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

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

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

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

 

ANEMIC NARRATIVE SCORES

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

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

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

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

 

HE’S NOT DIGGING DEEP

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

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

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

#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.

103) Democrats, Messaging and Monty Python

“Right, our polls show the public doesn’t want candidates who pay too much attention to the polls. So let’s do a poll to see what they do want.” The Democrats are in such a quagmire. Here’s an article this morning in The Hill that confirms Democrats aren’t gonna win with no message. In “Houston, We Have A Narrative,” there are narrative tools that can help with structuring a message, but the problem is they can’t work if there is no message to start with. Everyone should get comfortable with the Republicans for a long road ahead. Narrative is everything. The Democrats, at present, have nothing, aside from “we hate that guy” which polls show isn’t enough.

How the Romans didn’t get voted out of office.

How the Romans didn’t get voted out of office.


NO MEANS NO

It’s official — you aren’t going to get elected through hate alone. Here’s a simple article this morning reporting polls that basically show that the “We Hate That Guy” message is not enough to take over leadership of the nation.

It didn’t work for the last candidate. It won’t work for the next.

You gotta have a positive, constructive message. The ABT can help tremendously once someone knows the message. The Dobzhansky Template can actually find the message. But until the Democrats get more analytical about narrative and realize there’s more to it than just gut feelings, nothing will change. THEREFORE … everyone might as well get comfortable with the behemoth that the Republican party has become.

And in the meanwhile, they need to take to heart this quote from a New York Times editorial on January 17 that still holds true:

Post103Graphic2

#102) Winner of “The Moth” Storytelling Competition Gives Textbook Demonstration of the ABT Dynamic

Listen to this story from last year’s winner of The Moth storytelling competition. It’s a beautiful story that she tells AND I hate to ruin it by suggesting you analyze it (like a bunch of scientists — and keep in mind this is coming from the guy who wrote the book “Don’t Be Such A Scientist”), BUT … it really is a textbook example of how the ABT works, THEREFORE …


To HEAR STORY scroll down to button that says 'Listen Now'



AS SIMPLE AS ABT

Mary Kate Flanagan is from Ireland and is a former student of Frank Daniel, the screenwriting guru who in the 1980’s first pointed out the And, But, Therefore (ABT) dynamic. Last year she won “The Moth” storytelling competition with this perfectly delivered story about her father’s funeral.

If you listen close in the first 1.5 minutes you’ll hear the ABT structure plain as day. She says AND 7 times, she says BUT 6 times, she says SO (the more common equivalent of THEREFORE) 4 times. That’s a LOT of structure. I have developed the Narrative Index (the BUT/AND ratio) in the past. A value of 30 for the N.I. is exceptional. Her ratio for that first minute and a half is 86.

These things matter.

Furthermore, if you consider her overall structure, you see she follows the MONOMYTH to a tee. She begins by introducing her theme — that there are 6 strong sisters who together can do anything. The Ordinary World is set up (that the father dies and they’re all set to bury him with the sisters carrying the coffin), BUT THEN the funeral director says they’re not strong enough which takes us into the Special World and off on the journey.

The problem is eventually solved, then notice where she concludes the story — full circle, back to what she said at the start with her THEME (that the parents gave them all they ever needed in the world — six strong sisters).

Not surprisingly she teaches screenwriting and is a member of The Frank Daniel Institute. Kind of helps with the understanding the power of the ABT when you see it so effectively on display like this.

Here’s her very impressive website: http://www.adramaticimprovement.com

#100) The Atlantic demonstrates the ABT

It’s here, it’s there, it’s everywhere you look. Like this article in this month’s issue of The Atlantic. As Aaron Huertas says, it’s like the arrow in the Fedex logo — once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

ABTsville. Plain and simple — two opening clauses which could be connected with an “AND” (though would sound clunky), then the BUT, and SO which conveys the same force of consequence as THEREFORE.

ABTsville. Plain and simple — two opening clauses which could be connected with an “AND” (though would sound clunky), then the BUT, and SO which conveys the same force of consequence as THEREFORE.



YES, IT IS THAT SIMPLE AND COMMON

I continue to wage war against all the old farts who say “it’s not that simple.” Yes it is.

We’re definitely making progress. We’ve now run or are running 26 Story Circles. Yesterday we had an “ABT Build Session” with about 20 USDA veterans of Story Circles. It was 90 minutes of discussing and editing about 10 ABTs of the participants. It’s a standard aspect of Story Circles training which is both interesting and productive for everyone involved.

And then this morning I open this month’s issue of The Atlantic and there it is, plain as day — the ABT in the form of the little teaser at the start of an article about a psychiatrist written by David Dobbs who obviously has good narrative intuition.

It’s everywhere you find good communication. Yes, it is that simple.