#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.

 

HOW TO BUILD SOLID ABT’s

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.

#172) Fall 2019 Story Circles Schedule

A busy fall ahead!

Rapidly approaching 100 Story Circles which we should pass before the end of the year.

 

STORY ON! (to quote my buddy Park Howell)

Here’s what’s booked.  Several other Demo Days with other organizations in the works.

SEPT 19  Southern California Biomedical Council Conference (panel discussion on communication), Long Beach, CA

SEPT 25  Combined Keynote Address “Narrative Is Everything: The ABT Framework and Narrative Selection,” Escience 2019 & Science Gateways

OCT 22  DEMO DAY – University of Waikato, New Zealand

OCT 28   DEMO DAY – National Park Service, Asheville, NC

NOV 14  DEMO DAY – National Park Service, Anchorage, AK

NOV 15  DEMO DAY – National Park Service, Anchorage, AK

JAN 14  DEMO DAY – NOAA, Honolulu, HI

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

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

MASTER COMMUNICATORS.  Nobody knows narrative structure better. 

 

HAWKING VERSUS SEINFELD?

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

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

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

 

LEARN FROM THE GREATS, EVEN IF THEY OFFEND

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

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

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

 

NARRATIVE SHAPING:  COMICS KNOW SHAPE

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

STRUCTURE, STRUCTURE, STRUCTURE:  FURNITURE AND STEEL WALLS

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

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

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

 

NARRATIVE SELECTION:  YOU BORE, YOU DIE

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

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

 

CONCISION:  RICKY GERVAIS IS A MASTER

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

THE NEED FOR “THEME”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

THE GROUP DYNAMIC

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

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

 

BOTTOM LINE:  POLITICIANS NEED COMIC WRITERS

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

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

This is the absolute core of effective communication today.

#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.

 

MISTAKEN EQUIVALENCE

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.”

 

FAULTY PROGRAMMING

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.”

 

YES, SCIENTISTS ARE HUMAN, BUT THEY DEFINITELY ARE DIFFERENT WHEN IT COMES TO PERCEIVING NARRATIVE

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.

THE FUNDAMENTAL CONUNDRUM: THE SINGULAR NARRATIVE VERSUS GIANT SAMPLE SIZE

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.

ANECDOTES: THE BANE OF SCIENCE

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. 

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

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

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

 

“I RIPPED OFF MY MASK”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#168) Three Sequential ABT’s for a One Minute Presentation

Here’s yet another great case study of “The ABT In Action.”  It’s a scientist using the ABT structure to craft his entire one minute presentation as a sequence of 3 ABT “episodes.”   

ANYBODY REMEMBER THE OLD FAST TALKING FEDEX GUY?  He probably didn’t need any narrative structure because he talked so fast he was finished before you could decide if you were bored.  But for everyone else, it’s kind of essential.

 

THREE ABT’S IN A MINUTE

Two weeks ago we had a great conference call with our friends at National Park Service.  One of them, Margaret Beer, introduced her colleague Simon Kingston who is a “data ranger” for NPS.  He told about taking part in a meeting of the USGS Community for Data Integration where they offered the opportunity for what they call a “flash presentation” of just one minute with one slide.

Margaret had written three letters on a business card for him — ABT — and briefly explained them (the “And, But, Therefore” template).  He ended up using the ABT structure for three sentences that were his entire one minute presentation.

Here is his entire presentation, color coding each part for the there elements of AGREEMENT (AND, blue), CONTRADICTION (BUT, red), and CONSEQUENCE (THEREFORE, green):

Our program was kind of a wild west in what we did AND was going well, BUT for the long term we weren’t managing our data properly, THEREFORE we formed a task force.  It brought together lots of people from different disciplines AND looked at what we needed to do, BUT we realized we needed to select an alternative, THEREFORE we did a structured decision-making process.  We selected an alternative, looked at what’s it going to take to achieve our goals, BUT realized in order to implement an alternative we needed to bring a diversity of voices to the table, THEREFORE we formed a governance board and organized small groups to actually implement the work.

What’s great about this is that it’s neither boring nor confusing.  The one bit I think I’d add would be a final bit at the end to summarize the solution they arrived at.  Something like, “… and this provided the data management plan we needed.”  That would bring things “full circle.”

This is another great example of people using the ABT on short notice to structure a brief presentation.  It’s a powerful template, BUT … as the nearly 500 graduates of our Story Circles Narrative Training program will tell you, the real goal is to develop “narrative intuition,” and that requires biting the bullet and taking the training.

#167) Our Story Circles Conference Call with National Park Service

Here’s the recording of our conference call on Tuesday July 16 with National Park Service folks in Fort Collins, CO.  It’s a nice snapshot of where we are after 5 years that has produced 70-some circles and approaching 500 graduates.  The time cues for each of the speakers are listed below for what was a very vibrant and information-packed session.  By the way, if you want to hear the contrast between a rough, amateurish communicator full of “um’s” (me) and a smooth, precise professional communicator (Larry Perez) listen to the transition between us at about 10 minutes in.  It’s kinda awesome.

(Right click here to download audio)

TIME         SPEAKER
00:00      RANDY OLSON, Opening Comments on Story Circles Narrative Training    
10:14      LARRY PEREZ, NPS
13:43      MICHAEL BART, NPS
19:22      MARGARET BEER, NPS
21:21      SIMON KINGSTON, NPS
26:56      MIKE STRAUSS, USDA (retired), STORY CIRCLES Co-Developer
33:18      JEFF MORRISETTE, DOI

#166) Defining “Story” versus “Narrative”

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

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

 

TWO WORDS:  “STORY” VERSUS “NARRATIVE”

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

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

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

 

ONE MORE THING:  NEUROPHYSIOLOGY

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

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

So here is my formal parsing of the two words.

 

APPENDIX 1 – Defining “Story” Versus Narrative 

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

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

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

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

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

So here are my analytical definitions of the two.    

 

THE MONOMYTH-BASED DEFINITIONS

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

THE DEFINITIONS

So here is how I roughly define the two terms:

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

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

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

#165) Science Doesn’t Need “A Story”: It needs an understanding of narrative

If you don’t see the difference between the phrases “Science Needs Story” and “Science Needs A Story,” you probably need to develop a deeper understanding of what the word “story” means.

IT ISN’T ROCKET SCIENCE.  You look at the cover of the book, then you copy the text, word for word.  You don’t add the letter “ A” to it.  Seems simple, but apparently it’s difficult, both for the editors of University of Chicago Press (that’s their graphic for the new audio book version of Houston, We Have A Narrative) and Science (that’s an excerpt from the review of the book in 2015).

 

I SAW IT COMING BEFORE PUBLICATION

A funny thing emerged as I was developing the title and subtitle for Houston, We Have A Narrative, in 2014.  I came up with the subtitle of, “Why Science Needs Story” and sent it to about a dozen science friends and a dozen non-science friends.  Three of the science friends wrote back saying it sounded good but that I left out the “a.”  They assumed I meant to say that science needs “a story” – like “once upon a time there was a profession called science …”

None of the non-science friends did that.

After the first one, I thought it was just a quirk.  But by the third I realized it was real.  Scientists don’t live in the world of story editing.  As a result, they tend to see the word “story” as only a noun — as in “tell me a story.”  

But most of the non-science friends I sent it to were film people.  They instantly recognized what I was saying — that the science world needs strengthening in its story skills.  It’s like looking at an athlete and saying, “You need more ab.”  It doesn’t mean, “You need more abdominal muscles.”  It means, “You need to strengthen your abs.”

 

SCIENCE MAGAZINE NEEDS AN UNDERSTANDING OF STORY  

Same thing.  But apparently a lot of science people don’t get this, starting with Rafael Luna who wrote a misguided review of the “Houston” book for Science.  In his review he quotes the opening statement of the book as saying, “… therefore science needs a story.”  Nope.  Wrong.   There was no “a” in my original text.  But you can see it in print in his review.

I wrote a Letter to the Editor of Science, but the editor replied saying it was probably “just a typo.”  I tried to explain that no, it wasn’t a typo — it’s what happens when science folks don’t understand this basic property of “story.”  The reviewer showed elsewhere in the review he had no understanding of this at all as he said the book was meant for settings, “such as a dinner party or community outreach event” — which is one of the very stupidest things written about anything I’ve ever created. 

He should be made to explain those words to the several hundred graduates of our Story Circles Narrative Training program which has the “Houston” book at its core.  They know what’s in the book is far deeper than dinner parties and outreach.  Sheesh.

 

AN AUDIOBOOK MAKER WITH A TIN EAR

Now I’m forced to look at the same mistake for the new audiobook version of Houston, We Have A Narrative (and by the way, University of Chicago Press produced the audio book without ever even telling me the were doing it.  I had to find out from people who sent me emails.  Everyone should be forewarned about that if you publish a book with them)

Look at the graphic they produced (above).  Same mistake.  

Ugh.  Anyhow, this isn’t just bitching.  There’s a serious point here — that because the basic understanding of “story” is not taught in the science world, many of the science folks end up making this mistake which most don’t even see as a mistake.  

I know it seems trivial, but it’s reflective of an entire community that fails to value communication, relentlessly, over and over again.  Which is actually pretty much “the story” of science.   Great profession AND lots of great people, BUT a fundamental lack of appreciation for the importance of communication, THEREFORE …

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

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

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

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

 

ANEMIC NARRATIVE SCORES

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

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

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

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

 

HE’S NOT DIGGING DEEP

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

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

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