#180) ABT FRAMEWORK COURSE, ROUND TWO: The Course So Nice, We’re Running It Twice!

Welcome to the most fun and rewarding teaching experience of my entire career.  We’ve had such a great time with the first round that we’re doing it again.  AND … at least 13 of the participants are joining us as members of The Platinum Club (elite status for the mileage they’ve accrued) to do the entire course for a second time.  Why?  Because they got the message — you don’t master narrative in a one day workshop.  Or even one course.  It’s a long term commitment, BUT worth it, THEREFORE …  

THE ABT FRAMEWORK COURSE IN ACTION.  To the right is the Chat Log that allows for continuous comments and questions which we reply to later in the day on the website.

 

MEMBERSHIP HAS PRIVILEGES

Who knew an online “course” could be so interesting and fun.  

Notice I’ve put the word “course” in quotes from the start.  It’s not your basic hour online lecture.  Half of each session is our ABT Build sessions where each of the 50 participants in the course get their 5 minutes to share their ABT with the others, then have me do our “build” process where we poke and prod it with a series of questions and suggestions.  

So how good has the course turned out to be?  We’re running it again — immediately — starting next Monday.  We’ve already filled 38 of the 50 slots (will probably be full in the next few days), AND, most incredible of all — we’ve got 13 members from the first group — a quarter of the participants — coming back to do the entire course a second time.  

I can’t think of any better endorsement than that.  Second time is going to be even more fun than the first!  If you want in, here’s the link, enroll now before it’s full again. 

And here’s the basic outline of the course.  It’s the same course as the first time, which you can read about in the last post.

#179) It’s Time for The ABT Framework “Course”

Want to climb into the ABT sandbox and build some narrative sand castles?  We’re about to do it in a big way, for the first time ever, starting next Monday, April 20.  This will be an online “course” but I say the word in quotes because it’s going to be so PARTICIPATORY.  And fun.  Here’s the details.  You can ENROLL HERE — it’s open to everyone — and I do mean EVERYONE.  It’s cheap and I sincerely promise, it will expand your mind.

TIME TO BUILD SOME NARRATIVE SAND CASTLES!

 

DESPERATE TIMES CALL FOR DESPERATE MEASURES

We’ve had a wonderful run with Story Circles Narrative Training 1.0 over the past 5 years.  We’ve completed roughly 100 circles of 5 (or more occasionally) individuals each, producing over 500 graduates.  The proof of how powerful and effective it has been is visible in the results of our Survey of Graduates last year.

Now it’s time to “advance the narrative.”

It’s also time for a little synthesis.  I started assembling what we’ve learned last year with the book, “Narrative Is Everything.”  Now we’re all stuck at home, so why not have some fun sharing the knowledge.

 

DON’T CALL IT A “COURSE”

This is going to be something more than just a “course.”  It’s going to be a participatory journey.  And not just for the participants, but for me, as well.  

I formulated the ABT Narrative Template in 2012, gave a TEDMED Talk about it in 2013, laid it out in detail in my book, “Houston, We Have A Narrative,” in 2015, then began implementing it with our Story Circles Narrative Training program ever since.

The whole concept is still a work in progress, as the participants in this “course” type thing will realize.  There are no textbooks (yet) on the ABT Framework, but at this point, there are countless people putting it to work in trying to figure out the narrative core of their work, which means the AND (the context), the BUT (the problem being addressed), and the THEREFORE (what needs to be done).

There is so much to the ABT Framework that it’s definitely time to pull it all together into a “course” that in part is an argument along these lines:  The ABT is a powerful communications tool AND lots of people are beginning to see how ubiquitous it is in our culture, BUT I’m going to argue even further — that it is everything, THEREFORE … I hope you’ll join us and hold my feet to the fire because … I might be wrong.

 

WHAT WE’LL BE TALKING ABOUT …

Each hour session will begin with a 25 minute lecture, followed by 25 minutes of my working with 5 individuals LIVE on their ABTs as the rest of the group listens in and offers up comments and questions in the CHAT BOX.  At the end I’ll address a few of the questions in the 10 minutes of Q&A, but then later (probably that afternoon) I’ll also address other comments and questions from the Chat Box in writing, in an online forum we’ll be maintaining along with the “course.”

Here’s a little bit of teaser material for what each of the lectures will be about.

1 INTRO:  AND (Agreement)

Seriously?  An entire 25 minutes just for the one word, “AND”?  Yes, starting with the 2015 study from the Stanford Literary Lab that documented the frequency of the use of this one seemingly meaningless word in the legendarily boring annual reports of the World Bank.  Sadly, it’s a word with a big future, if we don’t realize how boring it is.  And … tune in to hear lots more, about this, the most common word of agreement.

2 INTRO:  BUT (Contradiction)

Is there a more important word in the entire English language?  You might think so, BUT … I would argue not.  The word “BUT” is the most common word of contradiction, and contradiction is at the center of narrative structure.  AND … narrative structure goes back thousands of years — it’s how we communicate.  I’ve got hours to say about this one word, BUT …  

3 INTRO:  THEREFORE (Consequence)

This is the real meat of what you’re here to hear.  By the end of the first week of the course, everyone is going to want an answer to the basic question of, “So what’s the THEREFORE of this course?”  It’s basically the old, “Where’s the beef?” question.  And it turns out to be the real substance of the ABT — basically, enough with the A and the B, we want to know the T.  THEREFORE, what are we going to learn with this course?   

4 The ABT in Business

Business is branding, and branding is ABT.  Yes, it’s that simple.  It’s what makes your product sell.  “Lots of companies make widgets that do this AND this, BUT nobody makes a widget that does this, THEREFORE, you need to buy my widget.”  Yes, there’s a million more facets to the elusive art of branding, but at the core, it’s as simple as ABT because business is argument, and argument is ABT.   

5 The ABT in Politics

From the iconic Gettysburg Address onward, where you find great speeches, you’ll find the ABT at work.   Narrative is leadership.  People don’t follow leaders who are boring or confusing.  From MLK, Jr to Richard Nixon’s megalomaniacal first inauguration address, every great speech is built around the ABT elements.  In this lecture we’ll use the Narrative Index (the BUT/AND ratio) to reveal this.

6 The ABT in Entertainment

This is where it started.   Aristotle and the Greeks first recognized the 5 part (which was essentially 3 part) structure of their plays.  The rest … as they say … is … you guessed it — history.  From Joseph Campbell to George Lucas to Oprah Winfrey delivering a Golden Globes speech for the ages.  We live in a media society.  Media is ABT.  Today, narrative intuition is obligatory for success in all facets of life.

7 The ABT in Science

A century ago scientists “got it” on the ABT.  They came together and established a structure for their communication that came to be known as the IMRAD Template (standing for Introduction, Methods, Results, And, Discussion).  Today … a lot of that collective consciousness of narrative intuition has been lost in our information drenched sea of obfuscation.  Guess what the result is for the communication of science in today’s world (not good).

8 The ABT in Medicine

For a teaser of this lecture read my article in Scientific American last month titled, “A New Tool for Humanizing Medicine:  It’s called the ABT Template, and if you want to talk to patients simply and clearly, it’s ideal.”

9 Narrative Selection

It’s a big concept, but by the time I get here, you’ll hopefully be right there with me in the realization  that this is the most important shaping force of our entire culture.  The brain is narrative.  The brain selects what persists.  Our culture is made up of what has persisted.  Narrative is our culture.

10 Narrative is Everything

In the end, it’s not about the ABT.  It’s about the three forces that underlie the three words — Agreement, Contradiction, Consequence.  These are the forces you see at work in all communication.  They are the elements that ultimately determine whether humans compete or cooperate.  They are everything.

 

AND … THE PARTICIPATORY PART

The “course” will be limited to 50 participants because that’s the maximum number of 5 minute time slots we can fit.  When you enroll, you have to submit your one sentence ABT (a one sentence statement using the words And, But, Therefore that is the narrative core of a project you’re working on).  

For each session, 5 individuals will be chosen for the “ABT Build” part which will be 25 minutes in length.  For each person, they will join me on screen to read their ABT once or twice or more, then I’ll start to work, dissecting it, using the set of tools we’ve developed in Story Circles to poke, probe, revise and hopefully ultimately strengthen it.  

All the while, the rest of the group will be listening in, adding comments, questions and suggestions to the Chat Box.  Eventually everyone will get their 5 minute session, which is always fun.

 

LAST NOTE:  SORRY, THE SESSIONS WON’T BE RECORDED

Yeah.  Bummer.  I know.  You were hoping you could sign up, go for a walk during the time slot, then listen to the session that evening.  Not gonna happen.  You miss it, you miss it.

I want all participants present for every session.  Even if there’s only ten people who enroll, it’s going to be about EVERYONE taking part — listening, thinking, contributing. 

And all “of the moment.”  Experiential.  You’ll want to be listening with every neuron in the narrative part of your brain, and then some.

#178) Play Along at Home: Our Story Circles Demo Session

Yesterday, to enjoy 90 minutes of escapism, we ran a Story Circles “Demo Session” with 5 of our recent graduates.  It was fun, interesting, and a valuable thing to do in a time where the communication of science has never, ever been more important.  You can listen to the audio of the session here, and “play along” using the four abstracts and one narrative below to get a feel for how the training works.

STARS OF THE SHOW:  Clockwise from top left:  Michael Bart (National Park Service, Colorado), Andrea Taylor (School of Psychology, University of Waikato, NZ), Alison Mims (National Park Service, Colorado), Randy Olson (scientist-turned-filmmaker), Mevagh Sanson (School of Psychology, University of Waikato, NZ), Elizabeth Stulberg (Agronomy, Crops, and Soil Science Societies).

 

THE STANDARD ONE HOUR STORY CIRCLES SESSION

Story Circles Narrative Training consists of 10 one hour sessions of five people meeting, usually once a week.  The goal of the training is to strengthen your “narrative intuition” — a term I coined in my 2015 book, Houston, We Have A Narrative, which provides background on all of the concepts presented in the training.

The first half hour is Narrative Analysis where they are given 5 texts to analyze using the ABT Framework (for this demo session we only used four).  The second half of the hour is Narrative Development where each participant has an assignment.  For this session the assignment were as follows and the materials analyzed are below.

MODERATOR – Michael

NARRATIVE – Mevagh

WORD TEMPLATE /ARGUMENT – Andrea

SENTENCE TEMPLATE –  Elizabeth

PARAGRAPH TEMPLATE – Alison

 

NARRATIVE ANALYSIS

Abstract 1

Neuron:glial ratios were determined in specific regions of Albert Einstein’s cerebral cortex to compare with samples from 11 human male cortices. Cell counts were made on either 6- or 20-μm sections from areas 9 and 39 from each hemisphere. All sections were stained with the Klüver-Barrera stain to differentiate neurons from glia, both astrocytes and oliogdendrocytes. Cell counts were made under oil immersion from the crown of the gyrus to the white matter by following a red line drawn on the coverslip. The average number of neurons and glial cells was determined per microscopic field. The results of the analysis suggest that in left area 39, the neuronal:glial ratio for the Einstein brain is significantly smaller than the mean for the control population (= 2.62, df 9, < 0.05, two-tailed). Einstein’s brain did not differ significantly in the neuronal:glial ratio from the controls in any of the other three areas studied. 

Abstract 2

Tumor cells can spread to distant sites through their ability to switch between mesenchymal and amoeboid (bleb-based) migration. Because of this difference, inhibitors of metastasis must account for each migration mode. However, the role of Vimentin in amoeboid migration has not been determined. Since amoeboid, Leader Bleb-Based Migration (LBBM) occurs in confined spaces and Vimentin is known to strongly influence cell mechanical properties, we hypothesized that a flexible Vimentin network is required for fast amoeboid migration. Tothisend,here we determined the precise role of the Vimentin intermediate filament system in regulating the migration of amoeboid human cancer cells. Vimentin is a classic marker of epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition and is therefore an ideal target for a metastasis inhibitor. Using a previously developed PDMS slab-based approach to confine cells, RNAi-based Vimentin silencing, Vimentin over-expression, pharmacological treatments, and measurements of cell stiffness, we found that RNAi-mediated depletion of Vimentin increases LBBM by ~50% compared with control cells and that Vimentin over-expression and Simvastatin-induced Vimentin bundling inhibit fast amoeboid migration and proliferation. Importantly, these effects were independent of changes in actomyosin contractility. Our results indicate that a flexible Vimentin intermediate filament network promotes LBBM of amoeboid cancer cells in confined environments and that Vimentin bundling perturbs cell mechanical properties and thereby inhibits the invasive properties of cancer cells.

Abstract 3

Thirteen-year-old Kayla hosts a YouTube series called “Kayla’s Korner” where she gives advice to an imagined audience of her peers. She picks topics like “Being Yourself” and “Putting Yourself Out There” and stumbles her way through a pep-talk peppered with “like” and glances at her notes. A glimpse of the subscriber count shows that Kayla’s Korner hasn’t exactly taken off. Kayla airbrushes out her acne, and swoops on heavy eyeliner. This is a young girl trying to understand what she is going through, and she does so by positioning herself as an expert and a helper to others.

Abstract 4

Four male friends who live an ordinary existence in Kentucky come up with a scheme to make their lives more interesting. After a visit to Transylvania University, they concoct the idea to steal the rarest and most valuable books from the school’s library. As one of the most audacious art heists in U.S. history starts to unfold, the men question whether their attempts to inject excitement and purpose into their lives are simply misguided attempts at achieving the American dream.

 

NARRATIVE DEVELOPMENT

This is the narrative from Mevagh Sanson (a brief description of her dissertation research) that is the focus of the second half hour of the session. 

Narrative:

We can be mentally whisked away from the present, back to re-live our past, or forward to “pre-live” our hypothetical future. Re-living our negative past too intensely and frequently can impair us in the present, as Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. But PTSD is conceptualised only as a disorder in which people are haunted by their past. Given that re-living and pre-living are closely related abilities, I propose that pre-living our hypothetical negative future too intensely and frequently similarly impairs us, as “pre-traumatic stress disorder.” I will investigate the ways in which people are haunted by their future.

#173) BUILDING A BETTER ABT: A 14 Minute “ABT Build Session” from my San Diego Keynote

Here’s the last 14 minutes of the keynote address I gave last month at the combined conferences of eScience and Science Gateways in San Diego.  I had several volunteers send me their ABTs the night before.  I presented them to the audience, then did my standard breakdown/analysis making a few points about the various desired attributes of a strong ABT.  

ABT IN ACTION.  The basic challenge is to find the balance between the two opposing goals of being CONCISE but also COMPELLING.

 

HOW TO BUILD SOLID ABT’s

First off, if you aren’t familiar with the ABT Narrative Template you should watch our AAAS Video that provides the basics.  It’s the tool for constructing the narrative structure of any project, presentation, program or proposal.

This is how you build good, strong ABT’s.  You can write a first draft of an ABT in less than a minute, but making it truly effective can take you months of thought and revision.

In the above video, taken from the end of a keynote address a couple weeks ago, I offer up suggestions on ABT’s written by three volunteers.  Each example I chose demonstrates a different attribute of a good ABT.

1) Wants vs Needs (cyberinfrastructure ABT) –  This examines in the context of the ABT the basic dynamic you hear from screenwriters about crafting the story of a single character on a journey in search of a goal.  The fundamental divide is between what the character WANTS in the long term, and what the character NEEDS to achieve the goal (Note:  in looking at some screenwriting websites I see that some people define these two words the opposite way — that “need” is your deep, inner life goal and “want” is what you’re seeking to help you fulfill the need — either way, it’s the same divide, the big picture versus the more immediate).

For example, you might WANT to be the world boxing champion, but you’re going to NEED some big muscles and a lot of punching skill to achieve your goal.  Watching you attain what you need to fulfill your goal is the recipe for a great story.

The same dynamic is true for science.

2) Specifics (online citizen science ABT) –  One of the fundamental rules for narrative is, “The power of storytelling rests in the specifics.”  Stories that are general (“I had a great day yesterday.”) are not as powerful as stories full of specifics (“I won $18 million in the lottery yesterday that will pay for my son’s heart transplant.”).

This was the main recommendation I had for this ABT.  Some of the “And” material wasn’t “on the narrative,” while the other material would benefit from a few more details.

3) The Real Problem (ice sheet melting ABT) –  You want to make sure you’ve dug down and found the real problem you’re interested in solving.  In this first draft, the problem is identified as the need for “unity.”  But the real problem is dealing with what is preventing unity.

Also, this ABT is more about the way research is conducted (with a unified approach) rather than the topic itself (ice sheet melting).  It’s essential that you’ve pinpointed the exact problem you’re working on and know how to state it simply and clearly.

#172) Fall 2019 Story Circles Schedule

A busy fall ahead!

Rapidly approaching 100 Story Circles which we should pass before the end of the year.

 

STORY ON! (to quote my buddy Park Howell)

Here’s what’s booked.  Several other Demo Days with other organizations in the works.

SEPT 19  Southern California Biomedical Council Conference (panel discussion on communication), Long Beach, CA

SEPT 25  Combined Keynote Address “Narrative Is Everything: The ABT Framework and Narrative Selection,” Escience 2019 & Science Gateways

OCT 22  DEMO DAY – University of Waikato, New Zealand

OCT 28   DEMO DAY – National Park Service, Asheville, NC

NOV 14  DEMO DAY – National Park Service, Anchorage, AK

NOV 15  DEMO DAY – National Park Service, Anchorage, AK

JAN 14  DEMO DAY – NOAA, Honolulu, HI

#171) 4 COMEDIANS: THE Most Interesting/Important Discussion of Communication I’ve Ever Heard

Comedians have the ability to be the most important communicators in our society.  Why?  Because people actually WANT to hear them talk (unlike politicians, environmental activists, and scientists among others).  Why is this?  It’s not just because “they make us laugh.”  It’s also because they are masters of narrative structure as I present here by examining an hour long HBO discussion of four hugely successful comedians.  This begs the question, if comics know how to communicate best, why don’t others draw on their talents beyond just laughter?

MASTER COMMUNICATORS.  Nobody knows narrative structure better. 

 

HAWKING VERSUS SEINFELD?

Who would you rather listen to for an hour — the late Stephen Hawking or Jerry Seinfeld?  How about acclaimed climate scientist Mike Mann or Jerry Seinfeld?  How about even entertaining scientist Neil Degrasse Tyson or Jerry Seinfeld?   And what about scientist-turned-filmmaker Randy Olson or Jerry Seinfeld?

I promise you the answer for the average American citizen (not American academic) is Seinfeld, Seinfeld, Seinfeld, Seinfeld.

Neil Postman knew this dynamic back in the 1980’s with his landmark book, Amusing Ourselves To Death, whichsmarter people have referenced in recent years (here, here, and herein relation to the current entertainer/president.

 

LEARN FROM THE GREATS, EVEN IF THEY OFFEND

The main point of this post is that nobody has deeper “narrative intuition” (the ability to feel, intuitively, narrative structure) than comedians and comic writers.  This actually isn’t that big of a surprise if you consider that the ABT Narrative Template came partly from the co-creators of the animated series, “South Park.”

So HBO recorded a discussion in 2012 which drew little attention until recently when it was discovered it had several offensive bits.  But if you’re really, really serious about understanding communication then you’ve got to be able to section off the part of your brain that was offended and study this tremendous discussion of four brilliant stand up comics.  Just avoid the content around 16 minutes in if you don’t want to hear the worst stuff.  You can bet they wouldn’t make those comments today.  So skip that part, but learn from the rest.

I’m going to guide you to some of their best comments when it comes to communication.

 

NARRATIVE SHAPING:  COMICS KNOW SHAPE

Here’s the first tremendous thing said.  It’s from Jerry Seinfeld around 5:00.  He says, “No one is more judged in civilized society than comedians — every 12 seconds you’re judged.” 

This is why these folks are so skilled.  Being judged that much results in narrative shaping.  Comedians are “narratively shaped,” over and over again, night after night.  If they bore or confuse they are given immediate feedback.  If they feel a joke drag or lose everyone, the next morning they are reshaping it.  And mostly through the quickest, most efficient way which is verbally, not written (as we’ve been learning over the past 5 years in our Story Circles Narrative Training program).

What is the result of all this iteration, night after night, of the narrative structure of comic material?   Look at this table from my new book, Narrative Is Everything.  What you see is that the best stand-up comics score incredibly high values for the Narrative Index (the BUT/AND ratio).  For comparison, few politicians score over 20 and almost none ever score above 30.

What this means is that they are presenting material that is packed with twists, turns and surprises (it’s what the “but’s” provide) — the very material that keeps audiences ENGAGED.  

 

Look at the scores.  The most popular comedians are at the top of the heap.  At the bottom are a group of much less popular performers, some of whom aren’t even professional comedians.  And also, the great Philadelphia Incident of Bill Burr where all he did was hurl insults at the audience, no attempt at telling stories (though if you think about it, his entire “act” was one big contradiction to all the expected norms of a comedian).

 

STRUCTURE, STRUCTURE, STRUCTURE:  FURNITURE AND STEEL WALLS

In the discussion Jerry Seinfeld says, “You can put in all kinds of furniture, but you gotta have steel in the walls.”  There you have it, in simple language — narrative has to have solid structure.  These guys aren’t professors and they don’t think all that analytically, but their entire discussion is all about structure.

It makes me think of three years ago when I asked acclaimed screenwriter Eric Roth, who won the Oscar for “Forest Gump,” how important narrative structure is.  He basically said you can get really creative as a screenwriter, but at the end of the day, you still have to respect those basic principles of narrative first noted thousands of years ago by the Greeks. 

He is talking about the same thing as the “Christmas Tree” and “ornaments” that Dave Gold uses as the metaphor in his great Politico article in 2017.

 

NARRATIVE SELECTION:  YOU BORE, YOU DIE

Louis C.K. says, “It’s like Darwinists, really, because you have your thing that you do and people flock to it, and if they don’t, you die.”   He’s talking about the very concept of “Narrative Selection” that I introduced in my new book.  Yes, this is what it’s all about — material gets selected over time.  If it’s good, it persists.  If it’s boring or confusing it either changes or dies.

It’s not that complicated, as good comedians know.

 

CONCISION:  RICKY GERVAIS IS A MASTER

Ricky Gervais says, “I think of a joke as the minimum amount of words to get to a punch line.”  He would know.  Watch his brilliant Humanity special on Netflix.   He tells about his Twitter wars he engages in.  He gets to the point where his punch line is boiled all the way down to just five words, “I should have left it.”

It’s hilarious.  He tells about something someone tweeted at him.  Then all he has to say is, “I should have left it,” to score the next roar of laughter.  That’s what he means by the minimum number of words.

But what’s more important about this is it’s the same thing that Park Howell and I discerned for the ABT — that “the quicker you can get through the A and B, the more we’ll let you have all day with the T.”  Exact same thing — Ricky is saying to get through the set up and twist quickly because we’re here for the punch line, which is the THEREFORE.

 

“THESE YOUNG GUYS” – IT’S JUST LIKE STORY CIRCLES

Chris Rock says, “That’s the problem with these young guys — they think it’s all attitude — but it’s GOT to have jokes under it all.”   What he’s talking about is the same thing we’ve seen with Story Circles Narrative Training.  Over the course of 5 years we’ve learned that Story Circles is not that useful or rewarding for young, early stage students.  They get bored with the repetition element and the simplicity of the ABT template.

As one of the UC Davis 5th year graduate students says in our Bodega Marine Lab video, it’s not until you’ve had some experience with communicating science that you come to realize both how important structure is and how challenging it is.  Younger students think the science itself is good enough — just like comics thinking it’s just attitude.

When he says, “it’s GOT to have jokes,” he’s talking about structure — it’s GOT to have structure.  Good students eventually figure this out.  It only took me about 20 years from when I first heard it in 1989 from the great screenwriting instructor Christopher Keane.

 

THE NEED FOR “THEME”

The other essential element of story is the need for a central theme or premise.  They talk just as much about this.  Jerry Seinfeld says, “You gotta have a voice.”

Louis CK points out the essential element of repetition, which is what our Story Circles training is built around.  Admiring Chris Rock, he says, “Chris will even keep repeating it if he has a premise.  Like women can’t go down in lifestyle.  Then he’ll explain it from 50 different angles.”  

That is exactly what “messaging” is about.  You have a central premise, then you message around it — repeating the basic point from a multitude of angles.

Underscoring how well Chris Rock knows the importance of premise, he says, “A lot of comedians have great jokes, but they’ll be thinking why is this not working?  It’s not working because the audience doesn’t understand the premise.” 

He adds, “If I set this premise up right, this joke will always work.” 

And then Ricky Gervais brings the theme element home by saying, “Really good bits go deep into your head and keep coming back.”

 

THE GROUP DYNAMIC

Gervais hits on exactly the group element that lies at the heart of Story Circles Narrative Training by saying, “You can’t be the one who decides why you like something.”  This is what we constantly tell participants in Story Circles.  You can’t sit alone at your desk and write something with perfect narrative structure.  As he’s saying, you can’t be the one who decides something is great — it has to be other people.  This is really hard to fully appreciate, but is essential in a sometimes anti-social profession like science.

This is such a great discussion.  Not just funny.  It’s fascinating — four artists, doing their best to be analytical about their craft.  It’s packed full of communications wisdom.

 

BOTTOM LINE:  POLITICIANS NEED COMIC WRITERS

I’ve been saying this for a while now.  Politicians need comic writers, NOT for their humor (though that’s an added bonus) but because they, more than anyone else, grasp the power, importance and technique of narrative structure.

There is NO REASON for politicians to bore and confuse, as they do endlessly.   If you care about your favorite politician, ask him or her if there’s a comic writer in the mix of the speech writing.  And I mean a good comic writer — one whose work scores consistently above 30 for the Narrative Index — as is the case with Bill Maher’s writers.

This is the absolute core of effective communication today.

#169) Neil Degrasse Tyson Demonstrates that Science Actually Can’t Solve All the Problems of the World

We know he had the best of intentions, but lacked the best of instincts.  There’s more to life than science.

In 2011 Neil Degrasse Tyson showed the programming flaws in his brain with his first appearance on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher.”  Science without a solid grounding in the humanities is dangerous.

 

“I RIPPED OFF MY MASK”

In February, 2011 a friend brought me along to back stage at HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher” on the night of Neil Degrasse Tyson’s first appearance on the show (along with the soon to be ignominious Anthony Weiner).  During the show Tyson had a classic moment.

The discussion had drifted into politics.  When it hit on civil rights everyone turned to Neil for the African American perspective.  He made a couple of valid points and had everyone’s attention, but then he said something along the lines of, “Look, it’s as simple as running a randomized double blind replicated experiment on …” Basically a bunch of science jargon out of nowhere.

There was a pause, then Bill Maher said, “What the fuck?” and everyone exploded into laughter at the scientist who had lost his audience.  

At the party in the green room after the show I mentioned that moment to him.  He laughed wildly saying, “I know, I had them in the palm of my hand, and then it was like I ripped off my mask and shouted, I’M A SCIENTIST!”

He’s a great guy, that was a hilarious moment, and he’s certainly a priceless asset for the science world, but … he’s no Obama.  As he unfortunately demonstrated in grand fashion yesterday witha tactless tweet in the wake of the mass shootings, prompting a half baked apology today.

The Obama comparison is an important point for everyone to keep in mind because it underscores the bigger point of how science is not going to solve all our problems any time soon, so why are we letting the sciences trample the humanities in our society?

I could go on at length about this, as I did a bit last year in the 2nd edition of “Don’t Be SUCH A Scientist”(and btw, Tyson 100% embodied the title yesterday).  But instead I’ll just end with the plea I made in the book, “Make Science Human.”

#168) Three Sequential ABT’s for a One Minute Presentation

Here’s yet another great case study of “The ABT In Action.”  It’s a scientist using the ABT structure to craft his entire one minute presentation as a sequence of 3 ABT “episodes.”   

ANYBODY REMEMBER THE OLD FAST TALKING FEDEX GUY?  He probably didn’t need any narrative structure because he talked so fast he was finished before you could decide if you were bored.  But for everyone else, it’s kind of essential.

 

THREE ABT’S IN A MINUTE

Two weeks ago we had a great conference call with our friends at National Park Service.  One of them, Margaret Beer, introduced her colleague Simon Kingston who is a “data ranger” for NPS.  He told about taking part in a meeting of the USGS Community for Data Integration where they offered the opportunity for what they call a “flash presentation” of just one minute with one slide.

Margaret had written three letters on a business card for him — ABT — and briefly explained them (the “And, But, Therefore” template).  He ended up using the ABT structure for three sentences that were his entire one minute presentation.

Here is his entire presentation, color coding each part for the there elements of AGREEMENT (AND, blue), CONTRADICTION (BUT, red), and CONSEQUENCE (THEREFORE, green):

Our program was kind of a wild west in what we did AND was going well, BUT for the long term we weren’t managing our data properly, THEREFORE we formed a task force.  It brought together lots of people from different disciplines AND looked at what we needed to do, BUT we realized we needed to select an alternative, THEREFORE we did a structured decision-making process.  We selected an alternative, looked at what’s it going to take to achieve our goals, BUT realized in order to implement an alternative we needed to bring a diversity of voices to the table, THEREFORE we formed a governance board and organized small groups to actually implement the work.

What’s great about this is that it’s neither boring nor confusing.  The one bit I think I’d add would be a final bit at the end to summarize the solution they arrived at.  Something like, “… and this provided the data management plan we needed.”  That would bring things “full circle.”

This is another great example of people using the ABT on short notice to structure a brief presentation.  It’s a powerful template, BUT … as the nearly 500 graduates of our Story Circles Narrative Training program will tell you, the real goal is to develop “narrative intuition,” and that requires biting the bullet and taking the training.

#167) Our Story Circles Conference Call with National Park Service

Here’s the recording of our conference call on Tuesday July 16 with National Park Service folks in Fort Collins, CO.  It’s a nice snapshot of where we are after 5 years that has produced 70-some circles and approaching 500 graduates.  The time cues for each of the speakers are listed below for what was a very vibrant and information-packed session.  By the way, if you want to hear the contrast between a rough, amateurish communicator full of “um’s” (me) and a smooth, precise professional communicator (Larry Perez) listen to the transition between us at about 10 minutes in.  It’s kinda awesome.

(Right click here to download audio)

TIME         SPEAKER
00:00      RANDY OLSON, Opening Comments on Story Circles Narrative Training    
10:14      LARRY PEREZ, NPS
13:43      MICHAEL BART, NPS
19:22      MARGARET BEER, NPS
21:21      SIMON KINGSTON, NPS
26:56      MIKE STRAUSS, USDA (retired), STORY CIRCLES Co-Developer
33:18      JEFF MORRISETTE, DOI

#166) Defining “Story” versus “Narrative”

If you combine the accumulated knowledge of Hollywood and neuroscience, you end up with a clear, albeit analytical pair of definitions for the words “story” versus “narrative.”  It’s not a very nice thing for art, but it’s essential for strategic communication.  Here is Appendix 1 from my new book, Narrative Is Everything: The ABT Framework and Narrative Selection, where I present the divide between the two words.

NEUROCINEMATICS.   This is from the 2008 paper by Hasson et al. that introduced the term “neurocinematics” (the link is below).   They identified “structured” versus “unstructured” films.  I would call them “narrative” versus “non-narrative” films.  Keep in mind, you can have a film full of actors and scenes that does not tell a story and is thus non-narrative.  Just because you have actors and fiction doesn’t mean you’re telling a story or that it’s a narrative piece.

 

TWO WORDS:  “STORY” VERSUS “NARRATIVE”

I have a lot to say on this very important divide that most humanities folks have no interest in, but is very important for more analytical/strategic folks.  Six years ago my thoughts on the divide were tenuous, but these days I feel certain about this and know that it’s essential for clear, strong communication.  

To this point, when we titled our group-written book, Connection, in 2013, this was exactly what we were referring to with the subtitle, “Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking.”  It’s critical thinking that brings you to the realization that these two words are NOT the same.

Below is the first appendix from my recent book where I at last laid out my explanation of how the two words differ.  What I don’t get into in this section is the fact that “the brain is lazy” (as per Daniel Kahneman) which means we live most of our lives blabbing away in the non-narrative world, making endless statements, ESPECIALLY when it comes to social media, which is largely a non-narrative medium and ultimately shallow and largely non-memorable.

 

ONE MORE THING:  NEUROPHYSIOLOGY

In my books I’ve gone into this in greater detail.  So far, neurophysiology tells us VERY LITTLE about “narrative and the brain” (though most journalists are not in the business of telling you very little so they tend to over-interpret the minimal findings — case in point the bunk of Paul Zak that has been roundly criticized).  But there are a few simple findings that are clear — namely that non-narrative material is not very stimulatory and causes the brain to wander, while narrative material activates a large amount of the brain and produces very focused patterns of activity.

The best work I’ve found on this to date is that of Uri Hasson at Princeton, starting with his foundational presentation of his field of “neurocinematics” in his multi-authored 2008 overview paper.

So here is my formal parsing of the two words.

 

APPENDIX 1 – Defining “Story” Versus Narrative 

In 2011, my improv-instructor buddy Brian Palermo began making a bit of a noodge of himself in our workshops. I would use the words “story” and “narrative” liberally. He finally asked, “What’s the difference?”

I scoffed, obfuscated (the very thing I complained about in this book’s Introduction) and said, “You can’t separate them.” I told him the terms are too broad and all-encompassing to parse. He said bullshit.

We had that exchange enough times that I began to think about what he was saying. He was right. I was being lazy. So I put the same question to a senior communications professor at USC who had been a huge help over the years. He scoffed, obfuscated and dismissed me, saying, “You can’t separate them.” I wanted to say bullshit, but was a little more polite.

By 2014, I had figured out what I feel is an effective set of working definitions for the two terms which I presented in Houston, We Have a Narrative. It’s now five years later. I not only stick with the definitions, I also think they are important, and that most people using these terms are just being lazy in not thinking this through.

We live in an information-overburdened world now. We know that narrative structure is at the core of what we have to say. But you can sense the two words are not identical just by how people respond to them. Story has a sense of human warmth to it, while narrative is more cold and analytical.

So here are my analytical definitions of the two.    

 

THE MONOMYTH-BASED DEFINITIONS

Famed mythologist Joseph Campbell did a comparative study of storytelling among the various religions and cultures of the world and found that their stories follow a basic form, which he called “the monomyth.”

JOSEPH CAMPBELL’S MONOMYTH MODEL FOR A STORY. A “story” is this entire diagram. “Narrative” refers to just the bottom half—the problem-solution part of the journey—which is the driving force of a story.

 

Campbell defined the structure of a story as a circular journey that begins and ends at the same place. Along the way, it passes through three phases:

1) THE ORDINARY WORLD (NON-NARRATIVE) – The first phase is what he called the “Ordinary World.” I would re-label this the “Non- Narrative World.” This is the initial part of the story, which is usually called “exposition.” It is largely intellectual. Information is presented, but there has yet to be a problem encountered, which means that the problem-solution part of the brain has not yet been activated. This is the A material in the ABT template. If it goes on for too long it will become the AAA template and bore everyone. We’ve all seen movies that left you wondering, “When is this going to start to get interesting?”

 

2) THE SPECIAL WORLD (NARRATIVE) – The second phase begins when the problem is encountered. This is usually referred to as, “When the story begins.” The common expression in Hollywood is, “A story begins when something happens.” This is where that something happens. Before this we weren’t really telling a story.

The “something” that initiates the problem can be finding a dead body, having the ship hit an iceberg, or having a tornado take a little girl to a new world. The corresponding problems are: whodunnit, how are we going to save everyone on the ship, and how is the little girl going to get back home?

All of these problems activate the narrative process, which activates the narrative part of the brain. Joseph Campbell called this part of the journey the “Special World.” I would rename it the “Narrative World.”

 

3) RETURN TO THE ORDINARY WORLD (NON-NARRATIVE) – The third part of the story starts when the problem is solved. The murderer is found, the people are saved, and the little girl returns home. This allows the narrative part of the brain to relax (mission accomplished) and return to a resting state. The final part is similar to the first part—i.e., more intellectual—now synthesizing and philosophizing about what was learned in the course of the journey.

So this becomes the distinction. “Story” is the entire package. It’s the whole journey, from start to finish. It consists of both narrative and non- narrative material. It’s warm, human and multi-dimensional.

As I mentioned in Chapter 2, Ronald Reagan was a storyteller. He would take the time to set up a story, providing human details to make it relatable. Then he would end it with some element of how the story relates to our world.

Donald Trump is not a storyteller. He hates small talk, which is what he would call the details of the Ordinary World (the intellectual part—not his strength). He prefers to just “cut to the chase,” by starting with the problem.

 

THE DEFINITIONS

So here is how I roughly define the two terms:

NARRATIVE – The series of events that occur in the search for the solution to a problem.

STORY – The complete circular journey from non-narrative to narrative, then back to non-narrative.

What this means is that a series of events that never get out of the And, And, And mode of the non-narrative world are not, technically speaking, a story. This means that a resume or chronology is not a story. A series of events doesn’t become a story until a problem is established, which sets up the narrative part of the journey, which is the heart of the story.