#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.   

#142) Pulitzer Prize Winner Siddhartha Mukherjee Gives Another ABT Tour De Force

Oprah Winfrey showed how it’s done back in February with her powerful Golden Globes speech.  Now biomedical writer/doctor Siddhartha Mukherjee shows the same use of ABT structure to create a similar “story of stories” in an excellent NY Times Opinion piece about the sad loss of appreciation for case studies in the medical world.

 

If you want to make the case for the power and importance of case studies, you’d better do it with powerful narrative structure, as Siddhartha Mukherjee did beautifully yesterday in the NY Times.

 

THIS IS HOW THEY DO IT

People are always asking for demonstrations of how the ABT works in long form.  Here you go.

This is a circular exercise in that the author uses the power of story to argue for the need for story. Pulitzer Prize winner Siddhartha Mukherjee published this wonderful Opinion piece yesterday in the NY Times.  This is the kind of writing (and cause) that makes me jump off the couch in joy.

He is bemoaning the loss of appreciation for case studies in the biomedical world.  The metrics-driven forces of today’s world are relegating these important pieces of medical puzzles into the waste bin of “just anecdotes.”  It’s tragic.

But at least he’s using powerful narrative structure to make his case.  And yes, the irony is that I’m about to present some metrics to analyze this great article about what metrics are doing to us.   Something sadly circular in that, as well.

 

HIS NARRATIVE INDEX IS A POWERFUL 42

The Narrative Index, as I’ve defined it, is  simply the ratio of the words “but” to “and” like this:

NARRATIVE INDEX =  (BUT/AND)  X  100

Boring texts usually score under 10, average is in the teens, above average is 20’s, powerful is 30’s, and 40 or over is incredibly rare.  His essay scores a 42 (14/33).  

Below is the color-coded text, identifying the three fundamental forces of narrative — AGREEMENT (blue)CONTRADICTION (red)CONSEQUENCE (green).  Just step back and look at it — you can see the narrative loops, clear as day.

This is how you communicate powerfully — layout out the context each time, grab attention with the contradiction, then following it with the actions (consequences) that result.  He’s done it beautifully.

Also note that his AND Index (% of total words that are “and”) is 2.6% which is a bullseye for the standard target of 2.5% that I discussed last year in this post. It reflects the sort of tight editing you’d expect from the NY Times.

 

NESTED ABT’S

Furthermore, look at the overall structure.  He demonstrates what the NY Times called “a story about stories” in reference to Oprah’s speech.  You can see the individual ABT loops, but then at the larger scale I’ve put the over-arching section of contradiction into purple and a little larger.  That’s what TV writers would call “the turn.”

The first part lays out how the world used to be.  The turn tells us what’s changed.  The last part tells us the consequences of the change.  

This is what our Story Circles Narrative Training program helps you develop — the “narrative intuition” (the term I coined in “Houston, We Have A Narrative”) that enables you to think, write and speak with this level of narrative sophistication.

It’s a great, great example, that makes a very sad and important point overall — underscoring yet again how we’re basically losing “our humanity” in today’s metrics-driven world.

Late one evening in the medical library of the hospital where I work, I opened The Lancet, the medical journal, and came across a case report written by the neurologist-writer Oliver Sacks and colleagues. “In July 2011, a 52-year-old woman presented to our psychiatric outpatient clinic in The Hague with a lifelong history of seeing people’s faces change into dragonlike faces.”

Hooked, I continued: “She could perceive and recognize actual faces, but after several minutes, they turned black, grew long, pointy ears and a protruding snout and displayed a reptiloid skin and huge eyes in bright yellow, green, blue or red. She saw similar dragonlike faces drifting toward her many times a day from the walls, electrical sockets or the computer screen.”

I am not a neurologist. I don’t have a particular interest in abstruse hallucinations; nor, for that matter, did I happen to have a patient in the cancer wards afflicted by the sight of mythical creatures. But I could not stop reading. The woman, I learned, had a history of headaches and was “born with a caul” — a condition in which the amniotic sac covers the baby at birth, creating a veil of tissue across the face. She also had hallucinations about gigantic ants that crawled up and down her hands. During early childhood, the visions of faces morphing into dragons did not bother her, but as she grew older, she grew progressively depressed as she “realized that this was not how other people saw each other’s faces.” Nonetheless, she graduated from school, married, had a daughter and got a job as a school administrator, even as she withdrew and grew more isolated from the world.

Doctors performed a complete neurological examination, but it was unrevealing. An M.R.I. showed some patchy lesions in the white matter of the brain, but nothing definitive emerged — no tumor, no stroke, no anatomical weirdness. The woman was prescribed an anti-epileptic pill and then a drug for Parkinson’s disease. The therapy was ad hoc and empiric — guided more by desperation than by the recognition of an innate pathological process — but the hallucinations remitted and diminished. And then, astoundingly, the report came to a close. There was no revelatory flourish of diagnostic wizardry. The doctor did not turn into the sorcerer; no rabbit was extracted from a hat.

It was as if Sacks lobbed the puzzle into the future for someone else to solve: In some distant time, he seemed to imply, another neurologist would read this story and find resonances with another case involving another patient and complete the circle of explanation. For now, though, there was no diagnosis, only description, observations without explanations.

It’s hard to pinpoint a date when doctors began to write individual case histories, but the very first documents of medical history contain spectacular examples of the genre. Here is Hippocrates, writing about a patient around 400 B.C.:

“In Thasus, a woman, of a melancholic turn of mind, from some accidental cause of sorrow, while still going about, became affected with loss of sleep, aversion to food, and had thirst and nausea. … On the first, at the commencement of night, frights, much talking, despondency, slight fever; in the morning, frequent spasms, and when they ceased, she was incoherent and talked obscurely. … On the second, in the same state; had no sleep; fever more acute. On the third … apyrexia, slept, quite collected; had a crisis. … About the third day, the urine black, thin, substances floating in it generally round, did not fall to the bottom; about the crisis a copious menstruation.” The case described here still remains open; it’s hard to find a neat diagnosis that encircles all the symptoms.

The tradition of writing case reports was carried forward for centuries. Freud wrote book-length versions of them, building the spiraling edifices of new theories of psychiatry on the stories of single patients. Even William Osler, master diagnostician, defended the tradition of recording and reporting observations alone: “Get the patient in a good light. Use your five senses. … Always examine the back. Observe, record, tabulate, communicate.” My professors in medical school ran clinical trials involving tens of thousands of patients, with no compunction about reducing humans to anonymous dots on graph paper. But on teaching rounds, they could not resist recalling the vivid description of a single patient with thyroid disease by the 19th-century physician William Gull: “Miss B … became insensibly more and more languid, with general increase in bulk … her face altering from oval to round, much like the full moon at rising.”

But over the years, as the discipline of medicine moved concertedly from descriptive to mechanistic, from observational to explanatory and from anecdotal to statistical, the case study fell out of favor. As doctors, we began to prioritize modes of learning that depended on experiments and objectivity. Our journals filled up with studies on drugs — often funded by drug companies — that had disembodied subjects lumped into “experimental” and “control.” Observation, we thought, was just the prelude to experimentation and explanation; of what use was a descriptive study unless it could help explain some principle of physiology, or be somehow incorporated into an objective (preferably randomized) trial? In 2003, the editor of The British Journal of Psychiatry, announcing his retirement, fired a parting shot. “I hastened the demise of the case report, to exclude what I see as psychiatric trivia,” he wrote.

The reaction was swift. Several doctors sent furious letters to the journal. “This is a cameo of the polarity that exists between academic, research-oriented psychiatrists and those clinicians who provide the bulk of the service,” one psychiatrist wrote. “The nomothetic approach takes precedence, while the detailed study of an individual patient is marginalized as trivia.” But the editor’s stance reflected a general sentiment that was sweeping through the medical world.  Medical “trivia” (the woman who saw dragonlike faces; the man who mistook his wife for a hat), it seemed, had no place in the pages of scientific journals. Anecdotal, observational and descriptive (all disparaging words in this new era of scientific medicine) case studies lacked rigor and explanatory power; they were just-so stories that might entertain but could not teach. If they were to be published, they would have to serve as illustrative tools to teach generalizable principles of diagnosis and pathophysiology. The descriptions turned stilted and formal. Open ends were forced shut: Rarely could a case be presented without a neatly packaged diagnosis — the rabbit pulled out of the hat.

As scientific journals prioritize randomized studies and mechanism-driven investigations — the “why” over the “what” — I miss the kind of writing that doctors like Sacks published. I miss the acuity of the observations, the scatter plots of symptoms that cannot be put into neat boxes, the vividness of description: “full moon at rising.” I miss the textural idiosyncrasies of suffering that can be found only in real testimony. But most of all, I worry that unknown unknowns will go unwritten — that buried within such cases, there might have been a cosmos of inexplicable observations that might, in turn, have inspired new ways of thinking about human pathology. Perhaps we might make a special case for the case study as we enter strange frontiers of medical therapy — immune modulation for cancer, deep-brain stimulation for mental illness — with bizarre and unanticipated consequences. These days, we typically write observational reports on single patients to teach students about the past: This is how this medical mystery was cracked. But perhaps we might revive the case study that looks to the future: cannot diagnose this condition, or explain it away, but I will record it in its fullest, richest form for another generation of medical students to puzzle over.

#141) Top 5 Benefits from Story Circles Narrative Training

Story Circles Narrative Training is a totally new form of communication training.  It comes from my experiences in filmmaking, acting classes, and science.  We’ve been running it for 3.5 years.  We’ll complete our 50th Story Circle by the end of the year.  There’s lots of great things that come from Story Circles (many of which are mentioned in the recent video with the Colorado National Park Service participants), but here’s what I think are the 5 most important major benefits of the 10 one hour Story Circles sessions.

#1 STORY CIRCLES BENEFIT:  ABT Cake!*  From left:  Karensa King, Sarah Sparhawk, Mackenzie Reed, Lisa Nelson, Nathan Galloway.

* – Service Provider Warning:  ABT cake must be conceived, designed, funded, baked, iced, decorated and consumed by participants.  Selfie and candles not included.

 

HARD WORK, GOOD FUN

There is no other communications training program similar to Story Circles.  It is built upon original narrative tools with an original structure to the sessions.

Lots of great things come from the training — not the least of which is fun — but here’s the five most substantive, work-related benefits that have become evident over the course of running 40 Story Circles.

 

1)  THE TOOLS (ABT, DOBZHANSKY, STORY CYCLE, LOGLINE MAKER)

During the 10 one hour sessions of Story Circles you learn to use the four main narrative tools, three of which are new and introduced in the books, “Connection” (2013) and “Houston, We Have A Narrative” (2015).  The templates for the WORD (Dobzhansky Template) and SENTENCE (ABT) are not just simpler than the larger templates, they’re more analytical/reductionist.  As a result, scientists — who tend to be analytical by nature — are immediately comfortable with these two simple tools and draw satisfaction from how quickly they provide insights into narrative structure.  But this tends to change with the sessions.

More elusive and even frustrating are the two PARAGRAPH templates (Logline Maker, Story Cycle).  They are more holistic, less analytical, and require at least some narrative intuition to use effectively.  What this causes is frustration initially.  Over and over again we hear back from circles that they’re having trouble with the paragraph templates.  And yet, when the 10 sessions are done, most participants report that by the end they were starting to get the feel of the larger templates and finding them more intriguing and rewarding.  It’s a great transition to observe.

 

2)  NARRATIVE INTUITION (BASIC “STORY SENSE”)

This is the ultimate goal of Story Circles, which is not INTELLECTUAL.  If Story Circles was an intellectual exercise, it would require only one session — to introduce the tools.  That would be enough to stimulate your intellect and you’d feel satisfied.

In fact, this is the problem we’ve run into with a lot of students.  They tend to be oriented more towards developing their intellectual side, which means they are seeking novelty and new material.  And that’s what you get in most college courses that have a syllabus which presents new topics every week.  BUT … that’s not what we do.

Story Circles is about building INTUITION.  This requires repetition — just like going to the gym and lifting weights, as we’re constantly saying.  This is what begins to develop as you work with the tools, week after week — not just getting to know them, but developing an intuitive feel for how they work and what they are good for.

 

3)  SOCIAL ENTRAINMENT (TAKES 5 TO TANGO)

Mike Strauss, who is a co-developer of Story Circles, tells about a study they did at USDA when he was head of their Office of Science Quality Review.  To figure out the source of problems with poorly written project plans they required investigators to answer 10 questions.  One of them was, “How many people, other than yourself, have read this project plan before you submitted it?”  Nearly a third answered, “zero.”  That’s a problem.

It’s almost impossible to do a good job shaping the narrative structure of anything if you don’t share your thoughts with other human beings.  You can’t expect to sit alone in a laboratory, writing by yourself, and come up with something that will flow smoothy and have solid logic when other people hear it.  And yet the world of science tends to allow for plenty of isolation where this occurs.

Just about everything to do with Story Circles involves groups.  The Demo Day is upwards of 40 people, individual circles are 5 people.  The net result is “entrainment” — a conditioning of you so that you eventually just don’t even feel right submitting a document or giving a presentation unless you’ve managed to take at least a little bit of time to seek the help of colleagues in “shaping the narrative.”

This is not about stomping out individuality, but rather about strengthening your ability to present material that will both retain your individuality while also “working” for everyone who needs to understand and support it.

 

4)  TIME (“YOU CAN’T RUSH THE RIVER”)

Long ago I spent two years helping run an AIDS support group.  Participants would talk about “processing” — the need to find the time to make sense of events.  They would talk about their anxiety, and often there would be mention of the basic fact that “you can’t rush the river.”  What that means is that there are things in life that just can’t be hurried.  Grieving is one of them.  Development of narrative structure is another.  You begin to learn this with Story Circles.

One of my favorite moments was talking last year at Genentech with the participants in a Story Circle that took nearly a year to complete.  Their schedules are insanely busy, so it was hard to get everyone together consistently.  They ended up postponing sessions, week after week.   I asked if they thought the training would work easier if we compressed it down to 3 weeks with 3-4 sessions per week.  They recoiled, immediately saying, “No way!”

They felt it was very, very important to have at least a week gap between sessions so you can process what you’re learning.

Think about what this means.  There’s no lectures in Story Circles.  The week in between sessions isn’t about absorbing what’s been barked at you in an hour lecture.  It’s about continuing to mostly think about this single narrative tool, the ABT — to spot in your own world — and to slowly, gradually develop the intuitive feel for what’s boring and confusing versus interesting.

You can’t rush that process.  Narrative takes time.  Just ask any great writer.

 

5)  STRUCTURE (THE MAGIC OF THE CUEING VIDEO)

I think this has been the most unforeseen benefit of Story Circles.  We created the hour-long cueing video that structures every session without thinking about all the benefits it would produce.  Here’s a few of them:

A)  PUNCTUALITY –  every session goes for ONLY 60 minutes — never longer — it can’t, the video can’t be stopped.  You never get people showing up at their next meeting complaining that “our Story Circles session ran overtime.”

B)  NO PERSONALITY DYNAMICS –  this is the big one.  If you put 5 people in a room and tell them just to talk for an hour with no clear structure, the interpersonal dynamics will take over.  There will inevitably be one or two quieter people who don’t contribute as much, and one or two more dominant people who will contribute more than their share.  It’s inevitable.

But with the cueing video this can’t happen.  People get cut off, you keep moving on, there isn’t the chance for personality to take over.  The result of this is 40 circles completed without there ever being any complaints about members of a group.  None.  It works like a charm.

C)  LETTING LOOSE OF CONTROL –  This is a great one with heavily academic folks.  Cerebral types are used to “making their point,” no matter how many words and how much time it takes.  But with the cueing video you don’t get to do that.  One of the basic rules is that as soon as the audio cue goes off — ending a 2 to 5 minute segment — you have to move on to the next part.  Whoever is speaking has to stop, mid-sentence — let the thought go, and move on.  There’s an element of improv training to this — just be spontaneous and keep going.  This is essential in communication.

For research science, you need to strive for perfection — measuring things with the greatest accuracy.  But with communication, perfection is the enemy. There’s just too much natural variation for you to somehow think you can get the content perfect.  At some point you have to just give it your best shot and move on.

 

NARRATIVE IS ABOUT STRUCTURE

This is the bottom line.  What we’re working on with Story Circles isn’t really “storytelling.”  It’s more about narrative structure, which lies at the heart of a story, but what we’re focused on is a more applied form of narrative.  We debated calling the training “Narrative Circles” at the start, but that just didn’t sound as fun.  And fun, in the end, is really important — as evidenced by the ABT cakes.

So what we’re interested in is not creative expression.  Story Circles is more about “strategic communication.”  You’ve got a clear message, and you want to communicate it in a way that will achieve your goals.  Which requires structure.  Which is what Story Circles is all about.  And is why it’s working well for lots of people.