May 15th, 2013
We’ve all been raised with the notion of TV as evil, and yet … not only is crime down in our country and violence on the decline worldwide, but now the Breakthrough Institute folks offer up TV as a significant factor in the decline of birth rates in India and thus famine. With so much non-misery in the world, how is anyone supposed to tell a good story?
THIS is exactly the reason I’ve been such a fan of USC’s Hollywood Health and Society project for the past few years. This is what they work towards — effective messaging through mainstream television shows including soap operas (which are believed to have played a significant part in Brazil’s drastic reduction in fertility rate). Rather than ridiculing the medium, they acknowledge it’s power and reach, and try to work within those constraints. Now here’s an article by Martin Lewis of the Breakthrough Institute that concurs with their approach.
THE NON-HUNGER GAMES
For those of us who were kids in the 1960′s, we grew up with the news of world famine as a routine occurrence. When I was five years old over 15 million people died of starvation in China. Which I guess was why all of us were told at the dinner table to eat our food and not waste anything because of, “All the starving children in China.”
Given that today China practically owns us, that concept now is kinda borderline funny.
Famine used to be so prevalent. It’s yet another shifted baseline — so hard to recall those times, and now the bigger problem in many countries is obesity.
The guys at the Breakthrough Institute, led by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, have written yet another excellent essay (I’ve become an increasingly big fan of their writings) which points out, among other things, the non-evil role of television in this transition.
CHANNELING THE BOOB TUBE
Television has always been vilified. I remember my father calling it “the boob tube,” and David Halberstam in his landmark book, “The Powers That Be,” gave the definitive history of it’s decline from the early years of optimism about it’s civic role to the depths of the Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan’s Island (also known as the golden years to some of us).
But there’s a less obvious and immediate role of television, which is that it both reflects the current state of living as well as potentially sets trends in whatever direction it heads. The good folks at the USC Norman Lear Center for Entertainment Studies realized this more than a decade ago and began a partnership with the Centers of Disease Control to insert their public health messaging into the most widely watched television shows — particularly the narrative fiction shows.
It’s called the Hollywood Health and Society Project, Sandra Buffington has been the Director since its inception, and she gave a great interview to Dave Roberts of Grist in 2011 which he titled (using my father’s favorite term), “How to get the boob tube to tell the truth about climate change.”
MICHAEL CRICHTON WAS RIGHT
At the core of all this is the media world. Which makes me think of one of the most meaningful experiences I had in the making of my movie, “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy,” in 2007. I traded roughly 40 emails with legendary science fiction author and massive climate/environmental skeptic Michael Crichton over the course of four months.
I gave him a little bit of pushback over the nuttiness of his climate skepticism and his bizarre comparisons of discredited Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg with Galileo (say whuut?). His “State of Fear” book was terrible (he forced me to read it or end the conversation) and he produced a single photo of a meteorological “station” in a wooden box mounted on a telephone pole next to an incinerator can that might cause it problems, which he felt was sufficient evidence to dismiss all of NASA’s climate data for North America.
But the one very valid point he made is that the media world is driven, not by the truth, but by storytelling. He certainly knew what he was saying with this and in the years since I’ve managed to absorb it more deeply. What he said was the truth. If there is such a thing as the truth. And it’s probably the driving dynamic behind this line in Martin Lewis’s fascinating article.
MARTIN LEWIS: “I find it extraordinary that the massive global drop in human fertility has been so little noticed by the media.”
Declining human fertility doesn’t make for a very interesting story. Not nearly as compelling as “population explosion!”. So, indeed, why should the media be interested?
I’ve been going to Groundlings shows for 20 years, yet somehow missed the weekly “Crazy Uncle Joe Show.” Until last week. It truly amazed me. SCIENTISTS: Go see it — just to look at behavior that is polar opposite to yourself. And that’s not a criticism of either group. Just a statement of fascinating fact. Scientists live in a world of carefully controlled precision. Improv actors (especially in a show like this) ride in a car with no driver, and manage to make it work.
Groundlings performer Brian Palermo just after the show. He’s talking to Randy Atkins (of the National Academy of Engineering who was in town for the Broadcom Masters STEM finalists) and actress Dorie Barton. Brian and Dorie are my wonderful and amazingly talented workshop co-instructors.
“A PYROTECHNIC SEVEN PERSON DISPLAY OF CLEVERNESS”
A couple weeks ago “The Daily Show,” did a skit about capturing some guy and wanting to subject him to various forms of torture, one of which was, “You will be forced to watch a 90 minute long form improv comedy show.” Oich. That’s a pretty serious threat.
Improv is a technique that spreads the variation when it comes to comedy quality. A lot of it is painfully bad (particularly from actors who are not well trained), but some of it is far better than you could ever get with scripted performance since it has that spark of spontaneity and energy that can’t be faked. The highs can be so high that they justify all the lows. At least when the performers are really good.
When it’s done to the ultimate of it’s ability, it can be, “A pyrotechnic seven person display of cleverness.” Actually, that’s what the LA Times called “The Crazy Uncle Joe Show,“ which has been running at the Groundlings Improv Comedy Theater every Wednesday night at 8:00 for more than a decade. Somehow in the 20 years I’ve been seeing Groundlings shows I have never managed to catch it. Until last week. It knocked my socks off and is deserving of all that hype.
For me, it played on two levels. Yes, it was really funny and fun and entertaining and I found myself laughing a lot. But given my perspective of the science/art thing, I saw much more in it. I’ve literally never seen an improv comedy show like it. Not that it’s different for content, it’s just the sheer frickin’ speed of it. AND the way the actors direct themselves.
My storytelling workshop co-instructor, Brian Palermo, has been performing in the show for eleven years (he’s been in over 95% of the Joe Shows over those years, week after week, month after month — actually, come to think of it, do the math on Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” bit from “Outliers” and you’ll realize why Brian is so good). He says the show is, “directed by the format itself,” and he says he sometimes refers to it as, “a particle accelerator of silly.”
SPEED AND SELF-DIRECTION
In a nutshell, the show is very simple. There’s seven “players.” The first two actors step forward, the audience tells them what they are doing (something like “performing surgery”) gives them a title of a movie that they don’t act out, only manage to incorporate it at some point (so “Chinatown” might eventually surface with one of the players saying, “I’m so glad they built this new hospital in Chinatown”), then they’re off.
Where it gets amazing is as the scene builds speed the players on the sides “clap in” — one of them claps their hands, two of them take over the stage while the previous pair step aside, then they add themselves to the scene (maybe they are spectators in the gallery watching the operation saying silly comments to each other).
What amazed me was both the speed and self-direction. Improv is based on the core principle of affirmation — that you accept everything your partner says. But when improv is moving slowly or even at a normal pace you can feel that the players are still doing a little bit of critical thinking in their head, trying to figure out what does and doesn’t work about the premise.
With this show it gets going at such a blinding speed and with everyone coming up with ideas on the spot, there literally is zero room for anyone to disagree with anything. It’s like a stampede — if one buffalo in the middle were to suddenly stop, the entire herd would pile up. It has the same feeling.
So a player claps in, directs their partner to stand beside them, then says something like, “I just don’t understand why the surgeon is using children’s scissors.” The other player has to instantly figure out the circumstance (“oh, we’re in the gallery”) and come up with something. There’s no time for them to whisper a plan to each other — they just have to go for it. And if the partner directs them to sit in a chair, they can’t ask why. They just have to go with EVERYTHING (and now we’re getting to the polar opposite of scientists, who want a reason for EVERYTHING).
And here’s the truly crazy part — it goes for a half hour, non-stop. They run it twice, with a break in between. And it builds. Faster and faster. Which causes it to be funnier and funnier. And you realize that negation takes time. This is a show that is designed to ultimately allow zero time for negation.
It REALLY is a spectacle. And regarding the “directed by the format” idea — Brian said to me, “We can’t really direct each other. Many is the time I’ve had an idea and started a new scene with one line only to have it drastically altered by my scene partner’s next line — then IMPROV takes over and you just go with it.”
“You just go with it” — that’s a pretty good phrase to sum up what improv is.
In watching it I felt like it is the ultimate embodiment, fulfillment and embracing of everything improv teaches. After 20 years of seeing shows, this was the one where I felt like, “wow, I finally totally get what this “yes, and …”/affirmation stuff is about.”
AND THEN THERE’S SCIENCE
I truly encourage everyone, if you’re in L.A on a Wednesday night, go to a performance of this show. It is an original. The Groundlings are the ones, with this show, who created the “clap in” format as a show, which is now used all over the place. Brian says they got it from Groundlings alum Holly Mandel and an outside teacher, Stan Wells, whom they thank at the top of every show.
And if you’re a scientist, I’m not saying you should be like these people. In fact, you better not be. Not even for a few days — you’d destroy your career if you were this non-negating. I’m only saying come to the show and look at it on two levels. At the surface level, have fun and laugh. But at a deeper level, think about how completely different the behavior is, and what it does to your brain mechanistically to shut down the negation process even for a short while.
People have talked about the scientific method for centuries. It’s time to experiment with it by messing behaviorally with people’s brains in new ways.
May 6th, 2013
Ben Affleck may make his movies, “in the spirit of the truth,” but what about when nature filmmakers do it?
SHARK EATING ITS OWN TAIL IN SEA OF MONEY. What channel could Der Spiegel possibly be referring to?
IN THE SPIRIT OF THE TRUTH?
I loved it last fall when Ben Affleck at the Toronto Film Festival, talking about the accuracy of his movie, “Argo” said it was made, “in the spirit of the truth.” That is one of the most wonderfully carefree quotes ever about accuracy, a topic that really shouldn’t be considered carefree. It’s the equivalent of, “she’s kinda pregnant.” Either we can trust the accuracy of a movie or we can’t. Which is it?
Who knows what to make of today’s information-saturated, and increasingly error-saturated, world (see David H. Freedman’s excellent article, “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science” which pulls back the covers on the accuracy problem in the medical science world).
When it comes to the accurate depiction of nature in films, veteran nature filmmaker Chris Palmer wrote a really great book on the issue called, “Shooting in the Wild.” But his pleas for genuine reality in the presentation of nature appear ignored by a couple of British nature filmmakers who concocted a film about chimpanzee behavior in the wild that German critics have just pointed out is kinda bogus.
And sadly guess who was one of the advisors on the project — the recently tainted Jane Goodall.
April 29th, 2013
Some environmentalists are big on waging “winnable battles” and cheering about their “victories.” But the Streetlight Effect is the eventual cost. And the news from Hong Kong shows you the real price of today’s failed ocean conservation movement.
THE CITY WHERE SEA CREATURES GO TO DRY OUT. Very sad. Very true. The world’s oceans continue to be drained of wildlife with no end in sight.
WINNABLE BATTLES IN A LOSING WAR
I’ve held off writing this essay for a while, but after running it by a couple friends this past weekend, it’s time.
It starts with The Streetlight Effect, which David H. Freedman (who is a long time member of my Top 5 Journalists List) has written about in Discover. The basic idea is that a drunk is searching for his car keys in the grass beneath a streetlight. A man offers to help and asks him if this is where he lost the keys. The drunk says, “No, I lost them over there, but there’s no lights over there, so I’m searching here.”
Such is the story of “winnable battles” waged by environmental groups. They trumpet their victories and give the public the feeling of, “yay, we’re winning.” But they really have no interest in the honest big picture. Which for the oceans is grim and grimmer.
A couple weeks ago I spoke with a buddy who told me he had just returned from, “the city where sea creatures go to be dried out.” He was referring to Hong Kong and said there’s a part of it, “about the size of downtown Oakland,” where for block after block you see virtually every creature imaginable from the sea — from thresher sharks to damselfish — dead and being dried out for consumption. Gordon Ramsey gave a glimpse of it in his excellent piece on the shark finning trade.
In the meanwhile, conservation groups are busy convincing their donors that the real struggle to save the oceans can be found in singular places like a lagoon or a cove with one group of sea creatures. Which I guess is effective communication, but not effective global conservation. And ends up being basically searching under the street light because the lighting is good, not because it’s where the problems will be solved.
It’s all very distressing. Not only have the world’s oceans been stripped of so much wildlife, the stripping continues, largely unabated. The shark finning issue, at something like 100 million sharks a year, is enormous. And the public really has little clue because of these “winnable battles” communication strategies.
SO WHAT WOULD I LIKE?
I would like a singularity of voice by the ocean conservation movement. As a communicator, that is what you wish for. Not dozens of groups competing against each other with their various brands. Just one, singular, simple, powerful voice, created by all the major NGOS’s, coming together to convey the upsetting truth, that the world’s oceans have lost X percentage of it’s total wildlife biomass, and if things don’t change, by 2030 it will be down to Y.
And then I’d like for EVERY group to get behind that singular message, dedicating themselves to stopping the trend in all their various ways. Instead of waging all their, “Yay, we’re winning, give us more money” campaigns.
This is what Roger Bradbury was talking about last year in his somewhat nihilistic NY Times editorial on the plight of coral reefs when he said, “conservationists apparently value hope over truth.”
Truly it is the sad truth.
April 22nd, 2013
Is there any better journalist in America today? The guy has won two Pulitzer Prizes. He was on Bill Maher last Friday. He’s proof that you can be motivated, honest and optimistic all at the same time.
I keep promoting his 2009 Outside Magazine article. It really is the very best thing ever written on how to communicate about issues broadly. It’s the best because it’s so concise and short yet packed with gems of wisdom gained by his first person experiences in Africa. Everyone needs to read the article. At least twice.
MOTIVATED, HONEST AND OPTIMISTIC
Let’s start with honest. He showed it repeatedly on Bill Maher last Friday night. So many people think the world is falling to pieces. It’s such a deeply held belief, particularly among environmentalists. Almost to the point that if you don’t think the world is falling apart, then you must be an anti-environmentalist. The result of having that belief is that if the world really is in collapse, it then means you have to be pessimistic about the fate of humanity, which then leads to being disillusioned and thus unmotivated. All of which he disagrees with.
The panel was agonizing over the Boston bombing and then talking about the sad state of, “the world today.” But he disagreed.
First, he pointed out that the entire nation went bonkers over an incident that killed three people while last week laws addressing guns that kill 30,000 people annually got minimal attention and failed to pass. But then he pointed out the bigger point — which is that violence worldwide and terrorist events are actually on the decline. Which is the point Steven Pinker tried to make in his major tome, “The Better Angels of Our Nature” But saying the world is NOT going to end doesn’t make for a good story. It just doesn’t.
It’s the same old problem the science world is suffering — selection for false positives (everybody loves a good story), and lack of interest in null results (nobody wants to know what doesn’t cause a disease). This is why an understanding of narrative dynamics is so important. Our world isn’t about the truth, it’s about storytelling.
And then they got on to the plight of women, which he has written about perhaps better than anyone else lately with his bestselling book, “Half the Sky,” and popular video game to go with it. The panel wanted to be depressed about the grim fate of women, but he refused. He said he’s optimistic. He said, “If you look at the progress on education, even on attitudes toward domestic violence, I think this is a battle we are winning.”
It’s not surprising he talks this way. Read his Outside Magazine article. He talks about how maintaining hope is so crucial. So his optimism is really the embodiment of what he says in that article. He’s amazing. He’s visited the bleakest of scenes of human suffering, yet has the brightest and most positive outlook on life. Everyone needs to share his perspective — working endlessly to solve the worst problems, but remaining optimistic throughout.
On April 19 I’m giving the opening talk in a special session on “The Great Challenges” at the TEDMED Conference in Washington, D.C. I’ll be introducing the, “And, But, Therefore” template which will then be used at the end of the day to summarize each of the 20 discussions.
On the afternoon of the last day of TEDMED there will be a special session called The Great Challenges. It will begin with me giving a 10 minute talk about some general principles of storytelling, followed by two great storytellers — Ben Lillie and Erin Barker of the Story Collider Project. Then the participants will break into 20 discussion groups, reassembling at the end of the afternoon, when each group will be asked to give a one sentence summary of what they discussed. To structure their sentences they will use the “And, But, Therefore” template I have lifted and modified from Trey Parker, co-creator of South Park, and will present in my talk. It’s going to be a rather novel experience — as far as I know, no one has ever used it as a device for summarizing discussions like this. Which is cool.
THE AND, BUT AND THEREFORE OF STORYTELLING
Assuming my flight out of Homer, Alaska on April 16 doesn’t get blizzarded out, I’ll be flying overnight from Anchorage in time to give the opening talk of the Great Challenges Storytelling Session on the last day of TEDMED in Washington, D.C. My talk is titled, “The And, But and Therefore of Storytelling,” and will be just ten minutes. But the cool thing is I’ll be introducing the “And, But, Therefore” template, then at the end of the day all 20 of the Great Challenges discussion sessions for the afternoon will regroup and report what they talked about, using the ABT template to summarize their discussions in just one sentence each.
Have a look at their website, and especially the 20 Great Challenges topics. I’ll probably attend the discussion on dementia since my father, who died last fall at nearly 95 years old, suffered from it in his final years. My workshop co-instructor, Dorie Barton, will also be attending TEDMED and the discussions. It’s going to be fascinating. And continues my journey into the world of public health which began in 2010 with my first visit to the CDC. It’s been the greatest unexpected joy of my book. It’s so refreshing to find a profession that not only understands what I have to say, they actually support it. Yay.
March 26th, 2013
“Narrative Analysis” is EVERYWHERE in America today. It wasn’t this way a decade ago. It IS the zeitgeist. Get used to it. AND learn about it, or be lost.
TOURNEY NARRATIVE: The New Yorker has a nice article today about how the coaches (and one wife) make for better storytelling these days than the players.
HERE’S LOOKIN’ AT YOU, KIDS
I’m tellin’ ya, it wasn’t like this just a decade ago. Nobody talked to the President about, “the Democratic party narrative,” as Jon Stewart did a couple years ago on his show. News pundits didn’t sit around and discuss, “the NRA narrative,” as they have for the past couple months. And sports writers didn’t break down a simple basketball tournament the way that Ian Crouch does today in The New Yorker.
But his analysis is actually very good. He explains why there’s so much more interest in the basketball coaches rather than players in today’s NCAA Basketball Tournament. It’s because the coaches are interesting characters — they have backstories, personalities and distinctive styles. Players are young, faceless, temporary, and largely without any depth of character.
It’s very true. The biggest matchup this past weekend was between coaches Bill Self (of my beloved Kansas Jayhawks) and Roy Williams, the former Kansas coach. THAT was a good story, but it had absolutely zero to do with the players. Same for the biggest story of the weekend — Cinderella team Florida Gulf Coast — it’s all about the coach, Andy Enfield and his Victoria’s Secret wife (who doesn’t even get a name in the New Yorker article!).
The point to notice is this whole idea of “narrative analysis.” It’s everywhere. And at the center of it is storytelling. Which is why Dorie, Brian and I have developed our storytelling workshop over the past two years and are now writing a book about it. Welcome to “the narrative” of today’s communication.
March 21st, 2013
This morning I had a long Skype chat with Dr. Vicky Miller of the University of Bristol who boldly walked into an improv class in January with zero previous experience and emerged a different person. Yes, it can be that life changing.
THE FACE OF COURAGE. I have sooo much respect for this person — Dr. Vicky Miller who walked out of her laboratory and into an improv classroom. She contacted me last week to tell me about it. The experience has changed how she asks questions in seminars, how she interacts with people at meetings, and how she even reads Nature.
“HI, I’M VICKY, AND I’M A SCIENTIST …”
That’s how she said she started her class in January. The whole process actually began three years ago when she got married. She and her husband memorized their vows, but when it came time to “perform” them, her husband, a university lecturer who is also an actor/singer with a booming voice projected his words throughout the room, but she spoke up with her mousey voice and could hardly be heard.
The same was true when she would give science talks, until finally last May her friend Jane Oakshott, who teaches voice classes at Leeds University, convinced her to take three one hour classes with her. That was the start of the transition.
“People would say, ‘Speak up!’, but without technique you’re just shouting, not PROJECTING.”
In the voice classes they did a few improv exercises. “She made me do exercises, pretending to talk first to a dog, then a friend, using the same words, but to see how your voice changes depending upon the relationship. I couldn’t do it — it felt too silly — it was REALLY hard.” But when Vicky read my book over this past Christmas and read the things I said about improv training she made up her mind to address this challenge.
In typical scientist form (straight out of my book) she began by RESEARCHING the matter — reading several books on improv. But finally she realized the only way you can get to know improv, the ultimate experiential technique, is to, alas, experience it.
So she found an improv course at The Folkhouse in Bristol where they teach on-going education courses in things like painting, language, and acting. The first night she was so dreading it, “I didn’t even want to get off the sofa to go.
“That first night I felt really awkward, I crept into the room, sat in a chair, didn’t introduce myself to anyone, just wanted to sink into the floor and DIE!”
“We did lots of clapping games like zip/zap/boing — lots of clapping, things to get you out of your head. I introduced myself that night by saying, ‘Hi, I’m Vicky, and I’m a scientist, I spend all day pipetting, moving small amounts of liquid from one tube to another.’ But I REALLY ENJOYED IT from the start, and went home that first night feeling I wanted to go back and do more. I felt I was getting stuck, wanted to get unstuck, some in the class were automatically very good and very playful. I was determined to get better at it.”
short sharp shock
“The thing I find about improv is it gives you a CONTACT HIGH — my whole class began complaining that we finish the class at 10 p.m. — nobody can get to sleep until 3 am, all thinking about the ways we could do it much better.”
“We did a scene with objectives — I was given the role of ‘be the most important person in the room’ — instead of being quiet and reclusive, my normal self, it was so much fun to try that sort of thing in a place where there were no consequences. Actually, I’m just back from a science conference. Normally I would talk to two or three people, but because of this training I probably talked to about 50 people, able to relax and exchange ideas — ALL because of what I’ve gained through the improv class.”
“One of the most memorable nights we did the typical “Whose Line is it Anyway,” where people come in the door and they have an objective — I was throwing a party, one guy came in the door who thought I was a goddess, one guy thought I was suicidal, and a woman who thought I’d stolen some very important jewelry of hers. I had the one guy bowing down, other guy clutching me asking if I was okay, and then the woman, reaching up under my dress to see where I had hidden the jewelry! ALL IN FRONT OF THE REST OF THE CLASS! No questions I will ever get in a science seminar are going to be that overwhelming!!!”
“The instructor was very good, very playful, very hands-off — just set us up and let us go — we would just do stuff. We were a very mixed group in terms of background, age, in terms of objectives for doing the course. Half would like to be actors, the other half doing for confidence skills.”
“Another favorite moment — we did a team exercise — we did the SUPERMAN exercise, where you walk around the room, one person yells Superman, everybody rushes over, picks them up, and flies them around the room. It was hilarious, but also you felt the bond of the team effort.”
sit in solemn silence
A TRANSFORMATION IN POISE AND CONFIDENCE
“We recently had a very big departmental seminar with a very important speaker. I asked a question which I would never have done before because I wouldn’t have been sure I would have been heard. There are so many more possibilities — not scared, not hunched down, not wanting to destroy others to make myself look good, I can PLAY with them now.”
dull dark dock
YOU, TOO, CAN IMPROV
The time has come for more scientists to bite the bullet and do this. It’s more than just fun and games — it can be life altering. Improv takes you into places and spaces you would never venture into. In a workshop last summer with a major environmental organization, as Brian Palermo of the Groundlings led the improv exercises, the woman who is head of their program said to me, “I’ve been working with all these people for two years but never seen this side of them — we never have the circumstances here for this sort of behavior — they’re actually all human!”
There’s a reason the Groundlings instructors are routinely brought into to run workshops in the corporate world (in my Benshi interview with Groundling Jeremy Rowley three years ago he discussed this in detail). Just like Dr. Vicky Miller, if you look around your neighborhood you can find your own local improv class. Then it’s just a matter of deciding you can be as brave as she was. Come on, what’s the worst that will happen — you’ll embarrass yourself in front of a bunch of strangers who are making even bigger fools of themselves, all behind closed doors.
Here’s Vicky’s overall advice to fellow scientists: “Just do it! It’s wonderful! Really engage — stop thinking, just react.”
This is gonna sound cult-like. The PCM (Process Communication Model) is the real deal. What does it do? It helps you make sense of human behavior in a practical, experiential (non-Nerd Loopy), visceral way. I spent 3 days last week attending a workshop on it. I started as a skeptic. Within an hour I was sold. It bears some similarity to Briggs-Myers (which the government has used for decades), but much more intuitive, practical and applied. It also shares a common thread with improv acting and Meisner acting technique (which formed the core of my book) in that it’s all about putting the focus on the other person. Both Clintons were trained in it and swear by it. Imagine a world where climate scientists no longer stared at climate skeptics and said, “Why do they act like that?” and shouted things that nobody listens to, but instead said, “I get it.” PCM could make that happen.
PRETTY CLEAR METHOD. “If you want them to listen to what you say, speak their language.” Taibi Kahler of Arkansas created the PCM approach to communication in the late 1970′s. The core principles are simple. You figure out what style of language people respond to — robotic orders, robotic questions, warm and comforting words, or highly energized pep talk — then you address them accordingly. It helps you understand why angry climate activists shouting at the right wing haven’t accomplished much. Nor has the Nerd Looped climate communication campaign of the academics. What is needed is this more pragmatic approach to communication.
WHY DOES HE BEHAVE THAT WAY?
Ever ponder this question? It’s at the heart of most people’s discussions of the anti-evolution and anti-climate science movements — countless academics scratching their heads baffled by, “Why do the anti-science folks behave that way?”
At the heart of behavior is personality. For both of my documentaries on the anti-science movements, “Flock of Dodos,” and “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy,” I came to the conclusion that it’s not about science, it’s about personality. If you were to map out the personality traits of the anti-science crowd vs. the science crowd, they would fall into two clearly distinct groups. So why wouldn’t you take a deeper interest in behavior?
And not the sort of behavior where you bring in teams of Ph.D.’s to give talks on all their clinical studies and sets of polling data, but rather of the visceral/experiential sort. I’m talking about the people who actually use behavioral knowledge in a practical setting — who actually INTERACT with human beings. If you want to consult the experts on this you should probably talk to acting teachers (the source of learning for my book), OR … people who run behavior workshops. Which is what I experienced last week.
THE PCM APPROACH
Before I get into the specifics of the three day workshop, let me bring the gist of it to life with one simple example. On the second day, the instructor, to illustrate how PCM works, said, “Last night when I decided to head to bed and tell my three kids good night I gave the first one a big hug — she’s a HARMONIZER/PERSISTER (meaning she values feelings and emotions), the second one, my son the basketball player, I slapped a high five — he’s a REBEL/PROMOTER (meaning he enjoys energy and excitement), the third I walked right past out of the room without saying a word to her — she’s a DREAMER/THINKER (meaning she prefers to just be left alone). Each one was completely happy in their own way.”
Had he tried to hug the basketball player, slap a high five to the dreamer, and ignored the harmonizer he would have had three uncomfortable kids. It’s that simple.
That one brief example kind of brought it to life more vividly than anything for me. Yes, as a parent you probably intuitively know that your basketball playing son doesn’t want a hug, but this is just the starting point. The ramifications of the personality types is endless.
And yes, the scientist side of my brain began the workshop by warning the instructor I doubted I would last three days — I’m so swamped with things to do and I’m such a short attention span lunatic. But let me just skip to how it all ended. In the last few minutes of the third day I said to the instructor and ten participants, “I know my profile says I’m a Rebel, which means I bore easily, but I just have to say I could honestly do another three days of this workshop without getting bored — it’s that fascinating.”
Take that in. I walked out of, “Django,” halfway through — it bored me. This is about the strongest possible endorsement I could give a workshop. There’s nothing cultish about it. It bears similarity to Briggs-Myers testing developed in the 1920′s and still widely used by the government. But it’s so much better.
It also has a common feel to Meisner acting techniques (I spent two years in a program) and improv acting (I’ve taken several levels of classes and now work with improv instructors in my workshops) in that all three emphasize putting the focus more on the other individual than on yourself. At the heart of all of them is developing your ability to LISTEN. And of course anyone who has heard me speak has probably heard me cite Peter Karieva’s review of my book in Science where he noted that I neglected the biggest problem of scientists when it comes to communication which is, “their inability to listen.” All of these methods of training (Improv, Meisner, PCM) cultivate listening ability, which means they are ALL of value to scientists and environmentalists and academics in general.
OKAY, NOW LOWER YOUR GUARD FOR A MOMENT HERE …
Trust me. I used to be a scientist.
It began with a 50 question questionnaire we had to fill out the week before. They use this to present to you the first morning your profile in a multitude of ways, breaking you down into the six personality types, telling you how much of each type you have (big surprise, my primary level is REBEL, with secondary level PROMOTER — most everyone else in the group had HARMONIZER as their primary or secondary level — I was the outlier, big time). Over the next three days that information becomes the central focus of the exercises and discussions.
The most important element is the “Channels of Communication” — which means basically developing the realization of things like sensitive people don’t like to be talked to bluntly, while there are some other personality types that actually prefer to be spoken to in plain, non-emotive terms.
This is something that has stewed inside of me for over three decades — from waaay back when I was doing my Ph.D. in biology and watched as an abusive professor wreaked havoc on graduate students. What I noticed was that his excessively demanding style caused the more creative students to crumple up while the more discipline oriented students seem to relish in his fierceness. That was the first time I realized that different people really need different channels of communication. This is one of the reasons the training instantly made sense to me on the first day.
A simple way to summarize a lot of the workshop is to say it’s a glorified and detailed exercise in the old adage of, “know your audience.” It’s saying: know which personality type someone is, then speak to them in the manner to which they are most responsive. But the difference is that it is a system that has been evolving since the late 1970′s when Taibi Kahler, a guy from Arkansas with an enormous IQ, first developed it.
Being from Arkansas he became buddies with the Clintons. They both got trained in it early on (see their endorsements here). Bill Clinton’s brilliant, “I feel your pain,” statement came directly out of his PCM training. Pixar Animation Studios has PCM trainers on their staff. On and on. It’s truly powerful stuff. It will have a major effect on me. I walked out of the workshop looking at the world differently. Not in a cultish way — just in the way of now having a simple, functional, analytical criteria with which to look at behavior. And all I can say is that the science world needs it — at least with some of the top level people.
I have no connection with it — I just happened to know the instructor who has been telling me for five years about it — saying I really should take the workshop. He himself is a great communicator so I knew all along there was something to it. I finally decided to take him up on it last week. If anyone wants to hear more about you’re welcome to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I can direct you to the relevant resources and share more details of why I ended up so impressed.
The science and environmental worlds continue to be so baffled by human behavior. PCM training is sorely needed.
March 15th, 2013
How do you have a vastly unsustainable 100 million sharks a year being slaughtered, yet USA Today telling its readers “it’s all good”? To the uninformed reader, this headline says one simple thing — sharks just got “global protection.” Plain and simple. And not true.
DON’T WORRY, BE HAPPY! Nice job with the messaging. Here’s the nation’s second largest newspaper sending out the word this morning that sharks are all set now as they “get global protection.” Whew. I guess there’s no problem with them after all. Time to close up all the major shark conservation groups and move on to protecting barnacles.
I sure hope somebody in the shark conservation world fell out of their chair when they saw this on the front page of USA Today, the nation’s second largest newspaper. It says sharks “get global protection.” Who cares about whatever the reality is (namely that I was in Fiji two months ago and saw the shark slaughter problem with my own eyes, its out of control and being reported at 100 million a year), the perception projected from this headline is that … well, sharks “get global protection.”
The article accompanying the headline fills in the details — that CITES voted to protect 5 species somewhere, somehow, while the article even mentions the 100 million sharks harvested annually. The proper headline should be “Sharks Still Getting Screwed.” And btw, in today’s rapid world, headlines are about all that matter for broad communication.
How can there be all the MASSIVE conservation groups with the massive budgets and massive teams of communications “experts,” yet this is what appears in the nation’s second largest newspaper? It’s the sort of bungling of conservation communication that has gone on for over a decade. Yes, I know what the communications people will say, “It’s the media’s fault, we can’t help it.” You won’t hear Hollywood publicists saying that when the headlines come out about their clients. The good ones know how to make sure the headlines match what their client wants. There are ways to achieve that, but only if you’re good at it.
Even the Japan Times will tell you sharks are in “freefall.”