#145) Trump Still Knows Narrative: 5 Recommendations to Democrats

For more than 3 years I’ve been warning of Donald Trump’s communication skills from the perspective of the narrative tools I’ve developed.  He’s still doing the same things.

Not your typical politician.  Not really even a politician.  Trump comes, not from the world of politics, but entertainment.  It’s a problem.



Journalists and scientists actually have a lot in common.  Both are obsessed with seeking the truth.  Both are to be admired for feeling considerable social responsibility.  And both do not understand entertainment media.

In a 1999 speech that has become my North Star, scientist-turned-filmmaker Michael Crichton said simply, “Scientists don’t understand media.”  No one would have known better than he, given the depth of his knowledge of the two worlds of science and entertainment.

It’s pretty much true for journalists as well.  They have traditionally been mystified by the madness of Hollywood and mass entertainment.  

The most important and prescient quote in that Crichton speech was this, “The Information Society will be dominated by those who are skilled at manipulating the media.”  I can’t imagine a more accurate prediction of the emergence of a figure like Donald Trump — someone more from the entertainment world than the political world — 20 years ago. 

A few days after Trump’s victory, CNN posted a list of 24 reasons he wonbut the article showed no grasp of the Information Society perspective Crichton understood.  The entire article does not include the words “information” or “communication.”  They missed his central attribute — Trump Knows Narrative.



Media is about narrative.  It doesn’t tolerate material that is low in narrative content.  You can’t hold a press conference to read a telephone book and expect television to cover it.  It’s that simple.  And it means conversely, if you’re good at producing material with strong narrative content, the media will favor you. Comedians know this — if they bore or confuse they will die.

In the summer of 2015, after writing an entire book about narrative (“Houston, We Have A Narrative”) I began to notice how much Trump matched the narrative principles I had presented.   On January 5, 2016 I began my warnings that “Trump Knows Narrative” in detail — shortly after starting this blog.  

It was still months before Trump won the nomination.  In that first post I said, “The Democrats had better stop ridiculing him, stop making predictions that he could never win, and start understanding this thing called narrative that he has a mastery of.”  Ten months later, the morning after he won, I was the guest on the podcast, “The Business of Story.”  The title of my episode was, How Trump’s Narrative Intuition Beat Clinton and Put a Reality TV Actor in the White House.”    

Here now is an updated list of the top 5 ways in which you can see how, “Trump Knows Narrative,” continues to be true.  With each point I offer up my recommendation to the Democrats and their current candidates.



Here’s where it starts, and part of why I began my warnings about him in 2015.  He came out of the gates with a slogan (“Make America Great Again”) that was straight out of my ABT Framework and the ABT (And, But, Therefore narrative template).  

It was this:

Our country was once a great AND mighty nation, BUT we’ve slipped in the world, THEREFORE it’s time to Make America Great Again.

Democrats, lacking narrative intuition (as evidenced by their backing a candidate who had no clear narrative), could not see the power of that slogan — they could only think to ridicule it.  And that is still about all they can think to do when it comes to Trump.

What’s deeper about the slogan is that it also arises straight out of The Monomyth as articulated by Joseph Campbell.  The core principle of the Monomyth is that the hero embarks on a journey which has at its core one overriding desire which is to “Return to the Ordinary World AGAIN.”  

In 2015 as I initially saw the slogan I found myself feeling something familiar about that word “Again,” until I finally realized this connection.  He is basically drawing on “the power of myth” with the slogan.  Yes, that is how deep his narrative intuition goes.

RECOMMENDATION:  The Democrats need a slogan.  It’s that simple.  We live in a media society.  For mass dynamics, you can’t opt out.



One of the key observations that has emerged from our Story Circles Narrative Training — which is approaching our 50th circle — is the power of the Dobzhasky Template that I first introduced in “Houston, We Have A Narrative.”  This is my template for finding the “One Word” that is the narrative core of a topic.  

For Trump, it goes like this:

Nothing in America today makes sense, except in the light of GREATNESS.

That’s it.  That has been his message from the start and hasn’t changed one bit.  It pervades everything he says.  He is constantly hammering home this need for everyone.  He ends most speeches with it.

He doesn’t have any sort of analytical understanding of narrative.  He could never teach a course in it.  He only embodies it.

RECOMMENDATION:   Put the Dobzhansky Template to work.  It’s simple.  Nothing in _____ makes sense except in the light of _____ .   This is the tool to help you pinpoint your theme, and your theme is your message.



In the fall of 2015 I defined The Narrative Index as simply the ratio of the words BUT to AND in any given text.  I found that everyone from Abe Lincoln on the high end to George W. Bush on the low end shows consistent patterns in this simple metric.  

I’ve posted repeatedly about Trump’s high scores for the Narrative Index (here, here, here) and have talked about overall patterns of the Narrative Index for everyone who is yearning to lead society.  I also presented it in the 2nd edition of  “Don’t Be Such A Scientist” this spring.

RECOMMENDATION:   Track down the speeches of your favorite candidates and simply use your word processor to count the occurrence of BUT and AND, then calculate the ratio of the BUT to AND.  If it’s below 10, you’ve got a problem.  And while you’re at it, also calculate the AND Index, presented here.  If it’s over 3.0, you should be concerned, if it’s over 4.0 there’s definitely a problem.  Trump’s average for about 20 speeches was below 2.0.  Trump knows narrative.



Trump’s use of nicknames (Crooked Hillary, Lyin’ Ted, Pocahantas) is about mass communication, far more than bullying.  This is where you can see how journalists simply don’t understand entertainment.  The only context they seem to be able to view this issue in is bullying.  There’s a stunningly long list of these names on the Wikipedia page for them.

But it’s much deeper.  

These are simple, singular labels that cut through the noise of today’s information overloaded world.  All you have to do is read the 2012 bestseller “The One Thing” to see the significance of these nicknames.

From the start the Democrats have been completely confused by the names.  All they could think to do is chuckle and dismiss them as being just silly.  They aren’t silly.  They are powerful communications tools, identical to stereotypes.

And just two weeks ago I listened to Chris Matthews on his show “Hardball” on MSNBC chuckling dismissively about the latest label from Trump: the Failing New York Times.  

RECOMMENDATION:  Stop laughing.  And come up with one singular, simple, widely agreed upon and used insult name for Donald Trump.  Why hasn’t this happened?  Yes, lots of pundits have proposed their own names, but a hundred different names is no different than none.  The number you want is ONE and only ONE name for him.  Have the Democrats not wanted to hurt his feeling?  I just don’t get it.  Fight fire with fire, and do it fiercely.



Here is Trump’s ultimate tactic, straight out of narrative tradition — the omniscient narrator.  It’s what mass audiences seek — not someone who “has the courage to say they don’t know,” but rather someone who is willing to emulate what you get in a good novel — the all-knowing narrator.

Yes, it’s that simple.  We crave certainty, he’s willing to provide it, even if it’s a pack of lies.

Trump knows narrative.

RECOMMENDATION:   Find the things you’re certain of for the Democratic party and lead with them.  It’s what I’ve said for years.  “An Inconvenient Truth,” should have opened with the incredible things climate science has brought us that we can be certain of (i.e. El Nino, fixing the Ozone Hole).  You don’t lead with statements about what might happen in the future that you’re uncertain of.  You open with what we can all agree upon, and you milk it for all its worth.

And while they’re at it on the confidence front, why don’t the Democratic members of congress confidently make the case for prohibiting the president from using Twitter.  He’s the most important diplomatic voice in the country, why can’t the people control him?  Desperate times call for desperate measures.   Innovations in technology call for innovations in legislature.  

#144) “Buried Pearls”: 43 years later, why is OBFUSCATION still the central problem of science communication?

In 1975 Michael Crichton published an elegant short paper pointing to obfuscation as “the problem” for medical communication.  His essay was equally valid for the communication of science in general.  He ended by mentioning that so much important communication ends up as “buried pearls.”   Sadly Crichton’s great little paper ended up itself as a buried pearl.

Do evolutionists have a t-shirt with a slogan on it?  Yes we do!



What happened?   How was it that the core problem of science communication was so clearly identified and articulated in 1975, but then quickly lost to the dustbin of non-citation?

I invite you to read this simple, elegant paper by techno-thriller author and eventual Hollywood giant Michael Crichton, written in his last months in the academic world.  He was a postdoctoral fellow at the Salk Institute, though by then he was more of a creative writer than scientific researcher, which obviously caused him to start asking, “Why are these scientific papers so hard to read?”

It’s a great article.  Why wasn’t I told about it as a graduate student in biology?  Why didn’t I hear about it in the 1980’s as science communication first emerged as a major concern (I remember when NSF first starting requiring 10% of grant proposal budgets go to outreach)?  Why didn’t someone write to me after any of my 3 books on science communication and tell me about it?   Why does Google Scholar show that it has only been cited 83 times over the four decades since its publication?



In the discussion of the paper, Crichton points out that, “Only in the twentieth century has obfuscation become widely acceptable.”  That parallels my relating in, “Don’t Be Such A Scientist,” historian of science Naomi Oreskes telling me about how a century ago scientists had to be good with communication in order to even raise the funds needed to do science.  

But the twentieth century saw the rise of the science industrial complex which produced a new breed of scientist — nurtured in the laboratory, funded without communication skills, sheltered from the public, and admired for the mysteriousness of scientific knowledge.  Obfuscation became an accepted practice and only continues to get worse.

Meanwhile, the problem of obfuscation continues to be rediscovered in essays like this one from 2015, which at least concedes, “The idea that writing should be clear, concise, and low-jargon isn’t a new one.”



It’s always fun to have some laughs at the hopelessness of academic communication.  Slate reveled in this presentation of the Ignobel awards where they have a young girl come out on the stage and shout, “Please stop. I’m bored.” repeatedly for anyone who goes on for more than a minute.  

For my documentary feature film, “Flock of Dodos,” I staged a comic debate between the world’s slimiest intelligent design proponent and the world’s angriest evolutionist.  It culminated in them revealing their t-shirts emblazoned with their slogans.  The screen grab above shows the evolutionist reading his “slogan.”

Plenty to laugh about, but then we end up with the New York Times handing over 24,000 words and an entire issue of their Sunday magazine titled, “Losing Earth,” for a junior writer to tell a tale of scientific heroism that leaves out the entire element of science communication ineptitude.  The writer, Nathaniel Rich, told of James Hansen and Rafe Pomerance as climate warriors ahead of their times, but what he should have mentioned was the Crichton 1975 paper pointing out what verbose clods scientists were and continue to be when it comes to getting their own message out.  To celebrate scientists back then over their climate efforts is like praising a football team that has excellent offense but no defense.  They weren’t the whole package — that point needs to be kept in mind, Mr. Rich — and that is the real story to be told.

Nothing has changed.  Just two days ago Al Gore (who isn’t a scientist, but emerged in 2006 as the lead spokesperson FOR the climate science community) went on for over TWO HOURS in his climate “training” session in Los Angeles prompting a friend in the audience to text me the following message:

Gore gave a 2+ hour version of his presentation. And the more I think about it, the more I’m surprised that with all of the people surrounding him, all of the production, team, experts, etc, no one has tried to shape his presentation more, or make it less one dimensional….it was literally one hour of slides showing floods, fires, and droughts. Not kidding. I started fidgeting and getting frustrated and thinking WTF??? We’re here because we’re already on board, JEEZ know your audience!!!

To quote the old Peter, Paul and Mary song, “When will they ever learn?  When will they evvvvvvver learn?”

In the meanwhile, Crichton pinpointed the problem in 1975 — obfuscation.  The ABT Framework is the solution, and here’s a simple, elegant new presentation of it by Tullio Rossi.   

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

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


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



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

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

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

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



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


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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#141) Top 5 Benefits from Story Circles Narrative Training

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

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

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



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

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



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

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



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

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

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



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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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


#140) The MJ Hegar Political Video: Democrats Like Non-Narrative Structure

I’m definitely cheering for Texas political candidate MJ Hegar, but her new video is not “a masterpiece of storytelling.”  Sorry.   Warning, this particular blogpost is not for blind worshippers of the Democratic party — it’s for people who want to improve the success of the party.  It’s not for people who felt Al Gore’s movie was a masterpiece.  This is for people who want to learn something about how narrative/story structure does and does not work.  The viral video by Texas political candidate MJ Hegar was forwarded to me last week by five people — all basically saying the same thing — “This is a masterpiece of storytelling … RIGHT?”  Sorry, but it’s not.  It’s an example of reasonably good “singularity of metaphor” and non-narrative structure, but not overall storytelling.  Which doesn’t mean it’s not a good piece of media — it’s just not a masterpiece.  Understanding why is a useful exercise.

DOOR TO DOOR SERVICE:  A fun video, but missing a clear over-arching narrative.



Great video, lots of fun, and strong because it has a singular visual metaphor of “doors” that it repeats.  If you read the bestselling 2012 book,“The One Thing,” you’ll appreciate the importance of having your content be about one thing.  So it’s singular in those terms.

But …

What’s the core narrative?

–  Discrimination against women?

–  The fight against corrupt politics?

–  The need to defeat Tea Party candidates?

If it’s about the need for more women candidates, then it should have begun by addressing that issue — why it’s important to have plenty of women politicians, what the consequences are of not having enough women politicians, how bad the problem is today.

Or if it’s about corrupt politicians, it should have begun with that — how bad things are today, how much money is lost due to corruption, how many scandals have plagued politics lately.

Once the problem is established, then it would be time to lead us on an (ideally emotional) journey to the solution, meaning this political candidate.



Don’t take my word on this stuff — read the powerful and short articles by Nicholas Kristof (“Nicholas Kristof Saves the World” in Outside Magazine in 2009) and Dave Gold (“Data Driven Campaigns are Killing the Democratic Party” in Politico last year).

Nicholas Kristof tells you about the cost of changing a story about one little girl suffering in a village to just two little girls.  Just that tiny change — going from the singular to the dual — which you’d think would make it more compelling because there’s more people involved — actually dilutes the narrative, making it weaker.

Dave Gold offers up the simple metaphor of a Christmas tree as the central narrative with everything else being ornaments.  These elements are where the Hegar video does not have a good grasp on narrative structure.

It could have been built around the question of, “How are we going to get women through THE DOOR of the Capitol building?”  or could have posed the question of, “How are we going to throw corrupt politicians out THE DOOR of the Capitol Building?”  One or the other.  And THEN, after setting up the question in the context of “a door,” it could have cut to the helicopter door with her saying, “I know a few things about doors …”



For over a decade I’ve tried to explain (with endless apologies) how the 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth,” did not tell “a good story” and thus, in the long run, was not the piece of persuasive media that the climate movement needed.  I did it in all three of my books.

Most of my words fell on deaf ears.  If you don’t understand story structure, you’re not going to understand a critique based on story structure.  But the sad bottom line is that almost nobody wants to watch that movie today, a decade later — it didn’t stand the test of time (and the 2.0 version in 2016 flopped).

Neither Gore’s movie nor Hegar’s political video lay out a clear three act-structured problem/solution dynamic to take us on a journey of exploration/solution.  Both are focused, first and foremost, on the person, rather than the issue.

In the end, both are very impressive resumes of accomplishments, but a resume is rarely a story — it’s more like a laundry list — which is NON-NARRATIVE (as defined by the neuroscientists Sanford and Emmott in their 2013 book, “Mind, Brain and Narrative”).

Effective use of narrative structure is all about context — meaning set up — meaning the AND part of the ABT triad.  Starting with the helicopter door is certainly attention grabbing, but you’ve skipped the set up and thus the context.



This is such a common mistake of Democrats/the left wing/the highly educated.  It’s the mistake of starting with the solution, which is what this video does.  Before it gives us a chance to connect with a serious problem for which Ms Hegar is the solution, it begins with the solution — Ms Hegar.  It opens by presenting a series of her accomplishments (combat heroism, surviving domestic abuse, professional accomplishments, overcoming gender discrimination) before it identifies the problem that everyone can agree upon.

I’ve watched this happen for decades with the environmental movement — smart people, deep in their fox holes coming up with brilliant solutions that they present to an audience that they just assume knows what the problem is.  I gave an entire talk on it in 2010 titled, “Dude, Where’s My Climate Movement” for the WWF 50th Anniversary that a lot of people didn’t appreciate.

It’s exactly what the climate movement did, post-Gore movie, by presenting their cap and trade solution to climate change to a country that did not yet feel there was a problem worth acting on.  Hundreds of millions of dollars were squandered on that failed effort (as itemized bravely by Matt Nisbet in his “Climate Shift” report), which I view as primarily a failure to grasp the narrative dynamics at work.

In the end, this stuff is ALL about the problem/solution divide.  Tell us the problem in simple terms, then offer up your solution — namely the candidate.  That’s not the structure of this video.

Which means in the end, it’s a fun piece of “preaching to the choir” — just as Al Gore’s movie was good for uniting everyone on the same team.  But don’t confuse it with the eternal and boundless power of storytelling.  Telling an engaging story has the ability to tap into irrational forces that can override logic.  This video is a great presentation of an amazing resume, but it’s largely non-narrative and thus not a great piece of storytelling.



If you want to get more technical about it, below is my ABT analysis of the script of the video.  Take a look at the color coding.  You can see 7 ABT cycles.

1ST ABT –  Combat door
2ND ABT – Domestic abuse
3RD ABT – Military gender discrimination 1
4TH ABT – Military gender discrimination 2
5TH ABT – Military gender discrimination 3
6TH ABT –  Crooked politics
7TH ABT –  Republicans must go

These “narrative loops” are why it feels like good storytelling.  And it is on the fine scale.  But on the larger scale, which is essential for long term impact, it’s lacking the overall clear and singular ABT structure.

In contrast, look at the amazing speech Oprah gave earlier this year at the Golden Globes.  The NY Times called it “a story about stories.” And there’s your difference.

Oprah’s speech was “a story of stories,” Hager’s video is “a list of stories.”  

Oprah’s over-arching ABT was clear and simple — that women and minorities are on a journey BUT have not yet reached the designation, THEREFORE we must keep at it.  It was the same ABT as Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.  Both of them used their first paragraph to lay out the over-arching ABT.

Hager opened with the helicopter door, basically cutting right to the chase.  Plus there was never any clear interpretation of the combat experience — anything like, “nearly losing my life that day caused me to realize women are willing to make the same risk for their country — their lives — as men, yet are not given equal treatment by the country.”  That could have been the over-arching ABT that connects with the combat experience, but it wasn’t in there.

So I don’t want to diminish the power of the video — it’s already scored well over a million views on Youtube (unfortunately, too late to be in Joe Romm’s great new book on “How to Go Viral”) and is far better than most political ads, but when Daily Kos says it might be “THE BEST we’ve ever seen” they’re just showing a lack of understanding of narrative structure.

And that’s been the Achilles Heel of the Democratic party for a long time now.



To see the narrative structure more clearly, here’s the entire script of the Hegar video, assigning each piece to the three fundamental forces of narrative:


“This is a story about doors — a lot of them — and that’s me, I’m Jane Hegar — an air force combat veteran and a mom — this door behind me is from my helicopter, and all that’s left of the aircraft I was flying that day.

I was on a rescue mission in Afghanistan as a combat search and rescue pilot I heard the windshield crack and realized I’d been shotbut continued the mission and airlifted the patients out.  After taking even more fire, we crashed a few miles away.

But my story begins much earlier.  One of my first childhood memories was of a door, but it was my dad, throwing my mom through a glass door.Three years later, mom got the courage to walk out the door, and she opened a new one for my sister and me, here in Texas.  And it was here that I put my foot on the gas and followed my dream to be a pilot And that meant opening, pushing — sometimes kicking through every door that was in my way.

I signed up for ROTC at U.T., and then I was commissioned as an officer in the air force.  I served five years in aircraft maintenance, working on the F-16 and the B-2.  I managed to get one of only a handful of slots for flight school, then I spent a year training to fly.  I flew water drops over wildfires in California, and eventually served three tours in Afghanistan.  And then, the crash.

Two army helicopters rescued us from the wreckage.  I strapped myself to the skids and returned fire on the Taliban, while we flew to safety.  That got me a purple heart, and I became only the second woman awarded the distinguished flying cross with valor.

But after that, the door closed.  Injured and unable to fly, I was barred from my next career choice because I was a woman.  So I came home.  Iworked in healthcare and business.  I got married and started my family.    WAIT — barred because I was a woman?   That’s ridiculous.  SO (THEREFORE) I sued the Pentagon — not just about that job — about the ban on women serving in all ground combat jobs

AND I went to DC to lobby congressBUT door after door was slammed in my face — I heard things like, “My boss agree with you, but you aren’t in a position to do anything for him,” “You’re not one of our donors,” — (implied BUT I kept working)  THEREFORE:  well, eventually —

PANETTA CLIP:  We are eliminating the direct combat exclusion rule for women”

We won, and that opened the door for hundreds of thousands of women to compete for elite ground combat jobs — a major victory for our military.

Hold on — back up a minute — not one of his donors?  That’s not how this is supposed to work.

One of those closed doors was my congressman, Tea Party Republican John Carter — apparently being one of his constituents and a veteran wasn’t enough to get a meeting — I guess I also needed to be a donor — SO (THEREFORE) now I’m running against him — taking on a system that cares more about campaign donors and political parties than protecting our country.

Congressman Carter hasn’t had a tough race his whole career, SO — “  “We’ll show him tough, then we’ll show him the door.

#139) Power of the Singular Narrative: Ornithologist Filardi Pays the Price

American cats kill 4 billion birds a year, yet an ornithologist, in his scientific research to preserve a species, kills one tropical bird that’s less than a thousandth of its population and people want blood.  The singular narrative is a great thing when the mob goes after the killer of Cecil the Lion, but not so great when they turn their focus on a well meaning scientist.




Yesterday the NY Times had a rather sad story about the level of internet vigilante-ism seen these days thanks to social media.  It was about ornithologist Christopher Filardi who did what field biologists have done for centuries — he “collected” a specimen.

But by the time he had come down from the mountains, the AMNH had innocently tweeted out a photo of the “sacrificed” bird (always loved how that word was used in scientific methods), mentioning he had killed it in the name of science.  That was all it took to unleash the fury of the internet.  He ended up the target of something similar to the Michigan dentist who killed Cecil the Lion (not in the name of science).



There’s a whole discussion to be had about whether nature should be killed in the name of science any more, but what interests me is the power and drama of the clean, singular narrative.  It’s fascinating because science loves big numbers and large data sets.

And yet, as Nicholas Kristof pointed out in his brilliantly concise 2009 article in “Outside” magazine (that I have used for years in workshops) storytelling is at its strongest when there’s just a single character — especially when it comes to the villain.

The Filardi article pointed out the millions of birds killed by millions of faceless villains (domestic cats) and nearly a billion birds crash into buildings each year.  But all those numbers are meaningless up against the drama of the one seemingly oblivious scientist slaughtering nature with apparently no concerns for the creatures themselves.

It might be hard to process, but had the bird been killed by a team of five biologists the rage wouldn’t have been as powerful as it was for just the one poor nature loving scientist.  And this ends up being one of the toughest challenges for science-minded people when it comes to communication — the idea that more is not more when it comes to drama — it’s less.

#138) AUDIO: A Great Discussion of Story Circles Narrative Training with Government Agencies

Want to hear from a few graduates of Story Circles Narrative Training?  On Monday we held an hour conference call with folks from three government agencies — all graduates of Story Circles.  They range from a scientist (Mike Strauss, formerly of USDA) to a communicator with a science background (Michael Bart of National Park Service) to a communicator with no science background (Heidi Koontz of USGS).  It’s an insightful discussion.  And gratifying.

WARNING:  There’s a bunch of beeps at the start from people joining the call, but they stop after a few minutes.



On Monday the USFWS folks in Portland hosted this conference call in preparation for the Demo Day we’ll be doing with them this fall.  I moderated the discussion involving three veterans of Story Circles as a large group listened in.  Each of them spoke for 10 minutes, providing specifics on how Story Circles has worked at their agencies.

Of particular note is Heidi Koontz of USGS in Ft Collins, Colorado.  She’s a communicator, not a scientist, and head of communication for the Central States Region.   She tells of how, as a long time veteran communicator, she wondered if the training might be superfluous — that she already knows it all from her years of experience.  She says it proved hugely valuable.

I’ve had Heidi speak at several of our Demo Days because of this.  She tells of how the other four members of her circle were scientists, causing her to groan at first.  But by the end, the four scientists had become such a valuable resource for her that she now uses them constantly for editorial input as they now have a language in common — the language of the ABT Framework.

It’s a great discussion.

#137) Bernie Sanders Makes Clear Why the Democrats are Doomed

My heart is with Bernie Sanders, but my head says he (and the Democratic party) are doomed.  When asked on Friday evening on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher about “the message” of the Democratic party he didn’t have a good answer.  Until they figure out how narrative works, they are doomed.




Trump knows narrative.  That was the title of my draft editorial that the publicist for my Houston, We Have A Narrative book submitted to a large number of newspapers in the fall of 2015 as everyone was busy laughing at Donald Trump.  It was turned down everywhere — they already knew Trump didn’t stand a chance at the presidency.  I was left telling about the Trump/Narrative theme the morning after the election on “The Business of Story” podcast.

Two weeks ago on “Meet the Press” (May 27), Chuck Todd said, “… as President Trump showed once again how skilled he is at shaping a false narrative to his advantage.”  He’s talking about “shaping narrative.”  That’s what Trump knows how to do.  And the Democrats don’t.

What can be said about this?  The Democrats are utterly, utterly inept at mass messaging, which means narrative.  Here’s yet another article, just last week, with the same old headline of the Democrats, “need to have a message.”  Over and over and over again it’s being said to them.

My Democratic strategist friend Dave Gold had an excellent article in Politico last year laying it out clear as day — that Democrats are too much in love with polls and data, and too clueless about story/narrative.

It’s now at crisis stage.



Hillary’s campaign, sadly, showed that they were both inept at messaging and uninterested in working on it.  The former was displayed by the candidate herself on May 22, 2016 with this exchange on Meet the Press:

CHUCK TODD:  Bernie Sanders has been talking about a political revolution. A future you can believe in. Obviously, Donald Trump with the Make America Great again, is one of these slogans that has taken off, for better or for worse. If you could sum up, what is the big idea of your candidacy?

SEC. HILLARY CLINTON:  Look, we are stronger together. We are stronger together, in facing our internal challenges and our external ones. We are stronger together if we work to improve the economy. And that’s going to mean trying to get the Republicans to do what will actually help produce more jobs, like we saw in the 1990s. We are stronger together when we have a bipartisan, even nonpartisan foreign policy that protects our country. And that provides a kind of steady, strong, smart leadership that the rest of the world expects from us.

I ended up seeing for myself how disinterested in messaging the Clinton campaign folks were when James Carville pulled all his strings (which were plenty) to try and get them to at least try working with my ABT Narrative Template, which I told about last year here.  

That was sad, but Bernie is no better.



Look at this exchange last Friday evening.  Bill Maher asked Bernie VERBATIM for “something that would fit on a hat.”  Why couldn’t he answer him with a 4 word slogan?  Donald Trump would have.

BILL MAHER:  … BUT an agenda is not a message.  They are different.  Trump is better at messaging.  His voters don’t care about an agenda except build a wall, lock her up.  What’s the Democrats message?  If you had to boil it down to something that would fit on a hat, which is about all that people can take in at this point — what’s the Democrat’s message?

BERNIE SANDERS:   The Democrat’s message is that we need a government that represents working families not billionaires.  (APPLAUSE)   An agenda that says health care is a right not a privilege.  An agenda that speaks to the young people that says that we should make colleges and universities tuition free and lower debt.

Where was the slogan that fits on a hat?  This is not silliness. Every facet of this country is now suffering the consequences of Donald Trump’s narrative skills.   How bad does it have to get until the Democrats admit they have a fundamental problem with narrative in today’s information-glutted world?

Look at this quote from last week:  Don Baer, White House Communications Director for President Bill Clinton, used to say that Democrats were really good at “coming up with 100 reasons to do something…but never just one.”

There’s your problem.  It’s called “the singular narrative.”  Trump eats it for breakfast as Democrats continue to argue back, “Well, it’s not that simple.”  Yes, it has to be, or there’s no hope for you.



Last week Dr. Tullio Rossi of Australia posted this wonderful cartoon version of my ABT Narrative Template which so far has gotten several hundred retweets on Twitter.

It’s all so sad when looked at in terms of the presidential election.  Plain as day — Hillary was the left column in this graphic, Trump was the right column.  I showed it quantitatively over and over again using the ABT Framework.  I tried to show during the campaign how Hillary’s speeches were overflowing with the word “AND.”

The rest is Trumpian history.  Yes, it continues to be that simple.  This is a battle that the over-educated are simply not equipped to handle.  I started warning of this problem in 2009 with the first edition of, “Don’t Be Such A Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style.”  It’s incredibly frustrating to watch them continue to spin so aimlessly.  And with no signs of change ahead.

The Democrats are doomed.

#136) Complexity Kills: How to Over-Complicate the Teaching of Story

Last week my good friend Park Howell, host of the popular podcast, The Business of Story” presented an excellent webinar titled, “Your So-called Storytelling is Killing Your Brand.”  I have talked for years about the stampede of well intentioned zealots for “the power of storytelling” who appear to have minimal ability to actually tell a story, yet dazzle audiences by presenting the complexity of story analysis drawn from books about story structure.  I like to think of it as trying to teach football to little league players using the playbook of the New England Patriots.  You can do it, all the parents will brag about how their kid is using such a sophisticated playbook, but is it really going to work if the kids don’t even know how to throw a decent pass or kick the ball properly?  This really needs to stop.  Please, start with the ABT before you dive into all the exciting complex stuff.  It’s what we do in Story Circles Narrative Training.  Start with the simple.  You need to build INTUITION first. 

THIS FEEDS STORYPHOBIA.  The top diagram shows something called “story spirals.”  Why?  There’s already enough scientists who are suspicious and dismissive of story dynamics in science without confusing them with excessive complexity.  The ABT is the simple pathway to gaining an initial understanding of the narrative underpinnings of science and drama.  Start with the simple.  Please.



I’m sorry to have to single out one person, but a specific example is needed to make this point.  I’m sure that Anna Clemens has the best of intentions in writing this essay about telling a story in your scientific paper.  But the problem is you really do confuse and lose a lot of people by diving so quickly into the complexity of “plot spirals” (how have I spent 30 years in and around Hollywood and not once heard this term?).

Narrative is very, very, very challenging.  This is what I learned long ago in film school where I studied with one of the great legends of script structural analysis, Frank Daniel.

We know this well in our Story Circles Narrative Training program.  As a result, we hold off to the end of each hour session for the discussion and implementation of the full story templates of the Story Cycle (as developed by Park Howell, derived from the work of Joseph Campbell, Jonah Sach’s book, Winning the Story Wars” and other sources) and the Logline Maker (as developed by Dorie Barton and presented in our bookConnection, and derived from Blake Snyder’s book, Save the Cat).

Last week Park Howell presented a great webinar in which he told of how in his workshops he uses the ABT as the simple, intuitive, entry point for eventually crafting a more complex narrative using those templates.  Everyone interested in the use of story structure for their communication should listen to his webinar.

All of these people wanting to popularize the use of story dynamics in science communication need to realize it’s best to start with the simple before progressing to the complex.  It’s that simple.  It really is.  We’ve been watching it for 4 years now in the development of Story Circles.  And you can see the strength of it in this approach in the new video we’ve produced with the National Park Service folks in Colorado


THE NATIONAL PARK SERVICE IN COLORADO STORY CIRCLES.  Last week we posted this short video with three of the participants of the 6 concurrent Story Circles recently concluded by the National Park Service staff in Colorado.



Paul Zak (cited in the Clemens article) and his oxytocin storytelling has been discredited by Ed Yong in The Atlantic and ridiculed by John Oliver on his HBO show.  Is there really no consequence for having that happen?