#153) Our challenging “Shaping the Narrative of Invasive Insect Species” work session in Vancouver at the Entomological Society of America Meeting

On November 10, at the annual meeting of the Entomological Society of America in Vancouver, we ran an interesting session on “Shaping the Narrative of Invasive Insect Species” that ended with lots of frustration and feelings of “we’re not done here yet.”  Which was excellent and “as planned.” These are the sorts of tough, challenging communications exercises that are needed everywhere.

SHAPING THE NARRATIVE OF INVASIVE INSECT SPECIES.   We broke the issue of invasive insect species into 4 sub-topics (Prevention, Detection, Response, Trade and Policy).  The groups of experts ranged from 10 to 40 people.  Each sub-topic was in a separate room.  All  the rooms were connected to “Narrative HQ” by individuals on laptops editing in Google Docs.  The groups followed a schedule for 90 minutes, applying the two tools — the ABT Narrative Template and the Dobzhansky Template — to their sub-topic.  As they typed in drafts of their ABTs into Google Docs the group in Narrative HQ read them aloud, then sent back notes, creating iterative rounds of revision.  It was fun, really interesting, and produced substantial progress in figuring out the narratives, BUT … not finished products.  You can’t expect that in a single day’s effort.

 

WHY ONE DAY WORKSHOPS TASTE GREAT, BUT ARE LESS FILLING

A workshop is a story.  It has a beginning, a middle, and some sort of end.  Everybody wants endings of stories to be happy — sometimes at any cost.  Which means most people want their one day workshop to have a happy ending.

This is because of a basic piece of bad programming of the human brain called “the closed ending.”   You won’t find a movie that makes over $100 million at the box office that lacks it.  “Chinatown” didn’t have a closed ending (“Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown”).  But “Chinatown” also didn’t make over $100 million (it’s made $29 million lifetime).  Plus it was made pre-Information Society, when audiences still had some last ability to handle an open ending.

But today most people don’t like going home feeling like the problems you set out to solve aren’t yet solved.  That leaves you suspended in Joseph Campbell’s “Special World” — which might be exciting for your brain, but makes it hard to relax.

 

WHY I NO LONGER SUPPORT ONE DAY WORKSHOPS

Now, think about a one day workshop.  In Version A, the participants fill out the blanks for the 12 stages of The Story Cycle derived from Joseph Campbell’s Heroes Journey.   They have a fun day learning about “the power of story” then go home with their own complicated, multi-faceted story and the feeling like they “nailed the story thing” all in one day.

This is what a scientist from a major aerospace research facility told me about a few years ago — the workshop he attended that left him feeling he could check off “the story thing” from his list of problems to solve.  But the problem is that narrative takes time to learn — you can’t expect to nail it in a day.  

This leads to Version B, which is what we preach with our Story Circles Narrative Training program.  It’s not for the “get ‘er done now” crowd.  It begins with the fact that you just can’t accomplish much in a single day when it comes to narrative.  You need long term, sustained effort.  And this is the same mind set I brought to our ESA session.

 

OUR “SHAPING THE NARRATIVE” SESSION AT ESA

We ran a very interesting session at the ESA meeting that is described in the caption above.  Let me start by offering my sincere thanks and kudos to the organizers for being brave enough to try something this original.

A couple hours after the session we had an hour long panel discussion in front of the larger group of a couple hundred entomologists.  For the panel, each of the 4 sub-topic groups presented just two things for their session — basically the one SENTENCE and the one WORD, using the ABT Template and the Dobzhansky Template (both originally presented in, “Houston, We Have A Narrative”). 

Each person had about 15 minutes for Q&A where the audience mulled over the two items.  None of them produced stunned rounds of spontaneous applause.  It wasn’t meant to be a self esteem building session.  It was meant to provide a start on “shaping the narrative” and to show how hard this narrative stuff really is, and that’s exactly what it showed.

By the end there was a feeling that each group had made a solid start and had something that was probably pretty close to the central narrative of their sub-topic.  But the session also sent everyone away feeling like “we’re not done here.”  And while it was frustrating for some, it left me feeling very good.

Narrative is an endless journey.  You’re never completely finished with it.  Read Christopher Vogler’s brilliant Preface to the second edition of his landmark book on narrative, “The Writers Journey.   He talks about coming to realize that The Heroes Journey (which is a more elaborate version of the ABT) is, “nothing less than a handbook for life.”

That’s how deep this stuff is.  And the reason why people are enjoying our Story Circles Narrative Training program.

#152) Story Circles Celebrates 50 Circles!

Four years, 50 circles with lots more running and scheduled.  It’s getting to be time for some metrics for our Story Circles Narrative Training.   Here’s our log of the circles.

FIFTY AND COUNTING.  Completed circles are in black, circles currently running are red, upcoming circles are blue.

 

COMING SOON, TO A CITY NEAR YOU!

In the past month we’ve had three Demo Days — USDA, USFWS, ESA — each one just as interesting and fun as the last.  Demo Days end up being like a mini-symposium on the power, importance and ubiquity of narrative structure.  

The Demo Days give rise to the actual work — the Story Circles where 5 participants meet for the 10 one hour sessions.  The circles should take 2.5 months to complete if they go weekly, but for a session to meet all five participants must be present.  Which means lots of postponements.  Some circles have taken up to 10 months to finish.

Originally this concerned us — what if participants lost interest and quit.  But to our surprise and delight, that simply doesn’t happen.  To date every circle has gone the distance — none have been abandoned.  Something seems to happen once people get involved.  They feel, not just an obligation to the group, but also a desire to complete the ten sessions.  Some circles have even continued to meet after completing the sessions, serving as a sort of narrative workshopping group. 

There’s lots more Demo Days scheduled for the new year, including NIH in February and USDA in March.  All this, and we’ve yet to take out one advertisement.  Nor has the media written anything about the training, which seemed like a concern at first, but now who cares, it’s working.   

#151) Not Even DHY: Is this really “science education”?

What form of communication is someone practicing when they tell you what they did, then tell you what the topic they studied is, then tell you again what they did, and then that’s it — no hint of why they did it or what they were trying to figure out.  Have a look at the abstract of a paper that I just saw tweeted.  I would give this abstract a 2 out of 10 for narrative structure.  And they wonder why the education system is such a mess — one word:  obfuscation.

OBFUSCATION IN ACTION:  The ABT analysis of narrative structure involves color coding each sentence of a text — BLUE for agreement, RED for contradiction, GREEN for consequence.  Nothing like skipping the set up and problem as you go right to “here’s what we did.”

 

GREEN WITH UNENVY

The standard exercise for Story Circles Narrative Training is to read the abstract of a published paper and give it a score where 10 is perfect ABT structure, 1 is a mess.  Above is the abstract of a paper in this month’s issue of the journal Research in Education Science titled, “Epistemic Frames as an Analytical Framework.”  It’s a narrative mess, and gives you a little insight into the minds of academics who can’t think a simple thought.

It starts with what should be last, jumps back to what should be first, and never includes what should be in the middle.  It’s not that the content is wrong, it’s just that the form is terrible, making it more difficult to absorb the content.

You might wonder, is this just the obligatory style of this discipline?   No, it’s not.  If you want to see excellent ABT structure in the abstract of another paper in the same issue just look at this one.  It gets the ABT structure right.  And look at the name of the author — it might well be someone for whom English is a second language.  Which is impressive.

#150) Story Circles is NOT Competitive (it’s Complementary)

If you run a workshop for speaking, writing, video making — pretty much any aspect of communication — the best participants you can have are those who have done our Story Circles Narrative Training program before they get to you.   We DO NOT address any of the specifics of these forms of communication workshops — no videotaping of presentations, no editing of writing samples, no directing of videos — that’s stuff for other folks to provide.  We work only on the fundamentals of how to shape material into strong narrative structure.  No one else provides this sort of long term, simple training that builds “narrative intuition,” which is the central element for effective communication.  Which means graduates of Story Circles are the ideal participants for other communications training.

Graduates of Story Circles bring the ABT Framework to any communications workshops they take part in.

 

NO REASON TO BE “TURFY”

In a call last week with one of the groups we are doing Story Circles with, they made a comment about how “turfy” communications trainers can be.  It didn’t surprise me — I’ve experienced a bit of it myself.  But when it comes to Story Circles, there’s no reason for it.

We are not competing against anyone.  There’s no one else, that we know of, teaching the ABT Framework over the course of 10 one hour sessions.  

One thing we’ve found with Story Circles is that it makes a huge difference whether the participants have read, Houston, We Have A Narrative,” in advance.  The book is where the ABT Narrative Template is presented in detail.  If they have read it, they start at an advanced level.  And if they have both read it and discussed it — as is the case right now with the U.C. Davis grad students currently in circles at Bodge Marine Lab, then they have a double advantage.

 

WE CAN’T TEACH YOU HOW TO TELL A STORY IN JUST THREE YEARS

All of this makes me think about applying to the graduate film production program at the University of Southern California.  In my class of 50 students probably about a third had never even tried to make a film before.

This surprised me at first, but then one of the professors explained their philosophy.  They believe that in film school they can teach you all the details of how to direct a film, how to operate a camera, how to edit a film.  That stuff is fairly informational and relatively easy to teach.

But the thing they can’t teach you so much is “how to tell a story.”  They have found that if you’re a lousy storyteller at the start, you’ll probably still be a lousy storyteller after three years.  You can improve a bit, but the process is so slow AND so important, that they opt to make it their highest priority for admissions — looking for applicants who already tell good stories, as reflected in the two required essays.

And that’s the bottom line — story is just about everything.  To be good at it, you need narrative intuition (or “story sense” as they call it in Hollywood).  Story Circles doesn’t make you instantly great with narrative, but with the ABT Framework it definitely sets you on the right path, making you ready to draw on the knowledge of narrative structure gained when taking subsequent communication workshops.

#149) TEMPERAMENT: Democrat Senators had the One Word, but Missed the Narrative Boat

It was right there in their questioning.  If only they knew about the Dobzhansky “One Word” Template.  The Democrats needed to control the narrative — steering it towards the broader issue of TEMPERAMENT, rather than just the specific issues of sexual assault and alcoholism.  Mazie Hirono eventually hit on it, but it was too late.  TEMPERAMENT was “the Christmas tree,” to use the terminology of Dave Gold’s great Politico article last year.  The other stuff should have been just ornaments.  They missed it because they had no clear strategy.  As Obama said in 2012, they needed to, “Tell a story to the American people,” and the theme of that story needed to be TEMPERAMENT.

The ten Democrat senators had no clear overall strategy other than a shotgun blast of questions.  They had no singular ABT.

 

TO TELL A STORY TO THE AMERICAN PEOPLE 

In 2012, when asked what was the biggest failure of his first term, President Barak Obama said the following: 

“The mistake of my first term. . .was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right. And that’s important, but the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people …”

So what was the story the ten Democratic senators told the American people on September 27 in the hearing for Brett Kavanaugh? 

Rather than presenting a clear ABT structured narrative (Kavanaugh wants to be a Supreme Court judge AND a supreme court judge needs to have the right temperament, BUT he doesn’t, THEREFORE he needs to be rejected), they took a shotgun approach and ended up with a laundry list of complaints.  

HOW THEY “AND, AND, AND-ED”

Examining the transcript, here’s the basics of what 10 Democratic senators covered in their 5 minute segments.

FEINSTEIN –   FBI
LEAHY –  DRINKING – Mark Judge
DURBIN –  FBI (ask McGahn)
WHITEHOUSE –  DRINKING – yearbook references
KLOBUCHAR –  DRINKING – high school, college
COONS –  DRINKING – Liz Swisher,  FBI
BLUMENTHAL –  HONESTY, CONSPIRACY, DRINKING, FBI
HIRONO –  TEMPERAMENT, DRINKING
BOOKER –  DRINKING, CONSPIRACY
HARRIS –  FBI, Gorsuch, CONSPIRACY

BY TOPIC:
FBI –  Feinstein, Durbin, Coons, Blumenthal, Harris (5)
DRINKING – Leahy, Whitehouse, Klobuchar, Coons, Blumenthal, Hirono, Booker (7)
CONSPIRACY –  Blumenthal, Booker, Harris (3)
CHARACTER –  Blumenthal, Hirono (2)

It’s was a bunch of stuff, but no single, consistent, repeatable theme emerged.

 

WHAT’S OUR THEME GOING TO BE?

In a perfect world, that morning, before the hearings began, the 10 senators would have met in a room to lay out their strategy.  At this point Senator Mazie Hirono would have spoken up, saying the one word she did say three times during her segment that afternoon — “TEMPERAMENT.”

The group would have thought this through, then said, “Great word — it has human qualities and is central to the qualifications for a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court.  All of what we have for criticisms of Kavanaugh can be tied together under that one umbrella term, so let’s make it our theme for the day.”

Then the LEADER (something that’s clearly lacking in the Democratic party) would have figured out how to have the group “tell a story” that would have had a beginning, middle and end.  The leader would have said:

“Okay, Feinstein, you’re going first — you begin by explaining to the American people what TEMPERAMENT is and why it’s central to being a judge.  After her set up, then each of you need to connect your line of questioning to this one word theme.  Whitehouse, when you read the entries from his yearbook, explain how that material reflects on his TEMPERAMENT.  Harris, when you compare his process to Gorsuch, explain how Gorsuch had the right TEMPERAMENT to be a Supreme Court judge which made his confirmation easy, but Kavanaugh does not.  Blumenthal, instead of rambling through four topics, pick one that no one else has covered and relate it to TEMPERAMENT.  Then Harris, you’re last, so give us an ending to our story by pulling everything together, saying that we feel all of what we’ve heard today underscores our belief that Judge Kavanaugh lacks the TEMPERAMENT to be on the Supreme Court.”

Furthermore, this leader/narrative coach would have said, “If by some miracle we get lucky enough for this guy to lose his cool and present to the American public a live demonstration of his poor temperament by, for example, asking Senator Klobuchar if she has ever blacked out from drinking, or by claiming he is the victim of a left wing conspiracy backed by the Clintons … then whoever is next should make an issue of it by saying, “THIS is exactly what we mean by your temperament being wrong.”

TEMPERAMENT would have been the story for the American public.  Every newspaper would have carried the simple headline that the Democrats feel he lacks the TEMPERAMENT.   And the authors of the bestselling 2012 book, “The One Thing,” would have been saying to themselves, “wow, they must have read our book!”

But that’s not what happened.    

 

HIRONO KNEW

I heard Senator Mazie Hirono on NPR that morning.  Look at what she said:

“ … what really will be focused on is, as far as I’m concerned, Judge Kavanaugh’s credibility, character and candor. And before all this began, I already questioned his credibility.”

She was the one who knew best that the focus needed to be at the broader level than just his high school transgressions.  She was saying, regardless of the accusations of Dr. Ford, she already had problems with him at the broadest scale.  And this is why she, alone, eventually found her way to the key word of TEMPERAMENT.

If you search KAVANAUGH TEMPERAMENT now, what you’ll see is a tidal wave of articles, but they all begin after the hearing.  Which is a shame.  Had the Democrats come up with a strategy, they could have started talking about TEMPERAMENT several days before the hearing.  That would have “planted” their theme in advance, getting ready for the hearing.

All of which would have established the simple core narrative, and allowed the senators to TELL A STORY to the American people.   Just as Obama said should happen.

But they didn’t.  The Democrats are just so totally narratively adrift these days.  It’s painful to watch.

#148) POLITICS: “The THEREFORE Test” for Campaign Slogans

Slogans are essential for effective mass messaging, but there seems to be no simple structural rules for creating them.  At all.  Here’s a first one.  It’s “The Therefore Test.”  Just say the word THEREFORE before the slogan.  Yep, it’s that simple, and will tell you plenty.  Jayde Lovell did an interview with me about this last week which just aired on the new Young Turks Network (TYT) digital television channel.  You can view it here.  

 

A SLOGAN SHOULD BE A STATEMENT OF CONSEQUENCE

Narrative consists of three main forces — agreement, contradiction, consequence.  Guess which force a slogan should embody.

If your slogan consists only of agreement it’s going to be boring.  If it conveys only contradiction it will be confusing and unfulfilling.  But if it’s a statement of consequence, it’s pushing forward and ideally even conveys the ultimate goal — action.

The ABT Narrative Template (And, But, Therefore) embodies the three forces.  So this is yet another application of the ABT tool.

 

THE “THEREFORE TEST” FOR SLOGANS

This becomes a very simple test for a slogan — just say the word “therefore,” then say the slogan.  Try it on some of the best slogans ever.  Each one rolls off the tongue after the word of consequence.

THEREFORE … give me liberty or give me death.

THEREFORE … just do it.

THEREFORE … you’re in good hands.

THEREFORE … better dead than red.

THEREFORE … I can feel a Fourex comin’ on

The last one is my favorite from living a few years in northern Australia.  The test isn’t the defining criteria for every possible slogan, but seems to work for most.

 

YOU CAN FEEL THE ABT THAT CAME BEFORE

Really good slogans, like these, seem to almost project backwards as you can feel what the ABT (And, But, Therefore narrative structure) was that brought you to the slogan.  Here’s the matching ABTs for the above …

The crown is having its way with us AND there are those who urge caution, BUT we can no longer endure the repression, THEREFORE … give me liberty or give me death.

You may want to hesitate AND it would be easy to not act, BUT life is short, THEREFORE … just do it.

You need reliable insurance AND many companies don’t provide it, BUT Allstate does, THEREFORE … you’re in good hands (with Allstate)

There is disagreement in this country about the threat of communism AND some feel it’s not a danger, BUT we say it threatens our entire existence, THEREFORE … we’re better dead than red.

Fourex is the best beer in Queensland AND you don’t want to drink too much of it, BUT I’m done with work, THEREFORE … I can feel a Fourex comin’ on.

 

TRUMP SHOWS HOW IT WORKS

(Trump Warning: if you can’t stomach Donald Trump you might want to skip this section)  Wanna learn a few things about mass messaging in today’s information-glutted society?  You really should set your emotions aside and engage in the clinical analysis of Trump’s communications traits (I’m hesitant to use the word “skills”).  I’ve been doing this for 3 years now, including this episode of the podcast, “The Business of Story,” the morning after the election.  It proved to be one of their most popular and has produced lots of emails to me from listeners over the past two years.

Look how Trump’s slogan makes sense coming off the word of consequence:

THEREFORE … make America great again.

And now look at how logical the ABT is that precedes it.

America was once a great AND mighty nation, BUT we’ve slipped in the world, THEREFORE … we need to make America great again.

It’s more than three years since Trump announced “Make America Great Again” as his official slogan in July, 2015.  He has not changed one word of it from the start.  That reflects how much of a bullseye he hit with the narrative structure from the start, showing once again that narrative is everything.

 

THEREFORE … LET’S LOOK AT CURRENT CAMPAIGN SLOGANS

Now it’s time to put The THEREFORE Test to work by looking at some of the current crop of political candidates and their slogans.  Here we go.

 

1)  ARIZONA:  ARIZONA: MCSALLY (REP) VS SINEMA (DEM)

In what may be the most intense race between two women this year, there is the military veteran Martha McSally running against the charismatic activist and current Representative Krysten Sinema.  Here are screen grabs of their slogans on their websites.

McSally has the better slogan(s), though neither is very good.  She has two slogans.  Let’s try them out:

THEREFORE … will you STAND with Martha McSally?

THEREFORE … make no mistake.

Both are firm and confident, reflecting her military background, but both are vague.  Is there one specific issue she is STANDING on, and is there one major decision she wants you to make no mistake about?  Both are consequential, but kind of empty.

More important — she has two slogans.  That’s not good.  How many slogans has Trump had?  As the bestselling 2012 book, “The One Thing,” will tell you, it’s about … the one thing — meaning “the singular narrative” when it comes to mass communication.

Sinema’s is worse.  All she has is a statement — like this:

THEREFORE … an independent voice for Arizona.

It’s not terrible.  As a general rule, if you can’t think of something powerful, short and clever then just go with a simple statement of a relevant fact — which is what this is.  Not bad, not good.

 

2)  TENNESSEE:   BREDESON (DEM) VS BLACKBURN (REP)

The race for Bob Corker’s open senate seat in Tennessee has a businessman, Phil Bredeson, running against Marsha Blackburn, a current Representative.

These are both pretty dull.

THEREFORE … working together to get things done for Tennessee.

THEREFORE … Tennessee values first, Tennessee values always.

Neither of them have much of a ring to them.  They are kind of bare minimum, platitude-ish.  Yes, we all want to get things done and are for “values.”  Neither says much.  When in doubt, just make a simple statement like these — doesn’t hurt, doesn’t help much.

 

3)  KANSAS:   KELLY (DEM) VS KOBACH (REP)

In the Kansas governor’s race it’s state senator Laura Kelly against current Secretary of State of Kansas, Kris Kobach.

THEREFORE … we are no longer ceding this state.  We are determined to take it back.

THEREFORE … time to lead (the conservatives to fix Topeka).

Someone needs to tell the Kelly campaign two sentences is not how you make a slogan.  Yes, the statement is clear, but there’s no ring to it — it’s too long — meaning it simply isn’t a slogan.  Try putting that on a t-shirt.  Not gonna work.

Kobach’s slogan is passable — “time to lead” — but doesn’t say much.  The funny part is the second half — to fix Topeka — given that the conservatives under Brownback broke it.

 

4)  TEXAS:  O’ROURKE (DEM) VS CRUZ (REP)

Okay, here’s an A-level contest that clearly has A-level talent behind their communications.  The upstart challenger Beto O’Rourke is taking on the incumbent Ted Cruz.

THEREFORE … Texas deserves better.

THEREFORE … tough as Texas.

Beto’s slogan is great!  It’s the kind of thing you can hear people muttering to themselves all day long — basically “we deserve better than this.”  It’s not at all specific, but it’s punchy and rolls perfectly off of THEREFORE.  It’s in the realm of “Just Do It.”  The only problem he has is that …

Ted’s slogan is equally powerful.  It plays off of the longtime campaign of “Don’t Mess With Texas.”

You can feel the ABTs preceding both.

BETO:  Texas has had some great politicians and they have done the state well, BUT right now there’s some lousy politicians, THEREFORE Texas deserves better.

TED:   Politics can be fun AND produce great things, BUT it can also get really ugly in DC, THEREFORE we need a senator to represent us who is Tough as Texas.

It’s gonna be a fierce next 6 weeks for this election.

 

5)  INTERMISSION:   THE SWING LEFT CAMPAIGN

This is my favorite of all the slogans for this fall.  It’s Swing Left, the nationwide activist campaign for the Democrats.

THEREFORE … don’t despair.  Mobilize

That’s the best ever.  Whoever made this slogan up needs to go to work for the Democratic party in general to create a slogan that can go on the black hat I wore in my interview with Jayde.  Seriously.

Think about the ABT that sets it up:

Trump won the presidency AND we’ve had some rough times, BUT it’s not going to help anything to give up, THEREFORE don’t despair — MOBILIZE (dammit)!

It’s just about perfect.  It has contradiction — going against the urge to despair.  It is aspirational — get going and mobilize.  And it’s faintly funny.  It’s great.

 

6)  NEW YORK:  MOLINARO (REP) VS CUOMO (DEM)

Now we go from the best to the worst.  Ugh.  The hopeless Republican challenger Marc Molinaro is taking on the Andrew Cuomo machine.

Let’s listen to them coming off the THEREFORE.

THEREFORE … let’s believe again.

THEREFORE ………….. together …….. ahead?  (um … whut?)

Molinaro doesn’t really seem to have a slogan.  His paragraph statement would work better as more of an ABT (“We in NY believe in this AND this, BUT recent folks have messed things up, THEREFORE elect me and let’s believe again.”)

But far more fascinating and borderline nauseating is what’s on Cuomo’s page — “Together Ahead.”  Everyone in the Democratic party needs to take a deep breath and realize that slogan represents everything that has got the Democrats into their tailspin of ineptitude that now characterizes the party.  It’s a slogan that not only has no ring to it, it’s downright BBB (Bland Beyond Belief).

Where did such a meaningless slogan come from?  I can offer a pretty solid guess.  I’m gonna bet there are more than one hard core Hillary supporters in his communications team and that they are still believing that her slogan, “Stronger Together” was a good one (it wasn’t — it was terrible).  So they are thinking by using the same word “Together” they are resonating with her wonderful campaign.  Ugh.

“Together Ahead” is just a terrible slogan.  Cuomo is so far ahead it won’t matter, which is kind of a shame — people will associate his huge victory with the slogan, as if one caused the other, but just think about what it says.  It’s two narrative directions.  Either word by itself would be better.  Just make it, “Together!”  or make it “Ahead!”   It’s a perfect example of “more is less.”  Keep it simple, eggheads.

 

WEAPONIZING THE ABT

That’s probably enough slogans for now.  Except one more.

Did you see the brilliant Bigfoot campaign commercial last week for Dean Phillips, running for representative in Minnesota’s 3rd district?  I love it to the nth degree.  It’s my kind of commercial — way more than MJ Hegar’s “door, door, door” commercial a couple months ago — which was good, but not brilliant like this spot.

Not surprisingly, his campaign has an excellent slogan:

THEREFORE … everyone’s invited.

And the preceding ABT would be:

My opponent claims to represent the district AND thinks he’s a voice for the public BUT the truth is he isn’t, THEREFORE for Dean Phillips campaign, everyone’s invited.

 

SO WHAT DO YOU WANT FOR A SLOGAN?

Here’s the short checklist I offer up.  There’s lots of “experts” on this communication stuff, but few are able to offer up a rational/analytical explanation for their instructions.  The ABT makes this possible.

1)  CONSEQUENTIAL – that it rolls off of “THEREFORE”

2)  SINGULAR –  just one slogan

3)  CONTRADICTION – implies some element of contradiction to something else

4)  ASPIRATIONAL –  ideally, is inspiring people to reach for something

5)  CONCISE –  short and has a ring to it

#147) Had I Coached the Democratic Senators Yesterday …

They weren’t disastrous, they were only ineffective, as this article in Slate yesterday makes clear.  I found their performance exasperating.  Had I coached them I would have prepped them with three narrative principles:  1) the SINGULAR NARRATIVE, 2) the ABT STRUCTURE, and 3) the DOBZHANSKY TEMPLATE.  They didn’t have to be so scrambled.

 

AND YOUR POINT IS … ?

Yesterday’s senate hearing on the Brett Kavanaugh nomination to the Supreme Court was supremely riveting.  I couldn’t take my eyes off either session — the painfully dramatic morning with the victim, the bombastic afternoon with the accused.  Throughout I was desperately wanting to cheer for the Democratic party senators, but by the end they left me feeling deflated.

The Democrats put on a performance that pretty much matched the entire party — rambling, unfocused, lacking a clear overall strategy.  This article in Slate does a good job of detailing the disappointments.  But it didn’t have to be.  Here’s how I would have coached them, using 3 simple narrative principles from our Story Circles Narrative Training program.

 

1 THE SINGULAR NARRATIVE:  LESS IS MORE

This is far and away the most important principle they seem to have no grasp on whatsoever.  It’s very simple — LESS IS MORE.

If you need an entire book to make this clear to you just read the 2012 bestseller, “The One Thing.”  If you want two absolutely tremendous short articles that convey it concisely and in practical terms it’s these workhorses that embody all that I preach:

“Nicholas Kristof’s Advice for Saving the World” –  Outside Magazine, November, 2009

“Data-driven Campaigns are Killing the Democratic Party” –  Politico, February, 2017

Each senator was given 5 minutes.  Each senator began their time as though they had a half hour to make a whole series of points.

As a result, each senator was eventually cut off when their time ran out.  Instead of building to a clear, single point, they mostly said things like, “I’ve got a lot more to say.”

The Democratic senators should have huddled up before the day began and chosen individual singular narratives.  Sheldon Whitehouse (who I felt came off best) should have said, “Okay, Hirono, you take TEMPERAMENT, Durbin, you take FBI, Harris, you take GORSUCH, …”

On and on — ten Democratic senators, ten single points — each one delivered clearly, succinctly, and with simple structure.  All fitting into an overall narrative.  Like this …

 

2 THE ABT TEMPLATE

When in doubt, just use the ABT (And, But, Therefore) template to make your point clearly and concisely.  This is how I would have scripted Kamala Harris.

KAMALA HARRIS:   Judge Kavanaugh, you have accused us of a left wing conspiracy against conservatives AND claim you are the victim of it, BUT you saw our hearings a few months ago for Judge Neil Gorsuch who was approved with no problems, THEREFORE don’t you think this is more about you than us?

She did do a decent job of presenting this, but it was buried in the middle of several other rambling points she was trying to make, with the result of “more is less” as nothing stuck out.

One point, argued clearly.  That’s what should have happened for each senator.

 

3 THE DOBZHANSKY TEMPLATE (ONE WORD)

The Dobzhansky Template is one of the central tools of our Story Circles program. It’s simply this fill-in-the-blanks sentence:

Nothing in _____ makes sense, except in the light of _____ .

They should have agreed among themselves on this before the hearing, and I think they should have followed Mazie Hirono on it as she was basically arguing this:

Nothing in KAVANAUGH’S QUALIFICATIONS makes sense, except in the light of TEMPERAMENT.

She brought up the key word of TEMPERAMENT and that’s what they should have hung their entire narrative on.  They should have argued, from start to finish, the following ABT:

ABT:  To be a supreme court judge requires a specific temperament AND because the appointment is for life we have to make sure a nominee has it, BUT what we are reviewing here today for Judge Kavanaugh shows he does not have it, THEREFORE his nomination needs to be withdrawn.

That was it — plain and simple — the singular narrative of what they needed to accomplish.  All day long, the word TEMPERAMENT should have kept resurfacing, over and over again — as frequently as Donald Trump says the word GREAT in any given day.

Durbin should have said an FBI investigation will reveal whether Kavanaugh has the right temperament.  Harris should have said Gorsuch was approved easily because he has the right temperament.  Booker should have said that Kavanaugh’s well documented excessive alcohol problems in his past show he doesn’t have the right temperament.

It’s called messaging.  It’s what the Democrats are so incredibly bad with.  Yesterday’s hearing was a one day demonstration on how hopelessly bad they are at it.

I’m still rooting for them, but they are never, ever, ever going to regain power if they don’t figure this narrative stuff out.  It was what sunk Hillary Clinton.  It’s what plagues them every single day.

#146) Desperate Times Call for Desperate Narrative Structure, on the Front Page of the NY Times

We showed a couple years ago that the front page of the NY Times averages a little under 2 “But Paragraphs” (paragraphs that start with the word BUT) on any given day.  But … today’s paper has 3 stories above the fold, all 3 are about the Kavanaugh hearing, and all 3 have a But Paragraph.  Might seem trivial.  It’s not.  There’s a correlation.

Three stories on the Kavanaugh hearing.  Three paragraphs starting with the word BUT.  The average is 2.   A coincidence?   I think not.

 

CRANKING UP THE NARRATIVE TENSION

“But” is a strong word.  When I did a Story Circles workshop with 15 diplomats from the U.S. State Department they told me they are taught to not even use the word.  It’s not a good word for delicate, diplomatic negotiations.  BUT … when the nation is gripped with drama, you can bet the newspaper of record is not about to go lightly with the reporting.  

That’s what you see in today’s NY Times.  Three But Paragraphs above the fold, none below.  All of them are stories about the drama of the day — the Kavanaugh hearing.  It’s clearly a time for drama, and BUT is the word for the job.

#145) Trump Still Knows Narrative: 5 Recommendations to Democrats

For more than 3 years I’ve been warning of Donald Trump’s communication skills from the perspective of the narrative tools I’ve developed.  He’s still doing the same things.


Not your typical politician.  Not really even a politician.  Trump comes, not from the world of politics, but entertainment.  It’s a problem.

 

UNDERSTANDING TRUMP

Journalists and scientists actually have a lot in common.  Both are obsessed with seeking the truth.  Both are to be admired for feeling considerable social responsibility.  And both do not understand entertainment media.

In a 1999 speech that has become my North Star, scientist-turned-filmmaker Michael Crichton said simply, “Scientists don’t understand media.”  No one would have known better than he, given the depth of his knowledge of the two worlds of science and entertainment.

It’s pretty much true for journalists as well.  They have traditionally been mystified by the madness of Hollywood and mass entertainment.  

The most important and prescient quote in that Crichton speech was this, “The Information Society will be dominated by those who are skilled at manipulating the media.”  I can’t imagine a more accurate prediction of the emergence of a figure like Donald Trump — someone more from the entertainment world than the political world — 20 years ago. 

A few days after Trump’s victory, CNN posted a list of 24 reasons he wonbut the article showed no grasp of the Information Society perspective Crichton understood.  The entire article does not include the words “information” or “communication.”  They missed his central attribute — Trump Knows Narrative.

 

TRUMP KNOWS NARRATIVE (STILL)

Media is about narrative.  It doesn’t tolerate material that is low in narrative content.  You can’t hold a press conference to read a telephone book and expect television to cover it.  It’s that simple.  And it means conversely, if you’re good at producing material with strong narrative content, the media will favor you. Comedians know this — if they bore or confuse they will die.

In the summer of 2015, after writing an entire book about narrative (“Houston, We Have A Narrative”) I began to notice how much Trump matched the narrative principles I had presented.   On January 5, 2016 I began my warnings that “Trump Knows Narrative” in detail — shortly after starting this blog.  

It was still months before Trump won the nomination.  In that first post I said, “The Democrats had better stop ridiculing him, stop making predictions that he could never win, and start understanding this thing called narrative that he has a mastery of.”  Ten months later, the morning after he won, I was the guest on the podcast, “The Business of Story.”  The title of my episode was, How Trump’s Narrative Intuition Beat Clinton and Put a Reality TV Actor in the White House.”    

Here now is an updated list of the top 5 ways in which you can see how, “Trump Knows Narrative,” continues to be true.  With each point I offer up my recommendation to the Democrats and their current candidates.

 

1) SLOGAN 

Here’s where it starts, and part of why I began my warnings about him in 2015.  He came out of the gates with a slogan (“Make America Great Again”) that was straight out of my ABT Framework and the ABT (And, But, Therefore narrative template).  

It was this:

Our country was once a great AND mighty nation, BUT we’ve slipped in the world, THEREFORE it’s time to Make America Great Again.

Democrats, lacking narrative intuition (as evidenced by their backing a candidate who had no clear narrative), could not see the power of that slogan — they could only think to ridicule it.  And that is still about all they can think to do when it comes to Trump.

What’s deeper about the slogan is that it also arises straight out of The Monomyth as articulated by Joseph Campbell.  The core principle of the Monomyth is that the hero embarks on a journey which has at its core one overriding desire which is to “Return to the Ordinary World AGAIN.”  

In 2015 as I initially saw the slogan I found myself feeling something familiar about that word “Again,” until I finally realized this connection.  He is basically drawing on “the power of myth” with the slogan.  Yes, that is how deep his narrative intuition goes.

RECOMMENDATION:  The Democrats need a slogan.  It’s that simple.  We live in a media society.  For mass dynamics, you can’t opt out.

 

2) ONE WORD

One of the key observations that has emerged from our Story Circles Narrative Training — which is approaching our 50th circle — is the power of the Dobzhasky Template that I first introduced in “Houston, We Have A Narrative.”  This is my template for finding the “One Word” that is the narrative core of a topic.  

For Trump, it goes like this:

Nothing in America today makes sense, except in the light of GREATNESS.

That’s it.  That has been his message from the start and hasn’t changed one bit.  It pervades everything he says.  He is constantly hammering home this need for everyone.  He ends most speeches with it.

He doesn’t have any sort of analytical understanding of narrative.  He could never teach a course in it.  He only embodies it.

RECOMMENDATION:   Put the Dobzhansky Template to work.  It’s simple.  Nothing in _____ makes sense except in the light of _____ .   This is the tool to help you pinpoint your theme, and your theme is your message.

 

3) NARRATIVE INDEX

In the fall of 2015 I defined The Narrative Index as simply the ratio of the words BUT to AND in any given text.  I found that everyone from Abe Lincoln on the high end to George W. Bush on the low end shows consistent patterns in this simple metric.  

I’ve posted repeatedly about Trump’s high scores for the Narrative Index (here, here, here) and have talked about overall patterns of the Narrative Index for everyone who is yearning to lead society.  I also presented it in the 2nd edition of  “Don’t Be Such A Scientist” this spring.

RECOMMENDATION:   Track down the speeches of your favorite candidates and simply use your word processor to count the occurrence of BUT and AND, then calculate the ratio of the BUT to AND.  If it’s below 10, you’ve got a problem.  And while you’re at it, also calculate the AND Index, presented here.  If it’s over 3.0, you should be concerned, if it’s over 4.0 there’s definitely a problem.  Trump’s average for about 20 speeches was below 2.0.  Trump knows narrative.

 

4) SINGULAR INSULT NAMES

Trump’s use of nicknames (Crooked Hillary, Lyin’ Ted, Pocahantas) is about mass communication, far more than bullying.  This is where you can see how journalists simply don’t understand entertainment.  The only context they seem to be able to view this issue in is bullying.  There’s a stunningly long list of these names on the Wikipedia page for them.

But it’s much deeper.  

These are simple, singular labels that cut through the noise of today’s information overloaded world.  All you have to do is read the 2012 bestseller “The One Thing” to see the significance of these nicknames.

From the start the Democrats have been completely confused by the names.  All they could think to do is chuckle and dismiss them as being just silly.  They aren’t silly.  They are powerful communications tools, identical to stereotypes.

And just two weeks ago I listened to Chris Matthews on his show “Hardball” on MSNBC chuckling dismissively about the latest label from Trump: the Failing New York Times.  

RECOMMENDATION:  Stop laughing.  And come up with one singular, simple, widely agreed upon and used insult name for Donald Trump.  Why hasn’t this happened?  Yes, lots of pundits have proposed their own names, but a hundred different names is no different than none.  The number you want is ONE and only ONE name for him.  Have the Democrats not wanted to hurt his feeling?  I just don’t get it.  Fight fire with fire, and do it fiercely.

 

5) CONFIDENCE

Here is Trump’s ultimate tactic, straight out of narrative tradition — the omniscient narrator.  It’s what mass audiences seek — not someone who “has the courage to say they don’t know,” but rather someone who is willing to emulate what you get in a good novel — the all-knowing narrator.

Yes, it’s that simple.  We crave certainty, he’s willing to provide it, even if it’s a pack of lies.

Trump knows narrative.

RECOMMENDATION:   Find the things you’re certain of for the Democratic party and lead with them.  It’s what I’ve said for years.  “An Inconvenient Truth,” should have opened with the incredible things climate science has brought us that we can be certain of (i.e. El Nino, fixing the Ozone Hole).  You don’t lead with statements about what might happen in the future that you’re uncertain of.  You open with what we can all agree upon, and you milk it for all its worth.

And while they’re at it on the confidence front, why don’t the Democratic members of congress confidently make the case for prohibiting the president from using Twitter.  He’s the most important diplomatic voice in the country, why can’t the people control him?  Desperate times call for desperate measures.   Innovations in technology call for innovations in legislature.  

#144) “Buried Pearls”: 43 years later, why is OBFUSCATION still the central problem of science communication?

In 1975 Michael Crichton published an elegant short paper pointing to obfuscation as “the problem” for medical communication.  His essay was equally valid for the communication of science in general.  He ended by mentioning that so much important communication ends up as “buried pearls.”   Sadly Crichton’s great little paper ended up itself as a buried pearl.

Do evolutionists have a t-shirt with a slogan on it?  Yes we do!

 

EXASPERATION AND THE MARCH OF OBFUSCATION

What happened?   How was it that the core problem of science communication was so clearly identified and articulated in 1975, but then quickly lost to the dustbin of non-citation?

I invite you to read this simple, elegant paper by techno-thriller author and eventual Hollywood giant Michael Crichton, written in his last months in the academic world.  He was a postdoctoral fellow at the Salk Institute, though by then he was more of a creative writer than scientific researcher, which obviously caused him to start asking, “Why are these scientific papers so hard to read?”

It’s a great article.  Why wasn’t I told about it as a graduate student in biology?  Why didn’t I hear about it in the 1980’s as science communication first emerged as a major concern (I remember when NSF first starting requiring 10% of grant proposal budgets go to outreach)?  Why didn’t someone write to me after any of my 3 books on science communication and tell me about it?   Why does Google Scholar show that it has only been cited 83 times over the four decades since its publication?

 

IT WASN’T ALWAYS THIS BAD

In the discussion of the paper, Crichton points out that, “Only in the twentieth century has obfuscation become widely acceptable.”  That parallels my relating in, “Don’t Be Such A Scientist,” historian of science Naomi Oreskes telling me about how a century ago scientists had to be good with communication in order to even raise the funds needed to do science.  

But the twentieth century saw the rise of the science industrial complex which produced a new breed of scientist — nurtured in the laboratory, funded without communication skills, sheltered from the public, and admired for the mysteriousness of scientific knowledge.  Obfuscation became an accepted practice and only continues to get worse.

Meanwhile, the problem of obfuscation continues to be rediscovered in essays like this one from 2015, which at least concedes, “The idea that writing should be clear, concise, and low-jargon isn’t a new one.”

 

WHEN WILL THEY EVER LEARN?

It’s always fun to have some laughs at the hopelessness of academic communication.  Slate reveled in this presentation of the Ignobel awards where they have a young girl come out on the stage and shout, “Please stop. I’m bored.” repeatedly for anyone who goes on for more than a minute.  

For my documentary feature film, “Flock of Dodos,” I staged a comic debate between the world’s slimiest intelligent design proponent and the world’s angriest evolutionist.  It culminated in them revealing their t-shirts emblazoned with their slogans.  The screen grab above shows the evolutionist reading his “slogan.”

Plenty to laugh about, but then we end up with the New York Times handing over 24,000 words and an entire issue of their Sunday magazine titled, “Losing Earth,” for a junior writer to tell a tale of scientific heroism that leaves out the entire element of science communication ineptitude.  The writer, Nathaniel Rich, told of James Hansen and Rafe Pomerance as climate warriors ahead of their times, but what he should have mentioned was the Crichton 1975 paper pointing out what verbose clods scientists were and continue to be when it comes to getting their own message out.  To celebrate scientists back then over their climate efforts is like praising a football team that has excellent offense but no defense.  They weren’t the whole package — that point needs to be kept in mind, Mr. Rich — and that is the real story to be told.

Nothing has changed.  Just two days ago Al Gore (who isn’t a scientist, but emerged in 2006 as the lead spokesperson FOR the climate science community) went on for over TWO HOURS in his climate “training” session in Los Angeles prompting a friend in the audience to text me the following message:

Gore gave a 2+ hour version of his presentation. And the more I think about it, the more I’m surprised that with all of the people surrounding him, all of the production, team, experts, etc, no one has tried to shape his presentation more, or make it less one dimensional….it was literally one hour of slides showing floods, fires, and droughts. Not kidding. I started fidgeting and getting frustrated and thinking WTF??? We’re here because we’re already on board, JEEZ know your audience!!!

To quote the old Peter, Paul and Mary song, “When will they ever learn?  When will they evvvvvvver learn?”

In the meanwhile, Crichton pinpointed the problem in 1975 — obfuscation.  The ABT Framework is the solution, and here’s a simple, elegant new presentation of it by Tullio Rossi.