#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.”

#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. 

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

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

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

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

 

ANEMIC NARRATIVE SCORES

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

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

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

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

 

HE’S NOT DIGGING DEEP

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

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

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

#163) The Story Circles Core Principle: “Stop thinking and DO THE WORK!”

Communication and acting are one in the same, AND … thinking is the enemy of both.  I’ve learned this over the past 25 years from the acting classes, filmmaking and communications work I’ve done since leaving my tenured professorship of biology.  It is now the core principle of our Story Circles Narrative Training program.  It was difficult for me to absorb in 1994 when (still an academic) I first heard it.  To someone with a graduate education it feels alien.  But it really is the central conundrum that is like the Observer Effect:  How can a thinky person communicate well when thinking ruins the process itself?

THE FONZ IN ACTION.  This was a key moment in the first episode of the acclaimed HBO series, “Barry.” Acting teacher, Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) manipulates a student to get her into character, then right when her anger is peaking, he tells her to go into the scene she had been performing poorly, and don’t let thinking get in the way.  Season Two of “Barry” is starting soon.  Can’t wait.  

 

THE CORE PRINCIPLE FOR ACTING/COMMUNICATION:  DON’T THINK

The opening paragraph of my first book, “Don’t Be Such A Scientist,” is a string of profanity from my “crazy acting teacher” on the first night of my first acting class in 1994.  The source of the tirade was her realization that she had an academic (me) in the class.  Academics think, thinking ruins acting, therefore academics must be chased out of an acting class.

Nobody had warned me.

It would take roughly 20 years for me to make sense of what happened that night, but it did eventually make sense.  And it makes even more sense when I see the dynamic repeated on a popular TV show.

It occurred last year in the acclaimed HBO series, “Barry.”  The persona of my crazy acting teacher (and countless others) is brought to life as Gene Cousineau, an acting teacher played brilliantly by the great Henry Winkler.  In the first episode he brings a student to tears of anger.  She was performing a scene poorly — failing to show the anger the performance needed.  He ignites her emotions, then at just the right moment says to her, “Don’t think, just finish the scene.” 

It was the “Don’t think” part that gave me flashbacks to my acting class. 

Henry Winkler’s character is so perfect.  In Vanity Fair last year he talked about the sources he draws on for the role, with the most obvious being the legendary Stella Adler.  Pretty much all acting teachers have at least a little bit of nuttiness to them.  But so does human behavior in general.  

And that’s why actors, more than anyone else, have a deep understanding of how humans behave — way more than people with PhD’s.  The academics can theorize about behavior, but the good actors actually know it so well they can recreate it themselves.  

 

YOU HAVE TO GET “OUT OF YOUR HEAD”

So this ends up being the big challenge.  Humans are mostly driven viscerally.  Yes, there’s a small percentage who are more cerebral, but they’re not that abundant and most of them turn out to be less logical than they think they are.  All you have to do is look at a major academic squabble.  I was on an email years ago with a group of professors who suddenly turned on each other over a political issue.  An actor friend who read the emails commented, “When eggheads crack …”

Or read my buddy Jerry Graf’s great book, “Clueless in Academe.”

Thinking is humanity’s greatest asset, yet also has a down side.  When it comes to science, thinking is essential for half of it (doing research), yet at the same time, is disastrous for the other half (communicating).  The first part requires enormous amounts of thinking and seeks perfection as the ultimate goal — i.e. a scientist wants to measure things to the n-th degree.

But communication is the opposite.  It needs to be human, alive and visceral.  Thinking fouls it up.

The same is true when it comes to training, as we have learned.

 

“STOP THINKING AND DO THE WORK!”

It’s been 25 years now since my crazy acting class.  I’ve forgotten major parts of it.  But a couple months ago, a friend reminded me what the crazy acting teacher used to shout at us, night after night — “Stop f-ing thinking and DO THE WORK!”

The cause of her frustration was watching students, who were there to learn from her, fall into the habit of hearing her instructions, THINKING to themselves, “Let’s see, does what she says make sense to me?” then ending up hesitating, doing things wrong, and even criticizing her, even though they had no background in acting. 

Her training program was at its core very simple — it just required that everyone do the simple exercises the right way, over and over and over again.  Which is exactly the same principle I built our Story Circles Narrative Training on.

And so now, all these years later, I find myself wanting to channel her voice.  We work with academics.  Some groups — like National Park Service, USDA, USGS, and US Fish and Wildlife Service — do an incredibly good job of exactly what she always asked for — trusting us, listening as close as possible, then doing the simple exercises as best as possible.  With time — with repetition — they begin to develop the very “narrative intuition” that is the goal of the training (we’re getting ready to release our first survey of graduates).

But there are some institutions where the participants are not able to get “out of their heads.”  They can’t seem to stop themselves from constantly thinking, “Does this make sense — is this the way I would do this — is there a better way to do it that I should recommend to them?”

Those groups are sad to watch.  They make a mess out of the training, learning little, then hand us back a stack of critical comments based on how they would do the training — even though they are not good at narrative.  It was the same problem that drove the acting teacher crazy.  I now feel her pain.

So I guess sometimes I wish I could just bring Gene Cousineau to our training sessions.  He would know exactly what to say to them.  “Don’t think — just do the work.” 

FLASHBACK TO 15 YEARS AGO.  This was my one great morning I got to spend working with the wonderful Henry Winkler in the spring of 2003 in the filming of our Ocean Symphony PSA with Jack Black.  He was as awesome back then as he is today (also pictured: Madeline Stowe on violin, Michael Hitchcock behind her, Sharon Lawrence on kettle drums, and Mindy “Frau Farbissina” Sterling seated next to her).

#162) John Oliver on Shaming: He Cites, “Agreement, Contradiction, Consequence” (= ABT)

They are the three fundamental forces of narrative.   Last night John Oliver, talking about a specific case of social media shaming, said, “ … but, at some point, it’s incumbent on everyone to consider both CONTEXT and CONSEQUENCE if you’re going to pile on in a shaming.”  He’s talking about the ABT dynamic.  He’s addressing what happens if all you present is the CONTRADICTION — the “but.”  He grasps the ABT Framework.  It’s the same thing I pointed out about Twitter in 2015 — presenting only contradiction ends up being non-narrative and won’t work in the long run.  Such are the brainless inefficiencies of a short attention-spanned society.

JOHN OLIVER TALKS ABT AND SOCIAL MEDIA.

 

THE THREE FORCES OF NARRATIVE

When I finished, “Houston, We Have A Narrative,” in 2014 I had not yet figured out that the ABT elements (And, But, Therefore) are simply manifestations of what  I have come to call the Three Forces of Narrative.  The three forces are:

AGREEMENT –  And
CONTRADICTION  –  But
CONSEQUENCE  –  Therefore

In the second appendix of the Houston book I made the prediction that Twitter wouldn’t last long at 140 characters.

My reasoning for that was 140 characters was too short to allow all three forces, and instead was selecting for mostly the most attention-grabbing element — contradiction.  My prediction came true in 2017 when Twitter shifted to 280 characters.

 

PILING ON EFFECTIVELY IN A SHAMING

Last night John Oliver, on his often-brilliant HBO show Last Week, made the same point.  He was talking about internet shaming, and the specific case of “Worst Aunt Ever.”  He synthesized his thoughts by saying:

But, at some point, it’s incumbent on everyone to consider both CONTEXT and CONSEQUENCE if you’re going to pile on in a shaming.

Truly effective communication, to have a lasting impact and not produce a society of lemmings chasing one source of contradiction after another, needs to make time for all three elements.  This is the inefficient brainlessness of social media — it’s largely non-narrative.  You can’t do that and expect to communicate well.  Our brains need all three elements of narrative to make proper sense of things.  They were designed thousands of years ago and are still the rate-limiting element for communication.

#161) Trump Went Off-Script at CPAC and (Predictably) Scored a Narrative Index of 36

For the Narrative Index (BUTs/ANDs), most speakers score in the teens.   A few reach the 20’s.   A very few reach the 30’s.  Trump scores in the 30’s when he goes off script.  It directly reflects that he is an angry, aggressive, and frustrated man.  With a sufficient sample size (over 1,000 words) the frustration is revealed by the use of the word “but.”  And so, for his recent crazed CPAC speech (which was a staggering 16,000 words), as could have been easily predicted, he scored a 36.  In contrast, the most recent speeches by Bernie Sanders, Elisabeth Warren and Beto O’Rourke have scored, respectively, 18, 17 and 4.

CPAC ATTACK.  He spoke for two hours — over 16,000 words.  He’s a madman and a mad man, as revealed by the Narrative Index.

 

MADMEN AND THE NARRATIVE INDEX

The Narrative Index is the ratio of the words BUT to AND It’s amazingly consistent.  Definitely not precise (wouldn’t want to say there’s a real difference between someone who scores a 15 versus a 19), but definitely accurate (someone who scores double that of someone else is definitely drawing on the power of narrative).  Trump scores high when he’s not being constrained by speechwriters like Stephen Miller.  

Just think of a heated conversation — about that moment where the frustrated person shouts, “But, but, but …”  That’s basically what you’re looking at.  The word “but” is at the heart of narrative.  People who are in attack mode are forced to use it to make their arguments — “The establishment says this, BUT I say this …”

President Trump was in crazy attack mode at CPAC.  The Washington Post called it “unhinged,” the Atlantic called it, “bewildering.”  But … what they should actually be calling it is “narratively powerful for his base.”  That’s what the 36 shows.

 

PRESIDENT STRANGELOVE

You know who scored the highest Narrative Index that I’ve ever found in a political speech?  Who was the most pent-up, frustrated, vindicating-feeling president to ever be elected?  Here’s a hint — he was humiliated by the handsome Jack Kennedy in his previous effort.  He scored a stunning 47 in his first inaugural.  

He wins the award for most portentous opening statement of a political speech ever as he began with, “Each moment in history is a fleeting time, precious and unique. But some stand out as moments of beginning, in which courses are set that shape decades or centuries.”  Yeah, he shaped a few decades, big time.

I can tell you right now, assuming a smoking gun doesn’t emerge in the investigations of Trump, he is going to win re-election if the Democrats don’t find someone who can reach above a 30 for a Narrative Index score.  I called the last Trump victory, I’m calling the next one based on this.  

In a media society, it’s all about communication, which means narrative structure.    

#159) This is how the CONVERSATIONAL ABT works and why it’s important

Mythologist Joseph Campbell pointed out we are all telling the same basic stories, around the world, in all different cultures.  The CONVERSATIONAL ABT reveals this.

A STORY THAT EVEN A SHOE SALESMAN MIGHT RELATE TO.  The speaker is Bob Chen of University of Massachusetts, Boston, at the Ocean Sciences Meeting in Puerto Rico this week.

 

ABT THIS

My good friend and longtime ABT fan Bill Dennison at University of Maryland forwarded me the photo above from the Ocean Sciences Meeting right now in Puerto Rico.  Let’s take a look at this, using the CONVERSATIONAL ABT, which is one of the three forms of the ABT I outlined in, “Houston, We Have A Narrative.”

First off, imagine you’re talking to someone from Soul Man shoe corporation who tells you the following basic ABT for their company:

International shipping for Soul Man Shoes has suffered for years from inefficiency AND everyone has known the solution to the problem BUT for some reason no one has ever managed to implement it THEREFORE we are starting a new project that will study that solution and hopefully implement it.

For the Conversational ABT you strip out all that makes it compelling, making it as concise as possible, like this:

CONVERSATIONAL ABT:   We have a problem AND we know the solution, BUT we’re not implementing it, THEREFORE we’re starting a project to study it that will hopefully make it happen.

You can see that ABT says nothing about the world it is taking place in.  It’s totally generic.  It is the core STORY that is being told, devoid of context.  And you can feel it’s the sort of story anyone from anywhere might tell.

 

WE’RE ALL TELLING THE SAME STORIES

Now take a look at the ABT on the slide above.  It is the same story, told in the world of ocean science.  That speaker could have started with the exact same sentence as a speaker from Soul Man Shoes speaking at a corporate conference.

He could have opened his talk by saying, “I’m going to tell you today about a situation where we’ve got a problem, we know the solution, but we haven’t been able to implement the solution, so we’re now starting a project to study how to make it happen.”

That exact same text could open either presentation.  Two completely different worlds, connected through narrative structure.

The fact is, if someone from Soul Man Shoes happened to be in the audience for the ocean science talk — maybe just accompanying a scientist friend — that person would sit up and say, “Whoa, this sounds like the same thing my company is dealing with!”

That person would be instantly drawn into the presentation, even with zero interest in Boston Harbor.  That is the broad, universal power of story structure.

#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.