January 30th, 2012
One book is good, the other is GREAT. The difference provides some good lessons in basic storytelling.
TWO BOOKS, ONE GOOD, ONE GREAT. Storytelling is the difference. The better one, “In the Garden of Beasts,” tells a tale of pre-World War II Berlin that brings to life the reign of terror from a perspective so close to Hitler’s world you feel like you’re living it right there with the hapless U.S. Ambassador Dodd.
TELL ME A STORY OF EVIL
Last year I read a good book from Erik Larsen titled, “Devil in the White City.” At the time I thought it was a “great” book, and didn’t really pay much attention to the fact that it took me a couple months to slowly, albeit savoringly plod my way through it on various flights around the country.
It’s the story of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair — all the architects who came together to create an amazing vision that reached its pinnacle with “The White City.” And also the bizarre serial killer who used the fair as a means of finding young women that he murdered and incinerated. Definitely a good book.
But then I bought his most recent effort, last year’s “In the Garden of Beasts,” and within a few days sadly had devoured it, wishing it could have be a couple thousand pages in length instead of just a few hundred. Immediately I thought of the other book and realized the former was good while the latter is truly great. Here’s three basic elements of good storytelling that explain why.
I’ll refer to the two books as, “Devil” and “Beasts.”
1 (FIRST ACT) – Devil was interesting from the outset but never really came into a clearly focused jumping off point for the basic story. It involves a number of architects, with Daniel Burnham being the most famous, but we don’t really get to know him much on a personal level. It’s more about the group of architects around the country. Then the serial killer, H.H. Holmes, comes along in alternate chapters but not that vividly. It’s all intriguing, but not page turning.
In contrast, Beasts starts off briskly and with clear focus as Roosevelt is trying to find an ambassador for what could easily be called “The Worst Ambassadorial Assignment Ever” (to Germany in 1933 just as Hitler is rising to power), gets turned down by 6 candidates, then finally recalls a humble history professor, Dodd, from years earlier whom he offers it to. Dodd naively takes the assignment, thinking it will be a relaxing getaway during which he can write his 4 part history of “The Old South.” He takes his wife and lascivious daughter to Berlin, and the rest is a sad nightmare of history.
What a great, great book that takes off so quickly and clearly it lives up to the standard “can’t put it down” hype.
2 (SPECIFICITY AND SIMPLICITY) – I’m constantly pointing to Nicholas Kristof’s great article in Outside Magazine as the prime explanation for the power of simplicity and specificity in storytelling. These two books demonstrate it. Devil has two sets of characters in equal measure — Burnham and his group of architects, and Holmes who is a shady, elusive fellow for whom we never really get any clear insights into why he is so evil.
With Beasts there’s a single central character — poor old professor/ambassador Dodd. That’s it. It’s his story. Start to finish. He’s the poor schlub who takes the worst assignment possible, starts his journey bright eyed, thinking he can talk some sense into those rambunctious Germans, but by the end of the book just about flees for his life from the country. It’s a very clean, simple, focused story.
Given the seven years between the publishing of the two books you have to wonder if maybe Larsen didn’t say to himself after the first one, “I need to look for a simpler story next time.” He certainly nailed it. And because the story of Beasts is so simple he’s able to add in a ton of character work to create the horrific atmosphere of mid-30’s Germany with its rising air of fear and paranoia.
3 (EVIL) – There is a basic rule of storytelling that, “Your story is only as good as your bad guy is evil.” This is where Beasts is strongest. Has there ever been a more evil bad guy in the history of humanity than Adolf Hitler? Seriously. He is legendary, so you can imagine the power that comes with telling a story so closely within the aura of so much evil. The story pulsates with it, and we even get glimpses of the Fuhrer himself when Dodd’s party girl daughter is taken to meet him during lunch as a possible romantic partner. The evil is mind boggling and Larsen’s storytelling is powerful. It’s a truly great book.
Unfortunately “Devil” just doesn’t achieve this same level of intensity. Yes, it has a serial killer, but Holmes may have killed a couple dozen people. Hitler’s scorecard was in the millions.
Two books, one good, the other great. Storytelling is the difference.
#186) Science Talks: Wanna make ’em better? Start having critics write REVIEWS (like the theater). I dare ya.
January 23rd, 2012
I don’t get it. Over the past 35 years the technology of science talks has changed drastically. Today there is no tolerance for outdated things like overhead projectors, but what about the content? You can present the same old disorganized mess and no one will bat an eyelash. Someone should work on raising the standards.
“AND HERE ARE MY OVERHEADS …”
Anybody out there remember overhead projectors? Anybody remember science meetings in the 1970’s when scientists routinely slapped one hand-scribbled overhead after another onto the projector — nervously adjusting each one as they looked back and forth from the screen to the projector to the audience?
Today, if you showed up with an overhead projector at a science meeting, you would be the laughing stock. Same for 35 mm slides. THE TIMES HAVE CHANGED. We have zero tolerance for people who fail to change with the times. At least when it comes to the technology of a science talk.
But what about the content? What about how the information is presented?
I swear to you there has been no change. Nothing. Nada. No standards, no expectations, no change. You can get up and give the same boring ramble… one graph after another (as I sat through recently at a major science meeting), no questions posed, no hypotheses presented, no synthesis. You can do all that and the worst that will happen is people will mutter later, “Yeah, that wasn’t a particularly good talk.”
“REAL SCIENTISTS DON’T CARE IF THEY’RE UNDERSTOOD”
Why such intensely competitive technological standards for presentations, but NOTHING, NOTHING, NOTHING for content?
It’s time for a sort of “Rotten Tomatoes” review site for major science speakers. Somebody needs to start going to major symposia and writing REVIEWS for the presentations. A presentation is mostly about “performance” — just like theater — so why not evaluate it as such.
It’s what happens when you put on a play. The theater critics show up, then publish their reviews. And the next thing you know, the whole world is able to read about how, “The visual elements of the play were tremendous, but the performances were dreadful.”
Why not the same for scientists? Reviews that say, “The guy is clearly doing important work, but he presented it in such a backwards, upside down fashion you couldn’t make sense of it.” Or, “She laid out three clear hypotheses, each with their supporting data, leaving you torn between which was most likely and making you want to hear the rest of her presentation to get the answer.”
What? Would it be unfair? That’s exactly what the members of the U.S. Congress cried in the 1980’s when C-SPAN first began broadcasting live from the Senate and the House. Suddenly a whole lot of fat slob congressmen had to start dressing better, sitting up straight and stop picking their noses for fear people from their home district would see them on C-SPAN.
The real answer is that the entire science community doesn’t want to confront the fact that it DOES matter how you present your work. Scientists like to blindly cling to the sacred belief that for all cases, “the data speaks for itself” — the idea that how you present research is irrelevant, the ONLY thing that matters is what is presented.
Which is foolish. And lazy.
ARTIFACT FROM THE PALEOCENE. This was found in a cave in France. Apparently cavemen would trace the outline of their hand on it, which was then projected on the cave wall where it would provide the initial shape for drawing turkeys.
January 19th, 2012
There’s a great article in this week’s New Yorker about the fundamental divide between information (i.e. Google) vs. entertainment (TV and movies).
Youtube Vs. Television: An interesting article this week in The New Yorker as Youtube launches an ambitious plan this spring to steal part of the television audience.
“REBRANDING” STORYTELLING FOR SCIENTISTS
Scientists suffer from “storyphobia” which is the irrational dread fear of the words story and storytelling. It is the fear that those terms will lead you into “bending the science to tell a better story” (the New Scientist review of my book wrongly accused me of advocating that). Which is a valid concern, but no reason to ignore the basic dynamics of structuring your presentation into a flow that will grab attention, hold it, and pay it off.
Maybe it’s time for a different term that has the same meaning but none of the baggage. How about, “logic structuring.”
I recently attended an event where several prominent scientists presented overviews of multi-investigator work on ecosystems. The talks were dreadful. They were utterly devoid of any logical progression. Just an episodic laying out of work that has been done. Which leads me to wonder something …
Why is it that ALL scientific journals have GUIDELINES FOR WRITERS in which the logical structure (Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion) are plainly laid out with zero room for variation, yet there exists NOTHING of the sort for oral presentations? How is it that you can give the dullest, most rambling, borderline-incoherent of talks in science and nobody complains?
I spoke with folks after these talks. They agreed the talks were painfully dull, but some said, “they had to present a lot of information, they couldn’t help it.” Yes, they could. If they wanted to. If there were anyone saying, “you could do better.” Or if there were even SET GUIDELINES of some sort forcing people to start their presentation with an initial set-up posing the overall goals, why the goals are important — basically “what’s at stake” — what will happen if we don’t gather this information — and eventually some synthesis that brings it all together, BEFORE running out of time and ending with, “I guess that’s all I have time for today.”
YOUTUBE VS. TELEVISION
Along these lines, there’s an excellent article in this week’s New Yorker about Youtube’s ambitious plans this spring to steal a significant part of the television audience through the launching of 20 new celebrity-driven channels on their website.
Right now Youtube is hugely popular, but they face one big dilemma — people watch 4-5 hours of television a day, but the average visitor time on Youtube is only about 20 minutes. At the core of this divide is the internet’s preoccupation with information (the more the merrier) versus the television world’s obsession with entertainment. The information people prefer ABUNDANCE, the entertainment people thrive on SCARCITY.
And this is what is at the heart of storytelling. You hold people’s interest by withholding (artfully) the information they are seeking — keeping the clues scarce — forcing the audience to follow your thought processes that lead to the eventual answer. This is what the weatherman on my local TV news show does with his trivia question each night. He starts his predictably dull report (the weather is mostly the same in L.A., just like Steve Martin’s bored weather guy in the movie “L.A. Story“) with a trivia question that you want answered.
If he were a scientist he would start his report with the trivia question, immediately give you the answer, then progress forward. But a storyteller poses the question then doesn’t “pay it off” until the end of the report/story. It’s a way of approaching the process of communication. Yes, it’s manipulative, but it can be done in a totally honest and “non fact-bending” way. If you do it well, people enjoy and appreciate the journey.
That’s what storytelling is about.
And guess what happened last week at the end of the storytelling workshop we did at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium. A native Alaskan man came up to talk about storytelling among their elders. I asked him to tell his favorite story that he’s ever heard. He began with, “It was a story an elder told about one day he was walking home across the ice when suddenly a huge crack appeared ahead of him, larger than he could traverse …”
And there you have it. Perfect storytelling. A tiny bit of exposition, then the establishment of a clear question — “How will he get across this crack in the ice?” Good storytelling is instinctual. Alaskan natives know this. Scientists should, too.
Dorie Barton will be at the Ocean Sciences Meeting in Salt Lake for our session on Feb. 19. No matter what sort of script you’re writing — whether it’s a 5 hour epic or a 5 second film – you need help with it. We all do. You need knowledgeable people who can read your script and give you notes that are based on a solid combination of both instinct and analytical powers. You may have one or two friends for this, but you’ve probably already burned them out. My recommendation is to hire a professional like Dorie.
WANNA TELL A GREAT STORY? You almost certainly will need help. Every movie company knows this. Which is why they hire story consultants. And that’s what Dorie Barton is. But her skills are valuable to more than just Hollywood storytellers. She can bring the same knowledge to all sorts of science films. You can visit her website at http://www.developmentgirl.com/
Let me offer up a simple plug here for Dorie Barton’s skills in case you’re involved with making a video. You don’t have to be making a Hollywood feature film for Dorie to be of value. Even if you’re just doing a 3 minute promo piece for your laboratory, you will benefit by trying to tell some sort of story. She can help and guide you with this process of making the story in the script work effectively.
When I first met her a decade ago I knew she was a talented actress. But when I introduced her to a friend with National Geographic’s feature film office and they began hiring her to do script analysis for them I found out she is also an extremely good script and story analyst, which is one of the most sought after skills in Hollywood. As a result I have hired her on several projects to help develop scripts. And this is what she does these days, full time. Here’s her website: http://www.developmentgirl.com/
If you are developing a script for a possible video I strongly encourage you to either email her through her website, or just show up at our session at Ocean Sciences (in Salt Lake City on Feb. 19) where you can speak to her at the breaks. Or you can email me for more details on her skills. She’s can do a range of work — for just a hundred dollars you can get a certain amount of her input which could potentially change the entire direction of your project. Script development is the most important part of making a video — if you don’t have a good blueprint to start with, the odds of having a good end product are pretty slim. I strongly encourage you to at least have a phone call with her if you think you could use some writing/development assistance.
The goal of all this stuff is to tell better science stories. A script consultant can play a powerful role in that process.
January 12th, 2012
“He then summarily dropped his trousers and shorts, revealing a long, thin, clearly erect penis …” (read on, urology fans!)
BRACE YOURSELVES FOR THIS ONE …
My thanks to David Aldridge for Tweeting about this rather stunning incident in the anals of urological research. He put it into the context of my “arouse and fulfill” dictum, pondering whether there might be limits to this approach. The source is here, but here’s the entire text for you, which may leave you a bit aghast. It reads almost like something from The Onion, but I guess it’s the real deal. Also worth noting in the first sentence is the location of Dr. Brindley’s historic lecture — Las Vegas – which leaves you wondering what he did with his display specimen after finishing his lecture.
PROFESSOR BRINDLEY’S STAFF
In 1983, at the Urodynamics Society meeting in Las Vegas, Professor G.S. Brindley first announced to the world his experiments on self-injection with papaverine to induce a penile erection. This was the first time that an effective medical therapy for erectile dysfunction (ED) was described, and was a historic development in the management of ED. The way in which this information was first reported was completely unique and memorable, and provides an interesting context for the development of therapies for ED. I was present at this extraordinary lecture, and the details are worth sharing. Although this lecture was given more than 20 years ago, the details have remained fresh in my mind, for reasons which will become obvious.
The lecture, which had an innocuous title along the lines of ‘Vaso-active therapy for erectile dysfunction’ was scheduled as an evening lecture of the Urodynamics Society in the hotel in which I was staying. I was a senior resident, hungry for knowledge, and at the AUA I went to every lecture that I could. About 15 min before the lecture I took the elevator to go to the lecture hall, and on the next floor a slight, elderly looking and bespectacled man, wearing a blue track suit and carrying a small cigar box, entered the elevator. He appeared quite nervous, and shuffled back and forth. He opened the box in the elevator, which became crowded, and started examining and ruffling through the 35 mm slides of micrographs inside. I was standing next to him, and could vaguely make out the content of the slides, which appeared to be a series of pictures of penile erection. I concluded that this was, indeed, Professor Brindley on his way to the lecture, although his dress seemed inappropriately casual.
The lecture was given in a large auditorium, with a raised lectern separated by some stairs from the seats. This was an evening programme, between the daytime sessions and an evening reception. It was relatively poorly attended, perhaps 80 people in all. Most attendees came with their partners, clearly on the way to the reception. I was sitting in the third row, and in front of me were about seven middle-aged male urologists, and their partners in ‘full evening regalia’.
Professor Brindley, still in his blue track suit, was introduced as a psychiatrist with broad research interests. He began his lecture without aplomb. He had, he indicated, hypothesized that injection with vasoactive agents into the corporal bodies of the penis might induce an erection. Lacking ready access to an appropriate animal model, and cognisant of the long medical tradition of using oneself as a research subject, he began a series of experiments on self-injection of his penis with various vasoactive agents, including papaverine, phentolamine, and several others. (While this is now commonplace, at the time it was unheard of). His slide-based talk consisted of a large series of photographs of his penis in various states of tumescence after injection with a variety of doses of phentolamine and papaverine. After viewing about 30 of these slides, there was no doubt in my mind that, at least in Professor Brindley’s case, the therapy was effective. Of course, one could not exclude the possibility that erotic stimulation had played a role in acquiring these erections, and Professor Brindley acknowledged this.
The Professor wanted to make his case in the most convincing style possible. He indicated that, in his view, no normal person would find the experience of giving a lecture to a large audience to be erotically stimulating or erection-inducing. He had, he said, therefore injected himself with papaverine in his hotel room before coming to give the lecture, and deliberately wore loose clothes (hence the track-suit) to make it possible to exhibit the results. He stepped around the podium, and pulled his loose pants tight up around his genitalia in an attempt to demonstrate his erection.
At this point, I, and I believe everyone else in the room, was agog. I could scarcely believe what was occurring on stage. But Prof. Brindley was not satisfied. He looked down sceptically at his pants and shook his head with dismay. ‘Unfortunately, this doesn’t display the results clearly enough’. He then summarily dropped his trousers and shorts, revealing a long, thin, clearly erect penis. There was not a sound in the room. Everyone had stopped breathing.
But the mere public showing of his erection from the podium was not sufficient. He paused, and seemed to ponder his next move. The sense of drama in the room was palpable. He then said, with gravity, ‘I’d like to give some of the audience the opportunity to confirm the degree of tumescence’. With his pants at his knees, he waddled down the stairs, approaching (to their horror) the urologists and their partners in the front row. As he approached them, erection waggling before him, four or five of the women in the front rows threw their arms up in the air, seemingly in unison, and screamed loudly. The scientific merits of the presentation had been overwhelmed, for them, by the novel and unusual mode of demonstrating the results.
The screams seemed to shock Professor Brindley, who rapidly pulled up his trousers, returned to the podium, and terminated the lecture. The crowd dispersed in a state of flabbergasted disarray. I imagine that the urologists who attended with their partners had a lot of explaining to do. The rest is history. Prof Brindley’s single-author paper reporting these results was published about 6 months later .
Professor Brindley made a huge contribution to the management of ED, for which he deserves tremendous gratitude. He was a true lateral thinker, and applied his unique mind to a variety of problems in medicine. These include over 100 publications that focus on the areas of visual neurophysiology and several other aspects of neurophysiology, including ejaculation and female sexual dysfunction. He also published one remarkable paper studying the effect of 17 different drugs used intracorporally to induce erection . Seven of these (phenoxybenzamine, phentolamine, thymoxamine, imipramine, verapamil, papaverine, naftidrofury) induced an erection. It is not clear to what degree Brindley’s own penis served as the test subject for these studies.
This lecture was unique, dramatic, paradigm-shifting, and unexpected. It is difficult to imagine that a similar scenario could ever take place again. Professor Brindley belongs in the pantheon of famous British eccentrics who have made spectacular contributions to science. The story of his lecture deserves a place in the urological history books.
January 9th, 2012
We had such a good time last month at AGU we’re doing it again next month with S FACTOR 2. Send in your videos or just attend as part of the audience.
S FACTOR 2: Featuring my friends, actress and script consultant Dorie Barton (who has appeared in lots of movies including, “Meet the Fockers,” “Down with Love,” “Bewitched”) and actor/improv acting instructor Brian Palermo (he was the computer science professor in, “The Social Network” and was in “Thank You For Smoking,” and “Big Momma’s House”). It’s going to be another great session — come join us in Salt Lake. Details on video submission are here.
IF YOU’RE GOING TO THE OCEAN SCIENCE MEETING IN SALT LAKE SEND IN YOUR 5 MINUTE VIDEO
Last month we did the first official “S Factor” panel at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco. It was a great experience featuring 10 videos ranging widely in quality which we, one at a time, showed to the audience, offered up our filmmaking knowledge (both of the other panelists were USC film school classmates of mine in the mid-90’s) and conducted discussions with each videomaker and the audience.
That was actually the 4th time I’ve done a video workshop at either AGU or Ocean Sciences, but the first time that I brought along two ringers which made it about ten times better than the previous sessions. So this time I’m bringing my long time writing advisor Dorie Barton and veteran improv comedy actor and Groundling alum Brian Palermo. Last fall I did an all day workshop with them in Los Angeles with 25 environmental activists. They are awesome and were a great team so be sure to stop by if you’re at the meeting.