August 12th, 2014
Whether he ever knew of Joseph Campbell‘s work or not, when James Watson wrote “The Double Helix,” he was as tapped in to the template of the Hero’s Journey as George Lucas when he created “Star Wars.” In this guest essay, my Benshi editor of the past year, Steph Yin, breaks down “The Double Helix,” using both the Logline Maker of our Connection Storymaker app, as well as the Story Cycle found in books like “Winning the Story Wars.” I read “The Double Helix” as an undergraduate, a long time ago, yet it still sticks with me. There’s a reason for that, as Steph demonstrates here.
THE DOUBLE HELIX. This classic tale of scientific discovery, like so many other timeless stories, fits snugly into the Hero’s Journey.
THE MOLECULAR BIOLOGIST’S JOURNEY
Steph Yin graduated from Brown University last year and has been working part-time with me since then, running the Benshi and helping with my social media efforts. She’s a superstar who is headed to NYU in a couple weeks to begin working on her master’s degree in science journalism with this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner Dan Fagin. In January she helped me run the version of our Connection Storymaker Workshop at the SICB meeting in Austin, which gave us a chance to have in-depth conversations about the elements in our Connection Storymaker app.
Out of those chats came the realization that James Watson’s “The Double Helix” is a classic tale of a singular protagonist on a journey in search of a golden chalice in which he overcomes many obstacles to eventually succeed. More importantly, it’s one of the best-told stories from the world of science ever. We both wondered how closely Watson’s tale matches the template of the Hero’s Journey as originally described by Joseph Campbell in his 1949 foundational work, “Hero with a Thousand Faces.” Turns out it’s amazingly close, in addition to embodying a number of other great aspects of effective broad communication. The following is Steph’s analysis of “The Double Helix” from this perspective.
COMPARISON: THE ABT VS. THE LOGLINE MAKER
When Randy suggested that I read “The Double Helix” and investigate his suspicion that the story fit the classic Hero’s Journey model, I took it as an opportunity to grow two flowers with one seed. I had been meaning to read “The Double Helix” for ages, and had also just successfully used the logline maker in a serious way for the first time.
Though I had been working with Randy for nearly half a year, I could never fully appreciate the logline maker; some part of it always felt a bit contrived. After this recent success, I was hungry to apply the Hero’s Journey in different ways and flesh out my understanding of its potential.
Up until that point, the Storymaker’s logline template, based on the Hero’s Journey, had met with varying levels of success in Randy’s Connection Storymaker Workshops. While people intuitively grasped the “ABT” (and, but, therefore) storytelling template, they had a little more trouble trusting the Hero’s Journey template.
Randy believed this happened in part because once people generally settled on the story they wanted to tell, they were reluctant to modify it. While most stories by nature fit the ABT model easily, the Hero’s Journey takes a little more finagling. So when asked to use it as a template, people tend to find the exercise stifling and a bit forced.
The ABT is a practical and versatile tool. It can tell the story of an environmental hero who saves a watershed, explain how subatomic particles collide, or interpret a Mars rover discovery. The logline is much more human-centric—using more theatrical terms like “protagonist” and “ordinary world.” As a result it can seem not just distant, but downright flaky, even, to research scientists. Randy and I decided that for scientists to grasp the potential relevance of the logline, we needed a strong example of how a story of scientific research could fit within its framework (cue “The Double Helix!”).
BREAKING DOWN “THE DOUBLE HELIX”
Reading “The Double Helix,” I was struck by the candid nature of Watson’s writing. He became immediately familiar to me, and this, in turn, made reading the book much more enjoyable—as if I were reading letters from a friend. Watson has all the trappings of a flawed protagonist: he is young, foolhardy, searching for fast shortcuts to fame and seduced by the world of the educated, European socialites around him. His flaws set him up to undergo the Hero’s Journey.
Below is a summary of this journey, using the language of the Connection Storymaker logline:
In an ordinary world, a flawed protagonist: In an ordinary world, James Watson is a young scientist at the University of Chicago, primarily interested in studying birds, impatient for fame and looking for career shortcuts (in particular, avoiding taking any advanced chemistry, physics or math courses).
Feeling unfulfilled by ornithology, he becomes curious about how genes work. He starts grad school at Indiana University, advised by microbiologist Salvador Luria. At this point, he is interested in studying DNA but still hoping to avoid learning any deep chemistry.
A catalytic event happens: He gets his life upended when, in the spring of 1951, he goes to a conference in Naples and hears a talk on X-ray diffraction of DNA by Maurice Wilkins, a physicist and molecular biologist at King’s College. Around the same time, Watson realizes that these conferences were as much a gateway into a fashionable social scene as they were an entry into academia. He writes, “an important truth was slowly entering my head: a scientist’s life might be interesting socially as well as intellectually.”
After taking stock, the hero commits to action: After taking stock, Watson becomes determined to learn chemistry and solve the structure of DNA. He decides to go to the University of Cambridge to learn X-ray crystallography. There, he meets and bonds with Francis Crick, who is also interested in DNA. Watson writes, “From my first day in the lab I knew I would not leave Cambridge for a long time. Departing would be idiocy, for I had immediately discovered the fun of talking to Francis Crick. Finding someone in Max [Perutz]’s lab who knew that DNA was more important than proteins was real luck… Our lunch conversations quickly centered on how genes were put together.”
Together, Watson and Crick commit to finding the structure of DNA using a combination of X-ray photography and model building, a method that had recently been used by the biochemist Linus Pauling to understand the structure of proteins.“Within a few days after my arrival, we knew what to do: imitate Linus Pauling and beat him at his own game,” writes Watson. “Now, with me around the lab always wanting to talk about genes, Francis no longer kept his thoughts about DNA in a back recess of his brain… No one should mind if, by spending only a few hours a week thinking about DNA, he helped me solve a smashingly important problem.”
The stakes get raised: After a while, Watson and Crick think they have stumbled across a breakthrough. They believe DNA is a three-chain helix with phosphate groups held together by Mg2+ ions. However, when Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin (who were studying DNA at the same time) visit Cambridge at Watson and Crick’s request, they quickly find holes in this three-chain theory. Their idea thoroughly shot down, Watson and Crick are discredited, and their superiors order them to stop spending their time on DNA. “By this time neither of us really wanted to look at our model. All its glamor vanished, and the crudely improvised phosphorus atoms gave no hint that they would ever neatly fit into something of value,” writes Watson. “… the decision was thus passed on to Max that Francis and I must give up DNA.”
The hero must learn the lesson, to stop the antagonist and achieve the goal: In order to find the structure of DNA before his competitors (Maurice Wilkins, Rosalind Franklin, Linus Pauling), Watson must learn to take his time, cultivate a deeper learning of chemistry and mathematics and resist his temptations to take shortcuts or rush to conclusions. For a while, Watson and Crick do their DNA research on the down-low while making progress on their primary research (Watson focused on the structure of tobacco mosaic virus).
During this time, Watson devotes a great amount of time to learning chemistry—combing through scholarly journals and seminal books on the topic. “I used the dark and chilly days to learn more theoretical chemistry or to leaf through journals, hoping that possibly there existed a forgotten clue to DNA,” he writes. “The book I poked open the most was Francis’ copy of ‘The Nature of the Chemical Bond.’ Increasingly often, when Francis needed to look up a crucial bond length, it would turn up on the quarter bench of lab space that John [Kendrew] had given to me for experimental work.” Watson hones his X-ray photography skills, thinks about DNA late into his evenings and continually checks with reference books and colleagues to make sure his chemistry is correct.
By the time he and Crick believe again that they have cracked DNA’s structure (which, of course, this time they had), they are vigilant about checking their assumptions and obtaining exact coordinates before spilling the news, having learned from their earlier fiasco with Wilkins and Franklin. “Keeping King’s in the dark made sense until exact coordinates had been obtained for all the atoms. It was all too easy to fudge a successful series of atomic contacts so that, while each looked almost acceptable, the whole collection was energetically impossible,” writes Watson. “…Thus the next several days were to be spent using a plumb line and a measuring stick to obtain the relative positions of all atoms in a single nucleotide.”
By the end of the book, Watson and Crick have successfully predicted the structure of DNA, and it seems Watson has matured both as a scientist (in his deeper grasp on chemistry and math, as well as in his patience and restraint) and person (who is perhaps no longer as taken with instant fame and the charms of the social elite).
He ends the book in Paris, on a trip with his sister. In the last sentences of “The Double Helix,” he writes, “… now I was alone, looking at the long-haired girls near St. Germain des Prés and knowing they were not for me. I was twenty-five and too old to be unusual.” On that note, our hero turned the page toward a new journey.
August 11th, 2014
First off, I don’t think that’s saying much. The vast majority of environmental documentaries tend to be devoid of story, humorless, preachy, or so preachy as to be dishonest. “Damnation” has a perspective that captures the past century of development in America, but not in a plodding didactic way. It doesn’t just mention Edward Abbey, it is infused with his spirit. It doesn’t just tell about what existed before the Glen Canyon Dam flooded an incredible archeological resource, it shows you through the footage and personal journey of three people that reaches into your heart. It doesn’t just speak of protest—it documents with moments of hilarity pranksters pulling incredible middle-of-the-night dam graffiti stunts. And it amazingly manages to create a voice that plays to both ends of the demographic spectrum – in touch with twenty-somethings with the rebellious pranks, but also playing to the oldest of nature lovers with its dignity. After viewing it a second time on Friday evening at our screening in Los Angeles hosted by the La Cretz Foundation of UCLA I’m even more impressed. I’m sure the odds on it getting an Oscar nomination are long, but I intend to lobby everyone I know in the documentary world. Yes, it is that good.
THE RIGHT WAY TO APPRECIATE NATURE. Katie Lee, star of “Damnation,” in 1957 paying homage in her own special way to a tremendous natural resource, before the Glen Canyon Dam desecrated it.
“ED WOULD SHIT HIS PANTS”
If there’s one character in “Damnation” who truly steals the show it’s nonagenarian Katie Lee. You get to see her naked on the Colorado River in the mid-1950′s, taking a rafting trip just before a major section was destroyed by the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam. Her opening line is her reply to the question of whether she’s ever met Floyd Dominy, who was Director of the Bureau of Reclamation in the 60′s and played a significant role in the Glen Canyon project. She replies no, but if she ever did she would, “cut his balls off.” She’s awesome.
In the post-screening panel discussion Matt Stoecker, producer and co-creator of the movie, said she was on a panel discussion for a screening this spring. When asked what Edward Abbey (whom she knew) would have thought of the film she said, “Ed would shit his pants.”
That’s how much spirit the movie has. It’s truly excellent.
Watching it on Friday night at our Los Angeles screening it made me realize the first time you watch a movie you are drawing impressions, trying to decide if you like it. If you do like a movie, then the second time through you get to admire it. Which is what I found myself doing on Friday night.
If I had to pick one word to describe the movie it would be, “dignified” (yes, despite Katie’s outlandishness). In a world where everyone involved in making issue-oriented movies is trying to pack them full of celebrities (and missing the mark by a mile as “Years of Living Dangerously” did so sadly this past spring) or over-blowing conflict and conspiracy (like a certain fracking film), or unwilling to delve into cultural forces behind destructive behavior (“The Cove” was fun but was an exercise in political correctness when it came to looking into the eyes of a culture that tolerates dolphin slaughter) this movie was simply honest, humble and accurate.
There was no vilification. They let “the bad guys” speak in their own voice, and even put them in a fairly understanding light — showing how they were mostly a product of their times. The country was young, the Depression and World War II did certain things to the psyche of the nation, and a pathway was pursued for the times. No one in the film appeared proud of having destroyed parts of nature. The environment just wasn’t in their thinking. It was an age when wetlands were called swamps and rainforests were jungles. I remember that era. It finally began to change when I was a kid in the 1960′s and the modern environmental movement emerged. For the most part the developers weren’t evil, just myopic.
TIME TO PUSH FOR AN OSCAR NOMINATION
Since making my movie, “Flock of Dodos,” in 2006 for which we never deluded ourselves into thinking about the Oscars I’ve had to witness all sorts of dishonest, massively hyped, deeply polarizing screeds and polemics receive Oscar nominations. “Jesus Camp” and “Gasland” are two that immediately come to mind. Even the Oscar winning “Bowling for Columbine,” wasn’t brilliant storytelling, only loud argumentation.
Surely the world hasn’t devolved to such a state that only the screaming liars receive recognition. This movie has convinced me it is still possible to create an engaging and popular environmental documentary that works (btw, they won the Audience Appreciation Award at South By Southwest Film Festival where they had their premiere). The world needs this film to get all the recognition possible so it can serve as a model in so many ways — not just for environmental filmmaking, but also in educating the world on this entire futuristic trend of dam removal.
We had a great final question in the Q&A on Friday from a young guy from China. He told about the reckless dam construction going on there, then asked if this movie will be shown in China. It needs to be. The Chinese need to see this aspect of the future — that dams are a thing of the past. They need to know that this country, that went dam crazy in the 50′s is no longer building ANY dams, and is instead hard at work removing them with great success.
Let’s all get to work in spreading the word and seeing if it can end up at the Oscars. I’ve never seen a more deserving documentary. Ever.
Sorry. I’m a supporter of climate action, and just raved in my last post about a brilliant environmental documentary, but this thing from the White House is anti-communication. Why would you open with a preachy, dull professor lecturing you? Who exactly is that supposed to be geared towards? Didn’t anyone at the White House hear Daniel Kahneman’s instructions to find a voice that is, “Trusted and Liked.” Who likes being lectured to? And does anyone there understand the power of storytelling? Is this stuff really that difficult? Honest to goodness. Can you say bo-ho-horing.
A HUNKA, HUNKA BURNING BOREDOM.
MAKE IT STOP
I can’t tell you what this video says because I could only take 30 seconds of it. Yes, that is all that today’s audiences give you when it comes to video. Why should they give you more when we know that complete stories can be told in just 5 seconds of video, and Super Bowl commercials tell complex stories in just 30 seconds.
This is really bad. Your average USC undergraduate cinema student could make something far better. Film is a VISUAL medium. The visuals need to say something more than just FIRE. I don’t even know where to start with a critique of this video but I know we get much better work in my videomaking workshops. Sorry to be harsh, but it’s part of the game in filmmaking—you make a film, you get reviews, sometimes they’re not good—just look at the reviews for a movie like “Sex Tape” which I’m sure most people would rather watch than this thing.
Come on, White House, you know how tough communication is these days. You can do much better.
August 4th, 2014
Last year I scoffed at the biased mess that was “Gasland.” I wish “DamNation” had been out so I could have pointed to it to say this is how you present an issue you have strong opinions about without having the audience feel like they’re being conned. On Friday I’ll be moderating the panel discussion for a Los Angeles screening of “DamNation.” It’s a wonderful film filled with amazing sequences of inspiring protest efforts, beautiful scenery, and a heart-warming if sad jackpot of old movie footage of a trip down the Colorado River that will make you want to cry for the destruction dams have wrought. It’s great and a role model for how to make a solid environmental documentary that addresses a controversial issue in a level headed and dignified way. More movies like it are needed.
DAM IT. The dam poster with the dam photo for the dam movie. It will be screened outdoors this Friday, August 8, at the L.A. Natural History Museum. I’ll be moderating the panel.
I bet the filmmakers are tired of reading reviews that try every possible combination of play on the word “dam” — though that’s what they get for doing it with their titled, “DamNation.” Regardless, it’s really a great film and we’re going to have a fun event on Friday when it will be screened outdoors at the L.A. County Natural History Museum.
The post-screening panel discussion will consist of the co-producer Matt Stoecker, Jamie King of California State Parks, and Karina Johnston, Director of Watershed Programs at the Bay Foundation, with me as the moderator.
I really can’t say enough good things about this movie. It’s both nostalgic and contemporary. It’s hip and cool enough to feel like it’s for a younger demographic, yet dignified and even reverential at times to play to the older crowd. It has great visuals, but not at the expense of substance. It also captures the broad sweep of the past century to feel like the voice of the very best of the American environmental movement. Instead of a “you horrible people” tone, it has more of a, “what were we thinking?” approach.
Actually, let me put it simply, I’m willing to bet my good buddy Mark Dowie, author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated, “Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century,” will love it. His book was kind of a cry in 1995 of, “What happened to the original American environmental spirit?” I think this movie answers that question, saying, “It’s still alive, right here.”
But I do have to make one bitter side comment, which is that this is the sort of movie “Gasland” should have been. Dam removal is potentially just as polarizing and highly charged of a topic as fracking, and there are moments in the movie that tell of human impacts of dams far beyond anything fracking has caused so far. But where “Gasland” was divisive, polarizing and downright stoopid with Josh Fox‘s immediately conspiratorial voiceover (basically “the man is out to get you” voice), this film is humble, honest, respectful and fun.
People squawk at me often, “Well, what is your idea of a good documentary?” This film is my answer, plain and simple. It’s a role model for all aspiring environmental filmmakers. It doesn’t have perfect narrative structure, it has a few minor shortcomings (would have liked a little more explicit addressing of the bottom line on the “jobs vs. environment” divide when it comes to dam removal), but a movie can only do so much in addressing an issue—it’s not the same as a book.
The movie does its job incredibly well. AND … it’s fun!
July 21st, 2014
Guess how Watson and Crick opened one of the most important papers in the entire history of science. Why aren’t we teaching the ABT at the very start of all science courses? You want to know how to do the most to improve the communication habits of scientists? The answer lies in these three letters. This will be part of my agenda next year with my new book from University of Chicago Press.
IPSO FACTO, ABT. Try it for yourself. The structure is right there. Just add the words to the opening of Watson and Crick’s famous 1953 Nature paper describing the structure of DNA. And of course Watson went on to write one of the best pieces of science writing ever with, “The Double Helix.” These facts are not coincidence.
ABT & GREATNESS: THEY GO TOGETHER
Earlier this year my buddy Park Howell at the Arizona State University Business School pointed out that the Gettysburg Address is an ABT. Last week at the North American Congress for Conservation Biology (NACCB) meeting, I met the wonderful Anne Greene, author of “Writing Science in Plain English” — a book that every science student should put to use. In her book she points to the sheer elegance of Watson and Crick’s landmark 1953 short paper in Nature where they presented the structure of DNA. She views that paper through her lens of simple English (it’s a marvelous example of using short words where others might use long ones). I view it from my lens of the ABT.
Yes, indeed, there it is — as clear as day, the ABT structure to open their paper.
The paper really is a masterpiece of effect research science communication. They open with two sentences that serve as an abstract, telling you what the paper is about. Then they launch into three sentences that could be connected with AND’s. These are then followed by the BUT.
Of course, they don’t have the “but” in the actual paper, however, if you put it in, you see it fits perfectly. Their “but clause” (do I sense a new term?) has two points along with a third separate point they dismiss, then they get to their part of the story where you could seamlessly add a THEREFORE if you wanted.
THE ABT SCAFFOLDING
Just like the Gettysburg address, it shows the potential scaffolding nature of the ABT — the idea that if you create a good ABT structure you can then remove these connector words and it stands up just fine.
We had two great workshop sessions last week at NACCB built around people developing their ABT’s. I’m now in the thick of my new book on narrative with University of Chicago Press. The ABT will be a central component. Lots more to come with it.
And for all the communications people who think the ABT is “something to add to your communications tips and tool kit,” I’m sorry, but no — it’s not a tip — it is THE essence of effective communication because it is THE narrative template. It’s where it all begins. And over the long term, if you’re not communicating narratively you’re not communicating effectively. That’s not a tip—it’s a rule.
July 15th, 2014
The videos of their talks are now posted. They’re great. Five truly amazing individuals, telling you the stories of their discoveries. (Plus they’re funny)
I’m on my way to Missoula to fight the Mush Wars, but in the meanwhile, here’s five great presentations, all of which are both concise and compelling. This sort of communication is the antidote to mush.
July 13th, 2014
I’m retitling my talk for Wednesday at the NACCB in Missoula to, “Mush is My Enemy.”
WORSE THAN BO-HO-HORING.
LET’S NOT GET ALL MUSHY
I have two good friends on the inside of US Fish and Wildlife Service and National Parks Service. They’ve been coaching me. There’s a problem and it’s called mush. It’s what happens when good people get together with good ideas and good intentions and everything starts out clearly focused, but as things roll along, ideas and concepts start coming together in a piecemeal manner with too many voices, not enough leadership and eventually what emerges is … MUSH.
Mush is as much the enemy as boredom (which I have whined about in the past). Sadly, in today’s Tea Party-beaten down government, it’s a serious problem. I feel bad for a lot of these government workers. They want to lead, but the voices of opposition have gotten so oppressive from both ends of the spectrum—far right AND far left—that mush seems to become an inevitability.
It’s limited how much can be done to combat it, but the one aspect I hope to help with in my talk is at least making the language somewhat simpler and more clear. One friend sent me a 200 page document they were told to digest and incorporate, but the writing is so bloated and mush-laden that I can see it must be depressing.
There’s only one solution — we must make mush our enemy.
July 9th, 2014
Obama is no Reagan, sadly, when it comes to mass communication.
Yesterday Obama gave a press conference about the current crisis on the Mexico border in which he said, “This isn’t theater. This is a problem… I’m not interested in photo ops, I’m interested in solving a problem.”
Ugh. So noble. So honest. So decent. Really not made for America. And his current poll ratings show it (46% and sinking).
You just don’t say that to the American people. You bite the bullet, you figure out THE perfect photo op, then you play the game. Reagan did it over and over again—giving a speech at the Berlin Wall saying, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Bush stumbled into disastrous photos (looking out the window at Katrina wreckage). But abstaining is not a successful option.
It IS about theater. Sorry, dude. It just is. Yes, the intellectuals don’t need theater and prefer you avoid it, but this isn’t an intellectual nation. Never has been.
Poor Obama. Go take an acting class. I’m sure that’s what Reagan would have advised.
July 6th, 2014
On the cover of Rolling Stone this month he says there’s “new hope” for the climate. But I thought the latest IPCC report said things are more dire than ever. Why would you go with such a cheery, “We’ve about got this thing licked!” message given what everyone else is saying? More importantly, what do you do when hope and truth are in conflict?
SAY WHAT? Yes, I know you have to give people “hope,” but what if that gets in the way of the truth?
“ROUNDING THE CORNER ON CLIMATE” — REALLY?
In 2007 I was on a panel discussion at the LA Times Book Festival with Bill McKibben. At one point he cheerfully said, “I think we’ve rounded the corner on climate.” I did a double take. He cited two big events from the previous year: Gore’s movie and Hurricane Katrina which he felt shocked the public as they got a glimpse at what a climate disaster looks like.
I tried to take issue with him, but it was too soon. It would take another 2 years until Climategate showed how inept the climate science community was with public relations, and 3 years to the summer of 2010 when the last piece of climate legislation would collapse, finally showing how wrong he was on the rounding of any corners.
Now we have the latest IPCC report sounding their most dire warning to date. Just last week I got a bounce-back “AWAY FROM MY EMAIL” message from a major environmental scientist whose outgoing message went on to say, “The IPCC Fifth Assessment reports an observed (likely) doubling in the rate of sea level rise in the last twenty years. Meanwhile, carbon dioxide emissions have been increasing at over 3% per year over the last decade—that compares with an increase of “only” 1% per year in the 1990’s. We need to get to work with a lot more fervor.”
HOPE OR FERVOR?
So which is it? This prominent scientist says we need more fervor. But blasting out the headline of “New Hope” sends the opposite message (and yes, it is possible to have both, technically, but we’re not talking about substance here, we’re talking tone/style—the tone of “new hope” says we’re winning).
Yes, hope is inspiring to those who are already working on the cause—just hearing “there is hope” gives them hope (we dealt with this exact dynamic 12 years ago with our Shifting Baselines Ocean Media Project). But to the average Rolling Stone reader (who does not work every day on climate), it’s a very simple headline that implies, “We’re finally on top of this climate thing,” causing the reader to say “thank goodness, now I can worry about other things.”
Gore’s headline should have been, “We Need New Fervor for the Climate.” And if his answer is, “The editors made that headline up,” then he should have made sure they didn’t. In today’s short attention-spanned world, headlines are about 90% of your communication effort (the text is just a bunch of stuff to justify the headline, meant only for people with a lot of time on their hands).
It was two years ago right now that Australian coral reef ecologist Roger Bradbury published his rather stern and pessimistic OpEd in the NY Times titled, “A World Without Coral Reefs.” He didn’t feel we had rounded anything for coral reefs other than the drain in which they are circling on their way downward. He summed up his thoughts on the environmental community in saying, “conservationists apparently value hope over truth.”
Apparently the same deal for Gore (or at least whoever shapes his messaging).
July 2nd, 2014
Scientists may not be the best at listening, but what about when they are inventors? I had a mind-altering experience yesterday with the AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors, leading me to connect the dots with what improv teaches.
THE AAAS-Lemelson INVENTION AMBASSADORS. Among many amazing attributes, they appear to be role models for the ability to listen. From left: Karen Burg, Paul Sanberg, Vinod Veedu, Sorin Grama, Paul Stamets.
LISTEN, DO YOU WANT TO KNOW A SECRET?
In reviewing my first book in Science, Peter Kareiva, the Chief Scientist of the Nature Conservancy noted that the one thing I failed to address adequately is scientists’ inability “to listen.” It was a valid point that made me wish I had added one more chapter titled, “Don’t Be Such a Poor Listener.”
In the years since its publication I’ve had countless experiences that have made me flash back to that comment and think, “He’s so right.” And of course the reason my crazy acting teacher screamed at me the first night of acting class (which was the opening scene of my book) was exactly that — she knew that heavily educated people have a hard time listening.
But yesterday I had my head spun around by the group of five Invention Ambassadors assembled by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Actually, the head spinning began two weeks ago when I started a series of phone calls with each of them, listening to what they planned on presenting in their 12 minute talks to the public (I was brought in by the AAAS folks to work with them on their presentations).
I went to work with them searching for good stories in the “moments of discovery” that I knew they all must have experienced. Sure enough, each one had a single great moment to relate that included a moment of collaboration, a moment of pulling a discovery out of the ashes of failure, a moment of breaking the boredom with a discovery, a moment of using a daughter’s Barbie Doll dish to take care of a carpenter ant problem with mycelia, and a moment of realizing there are large numbers of inventors at universities who suffer the same perception problems of the academic world not appreciating their efforts. Five great stories.
But the thing that stunned me was their ability to listen. I had feared I might have a group of people saying, “Look, we’ve given lots of talks, we don’t need your input.” I mean seriously, one of them had given a TED Talk that has scored over 2 million views. Why wouldn’t they tell me to get lost? But they didn’t.
THE MAGIC OF LISTENING
They listened. They experimented. They pushed my suggestions further. And they ended up giving really great talks that will be posted soon.
I think what was most important was what they didn’t do—they didn’t negate. They basically took every suggestion with the same sort of, “Yes, and …” approach that is the centerpiece of improv training.
I don’t think this is a coincidence. The ability to listen like this is not something that people pick up overnight. It’s a long term process. I see it with improv instructor Brian Palermo. He is unlike anyone I’ve ever collaborated with. He’s really great to give notes to because he is so deeply trained, with his 20 years of improv experience, in how to listen.
It’s a crucial resource. This Invention Ambassadors program is a new thing for AAAS. They are just now figuring out how to make best use of them in the upcoming year. I think one thing they should have them talk to the science community about is how they all seem to have developed this exceptional ability to listen. There are lots of very impressive things about these five individuals, but to me, this is one of the things I really wasn’t expecting. And again, I’m certain it’s not a coincidence. Great ideas come from people who know how to listen.