#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.

 

UNDERSTANDING TRUMP

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.

 

TRUMP KNOWS NARRATIVE (STILL)

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.

 

1) SLOGAN 

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.

 

2) ONE WORD

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.

 

3) NARRATIVE INDEX

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.

 

4) SINGULAR INSULT NAMES

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.

 

5) CONFIDENCE

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.  

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

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

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

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



TRUMP KNOWS ATTENTION

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

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



NOT THE BEST FOOTBALL TEAMS

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

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

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



TRUMP IS FOLLOWING “THE HIGH-CONTRADICTION DIET”

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

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



TRUMP KNOWS RANTING

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

Blogpost111table

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

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

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

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





#105) Professionals at Work: Narrative analysis of the HBO Real Sports Segment on the Great Barrier Reef

When asked for years for good examples of science communication in film I’ve pointed to HBO Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. Not that they communicate science, they’re just a model for how science ought to be communicated. This month they brought their excellent narrative skills to the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. In this post I dissect what they presented to show why I think they are so good at narrative. This is how true professionals communicate effectively. I wish more amateur documentary filmmakers and scientists in general would learn from them. More is not more for media when most of it is so poorly crafted for narrative structure (i.e. stop boring the public).

"THE GODFATHER OF CORAL REEFS"!  Charlie Veron, one of my old colleagues from way back, sets the world straight on how his own country is killing their greatest natural resource.

“THE GODFATHER OF CORAL REEFS”! Charlie Veron, one of my old colleagues from way back, sets the world straight on how his own country is killing their greatest natural resource.



THIS IS HOW IT’S DONE PROPERLY

For years I’ve raved about the narrative skills on display when you watch HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. The show has won two Peabody Awards among other accolades. How do they do it?

First off, they aren’t driven by any sort of, “You need to know this” agenda. To the contrary. They have a team of people who scour the world for good stories, even if the connection to sports sometimes seems a little stretched. They look far and wide for good stories, first and foremost. Then they work extra hard to shape the narrative structure into as powerful form as possible.

This month they did an excellent segment on the dying of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Without making any specific mention of the amateurishness of most feature environmental documentaries when it comes to narrative, I’ll simply focus on pointing out the various key narrative elements that are so well used in the Real Sports segment.

NARRATIVE MECHANICS AT WORK

Let me start with a few of the key attributes.

THREE ACT STRUCTURE – as we say endlessly in our Story Circles Narrative Training, it’s about the three fundamental forces of narrative. They begin with AGREEMENT. Notice that the first quarter of the show has no tension, no conflict, no issue, no problem — it’s “The Ordinary World” to use Joseph Campbell’s terminology. Bryant Gumbel goes snorkeling on a healthy reef and raves about the beauty.
This makes me think of the summer of 2001 when an editor at the LA Times asked me to write an editorial about coral reefs. She coached me on the structure, saying I should open by “putting us on a coral reef.” This is what the HBO segment does. (btw, that editorial was schedule to run two days after 9/11 occurred — it got booted for obvious reasons, but a year later the editor and I came back with my Shifting Baselines OpEd)
In perfect narrative form, the first act ends with CONTRADICTION — i.e. the statement of the problem. This is exactly what they do, stating the problem which begins the narrative part of their story.
It’s always hard to pinpoint where a third act really begins, but in their story it’s fairly clear as it occurs when they finally move up to “the big fish” that was hinted at from the start (climate change and the coal industry driving it). Bottom line, the structure is excellent.

AROUSE AND FULFILL – it’s the central dictum for mass communication and you see it at work in their three act structure. The entire first act is pure arousal. No information, no statistics, no preachy message — just the pure pleasure of diving on a beautiful coral reef. The narrative process not yet begun — just arousal to start with. The fulfillment will come later, once you really want to know more about this resource.

SUPERLATIVES – superlatives are basically statements of X-tremes (biggest, longest, worst, most dangerous, etc.) and are communications gold in a world of too much noise. The challenge is to not over-reach for them. But if you’ve got ‘em, use ‘em. Which is what they do, being the professionals they are. I count ten superlatives, if we include “Godfather” as a statement of extremes. Of course this is a story that is already set in a world of extremes on the GREAT Barrier Reef, but still, they clearly have the eye for all possible superlatives.

SPECIFICS – rule number one for story is that THE POWER OF STORYTELLING RESTS IN THE SPECIFICS. You see this throughout the piece. Not vague statements about “this is really important,” but specific information and again, statements of extreme, but only where correct and reasonable. Notice that Bryant Gumbel even asks, verbatim, if Dean Miller recalls “any SPECIFIC moment.” This the pathway to the most powerful form of storytelling — to recall individual, specific moments.

DON’T TELL US, SHOW US – twice they yield to this principle — first taking us on a snorkeling trip to a healthy reef, then a few minutes later taking us to dive on a dead reef. It’s the obvious and obligatory footage, but the thing to note is that they weren’t jumping back and forth between the two from the start. No, they took their time giving you a full dose of what a healthy reef looks like. Then they took an equal amount of time to visit the dead reef. These things matter, narratively.

REPETITION – this is the bane of artsy filmmakers who never want to “hit you over the head” with things, or be “too on the nose.” And that’s why they are rarely good at messaging. Effective messaging is all about inculcation — repeating the message, ideally in different ways — but sometimes just bluntly saying the SAME damn thing, as they do a couple of times, especially at the end.
If you’re a fan of John Oliver’s HBO show you may have enjoyed the mission he’s been on showing how the CBS show 60 Minutes egregiously repeats the sound bites of their interview subjects. The host will say, “So that’s what it costs?” The interview subject will say, “So that’s what it costs.” They do it relentlessly. And they are one of the most successful shows in television history. Yes, it’s funny if you look at it analytically, but most of the mass audience isn’t analytical. Which is something that highly educated people have a hard time grasping.
Sorry if you think repetition is tacky. So many of my USC film school classmates headed out in the world wanting to be artsy and not say anything too bluntly, but after twenty years in the business they have a completely different understanding of how things work. You wanna get your point across, you better say it loud, simple, and repetitively. That’s the real world. Get used to it, eggheads.

BACKLOADING OF EXPOSITION – in the last blogpost I talked about my new Get To The Point Rule which is: the quicker you can get through the A and B, the more we’ll let you have all day with the T. You can see this at work in this segment. They have a bunch of factoids to share, but look at where they put them — not in the first act where they would bog everything down. No, they occur about halfway through. That’s what I mean by “backloading.”

STAKES GET RAISED – if you look at The Logline Maker (a 9 part template for crafting an entire story, presented by Dorie Barton in our book “Connection”) you see that step #5 is “The Stakes Get Raised.” You can see that right about the midpoint of the segment. We’ve established that the reef is suffering major problems, BUT here’s what’s worse — the officials aren’t even sounding the alarms about it. What this means structurally is that right about the time the story might be starting to lose momentum they kick it up by raising the stakes. You know how you know to do that? If you have narrative intuition, that’s how.

FINAL SYNTHESIS – the segment ends with the double shot of the core message — that the reef is DYING — spoken by both Charlie Veron, then repeated by Dean Miller. Did they cue Dean to say that bit or did the editor just find it in the interview. I’d guess the former. Then they put the visual lid on the presentation with the final aerial shot pulling away from the reef.

THE NARRATIVE INDEX (BUT/AND RATIO) – here’s a final demonstration of how competent these folks are as storytellers. I have defined The Narrative Index as simply the ratio of the word “But” to “And” for any given text. Some day the know-it-all journalists of the world will open their minds enough to realize how simple and stunningly consistent the patterns are around this index. For now, you’ll just have to use your common sense. Granted it’s not super precise for relatively small amounts of text like this twelve minute segment, but still, the pattern is clear. Have a look:

narrativeindexrealsports

This is not a fluke. There’s almost no “but’s” in the first act for exactly the reasons I listed above — there shouldn’t be any contradiction in the first act. It’s a place for AGREEMENT. It needs to be free of narrative twists so you can establish the Ordinary World clearly in the viewers mind.
Once the second act begins with the statement of the problem, it’s then time to take us on the whole journey full of twists, turns, and raising of the stakes (“But they aren’t sounding the alarms”).

BOTTOM LINE – The HBO Real Sports team are incredibly gifted at the challenge of creating effective narrative structure. If you doubt this, just watch the stunning story in this same episode they tell about baseball player Rod Carew and his heart transplant. And I mean STUNNING. The stories they find are so powerful, and often have little to do with sports. Their stories are about what interests humans most, which is HUMANS (not science or coral reefs or climate change).
For years I have said the science world could, in theory, produce an equally good program. It would just require one thing — that the producers NOT love science. That is the bane of science programming. Endlessly. The producers always love their science and see humans as inconvenient baggage. The result is content geared for science lovers, not the general public.
And sad to say, given how much I have loved the ocean my entire life, the problem is even worse — much worse — for “ocean lovers” and what they produce.

Here’s my crude outline of the segment, showing these points of structure I’ve mentioned.

FIRST ACT

Great Barrier Reef is paradise.
It provides a religious experience
SIZE – length of east coast US, area of Germany
LARGEST venue – SUPERLATIVE #1
“NOTHING compares to it” – Dean Miller SUPERLATIVE #2
“It’s like a city full of 3-D billboards” (MAKING IT RELATABLE)
ACTIVE JOURNEY – headed to Port Douglas
“Dream like”
“MORE species than anywhere on the planet” – Miller, SUPERLATIVE #3
Gumbel — affirming, adding to superlatives
END OF FIRST ACT – “There’s just one very big problem”

SECOND ACT – the journey begins

THE PROBLEM: Healthy parts like this are getting hard to find
Been around for 25 million years, now DYING (THE MESSAGE)
CAUSE: Fossil fuel burning (but only teased at, start with specifics of bleaching)
IMMEDIATE PROBLEM: Bleaching
Miller: Bleaching means starving (simple language)
Gumbel: Was there one specific moment? (power of storytelling rests in the specifics
Miller: Yes, April, last year — tells of first seeing it
Charlie Veron: We’ve lost HALF
Gumbel: That’s right, half (REPETITION)
Specifics: 30% last year, another 20% this year

SECOND JOURNEY – to view the devastation
“The Godfather of Coral” — SUPERLATIVE #4
“World’s Largest Underwater Graveyard” – SUPERLATIVE #5
BACKLOADING OF EXPOSITION
1 Home to 1/3 of marine life
2 Main source of food for 1/2 billion people
Veron: EVERY coral reef region has been severely hit SUPERLATIVE #6
MORE BACKLOADING OF EXPOSITION

– Great Barrier Reef is great for business
– Centerpiece of Australia’s booming tourism industry
1 2.5 million visitors
2 65,000 jobs
3 6-7 billion dollars/year

STAKES GET RAISED: Officials not sounding alarms
Steve Moon, Tourism Spokesman: The damage is patchy
(to Moon’s credit, Bryant asked, “If you lose the reef do you lose tourism?” He replies absolutely)

THIRD ACT – The real problem is mining industry

#1 Producer of Coal – SUPERLATIVE #7
Veron: Coal industry is the WORST possible thing Australia could do – SUPERLATIVE #8
Matt Kanaban, Minister for Resources of N. Australia: Don’t think coal and environment are at odds
Carmichael Coal Mine will be the BIGGEST coal mine on the planet – SUPERLATIVE #9
Trump Paris Accord
Veron: President of the country that has produce the MOST science – SUPERLATIVE #10
Gumbel: Why are so many supportive of coal?
Veron: Money
Veron: Climate change seems to be off in the future, BUT the truth is the Great Barrier Reef is DYING
Miller The reef is DYING – ITERATION

FINAL VISUAL: Wide aerial shot pulling away

#102) Winner of “The Moth” Storytelling Competition Gives Textbook Demonstration of the ABT Dynamic

Listen to this story from last year’s winner of The Moth storytelling competition. It’s a beautiful story that she tells AND I hate to ruin it by suggesting you analyze it (like a bunch of scientists — and keep in mind this is coming from the guy who wrote the book “Don’t Be Such A Scientist”), BUT … it really is a textbook example of how the ABT works, THEREFORE …


To HEAR STORY scroll down to button that says 'Listen Now'



AS SIMPLE AS ABT

Mary Kate Flanagan is from Ireland and is a former student of Frank Daniel, the screenwriting guru who in the 1980’s first pointed out the And, But, Therefore (ABT) dynamic. Last year she won “The Moth” storytelling competition with this perfectly delivered story about her father’s funeral.

If you listen close in the first 1.5 minutes you’ll hear the ABT structure plain as day. She says AND 7 times, she says BUT 6 times, she says SO (the more common equivalent of THEREFORE) 4 times. That’s a LOT of structure. I have developed the Narrative Index (the BUT/AND ratio) in the past. A value of 30 for the N.I. is exceptional. Her ratio for that first minute and a half is 86.

These things matter.

Furthermore, if you consider her overall structure, you see she follows the MONOMYTH to a tee. She begins by introducing her theme — that there are 6 strong sisters who together can do anything. The Ordinary World is set up (that the father dies and they’re all set to bury him with the sisters carrying the coffin), BUT THEN the funeral director says they’re not strong enough which takes us into the Special World and off on the journey.

The problem is eventually solved, then notice where she concludes the story — full circle, back to what she said at the start with her THEME (that the parents gave them all they ever needed in the world — six strong sisters).

Not surprisingly she teaches screenwriting and is a member of The Frank Daniel Institute. Kind of helps with the understanding the power of the ABT when you see it so effectively on display like this.

Here’s her very impressive website: http://www.adramaticimprovement.com