#163) The Story Circles Core Principle: “Stop thinking and DO THE WORK!”

Communication and acting are one in the same, AND … thinking is the enemy of both.  I’ve learned this over the past 25 years from the acting classes, filmmaking and communications work I’ve done since leaving my tenured professorship of biology.  It is now the core principle of our Story Circles Narrative Training program.  It was difficult for me to absorb in 1994 when (still an academic) I first heard it.  To someone with a graduate education it feels alien.  But it really is the central conundrum that is like the Observer Effect:  How can a thinky person communicate well when thinking ruins the process itself?

THE FONZ IN ACTION.  This was a key moment in the first episode of the acclaimed HBO series, “Barry.” Acting teacher, Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) manipulates a student to get her into character, then right when her anger is peaking, he tells her to go into the scene she had been performing poorly, and don’t let thinking get in the way.  Season Two of “Barry” is starting soon.  Can’t wait.  

 

THE CORE PRINCIPLE FOR ACTING/COMMUNICATION:  DON’T THINK

The opening paragraph of my first book, “Don’t Be Such A Scientist,” is a string of profanity from my “crazy acting teacher” on the first night of my first acting class in 1994.  The source of the tirade was her realization that she had an academic (me) in the class.  Academics think, thinking ruins acting, therefore academics must be chased out of an acting class.

Nobody had warned me.

It would take roughly 20 years for me to make sense of what happened that night, but it did eventually make sense.  And it makes even more sense when I see the dynamic repeated on a popular TV show.

It occurred last year in the acclaimed HBO series, “Barry.”  The persona of my crazy acting teacher (and countless others) is brought to life as Gene Cousineau, an acting teacher played brilliantly by the great Henry Winkler.  In the first episode he brings a student to tears of anger.  She was performing a scene poorly — failing to show the anger the performance needed.  He ignites her emotions, then at just the right moment says to her, “Don’t think, just finish the scene.” 

It was the “Don’t think” part that gave me flashbacks to my acting class. 

Henry Winkler’s character is so perfect.  In Vanity Fair last year he talked about the sources he draws on for the role, with the most obvious being the legendary Stella Adler.  Pretty much all acting teachers have at least a little bit of nuttiness to them.  But so does human behavior in general.  

And that’s why actors, more than anyone else, have a deep understanding of how humans behave — way more than people with PhD’s.  The academics can theorize about behavior, but the good actors actually know it so well they can recreate it themselves.  

 

YOU HAVE TO GET “OUT OF YOUR HEAD”

So this ends up being the big challenge.  Humans are mostly driven viscerally.  Yes, there’s a small percentage who are more cerebral, but they’re not that abundant and most of them turn out to be less logical than they think they are.  All you have to do is look at a major academic squabble.  I was on an email years ago with a group of professors who suddenly turned on each other over a political issue.  An actor friend who read the emails commented, “When eggheads crack …”

Or read my buddy Jerry Graf’s great book, “Clueless in Academe.”

Thinking is humanity’s greatest asset, yet also has a down side.  When it comes to science, thinking is essential for half of it (doing research), yet at the same time, is disastrous for the other half (communicating).  The first part requires enormous amounts of thinking and seeks perfection as the ultimate goal — i.e. a scientist wants to measure things to the n-th degree.

But communication is the opposite.  It needs to be human, alive and visceral.  Thinking fouls it up.

The same is true when it comes to training, as we have learned.

 

“STOP THINKING AND DO THE WORK!”

It’s been 25 years now since my crazy acting class.  I’ve forgotten major parts of it.  But a couple months ago, a friend reminded me what the crazy acting teacher used to shout at us, night after night — “Stop f-ing thinking and DO THE WORK!”

The cause of her frustration was watching students, who were there to learn from her, fall into the habit of hearing her instructions, THINKING to themselves, “Let’s see, does what she says make sense to me?” then ending up hesitating, doing things wrong, and even criticizing her, even though they had no background in acting. 

Her training program was at its core very simple — it just required that everyone do the simple exercises the right way, over and over and over again.  Which is exactly the same principle I built our Story Circles Narrative Training on.

And so now, all these years later, I find myself wanting to channel her voice.  We work with academics.  Some groups — like National Park Service, USDA, USGS, and US Fish and Wildlife Service — do an incredibly good job of exactly what she always asked for — trusting us, listening as close as possible, then doing the simple exercises as best as possible.  With time — with repetition — they begin to develop the very “narrative intuition” that is the goal of the training (we’re getting ready to release our first survey of graduates).

But there are some institutions where the participants are not able to get “out of their heads.”  They can’t seem to stop themselves from constantly thinking, “Does this make sense — is this the way I would do this — is there a better way to do it that I should recommend to them?”

Those groups are sad to watch.  They make a mess out of the training, learning little, then hand us back a stack of critical comments based on how they would do the training — even though they are not good at narrative.  It was the same problem that drove the acting teacher crazy.  I now feel her pain.

So I guess sometimes I wish I could just bring Gene Cousineau to our training sessions.  He would know exactly what to say to them.  “Don’t think — just do the work.” 

FLASHBACK TO 15 YEARS AGO.  This was my one great morning I got to spend working with the wonderful Henry Winkler in the spring of 2003 in the filming of our Ocean Symphony PSA with Jack Black.  He was as awesome back then as he is today (also pictured: Madeline Stowe on violin, Michael Hitchcock behind her, Sharon Lawrence on kettle drums, and Mindy “Frau Farbissina” Sterling seated next to her).

#162) John Oliver on Shaming: He Cites, “Agreement, Contradiction, Consequence” (= ABT)

They are the three fundamental forces of narrative.   Last night John Oliver, talking about a specific case of social media shaming, said, “ … but, at some point, it’s incumbent on everyone to consider both CONTEXT and CONSEQUENCE if you’re going to pile on in a shaming.”  He’s talking about the ABT dynamic.  He’s addressing what happens if all you present is the CONTRADICTION — the “but.”  He grasps the ABT Framework.  It’s the same thing I pointed out about Twitter in 2015 — presenting only contradiction ends up being non-narrative and won’t work in the long run.  Such are the brainless inefficiencies of a short attention-spanned society.

JOHN OLIVER TALKS ABT AND SOCIAL MEDIA.

 

THE THREE FORCES OF NARRATIVE

When I finished, “Houston, We Have A Narrative,” in 2014 I had not yet figured out that the ABT elements (And, But, Therefore) are simply manifestations of what  I have come to call the Three Forces of Narrative.  The three forces are:

AGREEMENT –  And
CONTRADICTION  –  But
CONSEQUENCE  –  Therefore

In the second appendix of the Houston book I made the prediction that Twitter wouldn’t last long at 140 characters.

My reasoning for that was 140 characters was too short to allow all three forces, and instead was selecting for mostly the most attention-grabbing element — contradiction.  My prediction came true in 2017 when Twitter shifted to 280 characters.

 

PILING ON EFFECTIVELY IN A SHAMING

Last night John Oliver, on his often-brilliant HBO show Last Week, made the same point.  He was talking about internet shaming, and the specific case of “Worst Aunt Ever.”  He synthesized his thoughts by saying:

But, at some point, it’s incumbent on everyone to consider both CONTEXT and CONSEQUENCE if you’re going to pile on in a shaming.

Truly effective communication, to have a lasting impact and not produce a society of lemmings chasing one source of contradiction after another, needs to make time for all three elements.  This is the inefficient brainlessness of social media — it’s largely non-narrative.  You can’t do that and expect to communicate well.  Our brains need all three elements of narrative to make proper sense of things.  They were designed thousands of years ago and are still the rate-limiting element for communication.

#161) Trump Went Off-Script at CPAC and (Predictably) Scored a Narrative Index of 36

For the Narrative Index (BUTs/ANDs), most speakers score in the teens.   A few reach the 20’s.   A very few reach the 30’s.  Trump scores in the 30’s when he goes off script.  It directly reflects that he is an angry, aggressive, and frustrated man.  With a sufficient sample size (over 1,000 words) the frustration is revealed by the use of the word “but.”  And so, for his recent crazed CPAC speech (which was a staggering 16,000 words), as could have been easily predicted, he scored a 36.  In contrast, the most recent speeches by Bernie Sanders, Elisabeth Warren and Beto O’Rourke have scored, respectively, 18, 17 and 4.

CPAC ATTACK.  He spoke for two hours — over 16,000 words.  He’s a madman and a mad man, as revealed by the Narrative Index.

 

MADMEN AND THE NARRATIVE INDEX

The Narrative Index is the ratio of the words BUT to AND It’s amazingly consistent.  Definitely not precise (wouldn’t want to say there’s a real difference between someone who scores a 15 versus a 19), but definitely accurate (someone who scores double that of someone else is definitely drawing on the power of narrative).  Trump scores high when he’s not being constrained by speechwriters like Stephen Miller.  

Just think of a heated conversation — about that moment where the frustrated person shouts, “But, but, but …”  That’s basically what you’re looking at.  The word “but” is at the heart of narrative.  People who are in attack mode are forced to use it to make their arguments — “The establishment says this, BUT I say this …”

President Trump was in crazy attack mode at CPAC.  The Washington Post called it “unhinged,” the Atlantic called it, “bewildering.”  But … what they should actually be calling it is “narratively powerful for his base.”  That’s what the 36 shows.

 

PRESIDENT STRANGELOVE

You know who scored the highest Narrative Index that I’ve ever found in a political speech?  Who was the most pent-up, frustrated, vindicating-feeling president to ever be elected?  Here’s a hint — he was humiliated by the handsome Jack Kennedy in his previous effort.  He scored a stunning 47 in his first inaugural.  

He wins the award for most portentous opening statement of a political speech ever as he began with, “Each moment in history is a fleeting time, precious and unique. But some stand out as moments of beginning, in which courses are set that shape decades or centuries.”  Yeah, he shaped a few decades, big time.

I can tell you right now, assuming a smoking gun doesn’t emerge in the investigations of Trump, he is going to win re-election if the Democrats don’t find someone who can reach above a 30 for a Narrative Index score.  I called the last Trump victory, I’m calling the next one based on this.  

In a media society, it’s all about communication, which means narrative structure.    

#160) AOC Does Something Democrats Aren’t Good At: “Advancing the Narrative”

This is how you actually defeat Trump in a permanent way.  Not by endlessly, angrily whining about things not being fair, and chasing after his narrative (meaning MAGA), but by advancing your own narrative — meaning The Green New Deal.  You advance the new idea, and when the ankle-biters start pointing out that you haven’t worked out every detail or that some of it is unrealistic, you explain back that movements have to start in the gut with intuition before the analytical folks can move things to the head with consistent, logical explanations.   Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a true leader — something the Democratic party has lacked since Obama.

FROM THE NEW YORKER TODAY

 

OCCUPY THE PLANET

Occupy Wall Street began in September, 2011 as a vague notion that the time had come to address income inequality.

It was soundly criticized, not just by the rich, but by the over-thinking eggheads of the progressive left who said it wasn’t “well thought out” or “realistic” or didn’t have a clear “plan of action.”

They were right — indeed it wasn’t well thought out or realistic, but it sowed the seeds of a movement that eventually found their candidate in Bernie Sanders who has taken the demands from marginal pipe dream to mainstream agenda. These things have to start in the gut with intuition, then eventually move to the head for the more specific, analytical elements.

Now the same thing is happening with the recently introduced “Green New Deal.” Rising Democratic party superstar Alexandria Octavio-Cortez has locked onto it. She is being criticized from both sides, but it doesn’t matter. She is also commanding all the attention right now, and that’s what is important in the “attention economy.”

More importantly, instead of burning up countless hours being incredulous over the lies Trump tells, she is moving forward with the Green New Deal. That is the eventual path to victory. You have to be the one who is advancing the narrative — that is what draws attention and support.

#159) This is how the CONVERSATIONAL ABT works and why it’s important

Mythologist Joseph Campbell pointed out we are all telling the same basic stories, around the world, in all different cultures.  The CONVERSATIONAL ABT reveals this.

A STORY THAT EVEN A SHOE SALESMAN MIGHT RELATE TO.  The speaker is Bob Chen of University of Massachusetts, Boston, at the Ocean Sciences Meeting in Puerto Rico this week.

 

ABT THIS

My good friend and longtime ABT fan Bill Dennison at University of Maryland forwarded me the photo above from the Ocean Sciences Meeting right now in Puerto Rico.  Let’s take a look at this, using the CONVERSATIONAL ABT, which is one of the three forms of the ABT I outlined in, “Houston, We Have A Narrative.”

First off, imagine you’re talking to someone from Soul Man shoe corporation who tells you the following basic ABT for their company:

International shipping for Soul Man Shoes has suffered for years from inefficiency AND everyone has known the solution to the problem BUT for some reason no one has ever managed to implement it THEREFORE we are starting a new project that will study that solution and hopefully implement it.

For the Conversational ABT you strip out all that makes it compelling, making it as concise as possible, like this:

CONVERSATIONAL ABT:   We have a problem AND we know the solution, BUT we’re not implementing it, THEREFORE we’re starting a project to study it that will hopefully make it happen.

You can see that ABT says nothing about the world it is taking place in.  It’s totally generic.  It is the core STORY that is being told, devoid of context.  And you can feel it’s the sort of story anyone from anywhere might tell.

 

WE’RE ALL TELLING THE SAME STORIES

Now take a look at the ABT on the slide above.  It is the same story, told in the world of ocean science.  That speaker could have started with the exact same sentence as a speaker from Soul Man Shoes speaking at a corporate conference.

He could have opened his talk by saying, “I’m going to tell you today about a situation where we’ve got a problem, we know the solution, but we haven’t been able to implement the solution, so we’re now starting a project to study how to make it happen.”

That exact same text could open either presentation.  Two completely different worlds, connected through narrative structure.

The fact is, if someone from Soul Man Shoes happened to be in the audience for the ocean science talk — maybe just accompanying a scientist friend — that person would sit up and say, “Whoa, this sounds like the same thing my company is dealing with!”

That person would be instantly drawn into the presentation, even with zero interest in Boston Harbor.  That is the broad, universal power of story structure.

#158) Trump’s Embattled Rose Garden Speech vs Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (His Narrative Match)

As could have been predicted, in his defensive/combative speech last Thursday about invoking a national emergency, President Trump scored a Narrative Index (BUT/AND x 100) of 30.  He then stepped up the combativeness another level for the Q&A.  But he’d better watch out — AOC is his narrative match.

TRUMP SLUGS AWAY AT REPORTERS AND FAKE NEWS.  Almost nobody scores over 30 for the Narrative Index.  It reflects his rage.

 

THE CAGED ANIMAL

President Donald Trump last Thursday gave a speech in the Rose Garden defending his decision to declare a state of emergency on the border.  It was predictably combative, which means I would predict heavy use of the word “but” and a Narrative Index of over 30.

His speech scored exactly 30, but the Q&A — where the beast gets poked and prodded by the journalists bringing out even more combativeness — scored 36.

I put a high degree of confidence in those two numbers.  Both texts were over 4,000 words.  I usually say you need about 1,000 words to feel like the score is reliable.

I’ve also got his AF (AND Frequency –  the percentage of all words that are the word “and”) scores above.  There’s an established baseline of 2.5% for well edited material.  His speech was a tiny bit flabby at 3.0%, but once he came under fire, his brain (or whatever reasonable facsimile that he possesses) tightened it up to 2.6%.

For comparison, speeches almost never score above 25 for the Narrative Index.  Elizabeth Warren gave four speeches last fall that I was able to find the transcripts for and analyze using the Narrative Index (But/And x 100).  Her scores were 17, 18, 21, 23.  

Bernie Sanders State of the Union reply was 18.  His speech in Burlington in November was 22. 

Also, the two speeches I found for Amy Klobuchar (DNC speech and recent announcement of presidential candidacy) scored 14 and 15 for the NI, 3.5 and 3.4 for the AF (yawn).

But here’s a ray of hope … last fall, just after her election victory, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez scored a 38 in her very lengthy interview (over 4,000 words) with Jacobin Magazine with an AF of 2.0.  And in a shorter interview with Chris Hayes of MSNBC she scored NI: 32, AF: 2.3. 

Those are Trump level scores.  She’s the real deal.

#157) 3 Gradients in Narrative Training: One Size Does Not Fit All

If you’re a believer in the “one size fits all” model of training for the communication of science you might want to read this.  We’ve learned a lot in our 5 years of developing Story Circles Narrative Training.  There are at least three gradients you’re up against.  If you do the math you can make a clear prediction — that our best clients should be National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife, USGS and USDA.  And you’d be right.

DEMO DAY WITH THE U.S. ARMY ENGINEERS NATIONAL LEADERSHIP PROGRAM in Vicksburg, Mississippi two weeks ago.

 

Here’s three of the most important things we’ve learned when it comes to narrative training.

 

1) OLDER PEOPLE ARE BETTER

In the beginning, evvvvvveryone said, “Oh, today’s young people are the ones who are gonna get the most out of this program — they’re so good at communication.  The old folks will probably have trouble with it.”   Wrong.

These supposed “good communications” today’s young people are doing are mostly social media — texting, tweeting, Facebooking, etc.  The problem is, that stuff is mostly non-narrative And, And, And (AAA) material.  As in, “I went to school AND I talked to James AND we got some coffee AND he’s really stressed out …”

More importantly, what we learned the hard way is the youngsters don’t have any CONTEXT for narrative training.  There’s a few rare exceptions, but most of them haven’t had enough proposals rejected, papers declined, and talks that went poorly to have developed a clear context in which to grasp the need for good narrative structure and appreciate how hard it is to master. 

Furthermore, there’s a syndrome that many professors have confirmed for me — that the students are raised to be “positive” and not criticize each other.  The core of Story Circles is not criticizing each other but critical thinking.  The result is discussion sessions with young students where they praise the ABT that was just read, then sit quietly with nothing to say (I think their parents taught them, “if you can’t say anything nice then don’t say anything at all”).  

Professional scientists are the opposite.  They have a clear context.  We saw this with the first session of the first group of scientists at USDA.  Before the session was even over they were listing all the projects the ABT could help with.

It’s just a constraint of experience, but it’s a very real and important constraint.  And the final clincher is the group of OLDER graduate students at U.C. Davis’s Bodega Marine Lab who right now are running three circles and doing a great job with it.

BOTTOM LINE:  the training works best for those with a little more life experience.

 

2) LESS ANALYTICAL PEOPLE ARE BETTER

There’s a major component to Story Circles that is meant to address Chapter 2 of my book, “Don’t Be Such A Scientist.”  Each week some of the material analyzed is scientific content (literal) and some of it is the synopses of movies (non-literal).  Most people love the inclusion of movies — they get the point we’re making — that the basic structure is the same ABT elements, but some rail against it, saying “We don’t want to be moviemakers, why are you forcing us to read movie synopses?”   That’s called literal minded thinking.  

In particular, it’s the heavily analytical people who have proven to be the most challenging so far.  We’ve found a number of molecular/biomedical researchers have chewed up the training, spat it out, and told us it doesn’t work.  I got the same thing with one person in the session I did with diplomats from the State Department and the same thing with some of the “quant jocks” (statisticians) at Deloitte Touche business consulting firm.

Heavily analytical people tend to be heavily literal minded.  They expect their communications training to deal with ONLY their subject matter.  

It becomes a downward spiral for them.  The very training they need is what they end up tearing to pieces, eventually saying that they know better than we do when it comes to communications training.

It can be painful to watch those in need dismissing what could help them.  Like a wounded animal rubbing the wound and making it worse.  

BOTTOM LINE:   It’s definitely more challenging to train heavily analytical people on the use of narrative structure, but they are an important audience and worth the effort.  Despite having the word “story” in the name “Story Circles Narrative Training,” the key word is “narrative” which is at the core of every paper, proposal and presentation every scientist gives, no matter how analytical they are.  It just takes extra effort for the analytical types.

 

3) MORE STRUCTURED ENVIRONMENTS ARE BETTER

Narrative structure is at the core of storytelling and storytellers write novels.  Do you know where novelists go to write their novels?  Writers retreats — usually cabins out in the woods where they can be isolated with no distractions.  Do you know why they do that?  Because narrative structure is really, really challenging and requires a great deal of focus.

Now compare that mode with the typical NGO communicator who is constantly jetsetting around the planet to save humanity, endlessly “swamped”, forever “up to my ass in alligators” and all the other fun metaphors to convey the lack of time to think straight.  Combine that with the fact that they live their lives on social media (which as I said is largely non-narrative) and you start to see why so much communication today continues to get worse.

Ideally, you need a quiet, sane, structured environment to work on narrative.  As a result, we’ve had a number of disappointing experiences with universities (vastly unstructured settings) versus wonderful experiences with most of the government agencies where they show up at a building each day from 9 to 5.

One of our worst experiences was a Demo Day for 50 environmental and forestry graduate students at a prominent university.  The night before the Demo Day a recent graduate warned me that the students are all so swamped with their overbooked schedules that the idea of a training program involving 10 one hour sessions would never work.

She turned out to be right.  We did the Demo Day.  Of the 50 students, 26 signed up for circles, but the next week the organizing professor said only 4 of them really meant it — the rest just signed up to be nice.

In contrast, again, look at the UC Davis grad students at the Bodega Marine Lab.  They might as well be off at a writers retreat.  They are in a structured environment, seeing each other every day, with minimal distractions.  No wonder they are doing so well.

BOTTOM LINE:  People who are running non-stop don’t communicate well.  They can’t.  There are physiological constraints.  It requires a certain degree of structure and quiet. 

 

IN THE BEGINNING …

We were a tiny bit naive at the start, five years ago.  I thought the training would flourish best with young people and academics.  It’s five years later.  Turns out its the folks who are a little older (advanced grad students on) and government agency workers who have taken to it best.  

There’s lots of exceptions — even a few undergraduates and plenty of professors on busy campuses.  But in general, one size does not fit all when it comes to communications training.  More communications programs should be aware of this and document it further. 

#156) STORY CIRCLES: We’ve Come A Long Way, Baby

We began developing Story Circles Narrative Training at the start of 2015.  We’ve now involved 7 government agencies and 8 universities in 36 Demo Days and 52 Story Circles (completed).   These are two of our WEEKLY UPDATES that Liz Foote assembles for our group every Sunday.  They paint the picture pretty clear.  In 1.5 years we’ve gone from a few participants to a whole bunch.  A lotta people are getting a lot stronger on narrative structure, and having a good time in the process.  


EARLY ON:   1.5 YEARS AGO


NOW:   THIS WEEK

PRETTY MUCH SPEAKS FOR ITSELF.  We passed 50 circles completed last fall.  We may double that by the end of this year.  This is how you move the needle in the communication of science.

#155) “Trump’s But”: Still in fine form

Here’s two representative examples of communication from President Donald Trump this fall — a speech and an interview.  One scripted, one unscripted.  His Narrative Index (But/And ratio) for both is completely predictable.  As expected, for his rigid, tightly scripted speech to the U.N, it was very low (6).  But for his combative, unscripted comments to two journalists for the Washington Post, he scored aggressively high (33).  Is there any other metric that reveals what’s going on inside this guy when he speaks?  If so, I haven’t seen it.

IT COULDN’T BE ANY MORE SIMPLE, OR PREDICTABLE.  When he needs to be delicate (wouldn’t want to go so far as to say “diplomatic”), he avoids “but.”  But … when he’s cornered and off-script, he buts away.

 

WHAT HE DOES

A president can’t use profanity (much), but the word “but” is the next best thing.  It’s what comes out when someone is reaching hard — as in, “But, but, but — let me say this … “

Diplomats are often taught to not use the word “but” at all.  This is what I learned when I ran a Story Circles Demo Day with a group from the U.S. State Department.  But, combative people use it a lot.

 

HOW KNOWING THIS IS USEFUL

I’ve been documenting the Narrative Index and Trump since the fall of 2015.   The index is useful — it tells you something about who is writing the text, and how much thought is going into it.

Prime examples of combative presentations include this year’s Michelle Wolf “take no prisoners” assault at the White House Correspondents dinner (47), Trump’s Al Smith dinner speech (38), Nixon’s first inaugural address (47), and Barbara Jordan’s legendary 1976 DNC speech (39) (I love it that Nixon and Michelle Wolf hit the same score).  It’s rare that a speech goes above 30, and only a handful go above 40.  Most are in the teens.

The Narrative Index is not very PRECISE — I wouldn’t say a speech with a narrative index of 15 is much different from one of 10.  But it is ACCURATE — meaning I guarantee you the core dynamic of a speech  (meaning the degree of tension and aggression) that scores 33 is completely different from one that scores 6.

There are countless articles about how Trump is a “master manipulator,” and countless “experts” — from psychologists to rhetoric dudes — claiming to understand EXACTLY why he’s so effective.  Whatever.  They have mostly produced useless poop.

All I know is that the Narrative Index is simple (the But/And ratio x100), objective, and reveals countless patterns.  I don’t claim to be an expert on this stuff, I just know a pattern when I see one.

#154) Story Circles Testimonial: “I began to see narrative structure everywhere …”

This is the best testimonial from a Story Circles participant yet.  It’s great how many people tell me these days about discovering the power of the ABT Narrative Template, BUT … I’m forever thinking in response, “You really should do the full 10 one hour sessions.”  And now, as we’ve just passed 50 circles, here is an excellent testimonial from Jeff Davis, President of the Western Section of the Wildlife Society.  He uses no hype (something that can’t be said of me).  There’s no words like awesome, A-mazing, or incredible (to name a few of my favorites).  It’s just a very clinical, dispassionate analysis of what he got out of the training.  And it’s a lot.  Enough to make me say you’re not going to get this sort of in-depth improvement of your feel for narrative by just practicing with the ABT on your own.  You need this training over the long term in a group.  Actually, everyone needs this training.  Ask yourself — are you serious about this communication stuff or not?

Tell Them a Story
By Jeff Davis

Effective science communication is fundamental to what we do as wildlifers.  We need it to

  • convince advisors to take us on as grad students; 
  • get prospective employers to hire us;
  • gain promotions;
  • establish our credibility as scientists;
  • persuade colleagues, supervisors, clients, or foundations to fund our projects or initiatives; 
  • prepare compelling proposals and reports;
  • publish impactful papers;
  • give engaging presentations;
  • influence stakeholders during meetings;
  • inspire policy makers to respond to environmental crises; and
  • change public opinion.

The problem is that few of us have ever been trained in how to effectively communicate science.  That’s why I chose science communication as the theme for our 2018 annual meeting in Santa Rosa. You may recall that our plenary speakers provided tips on improving our science communications and agreed that communicating science by telling stories is more effective than reciting facts.  California State University Chico professor emeritus Jon Hooper reminded us that knowing our audience is key. National Science Foundation Fellow, TED fellow, and National Geographic Explorer Mike Gil underscored how making it personal is what brings a story to life. UC Berkeley Doctoral Candidate Sara ElShafie urged us to have a clear theme to the story we’re presenting.  And scientist-turned filmmaker turned science communicator Randy Olson recommended we tap into the power of narrative using the right structure. 

Hoping to improve my own communications, I participated in Randy Olson’s Demo Day at the meeting and then in one of two Story Circles that formed after the meeting.  Because one annual meeting reviewer wondered whether any Story Circles would form and what would be the outcome, I wanted to share what I learned.  

Story Circles teaches participants to recognize and use narrative structure to communicate science.  The simplest form of optimal narrative structure is ABT, which stands for And, But, Therefore. These are the basic building blocks of narrative.  “And” represents a statement of fact or agreement. For example: Devil’s Slide Rock is a small seastack along the San Mateo County coast. “And” is used to represent the statement of fact because narrative often includes the statement of more than one fact.  For example: Devil’s Slide Rock is a small seastack along the San Mateo County coast, and it supported a breeding colony of about 3,000 common murres until the early 1980s.  “But” represents conflict or contradiction. For example: But the colony was wiped out due to human-caused mortality.  “Therefore” represents resolution or consequence. For example: Therefore, beginning in 1996, biologists used a technique called social attraction to restore the breeding colony, which has grown every year since.

This format is about presenting foundational information, posing a problem, and finding a solution to the problem.  This structure is what stories are built around. It’s more interesting than non-narrative structure (e.g., and, and, and; “just the facts, ma’am”) and less confusing than overly narrative structure that has too many contradictory words (e.g., despite, however, yet) and directions.

The ABT format is effective because we are hardwired to solve problems.  President Trump’s decision to not focus on the great economy during the 2018 midterm elections was a case in point.  There was no problem to solve, so focusing on the economy would not excite his base. Instead he focused on a problem and used narrative structure that follows ABT format to generate enthusiasm for the election.  The economy is great, and we’re creating lots of new jobs.  But a caravan of migrants is going to storm the border.  Therefore, you better get out and vote for candidates who will be strong on immigration because the migrants will steal your jobs.

Much of Story Circles involved examining scientific abstracts and movie synopses to identify narrative structure.  By repeatedly examining the abstracts and synopses, I began to see narrative structure everywhere. Home renovation TV shows, for example, use this structure to full advantage: We bought the house below market value, and the renovation was going well.  But then we discovered the subfloor was totally rotted, which set us back 20 grand.  Therefore, we spent less money on the furnishings and in the end came out under budget.

You don’t need to use the words “and”, “but”, and “therefore” to create narrative structure.  Synonyms such as also, however, and consequently work too. But I also found that you can set up this problem-solution structure without using any of these words.  Ultimately, though, the simple ABT template provides a framework for organizing what you wish to say in a compelling way.

It’s not enough to just read about effective communication techniques or listen to good communicators.  Developing what Randy calls narrative intuition requires practice. So, to communicate more effectively, I encourage you to practice telling your science stories using the ABT narrative structure.  As actor and science communicator Alan Alda observed, “I’ve been listening to good pianists all my life, and I still can’t play the piano.”

 

Jeff Davis, President
Western Section of The Wildlife Society