In my upcoming book I present something I have labeled as “The Dobzhansky Template” for finding the core theme or message of a narrative. Marco Rubio gave a speech yesterday that felt almost like he had used the template. It was a model of clear messaging.
 
Rubio

HOW TO MESSAGE EFFECTIVELY IN A SPEECH by Marco Rubio

 
 
 
MESSAGING 101

I’m not a fan of Marco Rubio (the dude’s a climate skeptic for starters), but he showed the kind of aggressive messaging that the right wing is so adept at in a speech yesterday, labeling his opponent, Hillary Clinton, with exactly that word — “yesterday.” Here’s what he said.

RUBIO: Just yesterday, a leader from yesterday, began a campaign for president by promising to take us back to yesterday.

Skillfully done. And kinda funny, too.

 

THE DOBZHANSKY TEMPLATE

In our Connection Storymaker Workshop of the past 5 years we developed the idea of a template for finding “the one word” at the core of your narrative using the famous quote from geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky (“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”).

The idea is the search for “the one thing” that captures the bulk of the narrative. Here’s the sentence as a template:

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

And here’s the template as Rubio would have used it.

Nothing in HILLARY CLINTON’S CAMPAIGN makes sense except in the light of YESTERDAY.

The object of messaging is that once you figure out that one thing — you hit the note over and over, from a variety of angles. As Rubio did in a single sentence. I’m not sure about the rest of his speech, but he could easily have continued hitting that message in multiple ways — always coming back to the bottom line — that his opponent is out of touch with today.

It’s a very simple and fairly harsh label to put on her, but that’s how it’s done by the big boys — creating the frame around their opponent before the opponent can create their own frame. Whether it sticks remains to be seen, but for now, it was a model effort for how a challenger takes on a superior opponent. It’s also a cue for her to swing back, which she hopefully does with equal skill.

One is complete, the other three will finish by the end of next month. Ten hours and you’ll never view text the same.
 

PastedGraphic-10

ABSORBING NARRATIVE STRUCTURE AT THE GUT LEVEL.  The four prototypes that started in late January.

 
 
 
THE CURE TO BOREDOM AND CONFUSION
 
It’s very simple. At the core of it everything is the ABT – the simple structuring device that tracks back to Aristotle. It’s the narrative ideal. Everything else is either a tiny bit more boring or a tiny bit more confusing.

It’s five people doing 10 one hour sessions where they first, analyze the narrative structure of abstracts, then work on their own stories using the narrative tools developed in our Connection Storymaker Workshop.

The specifics are laid out in my new book, “Houston, We Have A Narrative: Why Science Needs Story,” coming in September. All of the sessions have been recorded. We are about to begin analyzing the videos, producing a novel data set on how people improve their communication skills.

Story Circles is the solution to the problem I laid out in the third chapter of my first book. The chapter was titled, “Don’t Be Such A Poor Storyteller.” It puts you on the path to solving that problem.

Big thanks to George Harper (Hendrix College), Mike Strauss (USDA), Alan Thomas (NIH/Univ of Chicago) and all the wonderful participants.

Wanna know what the new book is about? It’s pretty much right there in the Table of Contents.

Contents

Just got back from Chicago where Story Circles co-producer Jayde Lovell and I launched the postdoc-level prototype of Story Circles. This one is being sponsored by the NIH/University of Chicago My C.H.O.I.C.E. program. I’ll return in three weeks to launch the grad student prototype. In the meanwhile, next week will be the 10th and concluding session of the undergrad prototype at Hendrix College where five brave and intrepid students, in addition to enjoying it, are now changed for life. Never again will they bore or confuse anyone. Hopefully. They also had a lot of fun.

Benshi

OPERATION STORY CIRCLE: Five people, one hour a week, ten sessions. That’s what each circle consists of. We liken it to fitness training. We give you the narrative tools on the first day, you just do weekly one hour workouts consisting of analyzing research abstracts with the tools, then work on your own stories with them. Almost no homework. Pretty much the same as going to the gym, just a different set of muscles you’re working out.

 

 
THERE IS A CURE TO BOREDOM AND CONFUSION

COMPASSIONATE COMMENTATOR: There’s no need to suffer narrative deficiency alone any more. A cure is here. It’s called Story Circles. It’s fun, it’s painless and it works. Ask your doctor about Story Circles today.

That’s going to be the tagline eventually for our TV commercial for Story Circles when that day arrives. For now, it’s time to start spreading the word — Story Circles works.

With Story Circles (sounding like an infomercial again, sorry) you’ll never look at content the same way.

It’s true. How can it not be true. There simply aren’t any tools for simple structural analysis of narrative. Now there are.

We can see it in the undergrad prototype group at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas. Two months their analysis of content was little more than, “It’s not very well written — kind of clunky, doesn’t flow, didn’t grab me, too wordy.” Inarticulate, mostly just gut level analysis.

Now they have specific vocabulary to analyze structure analytically. They have a whole page of terms and templates, most of which can be found in my last book, “Connection,” all of which will be found in my new book in September.

Big things lie ahead for Story Circles. For now we need to finish the prototypes and analyze them properly (everything is being videoed). This will give a clear picture of how it works and what can be expected. Then we’ll be ready to release it widely.

I’m in Chicago next week, speaking at University of Chicago, launching our third Story Circle prototype with a group of their NIH postdocs, and meeting with the good people at University of Chicago Press who just locked this in as the cover artwork for the new book.

 

HoustonCover

TIME FOR A CHANGE. A lot of thought has gone into that subtitle — “Why Science Needs Story.” The world has changed. We are now driven by communication dynamics, which in turn are driven by 4,000 years of storytelling. It’s time for science to catch up with this. I’m not saying scientists need to tell stories, only that they all need to understand how it works better.

Ever been part of a discussion where everything suddenly turns negative as the group rips up every good idea, plowing the whole thing into the ground? I’ve seen a few. Related to this, I heard a wonderful comment last week from a scientist about the impact of our improv training on their organization.

 

Benshi

HAVE YOU EVER … been part of a discussion that turned negative and ended up like this?   Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a way to pull out of such a negation nose dive?

 
 

PROBLEM:  UNRESTRAINED NEGATION

Happens every day, in conference rooms around the world.  It’s not just a science thing — but the negation/falsification process of science can make it worse.

Sometimes it feels really good as you watch a flimsy idea get taken to pieces through tough, incisive questioning that has at the core of it the premise that everything presented is wrong until shown to be otherwise.  It’s what science is based upon — a process of falsification — testing ideas to see if they can be falsified until you finally have subjected them to so much rigor and they haven’t failed that you can conclude you have something robust.  It’s great when it works that way.

But it comes with a potential down side, which is the tailspin of unrestrained negation, obliterating everything that might have been salvaged as worthwhile.

 
SOLUTION:  CHANGING THE COURSE OF DISCUSSIONS

A little over two years ago we ran our Connection Storymaker Workshop with the folks at National Park Service headquarters in Ft. Collins, Colorado.  We had two groups of about twenty people each.  It felt like a successful experience, but I never believe anything I do really works until someone gives me some proof (me to self:  ”Don’t be SUCH a scientist!!!”).  Which is what happened last week.

I had a long phone call with one of our hosts.  He said, “You wouldn’t believe how many times in discussions, since that training, we have brought up the basic, ‘Yes, and …’ approach you taught us in the workshop.  There have been multiple instances when everyone is headed in a negative direction, then someone says, “Let’s remember the ‘Yes, and …’ thing,’” and the discussion reverses almost immediately.”

That warmed my heart sooo much.  It had never dawned on me — that application of improv.  We always present it as a tool for enhancing creativity, making you more human and alive, getting you out of your head … but I’ve never thought to talk about it as an emergency maneuver for a negation nose dive.

Yes, and … I think I’ll be including that attribute of improv in the future when I talk about it.  I can’t say enough good things about the training, and Brian Palermo (who will be doing improv next week at the ASLO meeting in Spain).

This is a great little 5 minute video where my workshop co-instructor and co-author of “Connection” Brian Palermo invites folks to join the workshop he is giving in a couple weeks at the ASLO meeting in Spain.  I won’t be attending (swamped with Story Circles plus Princeton visit this week), but I know he will be as great as he always is.  If you’re going, I strongly recommend you join him — he’s always excellent!

 

 

BRIAN ON IMPROV.  This is just a simple explanation from Brian Palermo hitting on some of the attributes of improv training and giving you a little understanding of why he enjoys the workshops as much as the participants.  (BTW, video production and editing by Bec Susan Gill — who can be contacted along with her producing partner Jayde Lovell through their blog.)

After my panel last week with Derek Muller at the North American Carbon Program meeting in DC a few people noted how Derek and his video on climate boredom point to the subject of climate as inherently boring whereas I point to the communicators themselves as doing an inadequate job. Let’s take a closer look at this divide.

an_iranian_delegate_fights_boredom_during_a_plenar_548fdd514e

IS CLIMATE INHERENTLY BORING? I have a feeling this delegate from Iran to the recent climate change conference in Peru would say so.

 

DEREK: IT’S THE MATERIAL

Derek Muller produces awesome videos on his Youtube Channel Veritasium. In our panel he showed his video, “Climate Change is Boring.” Towards the end of the video he says, “The real reason I find climate change boring is because we know what the problem is — the science is well established and the solutions are fairly obvious, and yet action is not being taken.”

I love the video, but I don’t agree with his premise that climate is somehow intrinsically boring and thus a hopelessly difficult subject to communicate. I think there’s plenty of reason for hope that some day someone will produce a film about global warming that involves such excellent storytelling that generations will want to watch and rewatch it as much as “The Wizard of Oz.” Here’s how that could happen.

 

ME: IT’S THE MOZART (A HUGELY CREATIVE EYE IS NEEDED)

I love innovation and creativity. I pretty much live for it. And I know it requires less literal thinking.

A great case study of the power of innovation and creativity is what happened with the life story of Mozart in the movies. It’s a good parable for this climate boredom problem.

Similar to the subject of climate, for decades in Hollywood the subject of Mozart was seen as too boring to be the focus of an entire movie — there just wasn’t a good story. People figured he was such a genius, there must be a good story. But there wasn’t. There was only the “and, and, and” elements of a good resume: Mozart was a child prodigy AND he was a teen prodigy AND in his twenties he continued to be a genius AND by the time of his death at just 35 he was … still pretty much of a genius.

You could make a movie of all that, and the Mozart fans would probably love it as they got to hear their favorite music and coo over how amazing he was. But that’s not great storytelling. That’s a journey from Point A to Point A. And as a result, no one was able to make a memorable movie about Mozart. All the way up until 1984.

 

THE NON-LITERAL ROAD LESS TRAVELED

Finally a brilliant playwright named Peter Shaffer cracked the nut. Instead of telling the one dimensional story of Mozart the genius, he took a less literal, more creative approach to the material. He discovered this other character — Salieri — a man whose life story was indeed an interesting journey. Salieri began life thinking he was a peer to Mozart, but by the end of his life was forced to accept that he was a mere mortal, not made of the same stock as Mozart the genius, and thus ended his life a bitter and jealous man, filled with the sort of human frailties that interest audiences.

The play was turned into the movie “Amadeus,” which is #53 on the AFI List of 100 Greatest Movies. It’s one of my all-time favorite movies. And it should be an inspiration to people wanting to communicate about climate in a way that will stick with people many years later.

The fact is, it would have been easy in 1980 to say, “Face it, Mozart is boring, you’ll never manage to interest people in him.” But after the movie came out no one would have called Mozart boring.

 

THE SCIENCE COMMUNICATION HIPPOCRATIC OATH: “First, Do No Boredom”

I have said before, science communicators should almost take a sort of Hippocratic Oath swearing that there is no such thing as a boring subject, only inadequate communicators.

It’s the truth. Just watch HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. They manage to take the most trivial and unknown of sports events and tell fascinating stories set in those worlds because they have the ability to spot an interesting story when it comes along.

Perhaps some day the climate communication people, with all their good intentions, will develop this ability. But for now all they seem capable of is telling endless preachy “and, and, and” pieces that simply make things worse. And make it easy to feel like the subject of climate is inherently boring.

Some day someone will crack the climate communication nut as well as Peter Shaffer did for Mozart. And it will be great. And transformative as overnight people suddenly think climate is interesting. I will happen eventually, I’m sure of it. But until then, all I see is a dire shortage of creativity.

And if you want to see the consequences of the one dimensional, “and, and, and” approach all you have to do is watch the recent movie, “Unbroken.” The book was tremendous, but what Angelina Jolie did was sad and inept. She made a movie that was exactly the sort of one dimensional “and, and, and” piece that I’m bemoaning here. Her movie ended up being a series of episodes of Louis Zamperini overcoming one challenge after another. No arc, no complexity, no inner journey. Just a resume of accomplishments.

The Motion Picture Academy actually regained some of my respect by announcing only 8 nominations for the potential 10 Best Picture slots this year. Universal Studios spent all last year saying “Unbroken” would be a guaranteed nominee. Not only did it not get a nod, it’s doubly painful because it wasn’t like there too many nominees this year. There weren’t. The Academy basically said, “We’ve got space for your movie, but it’s just not very good.”

“Unbroken” ended up with around 50% on Rotten Tomatoes, but even most of the favorable reviews really weren’t that favorable. Angelina has learned the hard way there is more to storytelling than just listing facts. Telling good stories is hard, but absolutely essential to break out of the core demographic of followers.

I’m willing to bet it’s the very best element-based meeting in the cosmos.  I’m talking about the North American Carbon Meeting, where I took part in a panel discussion yesterday with two excellent communicators — video superstar Derek Muller from Australia and Banana/Coal communicator Peter Griffith of NASA.  You can talk about nitrogen, phosphorus, argon, strontium, ruthenium, samarium, hassium or meiternium — none of them have a meeting that compares with this carbon meeting.  However, there is an “element of truth” to Derek’s Youtube video channel Veritasium being the best in online science videomaking. 

CarbonTWO NICE GUYS AND A GROUCH.  Derek Muller (left) won my immediate respect by saying climate change is boring.  In fact he has this excellent video explaining his thoughts on it. Peter Griffith of NASA also has a great short video about the carbonic difference between a banana and coal. 

 

 

AND THAT’S WHEN THE CARBON DIOXIDE CONCENTRATION REACHED 400 PARTS PER MILLION …

Global warming is bo-ho-horing.  Andy Revkin quoted me on this in 2010 in his NY Times Dot Earth blog, then the good folks at Der Speigel a couple years ago had me expound in this in their magazine.

So it was a joy to meet Youtube video legend Derek Muller from Australia (his Veritasium channel on Youtube has over 2 million subscribers) who has made entire videos addressing the difficulty of communicating this challenging yet important issue.  We were on a panel at the annual meeting of the North American Carbon Program (NAACP) in Washington D.C., put together by the meeting organizer, my old buddy Peter Griffith (we go back to the Carboniferous Period where we met as undergrads at Duke Marine Lab).

Peter is one of the “thousand points of light” in the science world whose support gives me cause for optimism in the relentless battle against the science establishment (who have never supported anything I’ve ever done in science communication).  He and I got reacquainted in 2009 when I spoke at NASA.  We hadn’t crossed paths in decades.

 

IS THAT A BANANA IN YOUR PANTS OR A LUMP OF COAL?

Peter is one of those folks who is a natural born communicator, and not surprisingly has taken a great interest in my two books.  In fact, my pushing and proding helped spur him to make this excellent video of his simple comparison of a banana and coal to convey the difference between new carbon versus old.

A lot of the major essays I have posted here over the past five years originate with Peter sending me an email with a recent thought or article.  He is proof that you can be both an excellent (carbon) researcher and excellent (carbon) communicator.

Together the three of us on the panel opinionated on the difficult yet important task of communicating about climate change in a world that is driven not by facts but by narrative dynamics (which of course is the topic of my new book coming in September).  People are always asking me who I think does a good job of communicating science …

Simple answer:  Derek Muller.  And not just a good job — his videos really are superb — both entertaining yet with deeper dimensions, looking at the basic science of how we reason and why some science topics are so elusive.

I hate to say this about all the well-intentioned feature documentary filmmakers out there, but Derek is the face of the future of filmmaking.  The masses are losing their interest in the 90 minute format.  All you have to do is visit Culver City in Los Angeles and look at the sprawling Youtube facilities to see where the future lies.  Derek is on the cutting edge of this new medium of mass communication, and makes you realize the future is bright.

Carbon2
TELL ME A STORY (BUT JUST DON’T MAKE IT ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE).  This scene is priceless in Derek Muller’s video addressing why climate change is so boring.  He is the cutting edge of science communication.

It’s been a busy year of speaking and working with a wide range of organizations. The narrative/storymaking skills I’m teaching these days — developed in part in our Connection Storymaker Workshop over the past decade — are relevant to almost any profession — from Deloitte accountants to Monsanto Safety Officers (with the National Safety Council). I work with far more than scientists. And as a result, I see patterns across different demographics. Some audiences are blindly affirming, some are blindly negating, and some are right in the middle.

Benshi

I SPEAK ACROSS A BROAD SPECTRUM OF ORGANIZATIONS. These are the 21 talks and workshops I did this year. Folks in the business community (and Hollywood) are more likely to be affirming and visceral, sometimes to an uncritical degree. At the other end of the spectrum, scientists tend to be heavily cerebral and can be blindly negating — dismissing ideas out of hand because there aren’t sufficient data or enough studies, regardless of how interesting the idea might be. Public health, in my experience, seems to hit the best balance.

 

 

INTRIGUING YEAR

I started this year by speaking to what I affectionately came to call, “The Wall of Blind Negation.” It was the audience for my opening keynote address in January at the annual meeting of the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biologists. It’s the main organization I was a member of when I left science. I had expected an enthusiastic crowd who would be eager to hear what I had learned in the two decades since I left science. And to their credit, the people who took part in my workshop really were into it. But my big talk ended up being almost like a Monty Python skit with a series of questions that were all negation. By the end I wanted to ask, “How can you be so certain that what I’ve presented to you here is so wrong?”

This pattern stands out for me because I speak across such a broad range of audiences these days. At the other end of the spectrum from scientists is the business community where accuracy and precision are not such a high priority. That means they can afford to be more affirming, less critical and negating. They tend to grab new ideas and run with them. You can feel the greater appreciation of innovation and novelty in the business community. You can also watch really bad ideas take off uncritically. Especially in Hollywood, where uncritical thinking is taken to the hilt.

In the middle of this spectrum is the public health world. I think because they have the word “public” in their job description they tend to be more practical minded when it comes to communication. They know that their work is of zero value if they fail to communicate it widely. As a result, I’ve found they are willing to pay without grouching, listen more closely, argue less, negate less, and generally have a greater understanding of the importance of communication.

In the end I have a hard time saying who is the best group to work with. I do appreciate the “acid test” that scientists are trained to subject ideas to. It can be frustrating and painful, but it does drive you to thinking deeper and harder. But on the other hand, when it gets to the point of a “wall of blind negation,” things can get rather ridiculously unproductive.

Here’s to next year being even more interesting, challenging and fun.