We live in a media society, yet the members of congress have almost no in-depth media skills. Specifically, Senate.gov in 2018 said, “the dominant professions of Members of Congress are public service/politics, business, and law.” Those are not media/entertainment professions. And yet, we live in a media society where the head politician, the president, does himself have a background in media and entertainment which has clearly given him a huge, huge advantage over the past four years in working the media in his favor. The Democrats had one senator from the entertainment world who could match the president because he understood the importance of “performance” for today’s government. But they got rid of him.
AL KNOWS NARRATIVE. Of course he does. He comes from the entertainment world. He was a priceless resource for the Democratic party. He has deep narrative intuition. Still. (Photograph by Geordie Wood for the New Yorker)
SHOOT THE LAWYERS (NOT THE ENTERTAINER)
I am of the opinion that the obliteration of Senator Al Franken was the worst political event I’ve witnessed in all of my years of following politics, going back to the early 1960’s. The injustice of it was revealed powerfully in, “The Case of Al Franken,” the excellent New Yorker article last year by Jane Mayer.
After resigning from the senate (which still feels surreal), Franken went away for a while, but last year returned a little bit with his new podcast which I thoroughly enjoy. Last month he had as a guest MSNBC host and long time political writer Lawrence O’Donnell. It’s an excellent episode — lots of fun, lots of substance, but then eventually a sequence that I found once again heart wrenching.
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.
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.
Last week I published this article in Ensia about science fiction author Michael Crichton. It was criticized from both the left (“You implied the science community made him into a climate skeptic” – yes, the science community wore him down), and the right (“You called him the divisive, insulting label of ‘climate denier’” – yes, the editors changed my label of “skeptic” to “denier” — boo hoo).
Below I list 5 main sources I’ve drawn on for insight on Michael Crichton’s climate experience. Yes, he eventually wrote an unforgiveably bad novel about climate and deserved rebuke for drifting into a camp that was beneath him. But that said, the science world is still guilty of an enormous MISSED OPPORTUNITY for communication caused by the myopia that always plagues scientists in the subject of climate change.
Michael Crichton’s final interview with Charlie Rose in 2007: Two old friends, both sadly headed to ignominy.
A GIANT OF A MISSED OPPORTUNITY
Michael Crichton was a giant of a man, both figuratively with all his writings, and literally with his enormous height of six foot nine. He died shortly after turning 66. In the final act of his career he turned against the environmental movement resulting in his death having a fair amount of “good riddance” vibe to it.
But Crichton was incredibly smart, charismatic, and widely liked by all who knew him. Michael Ovitz, who was probably the best businessman Hollywood has known in the past five decades, ran Creative Artists Agency which represented Crichton for most of his filmmaking career. Ovitz wrote an entire chapter about Crichton in his autobiography that came out in 2018. The last line of that chapter said it all for Ovitz, “I miss him every fucking day.”
Michael Crichton was better than Carl Sagan when it came to science communication. Sagan was fun, but he was a doofus that I remember Johnny Carson making fun of constantly. Nobody made fun of Crichton. All the way up to Steven Spielberg — they listened and respected him when he spoke.
I weighed in last week on the environmental site Ensia arguing that, yes, Crichton did bad things in promoting the anti-environmental agenda in his final decade, but before he was bad, he was good. He offered up powerful insights on the communication of science, but scientists were basically blind to him.
The science community can be blind at times. Science suffers from a lack of leadership. A good leader would have, in 1980, known that communication was already being identified as a major challenge to science, which it was — I remember it vividly, it’s when I first started getting interested in the subject. Anyone with an open mind would have surveyed the landscape, spotted Crichton’s split background of science and cinema, plus seeing that his 1975 paper on “Medical Obfuscation,” showed that he already knew the problem — then set to work doing whatever it took to recruit him to be a major constructive, positive asset to science.
But that didn’t happen. Here’s at least three reasons why.
THREE REASONS WHY CRICHTON WAS IGNORED
1) IVORY TOWER – Michael Crichton left the Ivory Tower of academia in the late 1970’s. As soon as you do that, you’re viewed as inferior. It’s an age old syndrome. It’s simply what academics do. It even happens when you stay in the Ivory Tower and dabble outside of it as Carl Sagan did. Academics look down on non-academics. How do I know? Because I did it when I was a tenured professor of marine biology. I thought people at government agencies were second rate — people who couldn’t cut it in academia. That wasn’t based on experience, it was the mindset drilled into me by the faculty and grad students above me. There is no avoiding it. When you go to church, you are programmed with the doctrine. Academia is a church. Furthermore, Crichton went to Hollywood, meaning he joined the circus. Nobody wants to seek the wisdom of a Hollywood clown.
2) HERO WORSHIP – Scientists love being worshipped. It’s another age old syndrome. And again, I know this because I was one. They gather their knowledge, then hold it over the heads of the public. It’s fun! It’s a game the public likes to play as well — turn to the scientists, as if they are the mystical, flawless soothsayers of our society. But they aren’t. They make a mess of just as much stuff as average citizens. Furthermore, today’s information overloaded society has produced a science world that is filled with massive amounts of publication flaws and shortcomings. It’s all run by humans, there are no flawless heroes. Again, this was Crichton’s life’s theme.
3) NO LEADERSHIP – Science is run by committees, top to bottom. Committees don’t lead, they facilitate. They don’t come up with good ideas and make them happen, they wait for individuals to come to them with good ideas that they can support or reject. Given the mountains of money and good times Crichton was having in Hollywood, he wasn’t about to ask a committee if they wanted his help.
The result by 2007 was the dark demise of a brilliant man with a brilliant mind. He spent the last decade of his life trying to follow the basic practice of his life’s work — which was to question science and scientists. But this time he found himself ending up as an enemy of science.
Here are 5 sources that I draw on in forming my impression of who Michael Crichton was, and why his life presents a story that the science world, if it really is interested in creating a healthy, human society for the future, should learn from. Of course I’m probably dreaming, but so was Crichton.
FIVE SOURCES OF MY INSIGHTS INTO WHO MICHAEL CRICHTON WAS
1) THE 2007 CHARLIE ROSE INTERVIEW – everyone should watch this sad, sad record of who Michael Crichton was near the end of his life. In 2007, a year before his death, Crichton did a final interview with his friend, Charlie Rose (who is now disgraced and disowned for his work place behavior).
You’ll see two things on display. First, that he had been beaten down by his critics, but also second that he wasn’t a raving madman. He was very civil, very dignified, very respectful, and was only asking for what the entire practice of science is supposed to be — an exercise in rational thought. By 2007 he had been the target of a great deal of irrational rage, delivered in the name of science.
Granted, he brought it on himself. It began with his questioning of the environmental movement, then ultimately ridiculing the movement in his poorly crafted novel, “State of Fear.”
For me, the act of learning about his writing that novel was like learning that one of your favorite interviewers of smart people turns out to be a serial sexual harasser (Charlie). The novel wasn’t just transparent in it’s anti-environmental agenda, it was pathetic in it’s lack of human depth of characters. As much as I’d like to defend Crichton’s questioning of climate science, that novel makes it impossible at a human level. He proved himself to be utterly tone deaf with it.
But still, he was always civilized and wanting only to be a provocateur. I think his core problem is that he was designed for a different era where the major discourse took place through written media that had editors who restrained the inner demons of writers. As I myself experienced in 2005, the internet allowed for the bypassing of editors for many venues, unleashing a Pandora’s Box of hatred on the public in a way that humanity still hasn’t figured out how to deal with (though comedian Ricky Gervais, in his brilliant and aptly titled Netflix special, “Humanity,” has plenty to say about it that’s wonderful).
Crichton spent his last decade as a target and victim of roving packs of online trolls that he never made sense of.
Here’s transcription of some of the most powerful and insightful moments of the interview with regard to the climate issue. I’ve added red for some of the most interesting bits.
31:00 – ON THE MEDIA … Michael Crichton: The media is not interested in a balanced perspective Charlie Rose: I am MC: But you’re very rare.
32:00 – ON THE SUBJECT OF AL GORE’S MOVIE … MC: If I want to make a movie — that said what he said — I could make a much better movie. MC: Attitudinally it (Gore’s movie) is wrong. It is a scientific matter that we need to look at as dispassionately as possible.
35:00 – ON AL GORE AND “THE DATA” … MC: I think he relies on the expert witness, and I don’t. CR: You do the work yourself? MC: Yes CR: And you don’t think he does the work himself? MC: I don’t think he goes and looks at the data.
35:50 – ON THE FUTURE … MC: I believe the future is unknowable. MC: Climate, according to the last UN report, is a coupled, chaotic, non-linear system. They say long term prediction of climate is not possible.
36:30 – ON THE NEED FOR DRAMA … MC: Most people I know haven’t looked at the data at all.
37:00 MC: People always — it’s not just America — people line up for the catastrophe.
37:30 MC: I’ve done this as a test — sit down at a dinner party and say, “The world is coming to an end and you get immediately the aroused attention at the table. Alternatively you say, basically everything is good. The world is getting better … CR: Nobody cares. MC: No, they get angry. Or they turn away. It’s not what we want to hear. We want to hear disaster. CR: But isn’t that true about writing books and making movies? MC: Yeah. Crisis. Crisis. Tension. Drama. You don’t want to read a story that doesn’t have a story. That doesn’t have consequences.
39:00 – ON HIS OWN COURAGE … MC: I didn’t want to write it. I decided I wouldn’t write it. I said “I’ll keep my opinions to myself.” I had breakfast with a scientist friend of mine I hadn’t seen for 30 years. He said you have to write it. I said, “No, no, I’m gonna get killed for this.” I’d like to say as a result of that conversation I decided to write it. I went home and thought, “You know, I’m not writing this. I’ll keep my opinion to myself.” I started to work on something else and I felt like a coward.
39:50 – ON REDUCING EMISSIONS … CR: You’re not arguing we shouldn’t reduce the amount of fossil fuel we’re putting in the atmosphere? MC: No. CR: You’d be happy with tougher standards on auto emissions and all that stuff? MC: Should have done it decades ago. I was in favor of a carbon tax, 25 years ago. Still waiting for it. It’s a very logical thing to do.
40:20 – ON ENVIRONMENTALISM … MC: I want an environment that’s great. I don’t think this is as an important of a problem as other people do. That’s the essence of it.
50:30 – ON THE HATRED HE RECEIVED … MC: I proud of having done the book about global warming. I knew everybody was going to be against me, and I thought, this is what I believe, and I’m sorry, and I said it, and I did it, and I’ve taken just flack for it. You know what, it is what I believe. CR: You went into rough seas. MC: Very rough seas. Nasty and personal and brutal and unfair and mean. CR: What was nasty and brutal and unfair and mean? MC: Oh, Charlie, this is — you want to look at what people will say — for example, when I started talking about genetics, people would say you might get some criticism for this. Well, I haven’t gotten any criticism for genetics, let me tell you. I know what criticism is. But …… I’ve had the experience of having had books in print for 40 years, so I can go back and look at the stand I took when I was in favor of abortion when I was a medical student in Boston in 1967, six years before Roe v. Wade and I can look at that and go was I right or not and I can say dammit I was right. And when I wrote “State of Fear,” I was imaging, what’s it gonna look like in 40 years? I think I’m gonna come out just fine.
2) MY 28 YEAR FRIENDSHIP WITH A CLOSE ASSOCIATE OF CRICHTON – In 1992 I met a screenwriter who worked closely with Michael Crichton for 15 years, giving notes on his novels, writing screenplays for his movies, even founding a video game company with him in the late 1990’s. In 1999 he gave me a copy of Crichton’s AAAS speech before he delivered it. We’re still close friends. He’s shared a great deal of insights into what Crichton went through over the years.
3) MY EMAILS WITH CRICHTON IN 2007 –In 2007 — the same time as the Charlie Rose interview, a year before Crichton died and I was filming my movie “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy,” my friend introduced me to Michael Crichton via email. We traded 4 months of emails. They reflect exactly what he’s saying in the Charlie Rose interview.
I wrote my first email expecting a two sentence reply wishing me well. What I got back was double the length of my email, saying it was probably already “too late” for the issue of global warming, and with a PS that warned me that the personal politics of global warming would be much worse than what I had encountered with intelligent design. He was right.
He also warned me at one point, “I am probably the most cynical person on this entire planet.”
There were about 20 emails from him over the next three months. Suffice it to say it reflected a man who wanted to engage in civilized discussion, but was worn out by all the rage he had endured. HOWEVER, I do think it’s worth asking how much of that rage was global warming versus the new found killing ground of the internet, blogging and posting comments. Had he published some of his earlier books in 2004 he probably would have received just as much troll action.
I certainly lived three decades of professional life and never experienced any of the mass insanity that erupted around 2005 with the advent of blogging. I think Crichton died long before everyone began to realize how mostly stupid and trivial social media arguing ends up being.
One pretty bad element was his line in one email, “Mark my words, four years from now global warming will be the WMD of today.” He was referring to the over-blown hype around Weapons of Mass Destruction and the war in the middle east. His quote looks pretty bad 13 years later. Whoops.
4) MIKE STRAUSS – My Story Circles co-developer Mike Strauss, who worked at AAAS in the 1990’s, was the guy who thought up, made happen, and hosted Crichton’s 1999 keynote speech to AAAS that was so prescient. He has shared with me all the details of that event — including the A/V problems during his speech (back in the old days of slide projectors that blew bulbs during talks), and the lame Q&A where nobody asked about the speech. They only wanted to know, “How can we make more Jurassic Park movies that will recruit more kids to science?”
5) HIS 2003 CAL TECH LECTURE “ALIENS CAUSE GLOBAL WARMING” – read his 2003 Cal Tech lecture— it is EXTREMELY smart and most of it hard to argue with.
In the end, Michael Crichton’s downfall was a lack of a deeper sense of people as deeply flawed humans. It’s reflected in his novels. He was extremely good with story structure, but at the same time, extremely weak on character development.
He was a shy, awkward man who really didn’t understand humans as well as might be expected of someone so successful with communicating TO humans. His novels were stories populated by stick figures.
He didn’t get it when it came to human nature, and is guilty of having done damage to the serious cause of environmentalism in general. But the climate community still needs to be faulted for being so single minded/myopic as to not having been able to pick out the good from the bad in what he had to say.
That was the point of my Ensia article. Before he was bad, he was good. Don’t be so myopic that you can’t look past the bad to make use of what was good. You don’t have to respect him, just learn from the experience.
I’m sure this isn’t appreciated, but what can you do. It’s very simple. Look at the molasses of their abstract, then look at the clarity and simplicity that the ABT structure brings. It’s a prime example of the obfuscation problem identified 45 years ago by Michael Crichton.
OBFUSCATION IS THE PROBLEM
There’s no need for detailed explication. In 1975, then-biomedical researcher Michael Crichton (later to be the author of “Jurassic Park,” among a wealth of science communication feats), published an appropriately concise paper identifying “obfuscation” as the prime target for effective science communication. His paper was ignored, and as a result, today we have authorities on science communication practicing obfuscation as they try to explain how it works. Just look at these two versions of the abstract for a paper appearing this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences titled, “Scientists’ Incentives and Attitudes Towards Public Communication.” It’s not that their version is wrong, it just has poor narrative structure, making it difficult to read (i.e. poorly communicated). This is what the ABT Framework is about. It’s not easy, but it’s essential if anyone is ever going to make any progress against the problem of obfuscation that was identified so simply so long ago.
Five years ago I thought the non-narrative AAA (And, And, And) structure was bad. I’ve slowly come to realize it’s not intrinsically bad, it’s just different. Also, it’s a central part of art. In this great clip from the 2002 movie “Adaptation,”Nicholas Cage plays a student who innocently asks screenwriting guru Robert McKee(played by an actor)about the basic non-narrative “slice of life” type of movie where “nothing happens,” which is what AAA structure is. McKee unloads on him with an ABT rant.
SO HOW DOES HE REALLY FEEL ABOUT AAA STRUCTURE?
CONFLICT ISN’T ESSENTIAL TO REACH THE MASSES, BUT CONTRADICTION IS
This is a great clip from the 2002 movie, “Adaptation,” (a movie that I originally I found boring and need to re-watch). The scene is a bullseye in capturing the simple divide between non-narrative approaches to material (AAA) and standard strongly narrative structure (ABT) found in popular mass media.
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.
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.
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?
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 here) in 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 Templatecame 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.
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.
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 thisthey 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.
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.
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.”
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 hada 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.