The Netflix documentary “Seaspiracy” appeared on Netflix in March, causing much “strum und drang” in the ocean conservation community. It addresses the two main elements of ocean destruction: POLLUTION and OVER-FISHING. Several ocean activist friends asked me for my opinion of the film. I decided to organize an episode of our new podcast ABT Time around it involving two experts on over-fishing that I’ve known for over 15 years each, Dr. Jennnifer Jacquet of NYU and John Hocevar of Greenpeace. What I’ve compiled here is a sort of Viewers Guide, especially useful to those who are learning the ABT Framework. I point out parts of the discussion where we delve into narrative structure in relation to the communication of these two issues through the film. We also use the more popular Oscar-winning, “My Octopus Teacher,” as a reference point for narrative dynamics.
Ocean science and policy experts Dr. Jennifer Jacquet of NYU and John Hocevar of Greenpeace.
THE ABT FRAMEWORK VIEWERS GUIDE TO OUR PODCAST EPISODE
There have been tons of articles and blogposts written about the recent documentary, “Seaspiracy.” This week on our new podcast, ABT Time with my Australian co-host Jen Martin, we hosted two ocean experts as guests. Our main goal was not to delve into the science and environmental policy side of the film, but rather to have the two experts work with us in analyzing the effectiveness of communication of the film.
As part of the exercise, we used the recent Oscar-winning ocean film, “My Octopus Teacher,” for comparison of narrative dynamics.
Here’s a sort of “Viewers Guide” to some of the specific aspects of our discussion that honed in on elements of THE ABT FRAMEWORK in relation to the two films. This material will be of particular interest to folks who have either taken the ABT Framework Course, are thinking of taking it, or have read “The Narrative Gym.”
OUR NARRATIVE ANALYSIS VIEWERS GUIDE
The time codes here refer to the Youtube version of the podcast which you can find here.
THE TWO ABT’s OF “SEASPIRACY” – I begin by laying out the two basic ABT’s of “Seaspiracy” which are:
HIS PERSONAL JOURNEY: The filmmaker fell in love with the oceans as a kid AND all the documentaries he viewed seemed to paint a healthy picture of the oceans, BUT then he began to learn what we all know, that the oceans are in bad shape, THEREFORE he decided to get involved in saving the oceans.
THE FILM’S OVERALL ABT: He went to work on ocean conservation AND all he heard about was plastic pollution BUT then he began to realize that over-fishing is the bigger, longer term issue, THEREFORE he felt deceived and thus the “conspiracy” element of the title.
PROBLEM: TOO MANY NARRATIVES (DHY) – In the ABT Framework we use the term DHY (Despite, However, Yet) to represent the form of a story that has too many narratives going at once.
You can hear Jen Martin address this as she says the film left her feeling “thoroughly overwhelmed.” She itemizes some of the problems brought up — she says, “one minute it was dolphins, then it was sharks, then it was marine certification, then it was turtles, then it was climate change, then it was mangroves, then it was slavery at sea, then it was whales …”
This is exactly where our 3 Step ABT Development Model (that is at the core of the ABT Framework course and the “Narrative Gym” book) starts. You begin the process of defining your central narrative by pinpointing THE ONE PROBLEM — not 15 problems. It seemed like the movie, by the end, finally did arrive at THE ONE PROBLEM which is that: “We need to stop eating fish.”
Once the filmmakers figured this out, they should have thrown out most of the content of the film and tried to take us on a singular, clear, simple, thoughtful, focused, penetrating journey to the depths of this one question of whether we should continue eating fish. That would have made for a more focused and powerful film.
There was a simple compelling argument to be made about that, but the film ended up being too much STUFF (as Jen itemized) piled on top of itself.
THE POWER OF CONTEXT – Narrative consists of 3 forces: Agreement, Contradiction, Consequence. In the past year and a half, as we’ve run 14 rounds of the ABT Framework course, probably the biggest lesson we’ve learned has been the overwhelming importance of that first element — AGREEMENT. It’s where the problem gets set up. If you do a good job with it, the story reaches a deep level, if you don’t, people feel little connection.
At this point in the discussion Jen Martin talks in detail about all the work “My Octopus Teacher” did with setting up the story in a way that made you feel something, care about the main character, and know what is at stake. “Seaspiracy” kind of bypassed this whole element, jumping right into the problems. This tends to be a defining difference between a good storytelling versus shallower, more ephemeral communication.
By the way, somewhere around here Jennifer Jacquet scores one of the best lines of the whole discussion in saying that this is where “My Octopus Teacher,” has a leg up on the other film, “or maybe eight legs up.” Hahahahaha. She’s funny.
ARCHPLOT ANALYSIS OF “MY OCTOPUS TEACHER” — Okay, this is where Jen and I, without apologies, delve into the depths of the ABT Framework course, speaking to either graduates of the course or anyone who has studied Robert McKee’s 1997 landmark screenwriting book, “Story.” He talks about Classical Design of stories — the attributes of stories that have great impact both in space and time, crossing cultures and lasting for eternity. He lists 8 characteristics which, in my books, I present the 5 I think are most important. He introduces the term ARCHPLOT as a more technical term for Classical Design.
At this point in the discussion I work with Jen to go through the 5 main characteristics of Archplot for “My Octopus Teacher.”
1) SINGLE MAIN CHARACTER – I ask her the fundamental question we were constantly hit with in film school which is, “Who’s Story is it?” As cool as the octopus is in the film, it is clear the overall film is the story of the filmmaker, Craig Foster.
2) ACTIVE MAIN CHARACTER – Was Craig just a passive character in the story, or is he actively on a journey. Jen does a great job, starting at 37:45, of telling about the whole set up of Craig’s background — his suffering in life, his search for “The great purpose of my life” — a very clear problem he was seeking to address and found a pathway through the octopus.
3) LINEAR TIMELINE – Mass audiences prefer events to be told to them in linear sequence. Artsy crowds love to jump around in time, but that tends to lose the masses. This events in this film were completely linear.
4) COMPLETE CAUSALITY – Were things left unexplained? Not really. Pretty much everything in the film made sense. The masses demand this.
5) CLOSED ENDING – The film came to a beautiful closed ending with the end of the life of the octopus and a synthesis of all that Craig learned and how it helped him with his relationships.
The bottom line is that “My Octopus Teacher” conformed to most of the man criteria of Archplot stories. It took us on a journey that spanned the life of the octopus and was very personal. “Seaspiracy” was more just informational, not headed towards any clear end point and with little attention paid to the set up.
SYLVIA EARLE GETS VINDICATED – At this point in the discussion I confide that I’ve never been a fan of Sylvia Earle, BUT … finally with this film, I think I finally am, at least somewhat. If she knew about The Dobzhansky Template, I think she would use it like this:
NOTHING IN SAVING THE OCEANS MAKES SENSE EXCEPT IN THE LIGHT OF THE NEED TO JUST STOP EATING FISH.
She’s still not a great communicator, but she was one of the first to begin preaching the message of “let’s stop eating seafood,” which thirty years ago seemed silly, but now is the grand message of “Seaspiracy.” She’s looking better on this with time.
THE ABT OF FISH RIGHTS – There’s a great moment here from Jennifer, thrown on the spot by me asking her to tell the ABT of the issue of giving individual rights to fish. She does an excellent job, off the top of her head — proving for once and for all that no, you don’t need a day to craft an ABT – you can do it on the spot. I’m going to use this bit in the ABT Framework course when people say they can’t come up with an ABT if they aren’t given few hours to craft it. Wrong.
A FEW OCEAN CONSERVATION MOMENTS
It was maybe a little unfair to invite Jennifer and John as guests who are experts in ocean science and policy, then focus the whole discussion on communication, BUT … I wouldn’t have done it if they weren’t both excellent communicators themselves. Towards that end, here’s a few of their more important moments towards the end.
“I FOUND IT EXCITING” – I think some ocean conservationists were so annoyed with “Seaspiracy” that they would be annoyed with anyone conveying any excitement about the film, but the film definitely did eventually find its way to somewhat of a “new message” for the oceans. This is what Jennifer is talking about near the end of our discussion which she found exciting. And I agree.
ALIENS BOTTOM TRAWLING NEW YORK CITY – My favorite bit from John Hocevar is near the end when he talks about what space aliens would find if they dragged bottom nets through downtown New York City.
THE INTERNATIONAL WHALING COMMISSION: SHIFTS HAPPEN – I think this is probably the best part of our entire discussion — Jennifer Jacquet offers up her overall synthesis of what is happening with the issue of over-fishing AND could very well eventually happen one day for the whole world. This part is really great. If you’re too busy to listen to the entire discussion, just go to this one bit.
“MY SEA SQUIRT TEACHER” – go ahead and laugh, but maybe some day I’ll go back to Lizard Island, Australia, where I did the field work for my PhD dissertation on sea squirts and film my own documentary with this title. It will consist of me sitting underwater all day long throughout the entire life of a single colony of the colonial ascidian Didemnum molle, just waiting for it to do one thing — anything — other than just sitting there and filtering water all day, every day. It will be the most thoughtful and meditative ocean conservation film ever made. And then when it’s released and gets rotten reviews for having “none of the narrative principles the guy spent his life espousing,” I will ask people to say only to me the same thing that Bill Murray’s playwright character said he likes to hear about his plays in “Tootsie” — when people come up to him and say, “I saw your play … what happened?”
The ABT Framework course turned one last month. Just like a child, it has grown and changed a great deal in a year. Last week we began the 14th round of the course. Here’s what the 10 one hour sessions now look like. For a fascinating comparison and demonstration of what I’m saying about the evolution of the course, have a look back at a year ago and the original content of the 10 one hour sessions.
ONWARD AND UPWARD!
The ABT Framework Course began on April 20, 2020 in response to our Story Circles Narrative Training course being shut down by the pandemic. We’re currently in the 14th round of the course and have learned a great deal as it has evolved.
The course gave rise to a 3 Step Development model. The model became the core of the new book, “The Narrative Gym,” published last fall. The book is now pretty much the bible for the course
The training is built around the one sentence ABT Narrative Template. Each participant submits their ABT (usually for a project they are working on) at the start. They then get their chance to work on it live in front of the class as an ABT Build exercise with me, then in greater depth in the half hour Working Circle that they host with four participants.
Overall, the course consists of three main elements:
1 PRESENTATIONS – 10 half hour presentations followed by the ABT Build half hour
2 ABT BUILDS – roughly 7 minute sessions, one for each participant, to edit their ABT live
3 WORKING CIRCLES – half hour sessions outside of the 10 one hour sessions for individual ABT development
Here are the topics for the 10 presentations. The second half of the sessions are usually presented by guest speakers.
SESSION ONE: TWO AUDIENCES
We begin with the fundamental goal of the course — to NOT “preach to the converted.” This is a pre-occupation of mine from literally forty years ago. Back when I was studying coral reefs in the 1980’s and already seeing the environmental problems emerge for them, I couldn’t figure out why PBS documentaries on coral reefs were narrated with a privilege, elitist voice that was clearly meant for the people who were least likely to be involved in the destruction of nature. There are two fundamental audiences — the INNER CIRCLE and the OUTER CIRCLE. The goal and challenge is to reach the Outer Circle. That is what the ABT is for.
SESSION TWO: THE SINGULAR NARRATIVE
This is the starting point for the 3 step ABT Development Model. It begins by going to the BUT element in the ABT. This is the statement of the problem, and the problem is the core of narrative. There are lots of attributes you want the BUT element to have, starting with ideally being a single problem, making for The Singular Narrative.
SESSION THREE: THE MONOMYTH TEMPLATE
Every good story at its core is little more than a problem/solution exercise. This become clear when you take a look at the Monomyth template. This gives rise to the concept of the Ordinary World versus the Special World.
SESSION FOUR: ARCHPLOT
This course is about narrative structure, for which we draw a fair amount of knowledge from Hollywood storytelling. This session delves into the divide between mass appeal ABT-structured Archplot, and art house smaller audience AAA/DHY structured Miniplot.
SESSION FIVE: NON-LITERAL THINKING
The second half of the course requires broader, less literal thinking. This begins with the concept of “the fool.” This is the person who is so far outside your inner circle that they are beyond even your outer circle. The concept was brought to us by famous historian of the American West and MacArthur Fellow Patty Limerick. If you look at “the fool” in terms of content you can dismiss this person for not knowing your field of work. But if the fool knows narrative structure, that person can be the most valuable member of your Working Circle because their mind is so free of clutter.
SESSION SIX: LISTENING
My long time improv instructor and co-author of our “Connection” book, Brian Palermo underscores the power and importance of listening to narrative. The ABT begins with the AND element which is the power of AGREEMENT. For it to be possible, you have to be able to listen to the world around you and yield to the experts who have come before you. This is one of the central element of improv training — developing the ability to listen. It is central to the ability to communicate.
My undergraduate marine biology buddy and Professor of Ecology and Evolution, Dr. Dianna Padilla, listened to Park Howell in the first round of the course and immediately said, “Yes. This is totally relevant to proposal writing.” She has had decades of writing and reviewing proposals, even serving as a program officer for the National Science Foundation. When she said narrative concepts from the business world are relevant, you know it’s for real. Also, she underscores the need to, “Genuflect to the Elders,” meaning the need to study, absorb and cite the proper literature for research that has come before you. It is central to writing successful proposals, and it is right there in the A of the ABT.
SESSION NINE: THE NARRATIVE SPIRAL
In another shocking development in this course, Dr. Nancy Knowlton(of the Smithsonian Institution and member of the National Academy of Sciences) listened to Park Howell talk about his concept of “The Narrative Spiral,” and immediately saw the relevance to her work on “Earth Optimism” and the entire history of the American environmental movement of the past century. She brings both the monomyth template and the larger scale pattern of the Narrative Spiral to make sense of the long term journey of the environmental community in general.
SESSION TEN: NARRATIVE SELECTION
A rather communications-challenged climate scientist once said to me, “Randy, you just think the ABT is a hammer and everything is a nail.” Imagine telling a molecular biologist, “You just think DNA is a hammer and everything in life is a nail.” Um, yeah, actually it is. And actually, Park Howell said long ago, when he first absorbed the ABT that it is “The DNA of Story.” Thus I titled my fourth book, “Narrative Is Everything.” It really is. This final session brings the entire course together for the grand synthesis as most, if not all, of the participants exit the course with a new realization of the overwhelming and ubiquitous power of narrative structure.
Would you pick and choose a handful of scenes from “The Wizard of Oz” then feel like you “got it” on the overall story? The Narrative Blitz is going to play more like a movie than a symposium. It’s going to BUILD. The first two sessions will lay down the foundation, the second two sessions will draw on them and hopefully deliver some deeper insights for you. Which means you need to join us for the entire ride. Come on, it’s gonna be fun AND memorable. Also, another piece of advice: BRING A PROBLEM that you’re working on. You’ll get lots more out of it if you do.
RSVP NOW: If you haven’t RSVP’ed for the NARRATIVE BLITZ (on Wednesday, April 14 at 11:00 a.m. PDT) or don’t even know what it is, click HERE.
THE BLITZ WILL BE INTERACTIVE: There will be Q&A sessions for each of the 5 half hour blocks, we’ll be looking to Twitter for your questions.
IN FOR A PENNY, IN FOR A POUND — DON’T PICK AND CHOOSE — TAKE THE WHOLE RIDE!
THE NARRATIVE BLITZ IS NOT A SYMPOSIUM, IT’S A FILM.
Think about what this means. You don’t want to pick and choose among the 20 four minute talks, like a symposium. You want to watch EVERYTHING in sequence, like a film.
Why? Because it BUILDS. We’re pulling the final pieces together as I type this, and now viewing entire blocks.
We’re being hit by a realization: It’s a feature film.
Here’s some other pieces of advice for your viewing on Wednesday.
NARRATIVE STRUCTURE: There are four main sessions. The 1st two lay the groundwork for the 2nd two. Which means, the 1st hour lays the groundwork for the 2nd hour, then I’ll come along with the final session to demonstrate the ABT Build process and answer overall questions.
FIRST HOUR: It’s “nuts and bolts” material, introducing the Narrative Tools and explaining how they are applied.
SECOND HOUR: Putting it all to work, both in terms of what we’ve learned about the ABT Framework, & using it in the REAL WORLD (title of the last section).
BREAKTHROUGH MOMENTS: If you take the full two hour journey of the four sessions, you’ll find the first hour interesting and engaging, but it’s the second hour where you should have some, “ah-ha” moments. This stuff is about narrative. Narrative is what underpins stories, and stories are all about MOMENTS.
WHAT’S YOUR PROBLEM? This is a huge warning about the quality of your experience. People bringing “a problem” to their viewing will get the most out of the Narrative Blitz. If you’re having trouble writing a good essay, video script, research proposal, love letter, comedy routine, magazine article, political campaign strategy, eulogy, apology, elegy, or speech, this is the event for you. The more that you’re working on your own narrative during the Blitz, the more you will get out of it. As you hear about the deeper dimensions of the ABT, the Dobzhansky, the Christmas tree, the Circles, the Fool — all of the attributes of the ABT Framework — the more you will get out of the two hours.
SHORT ATTENTION SPAN FOLKS: This event both is and isn’t for you. If you pick and choose and jump around and lose focus and come and go and change channels and take calls during the two hours, don’t blame us if it doesn’t work. But on the other hand, the talks are only 4 minutes each (roughly) and all have tight narrative structure (how could they not, it’s obligatory if we’re going to preach narrative). They are custom made for your short attention span. You’ll be amazed at how quick they will blow by. In that regard, it’s perfect for everyone.
DON’T TAKE NOTES: Yeah, I know, you’re a compulsive note taker, right? Doesn’t matter. Stop yourself, for this one event. Don’t take notes. Most of what will be presented is in the book, “The Narrative Gym.” When you’re taking notes you’re splitting your focus between what we’re trying to convey to you and your motor skills for writing. Don’t water down the experience. Give us your 100% undivided attention (ugh, my father used to say that to me, which explains a lot), and we will pay you back with insight. Promise.
ONE TIME ONLY: The good news is we’re doing this for FREE. The bad news is it’s a one time only event (what do you expect for free?). No, it won’t be posted. You need to show up ready to BLITZ. If you do, we’re pretty sure you’ll both enjoy it and find it valuable. No guarantees, but we’re pretty sure.
A year ago the idea of an ABT course wasn’t even a twinkle in the eyes of the dozen of us now running it. We’re probably at about 400 graduates with the course sizes ranging between 30 and 50 participants. Next week we will complete our 200th Working Circle (the spin-off exercise that goes with the course). The ABT Framework is spreading, the course is booked into the summer, it produced a book and model for development, and we’re now at work on a big event with National Park Service for April 14 — details to emerge soon!
A NEW 4 MINUTE VIDEO on the strengths of the ABT Framework from two of our long time instructors Drs. Nancy Knowlton (Smithsonian Institution, Member of National Academy of Sciences) and Dianna Padilla (Dept of Ecology and Evolution, Stony Brook University)
Last March the pandemic set in and I decided to commit the rest of my life to nothing more than playing tennis and surfing. But by April I was bored.
A surf buddy was describing the online course he was developing for his work in child behavior. Before he could finish I caught the next wave in, called my Story Circles co-instructors to pitch the idea, within three days we announced it on Twitter and by the end of the week had filled all 50 slots.
This week we finished the 10th round of the course (with fisheries folks), next week we’ll finish the 11th round (sponsored by NSF, with museum systematists and taxonomists). The following week we’ll begin the 12th round (with National Park Service). The next month will be the 13th round (with Ecological Society of America). Several more rounds are coming together, heading into the summer.
I could say tons of great things about it, but the best things said to date are in the 4 minute video above featuring Nancy Knowlton and Dianna Padilla. Both have been part of the course from the start. Their set presentations in the course (on the Narrative Spiral and Proposal Writing, respectively) have become mainstays, as we continue to evolve our understanding of this incredibly powerful communications tool, the ABT Framework.
NEWS FLASH: No president has ever given an inauguration speech like this. Somebody smart is writing speeches for Biden that have PUNCH. Not even Trump gave speeches like this.
IT’S THE FORM
Someday the NY Times and Washington Post will learn how to analyze the FORM of speeches instead of only CONTENT. They don’t seem to grasp that communication consists of two parts. The result is dull inductivist random walks like this one in the Washington Post where they just searched key words (any junior high school student could do the same).
But something is going on with the FORM of Biden’s speeches. His inauguration speech was unlike ANY other inauguration speech in form, and I’m willing to bet ANY speech from a president, ever. Total. All of them.
Even Trump, with all his bellicose bleetings, still produced speeches of mostly paragraphs. Just look at the structure below of Biden’s speech compared to a sample from one of Obama’s inauguration speeches. It’s fascinating.
DOIN’ THE DOBZHANSKY
The Dobzhansky Template is a tool to help find the one word theme at the core of a text. Whoever is writing Biden’s speeches, they found lots of one words for him to present.
Previous to Wednesday’s Inauguration speech I heard two speeches from Biden that made me sit up and say wow, something’s different here. The Narrative Index scores have not been that high (the Inauguration was an 18, see figure below), but they’ve had a punchiness to them that stands out.
Here are representative samples of the inauguration speeches of Obama and Biden. Whoever wrote the Biden speech, that person has my automatic respect, admiration and interest. Let’s hear more of it — way to make traditional dull communications punchy.
The Narrative Index is the ratio of BUTs to ANDs, multiplied by 100 to make it a whole number.
The 7th round of the ABT Framework course wrapped up with a rather amazing triple play of HBO veterans (all three Emmy nominees) talking about the ABT dynamic in acting, producing and directing. Here, for your Thanksgiving viewing, are all three fascinating discussions — the ABT Framework course at its very finest.
ONLY THE BEST for the ABT Framework course of 2020.
THE AND, BUT, THEREFORE OF A RATHER FASCINATING YEAR
What a year, right? Sheesh. It’s been the worst of times (the pandemic), but in some ways … well, I just can’t say it — not the best of times, but definitely some interesting times.
Eight months later here we are, wrapping up the 7th and final round of the course. Each round has featured a half dozen or so guests. The last round culminated with this amazing triple play of HBO veterans, all talking about the central role of narrative structure in their work.
We’ve never shared the content of the course, but these three discussions were just so fascinating, high energy and substantive that it would be a crime to not make them available to a wider audience. Each one is about 40 minutes — like three episodes of a podcast. I’m sure you’ll enjoy them.
VIEW THE SESSIONS
CHERYL HINES (and Brian Palermo)
HAVE A HAPPY AND SAFE THANKSGIVING
Have a Happy Thanksgiving, to the best of your abilities. There is definitely a better time ahead AND with the vaccines, things will return to normal by next summer, BUT for now, realize this is our COVID YEAR that requires sacrifice, THEREFORE do all you can to protect yourself and others, starting with one simple instruction which is to STOP SWAPPING AIR. You’ll be hearing more about this message in the near future.
Trump speechwriter Stephen Miller is not just qualitatively dull — you can actually see his dullness in the narrative metrics of the speeches he writes. It’s been on display since the start of his speechwriting for Trump. The Democrats should hope he continues to be the (uninspiring, confused and narratively amateurish) voice of Trump.
DONALD TRUMP’S RNC ACCEPTANCE SPEECH, just like all of his speeches that are written by Stephen Miller, was dull, flaccid, and devoid of narrative strength. This is not just me saying this — it’s the numbers.
NARRATIVE METRICS REVEAL ALL
Communication has two parts: CONTENT and FORM. Everyone talks about the content of Trump’s speeches, but it’s the form of speeches that determine whether they have lasting impact. Or not.
In 2015 I published my book, “Houston, We Have A Narrative”(University of Chicago Press) in which I first presented the ABT Framework. This led to two simple metrics for analyzing narrative structure which are:
The poor communication skills of Clinton’s campaign were examined in painful detail in the 2017 bestseller, “Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign.” In contrast, Trump communicated skillfully right up until March of this year when he finally ran aground with the problem of split narratives (economy vs health, which Dr. Dianna Padilla and I quantified in May in an article in Medpage titled, “COVID Leadership: Trump vs Cuomo”).
So there’s been this shift in Trump’s communication dynamics, but it’s actually the second major shift. The first one took place back in 2016 once he secured the Republican nomination. It was the appointment of Stephen Miller as his main speechwriter.
STEPHEN MILLER: THE VOICE OF DULLNESS
In June, 2016 Trump secured the Republican nomination and two things occurred. First, he shifted to using a teleprompter for his speecheswhich previously had been wildly spontaneous and off-the-cuff. Second, he brought on Stephen Miller to write his more formal speeches.
From then on, his speeches fell largely into two groups:
FORMAL (written by Stephen Miller) – safe, boring, low N.I., high A.F.
INFORMAL (written by Trump or unscripted) – barn burning rants, high N.I., low A.F.
Look at the formal speeches — routinely below 10 for the N.I., often above 4.0 for the A.F. What that shows is the “And, And, And” structure which is largely non-narrative — just expositional.
Then look at the informal rants — rocketing up in the 40’s for the N.I., with the sparse use of “and” producing A.F. scores below 3.0. That is Trump at his most powerful when it comes to mass communication (and I’m not talking about communicating to the academics who are nauseated by him — I’m talking about the masses of America). The prevalence of the word “but” reflects the ABT (And, But, Therefore) narratively structured form.
THEREFORE … MY ABT STATEMENT ON STEPHEN MILLER
It’s very cut and dried. The bottom line is that when Stephen Miller is involved, there’s little narrative structure, just a lot of “And, And, And” (I had several friends text me during Trump’s RNC speech asking, “Doesn’t this seem like a lot of And, And, And?”)
But when Trump sidelines Miller and takes control, he’s very ABT — punching away, producing the version of him that his followers love. Which leads me to my own ABT about Stephen Miller:
Stephen Miller is indeed the voice of a lot of unpleasant content in Trump’s speeches AND those speeches are offensive to Democrats, BUT he’s not good — he has no grasp of narrative structure, THEREFORE Democrats should hope Miller continues to write Trump’s speeches.
BUT … watch out if Trump eventually stops using a speechwriter and reverts back to doing it all by himself. If that happens, it will not just be offensive content, it may be delivered in a dangerously powerful way.
Look … (I hate it when politicians use that word, but sometimes I guess it’s needed) … this stuff isn’t that complicated. It’s about the ONE THING. It just needs to be a CLEAR one thing — not some vague statement about “building back.” Cuomo knew this in March when he began his daily press briefings (as Dianna Padilla and I pointed out in MedPage). Sadly, it’s still the same story. Why don’t Biden’s people realize this? This is THE DOBZHANSKY TEMPLATE for him: NOTHING IN AMERICA TODAY MAKES SENSE, EXCEPT IN THE LIGHT OF THE PANDEMIC. nothing. nothing. nothing. #NarrativeIsLeadership
WHICH OF THESE SLOGANS LOOKS MORE LIKE A CHRISTMAS TREE???
THE ONE THING
It just isn’t that complicated. There is ONE single overriding, over-arching story in this country right now — THE PANDEMIC.
Yes, the economy is a mess, but it clearly is not going to recover until the pandemic is dealt with properly. This needs to be the message. It needs to be the ONE THING (which is the title of the best selling book from 2012).
Biden needs to be running on ONE CLEAR SIMPLE MESSAGE — that he’s going to focus the entire nation’s effort on one top priority — returning this country to a HEALTHY state.
It needs to be his NARRATIVE, plain and simple. Narrative is leadership. “BUILD BACK BETTER” is … what? Build what back? And better than when? And what does that vision of the future look like?
HEALTHY is as much of a vision of the future as is needed.
Come on, Biden people, FIND THE SINGULAR NARRATIVE that everyone can rally behind (and know that more than a decade ago Nicholas Kristof pointed out the overriding importance of the singular narrative). Tell the public a STORY about how there will never be a vibrant economy until PROBLEM #1 — THE PANDEMIC — gets solved.
In our ABT Framework course we hit a moment where two of the team members — a marketing expert and a scientist — realized the similarities in the communication dynamics of what they do. Here they match notes on three topics: 1) PERSUASION, 2) CONTROLLING THE NARRATIVE, and 3) THE NARRATIVE SPIRAL (as developed by Park Howell). There is great wisdom for scientists in these parallels.
THE COMMUNICATION OF BUSINESS, THE COMMUNICATION OF SCIENCE — not really that different in the end.
THE SYNERGY SPIRAL
We’ve run the ABT Framework course four times since April. In the second round marine scientist Dr. Dianna Padilla listened to the presentation from Park Howell who is a business/marketing guy, and host of the popular podcast, “The Business of Story.” He has no science background, but she heard things in his presentation that resonated with her years of writing research grant proposals as well as having served a year as a rotator at the National Science Foundation headquarters in Arlington, VA.
They talked a bit further, then I asked them to address these three similarities in communications dynamics for business versus science. Here’s their parallel takes on three aspects of narrative.
We all know that business is about persuading people to buy your product, but grant writing is also about persuading — as in persuading the funding source to fund your project. We can actually use the Dobzhansky Template to say it concisely like this: Nothing in Business and/or Proposal Writing makes sense except in the light of Persuasion.
BUSINESS GUY (Park Howell): Persuasion is everything when it comes to business. Here’s my Dobzhansky Template: Nothing in GROWING A PURPOSE-DRIVEN BRAND makes sense except in the light of PERSUASION. If you can’t connect with and convince your internal, external and partner audiences to buy into your vision and participate in your mission, then you will not make the impact in the world you seek and your organization will suffer.
SCIENTIST (Dr Dianna Padilla): This is where I made my first connection with what Park had to say about business. As in business, the key to a successful scientific research proposal is persuasion. The job of a proposal writer is to persuade critical reviewers and a program director that the work you propose is the best, most exciting, will advance science the furthest, and/or is the key piece of information we need to make important advances. Furthermore, you and your team not only have the skills to get it done, you are in a position to really move things forward, answer important questions, and fulfill the goals and mandates of the granting agency. Just as Park is saying about business, you need to pursued the client (granting agency) to buy into your goals and project.
2) CONTROLLING THE NARRATIVE
BUSINESS GUY (Park Howell): CONTROLLING THE NARRATIVE means tell a true story well, and then supporting it with the facts and figures you need to become THE trusted source. You sell to the heart through telling a story on purpose to get the head to follow. I mean, when was the last time you were bored into buying anything? I use the terms audiences and customers interchangeably because in every audience you are trying to get them to buy into your way of thinking and with every customer, you are trying to sell them something. Both interaction is a transaction. Audiences/customers show up with their own stories; perhaps stories about you, your industry, your competition and their own baggage. Sometimes these stories are true, but mostly they are false because they are made up by your audience from current beliefs built on past experiences. Therefore, if nothing in business makes sense except in the light of persuasion, then you MUST control the narrative. I’ve learned that if you don’t intentionally tell a story, your audience will leave with a story you did not intend. They’ll make something up because you didn’t control the narrative.
SCIENTIST (Dr Dianna Padilla): Again, this is similar to the dynamic for writing of a successful research proposal. You are presenting your narrative, and you need to do your best to keep reviewers following along. But reviewers are scientists, each with their own background, ideas of what is important (their research, of course), and will read your proposal through their personal lens. YOUR JOB is to keep the reviewer following your narrative, and not get distracted or allow them to pull away to their own interests, and wonder why you are not trying to answer another question they find more interesting. With a well crafted narrative, you can pull the reviewer to follow your path of logic, and see that your questions or system are the only ones to follow, and you are proposing something that should be funded. As with business, if you don’t provide a compelling narrative for readers to follow, they will find another path that will not result in success for your proposal.
3) THE NARRATIVE SPIRAL (SEE FIGURE BELOW)
BUSINESS GUY (Park Howell): So here’s how it all comes together. To be persuasive by controlling the narrative, you need a system to organize and guide your communications. This is where I found the Story Cycle System™ narrative spiral to be invaluable to guide long-form communications and presentations. It is inspired by Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey but is mapped to business and intellectual pursuits versus just dramatic storytelling. In my book Brand Bewitchery, I describe the organizational device of the Narrative Spiral. The Story Cycle is distilled from the timeless narrative structure of the ancients, inspired by the story artists of Hollywood, influenced by masters of persuasion, guided by trend spotters, and informed by how the human mind grapples for meaning.”
SCIENTIST (Dr Dianna Padilla): This is where I also see amazing similarities between the path of developing a narrative for business as Park describes it and the writing of scientific research proposals. There are direct parallels. Applying his Narrative Spiral concept to a research proposal, the process begins with the background state of knowledge, putting your proposed work in that context. You lay out how your work will advance knowledge, and what is at stake (if we knew x, then we could….), but we do not know this, some approaches will not get us the answers, etc. Then you use strong narrative to lead the reader to your path of logic on what you are proposing to do and why it will solve those important problems. You then move to the research you want to do, experiments to conduct, data and then how you will interpret the results of your work. The journey ends with how your work will advance science, answer a critical question, or provide essential data that moves science forward. And then, of course, you repeat the whole cycle, only you’re now at the next level up as our knowledge of science continues to spiral upwards.
Story Cycle System™ Narrative Spiral developed by Park Howell in his new book, Brand Bewitchery. It’s Joseph Campbell’s Heroes Journey model, but with a twist — or actually a spiral structure instead of circular. Read his book for the specific details.