#123) A Case Study of Poor Science Communication: R. Alexander Pyron’s Cuckoo Washington Post Extinction Editorial

There was a big kerfuffle last week over a Washington Post editorial by a young scientist who seemed to be arguing that extinction is no big deal. The essay inflamed the conservation biology community, producing nearly 4,000 comments in just a couple days. But before attacking the author, everyone should ask who is in charge of editing editorials at WaPo that they would publish such an overly long rambling mess? Using the basic narrative analysis technique I’ve developed, let’s take a look at how it was so poorly communicated that the author felt the need to post on his personal website an equally lengthy explanation of what he meant to say, which really only muddled it further. Whenever you have to issue a second, “What I meant to say,” statement, it means you didn’t communicate well.

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Okay, first question — since when does someone get nearly 2,000 words (1,844 to be precise) in the Washington Post to talk about extinction? Even the hottest of hot button social issues usually get only about 1,000 words or less. The New York Times, in their OpEd guidelines says, “Articles typically run from 400 to 1,200 words.”

This is the kind of stuff that makes people hate the mainstream media. It’s generally assumed that you need to have a really, really important point to justify an editorial, and that it needs to be stated clearly and CONCISELY. But then they go and print a train wreck like this?

Suffice it to say there was a firestorm of outrage over this “shootin’ from the hip” editorial. And then the author felt so misunderstood he posted his own “clarification” on his website. This is what you get with poor narrative structure.


Below you can see I’ve applied my Narrative Analysis technique to look at the overall structure of the essay. This helps you see what a logical mess it is.

Narrative Analysis involves identifying each sentence or section according to the three fundamental forces of narrative: Agreement (BLUE), Contradiction (RED), Consequence (GREEN). Great speeches and arguments do a good job of grouping these elements together and sticking to a single, clear over-arching problem to be addressed. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s is about “we were made a promise” (agreement), a century later it hasn’t been fulfilled (contradiction), so we’re gathered here today to continue the effort (consequence). You see this pattern repeated twice at the start of his speech, then in longer form for the rest of the speech.

The Gettysburg Address from Abraham Lincoln has even simpler 3 part structure. That speech is only three paragraphs, each being the respective elements. This clarity of narrative structure is the hallmark of cogent argumentation, straight out of Jerry Graff’s 2 million copy-selling textbook for the humanities, “They Say, I Say.”


So let me restate this guy’s argument in more conversational style. If he were at a cocktail party, here’s roughly what he would be saying in one paragraph.

“Okay, the problem with extinction is we can’t even be sure a species is extinct. No, wait, what I mean is that extinctions, when they happen, are trivial. And this leads to people wanting to preserve species out of blind knee jerk impulse. But saving species is trivial, because extinction is not a moral issue, it’s about how we don’t want to see anything change, but that’s pointless because things have been much worse in the past. And so the real problem is, how will we live between extinctions?”

Here’s how I derived this paragraph — by compiling all the “statements of contradiction” in his rambling discourse — meaning all the parts in red. This stuff is a little bit subjective — you might identify a few bits differently — but the general pattern is undeniable. Here’s what I got for the “statements of contradiction”:

1 EXTINCTION – Inaccuracy of extinction statements
2 EXTINCTION – Extinctions are trivia
3 EXTINCTION – Preservation is knee-jerk impulse
4 EXTINCTION – Saving species is biologically trivial
5 EXTINCTION – Extinction is not a moral issue
6 CLIMATE – We want to prevent change
7 CLIMATE – Climate has been much worse
8 EXTINCTION – But how will we live

In our Story Circles Narrative Training program we would call this classic DHY format, which stands for “Despite, However, Yet.” That means you’ve got multiple narrative threads at work in a manner so confusing that we’re on a wild goose chase going after one point after another.


So the author was young and inexperienced, as evidenced by his second effort to clarify what he said. But the more important question to ask is who in the world approved this editorial mess?

The author was so confused he ended up saying this on his website, “In the brief space of 1,900 words, I failed to make my views sufficiently clear and coherent,”

My good man, 1,900 words is not “brief” when it comes to editorials. I published an LA Times OpEd in 2002 on shifting baselines syndrome that was reprinted in three textbooks that was just over 1,000 words and probably could have stood to have been a little less. You, sir, were given an encyclopedia’s-worth of space to make your argument.


I want to thank my good friend Gary Bucciarelli of UCLA for bringing this whole brouhaha to my attention. It’s an excellent example of why narrative structure is so important. Had this fellow run through our Story Circles Narrative Training program he would have known to start with the Dobzhansky and ABT templates in crafting his over-arching argument. He would have shaped it around the singular problem-solution narrative spine, and he would have brought it full circle at the end, instead of ending with … a question?

All of that would have obviated the need for his secondary “What I meant to say” essay. Here’s the overall breakdown. You can see just at a glance what a mess it was. Which again leads back to the editor, assuming there even was one.


The text is color coded according to the three forces of narrative: Agreement (BLUE), Contradiction (RED), Consequence (GREEN).

Near midnight, during an expedition to southwestern Ecuador in December 2013, I spotted a small green frog asleep on a leaf, near a stream by the side of the road. It was Atelopus balios , the Rio Pescado stubfoot toad. Although a lone male had been spotted in 2011, no populations had been found since 1995, and it was thought to be extinct. But here it was, raised from the dead like Lazarus. My colleagues and I found several more that night, males and females, and shipped them to an amphibian ark in Quito, where they are now breeding safely in captivity.But they will go extinct one day, and the world will be none the poorer for it. Eventually, they will be replaced by a dozen or a hundred new species that evolve later.

Mass extinctions periodically wipe out up to 95 percent of all species in one fell swoop; these come every 50 million to 100 million years, and scientists agree that we are now in the middle of the sixth such extinction, this one caused primarily by humans and our effects on animal habitats. It is an “immense and hidden” tragedy to see creatures pushed out of existence by humans, lamented the Harvard entomologist E.O. Wilson, who coined the term “biodiversity” in 1985. A joint paper by several prominent researchers published by the National Academy of Sciences called it a “biological annihilation.” Pope Francis imbues the biodiversity crisis with a moral imperative (“Each creature has its own purpose,” he said in 2015), and biologists often cite an ecological one (we must avert “a dramatic decay of biodiversity and the subsequent loss of ecosystem services,” several wrote in a paper for Science Advances). “What is Conservation Biology?,” a foundational text for the field, written by Michael Soulé of the University of California at Santa Cruz, says, “Diversity of organisms is good . . . the untimely extinction of populations and species is bad . . . [and] biotic diversity has intrinsic value.” In her book “The Sixth Extinction ,” journalist Elizabeth Kolbert captures the panic all this has induced: “Such is the pain the loss of a single species causes that we’re willing to perform ultrasounds on rhinos and handjobs on crows.”

But the impulse to conserve for conservation’s sake has taken on an unthinking, unsupported, unnecessary urgency.Extinction is the engine of evolution, the mechanism by which natural selection prunes the poorly adapted and allows the hardiest to flourish. Species constantly go extinct, and every species that is alive today will one day follow suit. There is no such thing as an “endangered species,” except for all species. The only reason we should conserve biodiversity is for ourselves, to create a stable future for human beings. Yes, we have altered the environment and, in doing so, hurt other species. This seems artificial because we, unlike other life forms, use sentience and agriculture and industry.But we are a part of the biosphere just like every other creature, and our actions are just as volitional, their consequences just as natural. Conserving a species we have helped to kill off, but on which we are not directly dependent, serves to discharge our own guilt, but little else.

Climate scientists worry about how we’ve altered our planet, and they have good reasons for apprehension: Will we be able to feed ourselves? Will our water supplies dry up? Will our homes wash away? But unlike those concerns, extinction does not carry moral significance, even when we have caused it.And unless we somehow destroy every living cell on Earth, the sixth extinction will be followed by a recovery, and later a seventh extinction, and so on.Yet we are obsessed with reviving the status quo ante.The Paris Accords aim to hold the temperature to under two degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels,even though the temperature has been at least eight degrees Celsius warmer within the past 65 million years. Twenty-one thousand years ago, Boston was under an ice sheet a kilometer thick. We are near all-time lows for temperature and sea level ;whatever effort we make to maintain the current climate will eventually be overrun by the inexorable forces of space and geology. Our concern, in other words, should not be protecting the animal kingdom, which will be just fine. Within a few million years of the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, the post-apocalyptic void had been filled by an explosion of diversity — modern mammals, birds and amphibians of all shapes and sizes.

This is how evolution proceeds: through extinction. The inevitability of death is the only constant in life, and 99.9 percent of all species that have ever lived, as many as 50 billion, have already gone extinct. In 50 million years, Europe will collide with Africa and form a new supercontinent, destroying species (think of birds, fish and anything vulnerable to invasive life forms from another landmass) by irrevocably altering their habitats. Extinctions of individual species, entire lineages and even complete ecosystems are common occurrences in the history of life. The world is no better or worse for the absence of saber-toothed tigers and dodo birds and our Neanderthal cousins, who died off as Homo sapiens evolved. (According to some studies, it’s not even clear that biodiversity is suffering. The authors of another recent National Academy of Sciences paper point out that species richness has shown no net decline among plants over 100 years across 16,000 sites examined around the world.)Conserving biodiversity should not be an end in itself;diversity can even be hazardous to human health. Infectious diseases are most prevalent and virulent in the most diverse tropical areas. Nobody donates to campaigns to save HIV, Ebola, malaria, dengue and yellow fever, but these are key components of microbial biodiversity, as unique as pandas, elephants and orangutans, all of which are ostensibly endangered thanks to human interference.
Humans should feel less shame about molding their environment to suit their survival needs. When beavers make a dam, they cause the local extinction of numerous riverine species that cannot survive in the new lake. But that new lake supports a set of species that is just as diverse. Studies have shown that when humans introduce invasive plant species, native diversity sometimes suffers, but productivity — the cycling of nutrients through the ecosystem — frequently increases. Invasives can bring other benefits, too: Plants such as the Phragmites reed have been shown to perform better at reducing coastal erosion and storing carbon than native vegetation in some areas, like the Chesapeake.

And if biodiversity is the goal of extinction fearmongers, how do they regard South Florida, where about 140 new reptile species accidentally introduced by the wildlife trade are now breeding successfully? No extinctions of native species have been recorded, and, at least anecdotally, most natives are still thriving. The ones that are endangered, such as gopher tortoises and indigo snakes , are threatened mostly by habitat destruction. Even if all the native reptiles in the Everglades, about 50, went extinct, the region would still be gaining 90 new species — a biodiversity bounty. If they can adapt and flourish there, then evolution is promoting their success. If they outcompete the natives, extinction is doing its job.There is no return to a pre-human Eden; the goals of species conservation have to be aligned with the acceptance that large numbers of animals will go extinct.

Thirty to 40 percent of species may be threatened with extinction in the near future, and their loss may be inevitable. But both the planet and humanity can probably survive or even thrive in a world with fewer species. We don’t depend on polar bears for our survival, and even if their eradication has a domino effect that eventually affects us, we will find a way to adapt. The species that we rely on for food and shelter are a tiny proportion of total biodiversity, and most humans live in — and rely on — areas of only moderate biodiversity, not the Amazon or the Congo Basin.
Developed human societies can exist and function in harmony with diverse natural communities, even if those communities are less diverse than they were before humanity. For instance, there is almost no original forest in the eastern United States. Nearly every square inch was clear-cut for timber by the turn of the 20th century. The verdant wilderness we see now in the Catskills, Shenandoah and the Great Smoky Mountains has all grown back in the past 100 years or so, with very few extinctions or permanent losses of biodiversity (14 total east of the Mississippi River, counting species recorded in history that are now apparently extinct), even as the population of our country has quadrupled. Japan is one of the most densely populated and densely forested nations in the world. A model like that can serve a large portion of the planet, while letting humanity grow and shape its own future.

If climate change and extinction present problems, the problems stem from the drastic effects they will have on us. A billion climate refugees, widespread famines, collapsed global industries, and the pain and suffering of our kin demand attention to ecology and imbue conservation with a moral imperative. A global temperature increase of two degrees Celsius will supposedly raise seas by 0.2 to 0.4 meters, with no effect on vast segments of the continents and most terrestrial biodiversity. But this is enough to flood most coastal cities, and that matters. We should do this to create a stable, equitable future for the coming billions of people, not for the vanishing northern river shark. Conservation is needed for ourselves and only ourselves. All those future people deserve a happy, safe life on an ecologically robust planet, regardless of the state of the natural world compared with its pre-human condition. We cannot thrive without crops or pollinators, or along coastlines as sea levels rise and as storms and flooding intensify.

Yet that robust planet will still erase huge swaths of animal and plant life. Even if we live as sustainably as we can, many creatures will die off, and alien species will disrupt formerly “pristine” native ecosystems. The sixth extinction is ongoing and inevitable — and Earth’s long-term recovery is guaranteed by history (though the process will be slow). Invasion and extinction are the regenerative and rejuvenating mechanisms of evolution, the engines of biodiversity.If this means fewer dazzling species, fewer unspoiled forests, less untamed wilderness, so be it. They will return in time. The Tree of Life will continue branching, even if we prune it back.The question is: How will we live in the meantime?


One last comment here, which is my critique of the article based just on the content of what he said. The biggest thing he fails to address is one key word: time. That’s the wrench in the works of all this stuff. The current wave of extinctions is happening at an unprecedentedly rapid rate. That’s the real problem. If species slowly go extinct over the course of millions of years or even hundreds of thousands of years or even thousands of years, ecosystems can presumably re-shuffle themselves. But this extinction is happening over hundreds of years.

I found a rebuttal blogpost that had a comment to this very point. It said, “Post-extinction recovery of biodiversity takes millions, if not 10’s of millions of years.” That’s the problem.

#122) Tough News for Science Education: Communication Training for Grad Students not the Same as for Research Scientists

“Of course it isn’t,” most faculty would say to the statement above, but do they know how and why it’s not the same? What we’re learning through Story Circles Narrative Training is telling us volumes.

Story Circles Kits

Story Circles: Why so popular with research scientists but not graduate students?


We’ve now had three years of development for our Story Circles Narrative Training program which has involved well over 1,000 scientists and communicators. We started with four prototype circles in 2015: undergrad, grad, postdoc, research scientists (conducted with USDA, NIH, Univ of Chicago and Hendrix University). The differences were evident from the very first meeting of each group.

The participants in three of the prototype circles (undergrad, grad, postdoc) were curious and willing to do as asked, but overall, fairly hesitant. The members of the last group — 5 research scientists at USDA/ARS — within minutes after hearing about the ABT Framework began talking about all the different applications they could think for it. They jumped in with an enthusiasm reflected by Cathleen Hapeman of USDA/ARS who tells about that first Story Circle at USDA in the new video we will be releasing with AAAS. The rest is history as USDA is now approaching 15 Story Circles and a dozen Demo Days.

Back then we thought that was just kind of interesting. Now we realize it’s fundamental to all communication training — the difference that previous experience makes.

Story Circles is very challenging. One of the participants in a Story Circle at Genentech said, “It’s powerful training, but the hour sessions are like eating your Brussels Sprouts.”

We’ve come to realize you need to be solidly motivated for the training to work. What this means is that the participants must have either a WANT (I’ve heard about this program and I want to do it) or a NEED (we know we need help with narrative).

In fact, the one major modification we made after the prototypes was to split the training into two stages — first, the one day Demo Day where everyone learns what they will be signing up for, then the actual Story Circles training of 10 one hour sessions. The Demo Day is the weeding out that makes sure the participants in the Story Circles are sufficiently motivated since they are signing up on their own, not being required to do it (we’ve learned you can’t force this stuff on people).

The result of this two stage process is that, of nearly 30 Story Circles to date, no one has quit before completing all ten sessions (with the one exception of a graduate student who felt he learned everything on the first day when he heard the three words of and, but, therefore — literally — and eventually quit).


Has the science world thought deeply about this simple question? We can tell you one huge difference — experience. It turns out experience makes a huge difference in both focus and motivation when it comes to communication.

Think about it in terms of the fundamental couplet of “arouse and fulfill,” that I cited in the first chapter of, “Don’t Be Such a Scientist.” (2nd edition coming out in March from Island Press!) What you get with graduate students is a shortage of arousal when it comes to communications training.

Most are told they need it. They do the best they can in trying to follow what is being said, but they have limited experience in the real world. This means for something like Story Circles they are mostly plowing forward based on little more than blind trust — sort of like, “I don’t see how this relates to what I want to do someday, but if you say I should do it, I’ll do it.”

In contrast, the research scientists — as we’ve seen from that first prototype group — have plenty of experience in the real world. They have taken part in, or at least watched, major projects fail to have much impact because their results were so poorly communicated. By the time we start working with them they are aware of what it means for a project to have “lacked a clear narrative.” That’s what experience brings.


Yep. We’ve heard it from grad students. Many have said, “We got it — three words: and, but, therefore — all set.” At one university 50 grad students took part in the Demo Day. Of them, 26 signed up to do Story Circles, but a week later when the organizer tried to assemble the first circle, it turned out there were only 4 who really felt it was worth their time. The others said they mostly signed up just to lend their vote of support, but didn’t really see the need.

The same happened two weeks later at another university with 38 grad students in the Demo Day. At another university there were 19 grad students signed up for the Demo Day. I gave my talk on the ABT the day before. When it came time for the 3-hour “hands on” part of the Demo Day, not one of the grad students showed up (though 3 faculty did). The organizer said she spoke with some of the students after my talk — they felt like they “got it” on the ABT thing and didn’t need anything further.

This is all in contrast, for example, to the National Park Service staff in Colorado.  They had 56 people in two Demo Days out of which came the 32 participants in the 6 Story Circles we ran this summer.  It was completely optional for them.  Almost all everyone wanted to do it — most of the others couldn’t work it in their schedules yet.


I don’t blame grad students for not wanting to do Story Circles. Back when I was doing my PhD in biology I wouldn’t have had much interest in this stuff.

The more I have honed in on the problem/solution dynamic that lies at the core of narrative, the more I’ve come to realize how often smart people provide solutions to people who don’t know they have a problem. Imagine being told, “We’ve got a solution for you!” but thinking, “I didn’t know I had a problem.” Guess what happens when people do this. Here’s an example from the real world of conservation biology.

Three years ago the conservation groups in the state of North Dakota engaged in a huge and expensive exercise that proved to be exactly this. They created a state ballot initiative to “fix” the state’s conservation problems. It failed horrendously (20% supporting votes versus 80% opposing votes). I was brought in by a group to assess their communications work on it.

After a week of driving around the state conducting interviews I came to a simple conclusion — most people in North Dakota don’t think there’s any problem with their nature and wildlife resources. In fact, they feel blessed with an abundance. They looked at the ballot initiative and just said, “Why?”

So there you go. It’s hard to get people to work on a problem they don’t personally feel they have. That’s what we’ve run into with Story Circles with graduate students, repeatedly. Research scientists tend to know they need help with narrative based on their experiences, but graduate students just don’t feel the need for help … yet.

We’re continuing to work on it and study it. It’s not that graduate students are lazy or have bad attitudes, it’s just that they are swamped — getting better at narrative is not a perceived priority.


Because what we are doing is systematic. This is not a different bunch of lectures and exercises with various one day workshops. To the contrary, Story Circles is almost cookie cutter in it’s rigidity and consistency. All groups that do the 10 one hour sessions go through the same structured one hour time course with each session. We’ve changed almost nothing about the training for three years now.

The result is sort of like a controlled experiment. Everything is held constant between groups except the composition of the participants. If we had some sort of accurate metric (and we don’t — that’s a whole other discussion — narrative doesn’t lend itself to any simple, immediate measurements — if you think it does, you don’t understand it) we could probably quantify this difference between these two big groups.

For now, we can simply see it in the different way Story Circles works (and doesn’t work) with them.


Yes, this is of course an exaggeration. I’m getting a reputation as being an overly simplistic reductionist (thank you very much!).

There are lots of grad students who do get it and work as hard in the sessions as research scientists. The students themselves are not the problem. The problem is simply TIME and EXPERIENCE. Telling students, “You’ll thank us for this some day!” and hope that will motivate them to do the hard work is not enough.

Make no mistake, communication is challenging. You get back what you put in. There are no magic bullets, and even the almighty ABT Narrative Template is only as powerful as you what you get back from it by putting it to use repeatedly. This is the whole philosophy that underpins Story Circles.

But the bottom line is that you gotta go to the gym and lift weights, even if its boring, repetitive and stinks like Brussels Sprouts sometimes.

#121) Democrats: When will they ever learn (to MESSAGE)

Why is this so consistent, universal, and unchanged? A Republican strategist points out, once again, that Democrats don’t know how to fit their argument onto a bumper sticker. Or t-shirt, as I had fun with a decade ago in this clip that never made it into “Flock of Dodos.”

Of course we’ve got a t-shirt!


One of the best rules of our Story Circles Narrative Training program is that the timing video that runs throughout the hour session is sacred. When you hear the audio cue go off, you have to stop what you’re saying to the group, mid-sentence.

This drives many scientists CRAZY. Being perfectionists, they want to finish their thought. But they can’t. The group turns on them with smiles, saying, “That’s it, gotta move on.” It’s a great exercise to help people deal with the need to not be a perfectionist when it comes to communication — you gotta do your best then keep moving. “Hang on,” is not an option in the real world.


This need to say EVERYTHING is the bane of Democrats. They can’t help themselves. They have so many great idea. It was the downfall of Hillary Clinton. She ran a campaign with no clear single message, but heaps and heaps of things to say. Trump just had one simple minded thing — #MAGA.

Sadly, here’s a Fox News article pointing out the same thing. It says, “The problem with the argument that Democrats are making,” said Republican strategist Evan Siegfried in a devastatingly perceptive segment on Outnumbered Overtime last month, “is that the argument takes longer than a bumper-sticker slogan to make.”

It’s endless. And ultimately cured by three letters: ABT.

#120) Do One Day Storytelling Workshops Work? No

It’s the wrong way to go about it. Yes, they are stimulatory, but do they stick?


Can you “master” the power of storytelling in one day? No. How about one year? No.


If you were booking communications training, which would you go with — the exciting one day workshop that presents a shopping list of topics to be covered, promising to hit on pretty much everything, plus lots of “tips and tools,” offering “a packed day” that will send everyone home hyper-energized. Or would you opt for the long term training program that warns it will be like going to the gym for fitness and that one graduate referred to as, “like eating Brussel sprouts.”

My gut says I’d prefer the exciting one day event. It sounds more stimulating, and really convenient to get “the whole communications thing” done and out of the way in just a single day.

But my head knows better. The one day offering is noisy nonsense. Yes, it’s stimulatory, but so is being forced to watch, “A Clockwork Orange,” five times in a row with your eyelids held open. Improving your ability to communicate does not, and cannot, happen that quickly.

Why? Because it requires the development of intuition. Read Malcolm Gladwell’s landmark book, “Blink!” and you’ll get some appreciation for what is required to develop intuition. It all comes down to one word: time.


When you work with the ABT Framework you learn about the DHY form for content. It stands for Despite, However, Yet. What it represents is too many narrative threads all at once — which is stimulatory, but confusing.

There is an optimal form for narrative. It is expressed in shorthand with the ABT Template of And, But, Therefore. All else equal, this is the form for narrative structure that is the optimum.

Running people through a packed day, one topic after another, is basically taking the DHY approach to learning. Yes, it’s stimulatory, but think of it as a bunch of white heat that goes quickly from cold to hot then back to cold again.


I hate to get too specific on this, so I’ll avoid examples from the science world. Keeping it broad, just search “One Day Storytelling Workshop” and you’ll find pages and pages of them from around the world. Here’s one in Oregon that I’m sure is a lot of fun, but what is your goal?

Do you want to have a fun, exciting day, or do you really want to improve your ability to communicate (for which narrative is the central element). Imagine going to the gym for a 7 hour workout. Do you think after 2 hours you’re accomplishing anything meaningful? And is it even possible you’re doing more damage than good after 2 hours?

It’s the same thing. It really is. More is not more when it comes to improving your grasp of narrative.


What prompted me to finally write this blunt essay is that I was recently forwarded a Twitter discussion among scientists who were frustrated with the communications training they had received. Here was one of the comments:

COMMENT: “I think there is the perception that you can be good at it after a 1 hour-long workshop.”

That’s what I’m talking about. Everyone in the discussion seemed to be realizing this, and they felt like they had been lied to. This stuff is difficult. You definitely can get much better at it, but it doesn’t happen in one hour, one day, or even a one week boot camp.


Here’s a great tidbit to this point. We’ve been working with folks at Genentech for the past year. We ran a Story Circle there with 5 scientists, meaning they met for the standard 10 one hour sessions that the training involves. Ideally the sessions happen one per week, meaning 2.5 months. But in their case, their schedules are so intense with so much travel, it took them 8 months to finish the training.

Which is fine. So long as they stay committed, it doesn’t hurt to have the delays, though it’s still a little better to stay close to the weekly schedule if possible.

So I asked them when it was over what would they think, given the intensity of schedules there, if we were to run a Story Circle that met three times a week, allowing it to be finished in less than a month. They immediately recoiled with a solid, “No.” It didn’t begin to makes sense to them to do that. They insisted that taking at least a week between sessions was essential to allow the training to slowly work its way down from the head to the gut.

And they are absolutely right.

There is no substitute for time. Sorry. Plain and simple. Don’t whine to me about your busy schedule. Do you want to improve or not? We’ve been hard at it for 3 years now developing Story Circles. If there’s one solid conclusion we can offer up, this is definitely it.

There is no substitute for time.

And guess what is at the heart of narrative. Time.

I have a therapist friend who is fond of the expression, “You can’t rush the river.” Therapy is narrative. It’s all the same stuff. Narrative is everything. This is what grieving is about. You can’t rush it. You can try. But if you want to genuinely heal, you can’t rush it.

Sorry. Welcome to life. At least for now, until A.I. takes over. For now, we’re still stuck with these 4,000 year old principles. But the good news is, if you invest the time, you’ll see the changes.


The good news for us with Story Circles Narrative Training is that nobody is arguing with us. We speak to so many groups now who say, “We’re done with the one day workshops — they don’t work.”

Story Circles takes time, and it’s even hard to quantify the outcomes (heaven forbid). But there is one clear metric which is that groups are coming back for more — especially with USDA, NPS and USFWS.

We’ve run over 30 Story Circles now. We have about a dozen Demo Days being planned for next year, including at Western Society of Naturalists in February, University of Idaho in April, and several government agencies in the spring.

We’ve yet to do any advertising or have any media coverage. We don’t need to. There’s lots of scientists who get it. They’ve tried the one day thing. It didn’t work. They’re ready to eat the Brussels sprouts.

#119) “Teaching for Intellect” Vs. “Training for Intuition”

There’s a reason why university graduates are not very good with communication. It’s the same thing you see with film school graduates (whom Hollywood has traditionally laughed at). Universities develop intellect. It takes a different approach to develop intuition. It’s what Story Circles is designed for.

NPS First Circle (1)

NATIONAL PARK SERVICE IN COLORADO: Celebrating completion of the first of six Story Circles that ran all summer. Complete with an ABT cake!


Once upon a time the educational world understood and accepted the need for repetition. It’s called inculcation — “the instilling of knowledge or values in someone, usually by repetition.” Inculcation is also the pathway to intuition.

I experienced plenty of inculcation in elementary school where we learned the alphabet and arithmetic through endless, sing-song repetitions. I didn’t get much repetition through high school, and by college I could tell it was looked down on as some sort of old fashioned technique for stupid people.

But then I entered into a two year Meisner acting class in 1994 in Santa Monica (and keep in mind that acting and communication are the same thing). Meisner is the technique that is revered by the greatest of actors from Grace Kelly and Gregory Peck to Robert Duvall and Diane Keaton. The Wikipedia entry for the Meisner Technique says:

The focus of the Meisner approach is for the actor to “get out of their head”, such that the actor is behaving instinctively to the surrounding environment. To this end, some exercises for the Meisner technique are rooted in repetition so that the words are deemed insignificant compared to the underlying emotion.

There you have it. The word “repetition” and the idea of having people “get out of their head.” If you take a look at all that I’ve written and preached for the past 20 years for communication in general, those are the two most important underlying principles.

My first book, “Don’t Be Such A Scientist” (second edition coming in March) was built around the Four Organs theory that we learned in the Meisner class. It was all about “coming down out of the head.” The class was also built around endless repetition.


As I said, somewhere along the way the smarty pantses in the ivory tower decided that repetition is for slow learners. I think it’s something along the lines of, “Only dummies need things repeated.”

That attitude is fine if all you want to achieve is intellect. That’s what universities do. They are great at producing intellectuals. But there’s a problem when university graduates go out into the real world, which is that they lack intuition. Especially when it comes to communication.

We saw it at USC film school. In our orientation the older graduate students (well, actually, I was older than just about all of the students from the start) explained to the new students that when you finish film school, Hollywood is going to hire you for one main reason, which was not your ability to do the visceral/intuitive part of filmmaking as a director or even cinematographer. No, what Hollywood looks to film schools for is writing — the more cerebral element.

They mostly laugh at the directing and visual skills of film school grads. Why? Because new graduates lack experience, which means they lack the visceral elements. If you want to see a perfect comic picture of this watch, “The Big Picture,” which came out in 1989 but is pretty much timeless. One of the opening scenes is of three film school students and their lousy, clunky student award-winning films. We had to sit through hundreds of such films in film school. It’s what happens with communication when people lack experience.


I think there are a lot of people in the science world who want to be told they are wonderful communicators. Improv classes are certainly great for building comfort and self-esteem. But at some point you might as well accept that getting good at communication requires experience. And as everyone always likes to say in every profession in the world, “There’s no substitute for experience.”

So this is what our Story Circles Narrative Training program is built around — not feeding knowledge, just gaining experience. The whole realization of how it differs from university courses became clear to me last spring when a professor told me about his course on “narrative for scientists” he was teaching at his university. He felt it was similar to what I do. I asked if the ABT was part of it, he enthusiastically said, “Yes! It’s an entire third of a lecture!” Which meant what he’s doing is not at all similar to what we do.

With Story Circles the ABT is just about all there is. There’s no lectures, no notes, no readings. It’s not a university course. It’s training, similar to going to the gym and lifting weights. It’s “conditioning.”

The result of this is we’ve had some graduate students show no interest — saying, “I got it on the ABT — And, But, Therefore — all set, why should I spend an hour a week for ten weeks when that’s all there is?” But the response is completely different with government agencies and the scientists I work with at Genentech. They know that the practical side of anything takes repetition and experience. So they get it.


And now we’re getting to see how well they get it. A couple weeks ago I posted this set of comments from a recent grad. Last week we had the first of a half dozen Story Circles finish that have been running all summer in Colorado with the National Park Service.

We know from past graduates that the training takes time. That’s the whole deal with both narrative and intuition — they take time. But for those who go the distance, we’re seeing the development of what I’ve termed “narrative intuition.” The consequences of this end up being the term that NSF wore out long ago — that the training is, “transformative.”

#118) Eminem Shows Why Climate Communication Is So Limp

The climate crowd dreams of motivating the masses, but their voice is so robotic, so informational, so rational, so non-human that the masses feel little. You want to hear a voice that cuts through the noise into the hearts of real people? Listen to Eminem’s rap about Trump last night at the BET Awards. It’s not easy to listen to, but what do you expect — it’s not easy communicating effectively like a real human.



It’s really painful listening to climate activists trying to rap (here’s one and another that will only motivate you to do one thing — avoid climate rapping), yet if enough of them tried with complete conviction they would probably eventually find their way to something that would be motivational for the masses. It just might take a lot of awkwardness to get there. But how serious is the climate issue? If it’s that serious, it would be worth it.

Rapper Eminem delivered this uncomfortable, searing rap session last night at the BET Awards that was instantly praised for its power. Similar to what Lin Manuel Miranda did for the seemingly dry historical material behind “Hamilton,” Eminem blazes life into today’s political issues with this performance.

This is what the theme of “Make Science Human” is about. If you want the masses to activate around the issue of climate, someone has to take the message down to a gut level like this. It’s how things work in a noisy society. You can’t stay up in your orderly, safe, logical tower and expect to motivate anyone.

#117) How Story Circles Narrative Training Works: Details from a Graduate

Because Story Circles Narrative Training is a long term process we’ve been hesitant to attempt “assessment metrics.” The training is 10 one hour sessions, usually weekly, but it can take up to a year to see the full results. That’s how narrative is — it takes time. For now, the training is better described qualitatively. To that point here are the detailed comments of a recent graduate telling about the value of the training.


THE GOOD OLD DAYS. A flashback to one of the first Story Circles Demo Days from early 2015.


Here’s the comments of a recent graduate of the 10 one hour sessions of Story Circles who works with a government agency.

OVERALL VALUE – Story Circles really helped clarify the ABT. However, the log-line maker/hero’s journey is emphasized more during the story circles than during the introductory Demo Day session. Thus, one gains insight on how to write a narrative longer than a couple of paragraphs during story circles. One also begins to recognize this structure during movies and how it is a successful formula for a good movie…..

TIME COMMITMENT – The amount of time is not demanding and is worth it. Even if you wait until the last minute to do the homework (or don’t do it all for the days you aren’t on the hook for some writing), the time spent listening to the rest of the group’s comments and engaging in the discussion, will have an impact on your thinking and writing.

PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE – The opportunity to intensely practice recognizing, analyzing, and creating narrative structures was something I would otherwise not have undertaken. The story circles deepened my understanding of the ABT and improved my writing. It’s like learning a musical instrument or a new sport: practice, practice, practice.

IMMEDIATE VALUE – The challenge to my thinking that came from the story circles helped me reframe a major message about my program – I used the ABT structure in a presentation within days of this realization and have changed all my presentations and write-ups to incorporate this same ABT structure. This new message structure greatly strengthens how I communicate the unique value of our programs.

THE SUPPORTING MATERIALS – The reference cards and the handbook provided for the story circles are immensely useful aids. One can look at the reference cards during discussions to help with the ABT analysis and stay on track. I still refer to these aids when I am writing – whether it is on the job or at home. However, one needs to sit in a story circle and go through these aids to fully grasp how useful they can be – and how useful a narrative structure is to effective communication.

Story Circles is unique. We make no apologies for the time involved (and actually it’s really not that much, just an hour a week) as well as how challenging the sessions can sometimes be. You get back what you put into communication training. It’s about developing “narrative intuition,” and that takes work.

But the flip side is what you get from Story Circles, which you can see in the comments above. To put it simply, it’s a fascinating form of training that can crack your mind open to viewing the world in a whole different way.

If you have specific questions feel free to email me at: rolson@usc.edu

#116) Bill Maher’s Writers Know Narrative

Bill Maher ends every episode of his HBO show Real Time with a monologue that begins with the last of his New Rules. Month after month, year after year, the monologues are powerfully written essays. Wanna know why? Just look at the Narrative Index. I measured it for 53 of them — the average is 33. Last week’s was a 43. That’s strong narrative content. If only they had written Hillary Clinton’s speeches. Seriously.


BILL MAHER’S WRITERS HAVE TEETH. His monologues have consistently strong narrative structure as reflected by the Narrative index. His values come from 52 monologues. McKibben is from four speeches, Trump is 11 debate performances, Lincoln is his 7 debates with Douglas in 1858, Hillary Clinton is 9 debate performances, Douglas is his 7 debates with Lincoln, climate skeptic Marc Morano is from 9 television appearances, and the left-most value is the average of 4 equipment maintenance manuals found on the internet.


Wanna know why Donald Trump hates Bill Maher? It’s not just because Bill suggested he was descended from an orangutan. It’s also because Bill communicates with strong narrative content, as revealed by the Narrative Index.

It’s a metric so simple that it’s beneath the dignity of serious text analysis jockeys, but it’s also very profound in what it reveals. It’s just the ratio of all the BUTs to ANDs in a given text. I derived it from the ABT which arose from the Rule of Replacing I learned from the South Park creators.

These are the two fundamental words of narrative. AND is the most common word of agreement, BUT is the most common word of contradiction. They represent two of the three fundamental forces of narrative (agreement, contradiction, consequence).

I’ve been measuring the Narrative Index for hundreds of texts over the past two years. The patterns are astounding. In the graph above you see a range of values. At one end are equipment maintenance manuals. Not surprisingly, they hardly ever present narrative content. Telephone books would score even lower.

At the other end are Bill Maher’s monologues. For a while HBO provided the transcripts on their websites. I analyzed 52 of them. Also, just to show you in detail how the pattern works, below is the transcript of last Friday night’s monologue with all the BUTs and ANDs colored.

There were 10 BUTs, 23 ANDs, which means a Narrative Index of 43. That’s powerful.


You have to be careful analyzing small sample sizes. I usually recommend at least 1,000 words. This one is only 566 so you wouldn’t want to infer too much. But when you average it across 52 of his other monologues you can rest assured the pattern is real.

The fact is he’s got a great team of writers, and what they produce is always punchy. It has to be. It’s for television — the medium that produced our current President — a man who has a dangerously deep grasp of narrative.

This is what I’ve been saying for years — that politicians need comic writers as their speech writers. Not for their ability to write humor. They need them because they, perhaps better than anyone, understand narrative structure. They have to, or else they’ll bomb.


AND finally … if you want to understand why america is so divided, don’t talk about Republicans AND Democrats, or red states AND blue states, read the story about The City Mouse AND the Country Mouse, currently being sold under the new title, What Happened? BUT the original is about two mice who learn that you’re either one or the other, city or country. AND the same really could be said for America. When you fly over it, you don’t see red states AND blue states. You see vast stretches of land where there’s nothing. AND then every once in a while, a city.

Here’s Missouri, BUT every state looks the same — a sea of red with a few blue dots. Now I could joke about Alabama all I want — AND believe me, I want — it’s Trump country. BUT not Birmingham, cause that’s a city — it voted for Hillary. Something happens to you when you live in a city — you get mugged.

BUT you also have a multi-cultural experience. Cities are places with diversity AND theaters AND museums, AND other gay stuff. I have nothing against rural life, BUT I’ve seen farms on TV AND they look dusty. Republicans are freaking out lately because it seems Trump is pivoting from these two, to these two. Colluding with Russia — fine. BUT Democrats?

BUT really it’s not that complicated. Chuck Schumer AND Nancy Pelosi? They’re city mice. AND that’s who a consummate New Yorker like Donald Trump relates to. Why is he always poop-Tweeting at 3 a.m.? Because he’s from the city that never sleeps. He’s such a New York guy, he had is last wife delivered. Trump’s disillusion with McConnell AND Ryan is not really political — it’s just that for the first seventy years of his life he would never be caught dead hanging around with traveling bible salesman like Paul Ryan or a corny countrified goober like Mitch McConnell.

For Christ sakes, the man is from Kentucky. Jeff Sessions is from Alabama. When he talks all Trump hears is a tiny little Ernest movie. AND Mike Pence? It must be torture for Trump to be in the White House every day with that home spun Christian tightly wound human hard on. He literally won’t dine with an unchaperoned woman. Meanwhile Trump has spent his entire life posing with a shit-eating grin that says look at all the pussy I’m getting.

AND this is the existential crisis of our President. He’s an asshole, BUT he’s not a hick. He represents one group, BUT belongs to another. I hate to break it to you real Americans, BUT what Trump likes about Chuck AND Nancy is they’re not you.

He’s not one of you — trust me — when Trump watches “The Beverly Hillbillies,” he’s rooting for Mr. Drysdale. AND when he tells a crowd — as he often does, “I love you,” what he means is that in middle America, he found something that he had long ago run out of in New York — suckers.

Trump voters were played for rubes by the ultimate fast talking city slicker who saw vulnerable people nervous about jobs AND the melting pot getting too melty, AND he told them he’d built a great wall AND get their jobs back at the mine, AND they said where do I sign.

Folks, you didn’t make America great again, you enrolled in Trump University.

#115) PODCAST: The Future is Intellectual, the Past is Experiential/Emotive

Remember that beating we took next year? No. Remember that beating we took last year? Yes. Case closed. We talked about this on Terrence McNally’s podcast.




I did this very fun podcast with radio host, writer and actor Terrence E. McNally this week. We ran through a range of topics mostly centered around the importance of narrative structure in politics (especially in relation to Trump) and climate activism. It was so nice to have a host who could explain a lot of the basic aspects of narrative structure better than I can.

One of the most interesting parts is our discussion of “The future is intellectual, the past is experiential/emotive — you need to use the past to work towards the future.” Which is why scary movies of climate predictions tend to not have much impact.