#147) Had I Coached the Democratic Senators Yesterday …

They weren’t disastrous, they were only ineffective, as this article in Slate yesterday makes clear.  I found their performance exasperating.  Had I coached them I would have prepped them with three narrative principles:  1) the SINGULAR NARRATIVE, 2) the ABT STRUCTURE, and 3) the DOBZHANSKY TEMPLATE.  They didn’t have to be so scrambled.

 

AND YOUR POINT IS … ?

Yesterday’s senate hearing on the Brett Kavanaugh nomination to the Supreme Court was supremely riveting.  I couldn’t take my eyes off either session — the painfully dramatic morning with the victim, the bombastic afternoon with the accused.  Throughout I was desperately wanting to cheer for the Democratic party senators, but by the end they left me feeling deflated.

The Democrats put on a performance that pretty much matched the entire party — rambling, unfocused, lacking a clear overall strategy.  This article in Slate does a good job of detailing the disappointments.  But it didn’t have to be.  Here’s how I would have coached them, using 3 simple narrative principles from our Story Circles Narrative Training program.

 

1 THE SINGULAR NARRATIVE:  LESS IS MORE

This is far and away the most important principle they seem to have no grasp on whatsoever.  It’s very simple — LESS IS MORE.

If you need an entire book to make this clear to you just read the 2012 bestseller, “The One Thing.”  If you want two absolutely tremendous short articles that convey it concisely and in practical terms it’s these workhorses that embody all that I preach:

“Nicholas Kristof’s Advice for Saving the World” –  Outside Magazine, November, 2009

“Data-driven Campaigns are Killing the Democratic Party” –  Politico, February, 2017

Each senator was given 5 minutes.  Each senator began their time as though they had a half hour to make a whole series of points.

As a result, each senator was eventually cut off when their time ran out.  Instead of building to a clear, single point, they mostly said things like, “I’ve got a lot more to say.”

The Democratic senators should have huddled up before the day began and chosen individual singular narratives.  Sheldon Whitehouse (who I felt came off best) should have said, “Okay, Hirono, you take TEMPERAMENT, Durbin, you take FBI, Harris, you take GORSUCH, …”

On and on — ten Democratic senators, ten single points — each one delivered clearly, succinctly, and with simple structure.  All fitting into an overall narrative.  Like this …

 

2 THE ABT TEMPLATE

When in doubt, just use the ABT (And, But, Therefore) template to make your point clearly and concisely.  This is how I would have scripted Kamala Harris.

KAMALA HARRIS:   Judge Kavanaugh, you have accused us of a left wing conspiracy against conservatives AND claim you are the victim of it, BUT you saw our hearings a few months ago for Judge Neil Gorsuch who was approved with no problems, THEREFORE don’t you think this is more about you than us?

She did do a decent job of presenting this, but it was buried in the middle of several other rambling points she was trying to make, with the result of “more is less” as nothing stuck out.

One point, argued clearly.  That’s what should have happened for each senator.

 

3 THE DOBZHANSKY TEMPLATE (ONE WORD)

The Dobzhansky Template is one of the central tools of our Story Circles program. It’s simply this fill-in-the-blanks sentence:

Nothing in _____ makes sense, except in the light of _____ .

They should have agreed among themselves on this before the hearing, and I think they should have followed Mazie Hirono on it as she was basically arguing this:

Nothing in KAVANAUGH’S QUALIFICATIONS makes sense, except in the light of TEMPERAMENT.

She brought up the key word of TEMPERAMENT and that’s what they should have hung their entire narrative on.  They should have argued, from start to finish, the following ABT:

ABT:  To be a supreme court judge requires a specific temperament AND because the appointment is for life we have to make sure a nominee has it, BUT what we are reviewing here today for Judge Kavanaugh shows he does not have it, THEREFORE his nomination needs to be withdrawn.

That was it — plain and simple — the singular narrative of what they needed to accomplish.  All day long, the word TEMPERAMENT should have kept resurfacing, over and over again — as frequently as Donald Trump says the word GREAT in any given day.

Durbin should have said an FBI investigation will reveal whether Kavanaugh has the right temperament.  Harris should have said Gorsuch was approved easily because he has the right temperament.  Booker should have said that Kavanaugh’s well documented excessive alcohol problems in his past show he doesn’t have the right temperament.

It’s called messaging.  It’s what the Democrats are so incredibly bad with.  Yesterday’s hearing was a one day demonstration on how hopelessly bad they are at it.

I’m still rooting for them, but they are never, ever, ever going to regain power if they don’t figure this narrative stuff out.  It was what sunk Hillary Clinton.  It’s what plagues them every single day.

#135) The Colorado National Park Service Story Circles Video

“That one hour that they got together every week was the most enjoyable hour of their work week.”  That’s how Larry Perez, Communications Coordinator for National Park Service in Ft Collins, Colorado, opens this new video about Story Circles.  The video speaks for itself — Story Circles works.


COMMUNICATIONS TRAINING doesn’t have to be boring and dull.

#109) Good Stories are Rare

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

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

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



THE NAKED (AND MOSTLY BORING) CITY

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

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

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

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

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



ARE YOU CRAZY?

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

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

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

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



LIKE CROSSWORD PUZZLES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





#107) STORY CIRCLES NARRATIVE TRAINING: Ready for Universities

We’ve cracked the nut for Story Circles and universities with one simple realization: it needs to be EMBEDDED within an existing course.

DEVELOPING AND SPREADING.  Government agencies have been the major site of Story Circles so far, but now it’s ready for universities.

DEVELOPING AND SPREADING. Government agencies have been the major site of Story Circles so far, but now it’s ready for universities.



THE NEED FOR STRUCTURE

While the good folks at USDA are running their eleventh Story Circle and in two weeks we’ll be presenting their sixth Demo Day, it’s been a challenge to figure out how to make the training work at universities. The problem is schedules.

Government agencies have everyone at the same work environment day after day, making it relatively easy to schedule the 10 one hour sessions. But universities have student schedules all over the map. As a result, the set of Demo Days we ran last fall at three universities produced no Story Circles.

Solution: Embed the training into an existing course.

That’s what will happen this fall at University of Northern Colorado. They have a weekly two hour graduate student training course. For ten weeks, Story Circles will take up one of the two hours each week. Very simple.



THE THREE SACRED RULES OF STORY CIRCLES

There are three inviolable rules for Story Circles: 1) You may never stop the hour-long cueing video during a session, 2) You must stop mid-sentence when the cue goes off, and 3) You must always have all 5 members of the circle for a session. It’s been that last one that’s been the challenge. This will fix things for universities.

For inquiries contact us at the website: http://storycirclestraining.com/

#106) “Inconvenient Truth” Sequel: We needed Empire Strikes Back, but we got Clone Wars.

Al Gore is such a tireless worker and a truly good soul, but he continues to surround himself with people who don’t really know what they’re doing. As a result, his new movie isn’t bad, it’s just middling. He is the proverbial “And, And, And” voice — not that there’s anything wrong with it. My brilliant cinematographer buddy Paul Wojciak nailed it on the movie, saying, “We needed Empire Strikes Back, but we got Clone Wars.”

MUCH RESPECT.  The theater rises at the end of Al Gore’s Q&A.

MUCH RESPECT. The theater rises at the end of Al Gore’s Q&A.



AN INCONVENIENT AND, AND, AND-ER

On Saturday I attended a screening of Al Gore’s new movie in Hollywood followed by a rather rigidly controlled Q&A in which the only Q’s came from the host. As expected, the movie was a little bit better than the first one in narrative structure, but not much.

Once again the movie could have told a clean, SINGULAR powerful story, but … alas, it missed. Where does he get these filmmakers — didn’t they ever take any writing classes?

There was a great potential SINGULAR over-arching narrative sitting there waiting to be told which was Gore’s efforts to bring around the India delegation at the Paris Accord on their climate negotiations. The story of them going from “no way” to “yes way” covered about twenty minutes late in the film, but it should have been stretched for the entire movie as the central narrative thread. It was powerful enough.

Instead the movie is largely an “and, and, and” exercise, ambling from exploding glaciers to flooding Miami streets to our democracy being hacked by big money (complains the guy from the party that out-spent their opponents for the past three Presidential elections) — the usual shopping list of climate topics.

I guess they feel like they’re conveying the global aspect of the issue by visiting so many places, but the problem is, if that’s the point you want to convey, then convey it in a single sequence about how global the problem is, not through an ambling narrative structure.

Furthermore, stick to the narrative. Just before the Paris climate meeting the huge terrorist attack took place. It was powerful material, but it was also “off the narrative” of the movie. Yes, Gore gives a very heartfelt speech to the journalists about it, but it’s still OFF THE NARRATIVE. Powerful for powerful’s sake is not the way to tell a clear, focused story. There’s just too many amblings and diversions throughout.

Didn’t these filmmakers read the editorial in the NY Times on January 19 pointing out that the Democrats have been sidetracked by trying to accommodate the various needs of a diverse America and thus have failed to promote a unifying narrative.” The movie does the same thing — pursues some sort of “more is more” agenda and ends up with failing to bring home a clear singular experience.



BUILD YOUR CHRISTMAS TREE, THEN PUT SOME ORNAMENTS ON IT

Political strategist Dave Gold — one of my newest heroes — has a very simple way to convey narrative structure. He published a great article in Politico in February telling the Democrats to lighten up on the metrics, focus more on story. He says your central narrative is the Christmas tree, the issues are the ornaments.

Gore’s Christmas tree should have been the India challenge. The movie should have opened in Paris — the Ordinary World — all the nations coming together to solve the climate problem. Then it should have made clear WHAT’S AT STAKE — why Paris mattered, what will happen if there’s not an agreement — who the major players are. It should have made us feel like everything is on track, just fine, BUT THEN … the India delegation says basically you people had your 150 years of burning fossil fuels, now it’s our turn.

That moment should have happened about 15 minutes in. We should have then gone to India to see the consequences of global warming, heard from some of the people behind that attitude, learned about why their delegate would have said that and what it might take to change it. So much that could have been so logical and made for a great journey.

Instead the movie doesn’t even go to Paris until about halfway through. The India storyline emerges around an hour in. What are they thinking — that telling a story is as simple as, “And then, and then, and then …”?



GET THEE TO A STORY CIRCLE

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a few nice little moments such as the reversal of the India delegation at the Paris meeting, but it all weaves so ineptly back and forth, all over the place. And then ends with narrative poop as we see Gore walk into Trump Tower, obviously for the pathetic meeting he and Leonardo DiCaprio gave the newly elected Trump back in December where Trump clearly was just arrogantly toying with them.

It cuts from Gore entering the building to a close up solo shot of him speaking to someone which obviously must be Trump. This is called THE OBLIGATORY SHOT in filmmaking parlance. If you show us the guy walking into Trump Tower, then Gore blabbering for about a minute, we will connect the dots and know he must be talking to Trump as we get ready for the money shot which is the reverse on Trump. At that point, the Trump shot is obligatory.

BUT … they did nothing of the sort. It was just Al pontificating for too long. No Trump. No money shot. As the Irish commentator on my iPad FIFA game would say after a poor shot on goal, “That’s a complete let off.”

Gore and his filmmakers really should do our Story Circles Narrative Training. Their circle would have figured all these structural elements out. It’s what the story circle does.



EVERYBODY’S A CRITIC

Last year I ripped poor old Marc Morano’s climate skeptic “documentary” on Andy Revkin’s NY Times blog (btw, Doug Parsons just posted his interview with Morano for his America Adapts climate podcast where I join him for the analysis). I criticized his film for the same basic problems — a lack of compelling narrative structure. In his case there were also production shortcomings that were an inevitable result of his limited budget.

For this movie they clearly have all the money in the world for their visual elements, but as my buddy Paul would point out, “Clone Wars” also had the stunning visual effects. It just didn’t have a good story.

Why couldn’t they make “The Empire Strikes Back” for global warming?





#100) The Atlantic demonstrates the ABT

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

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

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



YES, IT IS THAT SIMPLE AND COMMON

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

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

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

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