#8) INTERVIEW: TOM HOLLIHAN, USC Annenberg School for Communication — “Storytelling and Global Warming”
January 28th, 2010
This is the first in an on-going series of short interviews I’ll be doing here on The Benshi with people whom I think have unique insights to offer the world of science communication.
In 1998, just after finishing film school, I made a 20 minute video titled, “Talking Science: The Elusive Art of the Science Talk.” I interviewed a number USC faculty in Theater, Communications, Cinema and the sciences. My favorite character in all the interviews was Tom Hollihan, Professor of Communication, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. He came out with this little snippet of “arouse and fulfill” (in the clip below) that has stuck with me as I’ve used it in talks and in my book. People seem to really connect with the simplicity and punchiness of the phrase. His area of expertise is more in the world of politics, as evidenced by his books, “Uncivil Wars: Political Campaigns in a Media Age” (2001), “Argument at Century’s End: Reflecting on the Past and Envisioning the Future“ (2000). But he also has worked with groups of scientists over the years from Lawrence Berkeley Lab, Boeing, Northrup Grumman, Department of Defense and several universities. In this chat I was looking for his perspective on the importance of storytelling in the world of science, and it’s relevance to current discussions and debates around global warming.
January 25th, 2010
The assumed success of issue-oriented documentaries like “An Inconvenient Truth” has left a lot of activists thinking it’s some sort of panacea — make a documentary feature film and suddenly the world will show up in droves to learn the details of your cause. If only it were that easy. First off, the polls have shown “An Inconvenient Truth” produced no net increase in support or concern about global warming as an issue. Secondly, the movie made a lot of noise, but they had a lot of money behind it. And third, what the polls do show is that the vast majority of people who saw it at theaters were the “already converted,” and mostly supporters of Al Gore. It didn’t manage to do much in terms of reaching the non-converted.
January 21st, 2010
What makes for a good slogan? They are, of course, incredibly important in crystallizing and simplifying a message for the mass audience. Over the ages you can find countless slogans that have helped spearhead entire mass movements as well as sell products. Wikipedia has plenty of examples of the good slogans from the worlds of politics and advertising. And yet, you can also find lots of utterly vacuous slogans that leave nothing behind when finally abandoned for having not worked. In this essay I offer up a few thoughts on slogans following on from what I had to say in my book.
January 18th, 2010
Okay, where were we? Oh, that’s right, likeability and celebrity — their importance in selecting a spokesperson. For starters, yes, I think Sean Carroll (the evolutionist who was on 60 Minutes last week and pictured in the previous installment) is a very good spokesperson (pleasant, likeable, and smart). And guess what, because he is, that’s why 60 Minutes chose him. All of which is a bit circular — the good people get picked more. But see below*.
“Location, location, location.” Ever heard that expression? It’s what people say in real estate. What it means is that you can scrutinize and haggle about the size of the bedrooms, the width of the driveway, the length of the patio in the house you’re buying, but in the end, there’s only one major thing that matters — the location. The same is true for selecting a spokesperson to appear on television representing your cause. You can bring in a team of gifted writers and agonize over whether to have your spokesperson say, “SOME species will suffer,” versus, “MANY species will suffer,” but in the end, if the words emerge from the mouth of the wrong spokesperson, you might as well have not bothered. Selecting the spokesperson isn’t one of many parts of communicating, it is the TOP THREE things that matter — just like location, location, location (the origin of which is explored here by the late William Safire of the NY Times).
January 11th, 2010
I’ve come to the conclusion that storytelling is the single most important dynamic in mass communication. A few years from now I may change this opinion. I can’t offer any guarantees. I can only say that at this point in my journey, having gone from the world of science to the world of cinema, storytelling is what now stands out to me as the most important element. Why? You can begin with the fact that about 85 percent of the world gets their beliefs through stories. Try listening to this very compelling recent segment titled, “God’s Green Earth,” about the importance of the religious masses in addressing the environmental future — he talks about storytelling. We can also look to Joseph Campbell, who late in life captured the ears and minds of the intelligentsia with his persuasive arguments about the universality of storytelling through the ages. And think about the greatest talks you’ve ever heard — most of them were probably well told stories.
January 7th, 2010
The world of science has something new — the first significant film festival specifically for science-related films. It’s called The Imagine Science Film Festival. It occurs in October in New York City. Alexis Gambis is the Director of the festival. The first year they had roughly 500 audience members. This year they had 3500. It appears to be a smashing success, but there’s one catch. Putting together a film festival is an incredibly difficult endeavor (I know, I’m close friends with a co-founder of the Los Angeles Film Festival and I’ve heard his war stories). And I’m concerned that so far the science community neither knows the difficulty of creating such events, nor the long term importance of film festivals.
January 4th, 2010
Happy New Year and welcome to this new “on-line journal” which will be a collection of essays. It will be sort of a continuation of thoughts from my book, “Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style.” In the essays, which will be roughly twice a week, I will be making reference to parts of the book from time to time.
The book is reviewed this week in Science and last month in Nature. In both cases they paired it with Cory Dean’s, “Am I Making Myself Clear,” which is not only an honor to be in her company (she of the NY Times Science Section), it’s also a great combo because the two books fit together well. Her book is more of a practical guide in communicating science to the public, mine is more conceptual — sort of like “ways to align your brain before you even start thinking about what you’re going to say.”
Both reviews are positive, but there are things that Peter Kareiva said in his review in Science that are so important and well stated they actually go substantially beyond the book. I’m going to explore a few of them in the first few essays I write here, so let me start with the idea of addressing critics of the book (or actually NOT addressing critics), and his comment along those lines.