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

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

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

 

WHY ONE DAY WORKSHOPS TASTE GREAT, BUT ARE LESS FILLING

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

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

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

 

WHY I NO LONGER SUPPORT ONE DAY WORKSHOPS

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

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

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

 

OUR “SHAPING THE NARRATIVE” SESSION AT ESA

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

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

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

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

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

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

#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.

#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

#111) Trump Continues to Know Narrative: He relishes being laughed at

There is a myth among the left that Donald Trump can’t stand to be laughed at and ridiculed. You hear it confidently, smugly explained night after night by “expert” guests on every news talk show on MSNBC. That’s them using THEIR set of fears. There’s only one thing Trump cannot stand which is: NOT GETTING ATTENTION. We exist now in The Attention Economy and he is greedy. He lives his life for attention, and he gets it through his deep and thorough intuition for narrative. Laughter and ridicule are not part of the currency, which means they are trivial to him. All of which is beyond the intellectualism of the left. Also, note this for Trump’s Narrative Index (BUTs/ANDs): TRUMP WITH SCRIPT (on Afghanistan) = 6, TRUMP RANTING SPEECH (in Phoenix) = 23. The man knows narrative.

TRUMP KNOWS NARRATIVE so incredibly well, leaving his opponents in the dust.  At least for now.

TRUMP KNOWS NARRATIVE so incredibly well, leaving his opponents in the dust. At least for now.



TRUMP KNOWS ATTENTION

For the past 15 years a few very smart people have realized that our core currency has shifted to one central resource: ATTENTION. Starting at the turn of the century books began to emerge with titles like The Attention Economy (Davenport and Beck, 2001) and The Economics of Attention (Lanham, 2006). What I don’t get is why news pundits have not put that knowledge together with the fact that we have THE most attention-seeking President ever, and produced at least some body of thought to explain and predict his behavior.

To the contrary, what we have over and over again is massively educated pundits on the left analyzing Donald Trump using THEIR rules of how people should think and act. Which leaves them endlessly baffled. Could they be any more lost?



NOT THE BEST FOOTBALL TEAMS

Trump loves CONTRADICTION, the central force of narrative (which is AGREEMENT, CONTRADICTION, CONSEQUENCE). Let me give you a little example of this.

Last fall he showed up in the control booth at the Army-Navy football game. The two hosts were thrilled. They raved to him about what a beautiful day it was, what an incredible event, and how amazing the two teams were. He agreed (AGREEMENT), but then couldn’t help himself and finally had to move on to the central force of narrative (CONTRADICTION) by saying, “Yes, but let’s be honest, these aren’t the two best teams.”

CLANK. Way to lay a turd on the festivities. The two hosts didn’t know what to say. It was a day to honor the armed forces. There’s no way Obama or Hillary or even G.W. Bush would have said such a thing. They would have all just rolled with things and said, “Yes, this is great.” Especially Bush. If you doubt that, look at his Narrative Index values (But/And ratio) for all of his State of the Union addresses. Every one of them was under 10 for an average of 4, which is literally the same values as four equipment maintenance manuals I found online recently. He didn’t know how to disagree with anything.



TRUMP IS FOLLOWING “THE HIGH-CONTRADICTION DIET”

There are three fundamental forces of narrative: AGREEMENT, CONTRADICTION, CONSEQUENCE. If you want to understand a lot about your world quickly, start absorbing what those three forces mean. Don’t fight it. Accept that back in the 1700’s Hegel pointed it out with his triad, and then start realizing how the three forces explain just about everything when it comes to communication.

Realize that CONTRADICTION is at the core of narrative. Then think about the life of Donald Trump. Day in and day out, every single moment, his life is all about contradiction. He loves it, he relishes it, he bathes in it.



TRUMP KNOWS RANTING

One more thing on El Presidente. It’s called The Narrative Index. It’s just the ratio of BUTs to ANDs in any given text. Have a look at this.

Blogpost111table

His Afghanistan speech on August 21 was restrained, controlled and tightly scripted. Look how few times he said BUT — a total of 9. His Narrative Index was 6.

Now look at his Phoenix speech last week was a 77 minute rant that was rich in ABT form. Just look at the first part of it. He opens with line after line of AGREEMENT, each of which is followed by applause. BUT THEN, he finally hits his source of contradiction with this line, “But the very dishonest media, those people right up there with all the cameras.” It’s his first BUT.

Guess what that line is met with — boos. That’s the start of his central narrative thread, laid out plain and simple.

Overall, look at the scores. His boring Afghanistan speech scores a 6, his barn burner Phoenix speech scores a 23. The man knows narrative — when to pull it back, when to lay it on. He continues to be a powerful mass communicator, despite what the eggheads are saying, hoping and praying.





#110) Banning Trump from Twitter: Valarie Plame Advances a Great Narrative

Valerie Plame understands media. It’s not about facts. It’s not about pointing out individual pieces of misinformation from Donald Trump. It’s about advancing new narratives, like “Let’s buy Twitter and kick Trump off.” The information side of that is cockamamie, but as a narrative it’s awesome and attention-getting. And idea-generating. She gets it. If only the Democrats did as well.

 ADVANCING THE NARRATIVE.  This is what it’s about — launching new narratives.


ADVANCING THE NARRATIVE. This is what it’s about — launching new narratives.



DIPLOMACY CAN’T AFFORD TO BE NON-NARRATIVE

I’ve spent all year trying to explain there is an analytical reason for why President Trump should not be allowed to use Twitter for anything related to diplomacy. Back in January I pointed out that Twitter is too short, by half, to allow the communication of coherent ABT-structured narratives. And I’ve spent the year wondering what in the world is wrong with Congress that they can’t seem to see this as anything more than a laughing matter.

Twitter is not a joke. It’s a source of rapid mass communication. It creates all sorts of mass MIScommunication, as I explained in that essay, using Stephen Colbert’s debacle as an example.

Finally someone truly gets it. Former CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson has taken the issue into her own hands with an attention-getting idea that is unlikely to occur, but that’s not the point. She is identifying the problem — that we’ve got a President who is well known to behave in a reckless manner. He simply should not be allowed to do it with Twitter.



WE’RE IN A POST-SUBSTANCE WORLD

The last election showed how we have entered a new phase of The Information Society. Facts and accuracy now count for very little. What matters now is higher levels of information organization — namely narrative threads.

Some how, some way the Democratic party has to grasp this, realize that Twitter is dangerous, realize that the last President used it very cautiously, but the current President is running roughshod with it.

There has to be a way to stop this from happening. It begins by identifying the problem and getting everyone talking about it. The Democratic party has done nothing at all about this. It’s up to single citizens like Valerie Plame Wilson for now to at least try. She gets it.





#109) Good Stories are Rare

The sad news: Most of the world and life in general is not that great of a story. In fact, most of it isn’t even a story. It takes A LOT of hard work to either craft a great story or find one. Don’t underestimate how tough the challenge is.

THERE’S ACTUALLY ONLY A COUPLE INCREDIBLE STORIES IN THE NAKED CITY.

THERE’S ACTUALLY ONLY A COUPLE INCREDIBLE STORIES IN THE NAKED CITY.



THE NAKED (AND MOSTLY BORING) CITY

When I was a kid (a looooong time ago) there was a show called, “The Naked City,” which opened with a wide shot of New York City and the narrator saying, “There’s eight million stories in the Naked City, this is one of them.” The eight million referred to the population size of NYC at the time, suggesting that, “Everyone is an interesting story, just waiting to be told.”

Nope. Sorry. The truth is most people don’t have a story to tell. If you doubt this, try going to film school and being forced to see it played out in all your classes where students are forced to make films, even though they have nothing to say. It’s like being called on in a conversation by someone saying, “What do you think?,” and replying, “Blaaaaaah, buh, blaaaaaaah, bluhbluh.” Just because you made a noise didn’t mean you said something.

In fact, one rather heartless friend used to say, “Just because it happened to YOU, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s interesting.”

At USC they were smart enough to have all 50 students in each class pitch their story ideas on a single day, then the faculty chose four — literally the cream of the crop for each cohort — to actually be given the funds to make their films. I sat through five semesters of those pitches.

The proportions pretty much followed the subjective graph above. Most of the pitches didn’t have a story to tell. Kinda like, “I’m gonna make a film about this guy, and he breaks up with his girlfriend, and he goes to Arkansas, and he gets a job cutting trees, and he’s making some money, and he tells his friends he’s not sure that’s what he wants to do with his life, and he sits out at night looking at the moon, and he gets depressed, and he keeps chopping trees, and finds a new job at a restaurant, and he …” Not a story, dude.



ARE YOU CRAZY?

Actually, I just remembered this — here’s a terrible story. One young guy the semester after me was a real quiet introvert who was a Dungeons and Dragons type of kid. He pitched a sic-fi “story,” where he started telling what his film would be about.

It was like he was in a trance explaining it to the audience, with his eyes glazed over, looking far away, spewing out all this terminology he had come up with, saying, “So the Zorgons on planet Skartan go into battle with the Keerjops and they’ve got these special Shootoo rods that can put their enemy into the ninth dimension, but their leader Dalius doesn’t think they should use them while his son Varlin does, and every time they visit the planet Gnipgnop …”

For fifteen minutes he wound out this bizarrely intricate yet utterly confusing “story” of the film he wanted to make which you could see he stayed up late every night laying in bed staring at the ceiling figuring it out. He was completely off in his own bonkers world. By the end of it people were avoiding eye contact with each other out of awkward embarrassment for him. Needless to say, he didn’t get chosen. BUT …

The next day the Chairman of the department asked him to stop by for a chat. The kid showed up thinking he might be offered support for his film from a different department. Instead, the Chairman gave him a number to call. It was the mental health services program on the campus. Seriously, his pitch was that much in outer space it was a reasonable suggestion.



LIKE CROSSWORD PUZZLES

You want to be good with story, it starts with developing a strong feel for what is not a story. Having a good story takes a lot of work. And I mean A LOT. We see it now with our Story Circles Narrative Training. They’re seeing it every week with the 6 circles that are running with National Park Service in Colorado.

Every week one member of each group offers up their narrative of a project to work on. Most of them start their session thinking “what I’m sharing here is pretty good.” By the end they’re left thinking, “Wow. I’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Here’s a way to look at it. Imagine you take the Sunday crossword puzzle from the LA Times, work on it for ten minutes, solve about ten out of a hundred clues, then proudly show it to your friends, saying, “Hey, look at my solution to the crossword puzzle.”

They would look at it, look at you, then say, “Um, yeah, nice start, get to work.” That’s exactly what you’re getting with most films — their final version is like that puzzle that’s only started to be solved.

Look at my breakdown of the HBO Real Sports segment on the Great Barrier Reef a couple weeks ago and you’re looking at essentially the description of a completed crossword puzzle. They have a whole team of story folks who make sure it is well polished. But then you look at most amateur documentaries on the same subject and you’re looking at that version of a puzzle with ten out of a hundred clues completed.

One of my film school classmates worked for Real Sports for a couple years. He told me about it. They work HARD, scouring the landscape for possible stories. They don’t say, “This month we’re going to do a segment on football, a segment on boxing, a segment on car racing and a segment on skiing.”

That is a recipe for bad storytelling — saying, “We don’t care if there’s no good stories for each topic, we’ll find some bunch of stuff on the subject and present it.”

No, they scour the world for stories, eventually taking the handful on the end of the graph above — the “good stories” — then working to present them as tightly and cleanly as possible. Every once in a while they strike pure gold as they did with the Rod Carew heart story in that same episode as the reef.

Storytelling, when it works, is indeed magic. But that’s incredibly rare.

The fact that “most movies are bad” is a reflection of how tough it is. A few years ago a friend and I were watching the Oscars in our separate homes, texting between speeches and following a Twitter feed for it. A presenter said, “Movies are magic!” Someone tweeted immediately in response, “Bacon is magic, movies are crap.”





#104) “Dunkirk”: Introducing “The Get to the Point Rule”

Dunkirk” is a movie that is excellent (92% on Rotten Tomatoes), popular (made $50 mil opening weekend), and with pretty much flawless, simple narrative structure. In fact, it illustrates what I am hereby and from here on calling “The Get to the Point Rule” for the ABT Template. It is the idea that, “The quicker you can get through the A and the B (set up and problem), the more the audience will let you have all day with the T … provided you’ve set it up right.” Here’s the ABT for “Dunkirk”: The British troops are retreating AND in a month they could all be evacuated safely, BUT the Germans have them surrounded, THEREFORE they only have a few frantic days to escape. That’s it. They go through the A and B in the first minute of the movie. The rest is T, delivered at relentless speed. It’s a great movie.

MAD MAX DOES WWII

MAD MAX DOES WWII



THEREFORE, THEREFORE, THEREFORE ..

I’m putting a name on this ABT rule I’ve been saying repeatedly over the past year. I’m calling it The Get to the Point Rule. The rule is, the quicker you can get through the A and B, the more we want to hear lots and lots about the T, provided you’ve set it up well.

I saw “Dunkirk,” yesterday, thoroughly enjoyed it, and realized it gets through the A and the B in about the first minute. It starts with a couple of screens of text telling you the set up (the British are retreating) and the problem (the Germans have them surrounded). Within another minute we get the first of many THEREFOREs as the actor we’re following runs out on the beach and sees thousands of soldiers standing in line waiting to be transported back to England — i.e. THEREFORE everyone is stuck trying to escape quickly.

From there it’s basically THEREFORE men are being killed by the enemy, THEREFORE they need to bring in rescue ships as quick as possible, THEREFORE just standing on the beach is life threatening.

And then they start back with a whole series of minor ABTs — BUT there’s German planes strafing them, BUT there’s British planes defending them, BUT the Germans manage to sink a ship next to the pier, THEREFORE other ships will have trouble getting in.

Lots of smaller ABTs as the movie moves along the arc of the over-arching ABT. The central problem is the need to get back to Britain. The solution is the fleet of boats that eventually come over (if you think this is a spoiler you don’t know your basic WWII history — also, you might want to hear from a historian about the creative licenses taken).

It’s a great movie, a total ABT workout from start to finish, and shows how if you provide tight enough ABT structure you really don’t have to have much of any character work. Filmmakers figured this dynamic out over a century ago with the serial queen melodramas like “The Perils of Pauline” which we learned about in film school. The recent and brilliant “Mad Max” was a direct descendent of that genre, as is “Dunkirk.”

Give the masses a tight, fast paced story and they really don’t need much else (including character work and backstory). Do this and you score 92% with Rotten Tomatoes. Such is the eternal magic of story.

#101) How Twitter fuels our increasingly mediocre narrative-driven world

The news used to be driven by the truth, at least in theory. Today — more than ever — it’s driven by story (as Trump knows well), which requires sources of contradiction. When contradiction is in short supply, Twitter conveniently provides it. USA Today knows this at a deep and instinctive level. They continue to blaze the path into The Age of Mediocrity.

STORY TRUMPS TRUTH today in ways not seen since the medieval Dark Ages.  Brought to you by science, technology and Twitter, run amok.

STORY TRUMPS TRUTH today in ways not seen since the medieval Dark Ages. Brought to you by science, technology and Twitter, run amok.



STORY TRUMPS TRUTH

Narrative consists of three forces — AGREEMENT, CONTRADICTION, CONSEQUENCE. If you want a solid narrative structure, you need sources of all three.

Furthermore, Rule #1 of storytelling is that “The power of storytelling rests in the specifics.”

Today’s news media has a ravenous appetite for both contradiction and specifics. Twitter provides both.

If I tell you Ann Coulter got into a spat on a flight, that’s moderately interesting. But if I can use Twitter to quote specific words from her AND specific words of opposition, as USA Today does in this article today, it’s much more powerful. Who cares whether the Twitter sources are reputable.

Even more to the point, if I tell you Ed Sheeran’s appearance on “Game of Thrones” sucked, that’s moderately interesting. But it’s much more interesting and engaging if I can cite specific voices — regardless of whether they are professional movie critics. Who cares who they are, they are sources of contradiction and specifics — precious narrative fuel.

It’s happening all day, every day now. How do movie critics even have a job any more? How do any experts have jobs? We are devolving into a gelatinous mass of supposedly all-knowing crowd-sourced knowledge, driven by an increasingly insatiable thirst for narrative, accompanied by an increasing disgust and even contempt for what used to be known as “the truth.”

Thus continues our information-glutted sleigh ride into The Age of Mediocrity, overseen by The Master of Contradiction in the White House. And followed suit by the increasingly dull and mediocre Democrats who respect and value the voices of mediocrity.

#100) The Atlantic demonstrates the ABT

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

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

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



YES, IT IS THAT SIMPLE AND COMMON

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

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

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

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

#99)  The Great Barrier Reef:  If only “most people” were thoughtful

It’s the old Adlai Stevenson line from his 1952 Presidential candidacy.  A woman shouted to him, “All the thinking people are with you.”  He replied, “I’m afraid that won’t do — I need a majority.”  A tour operator in Australia says he’d like to think “most people” would like to know the truth about the decline of the Great Barrier Reef.  I’m afraid my experiences with the Florida Keys and elsewhere goes against that.  As our President would say, “Sad!”

NOT JON BRODIE.  Sorry, NPR, you might want to get your photo ID’s straight.  This is Terry Hughes.

NOT JON BRODIE.  Sorry, NPR, you might want to get your photo ID’s straight.  This is Terry Hughes.



GIVE ‘EM WHAT THEY WANT


Here’s yet another tragic article about the staggering levels of climate-induced coral death on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.  The news rips at my heart given the number of years I spent studying the reef back when coral bleaching was just a curiosity almost never seen on a broad scale.  Those days are long gone.

In this article a tourism operator offers this final, sadly idealistic comment:  “If you’ve got a fantastic product, but there’s a negative aspect of it, how do you deal with that negative aspect?” Edmondson asks. “It’s best, I think, to explain it because most people are understanding.

Sorry.  “Most people” actually aren’t understanding.  I’m afraid any publicist worth their salt would say, “DON’T SAY A WORD ABOUT THE NEGATIVE ASPECT!!!”

FLORIDA’S CORAL REEF FACADE


I saw this principle up close and personal in 2005 when a group in Florida brought me in to possibly run a “shifting baselines” campaign for the Florida Keys.  The idea would have been a public relations effort in which we would try to instruct the public on how beautiful the coral reefs of the Keys used to be, how impoverished they are today, and how we need their help to get them back to the old days (the baseline conditions).

I spent a week driving up and down the Keys talking to everyone on both sides of the conservation dynamic.  What I learned was that the Tourism Development Council (TDC) of the Florida Keys had a $10 million budget to produce brochures and TV commercials showing the most beautiful, healthy and colorful images of coral reefs … even if the materials had to come from the Bahamas or back in the 1960’s (because you can’t see those sights in the Keys today).

Literally.  That’s what one of the TDC commissioners confided to me.  He also said, “You’re not planning to show ‘the old black and whites’ are you?”

What he meant was the old black and white trophy photos of the 1920’s showing massive game fish on the docks of sizes that have not been seen in the area for decades.  He assured me they would run me out of town if I did.  (Loren McClenachan published this great example of the problem)

I left there telling my hosts who had invited me that unless they had a comparable budget (which they didn’t — their budget wouldn’t have been even one percent of TDC) it was hopeless.  It’s nice to dream of viral videos and communications miracles, but the truth is you mostly get what you pay for in communication (which is the biggest reason why science, being such cheapstakes with communications budgets, sucks at communication).

NOBODY WANTS TO WATCH DEAD CORAL REEF FOOTAGE


Combine that with what we heard in 2002 at our Round Table Evening in Santa Monica for Shifting Baselines.  We had two underwater cinematographers who talked about sending in their coral reef documentaries to Discovery Channel and National Geographic and having the producers chop off their part at the end where they show dead coral reefs and kvetch about the declining state of reefs.

Nobody wants to watch dead coral reefs on TV.  Actually, a few very smart people do — but they’re the same ones that Stevenson said aren’t enough of a resource to win with.  It’s a huge, sad dilemma.

Disneyland and Superheroes win in the end.  And as Bill Maher pointed out earlier this year in a brilliant monologue, when you have a nation that’s addicted to the fantasy nonsense of super heroes, you end up with a President like the one we now have.

And yet, the situation is not hopeless, it just needs greater focus on communication and marketing than the science and environmental worlds are willing to give.  And more importantly, it needs a deeper understanding by all of the eternal power of narrative.  End of story.