June 27th, 2012
I’m kinda tired of lecturing about the power of storytelling. But just as I was starting to doubt myself I watched two very skilled storytellers ply their trade at the Aspen Environment Forum. Which just made me sit back and think, THAT is what I’ve been talking about. When it works, it’s so powerful.
THREE GREAT STORYTELLERS AT WORK. George Divoky who for nearly three decades has been studying the birds of Cooper Island which is waaaay up at the top of Alaska, Chris Reij who has done a lot of work in Africa and told amazing stories of some kinda water pits or something in Niger — I don’t know, I only know he told the amazing story of having sat next to the assistant to the President of Niger’s wife, and ended up ghostwriting the President’s speech. Amazing stories from both. Unfortunately I missed the third speaker, National Geographic photographer Nick Nichols, who gave an evening talk I couldn’t attend that was a sort of career-encapsulating presentation in which he showed some of his best photos over the years and told stories that were apparently packed with humor and emotion. People the next morning were raving about it, and I felt like a dummy having missed a presentation that exemplified the very principles I espouse.
THE ASPEN ENVIRONMENT FORUM
I spent the weekend at the Aspen Environment Forum. Lotsa talks. Lotsa “networking”. Some doses of the same stuff that made Juliette Eilperin of the Washington Post say rather sad things about the Rio + 20 Summit last week (yay for her honesty!). But overall an amazingly powerful event where I met at least 5 characters that were a real treat to speak with. Make that 6. Or 7. Whatever. The experience that had the biggest impact on me was listening to two very effective storytellers who solidified my convictions about the power of telling good stories.
A VISUAL PUNCH LINE IN THE THAWING ARCTIC
The first amazing storyteller was George Divoky. I met him in January at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium in Anchorage. At the time my brain was largely shut down from temperature shock — it was literally minus 20 the first evening and I walked about five blocks from a restaurant to the hotel and thought I was going to die from hypothermia. He introduced himself shortly after that, saying we were both going to speak at the Aspen event. I kinda said “yeah, whatever, I may not survive this place.”
So as he started his talk this past Saturday I began to realize, “oh, this is that guy,” then I heard a truly great story.
It was relatively simple. 27 years of visiting the same island at the top of Alaska, just off of Barrow. 27 years of following seabirds called guillemots that make their nests in a bunch of wooden boxes left behind by the navy. Twenty seven years of spending summers alone walking about the island counting birds and telling stories to himself. Then a twist in the story… Suddenly no ice.
Starting about 10 years ago the Arctic ice that normally surrounded the island started vanishing, and eventually completely vanished. The talk he gave was mostly standard natural history stuff — pictures of birds, facts about their feeding, ecology of the ice sheet, all set up, and then … BOOM. Two photos. One of “what it looked like” (a beautiful shot of the ice sheet, stretching to the horizon, pockets of open water, fields of snow). And then a second shot of … nothing. Just brownish open ocean with a few cresting waves. No ice fields, no snow, nothing but seawater. You could hear people in the audience gasp at the second shot.
Set up, pay off. As simple as that. A whole bunch of set up, and then two photos that told the entire story VISUALLY.
After that it seemed to just enter in to this wacky world as he talked about the birds being forced to switch their diet from highly nutritious cod (that hang out under the ice sheet) to scruffy sculpins (that live down on the bottom). Then out of nowhere polar bears start showing up on the island. Really hungry polar bears, and they start knocking over the wood boxes and eating the guillemot eggs. He’s got amazing video of the bears pounding on the boxes and all you can think is whoa, something is really wrong here.
Talk about a picture of climate change. There it is. Plain and simple. Beautifully set up. Stunningly paid off. Really good storytelling. How do I know? Because I can remember so much of his talk. That’s what storytelling does for you. It makes it really easy to remember and tell your friends. That doesn’t happen with a bunch of graphs.
PLANT AND PAY OFF IN NIGER
The second great storyteller was Chris Reij. He’s Dutch with kind of a funny, friendly accent. And he was on an excellent panel about the future of agriculture around the world. All of the members of the panel were amazing (including Dan Glickman, former Secretary of Agriculture under Clinton and long time congressman from my home state of Kansas, yay!), but he was the only true storyteller. Which became evident when the moderator asked all of them to “tell us a couple of stories,” and he was the only one who really did and didn’t even have or need any visuals. The others were also good, but they just cited facts and elaborated on them.
Chris told two stories that were about farming things in Africa, particularly in the country of Niger. His stories were mostly interesting but a little hard to follow (combined with his accent and I was having trouble hearing everything) — something about pits that farmers dug for some reason which ended up collecting rain water and turning into gardens and altering the water table over time … overall, the two stories weren’t that amazing, but were at least specific stories. The amazing part came later in the discussion.
He finally saw his opening and went for it with a third story. He told about taking a flight to Niger and sitting next to this attractive young woman who eventually ended up in conversation with him about something and finally at the end of the flight he asked what she does and she said she was the assistant to the President of Niger’s wife and that she wanted to invite him over to the palace (or wherever the President lived). Which she did. And he met the President. And the President ended up asking him if he could put together a Powerpoint talk for him about farming in Niger for him to present at the Rio + 10 Summit. And he did. And central to the whole presentation he assembled was that story he had told earlier about the rain pits and their importance.
Well, not only did the President end up using the Powerpoint for his big talk in Rio, he also stopped in Paris and a bunch of other cities on his way to Rio and gave the same talk to a bunch of other audiences.
Chris did such a great job telling the last story he had the crowd roaring with laughter, and what was most impressive was that he had “planted” the rain pits story at the start of the session, which was a moderately interesting story, but with the final story he was “paying it off” because that story ended up being the content of the Powerpoint he made for the President. I guarantee you I will remember the rain pits information much longer because of this context it ended up in the third story.
THAT is brilliant storytelling — innocently planting a topic early on, then paying it off by having it be the center of the later story. You could hear the audience laugh with satisfaction when he talked about what the content of the Powerpoint presentation was.
I don’t think either of these two guys ever really got trained in how to tell a story — they just have a natural instinct for it. But the basic techniques are accessible to anyone. You just have to appreciate the power of a well told story. And here’s the real demonstration — I heard probably 25 presentations, all really good, but … these two are really the only ones I could retell. Its just easier to remember when its built around a good story.
GOD DID IT ALL, GOD HELPED, or THERE AIN’T NO GOD. That’s basically the three groups in this Gallup poll released last Friday. One thing it seems to show is that over the course of three decades, despite ALL the wonderful evolution education, programming, and books screaming out “Evolution is a Fact” … it appears that people aren’t changing their minds much. However, what about the past year — look at that change in the two big groups. Is it real or just “pan slosh“?
CAREFUL WITH THAT SLOSHING PAN
Last Friday there was a fairly monumental event, I think, in the issue of evolution education in the United States. Gallup came out with the latest update in their evolution/creationism poll and it showed one thing clearly with a second thing, maybe.
First thing is the lack of change. Pretty simple. Thirty years, the percentages are pretty much unchanged. Still about the same — a buncha people think God did it all, a few less think God helped (kind of the Bill O’Reilly “I’m hedging my bets, just in case there is a God” approach), and then a small group thinks there ain’t no such thing as God. Not much change, really.
The second thing is the possible recent uptick. If you look at the last year you see a sudden 6 point upswing in the pure creationists mostly at the expense of the non-atheist evolutionists, but is that a real trend? Some folks are trying to say there’s a new fever/ferver spreadin’ wild in the countryside spreading this for real. Other’s say it is simply non-significant. Andy Revkin, author of the wonderful Dot Earth NY Times blog, refers to this sort of small scale pattern as “water sloshing in a pan”. (here’s one of Andy’s typically powerful and important essays where he introduced this simple and useful concept of “water sloshing in a pan” to symbolize the idea of “just noise”)
AS STOOPID AS WE WANNA BE
Let’s be honest here, there is indeed a new breed of stupidity ablaze in America’s education system. I’m still sitting here somewhat in shock from the HBO documentary on obesity I viewed a couple weeks ago titled, “The Weight of the Nation.” It is extremely good. And one of the stunning things it talked about is the drastic cuts in physical education programs in schools. Physical Education … P.E. … something we never, ever would have questioned in my youth … is now mandatory in LESS THAN 10% of all schools in America. Which I find staggering. What the hell has happened to this society?
Similarly “homeschooling” has propagated. And that’s where some folks are wondering if this uptick in the graph could be real.
For now I favor the “pan slop” cautiousness, but really … in this country … these days … I don’t know. Might actually be happening.
Seriously. I’m not joking here. If you were to bring in a communications consultant for your broad public outreach efforts, who would you choose — Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, who was the keynote speaker of the National Academy of Sciences “The Science of Science Communication” conference two weeks ago, or South Park co-creator and co-writer of the hit play, “The Book of Mormon“? One can tell you how to communicate but really doesn’t have any credentials to show he is capable of reaching the public. The other can also tell you how to communicate and has staggering ability to tell great stories and quantitative proof to show how well he knows how to reach the public by the tens of millions. And yet, which do you think a group of scientists would be far, far, far more comfortable listening to? Scientists tend to spurn religion, yet talk about bringing in the preacher to preach to the converted (even though he didn’t in the end!)Kahneman’s (left) is the one who talks about System 1 and System 2. Here you have it personified. He’s System 2, Trey Parker (right) is System 1. Who you gonna call?
KAHNEMAN POOPS ON THE NATIONAL ACADEMY’S GREAT SCIENCE COMMUNICATION CONFERENCE
It’s a conundrum and it ain’t that new. I spent the weekend slowly, meticulously, thoughtfully reading Oscar Wilde’s classic and only novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” He wrote it in 1890. His father was a prominent surgeon and he was the most celebrated playwright of his day. Clearly he had the split brain — half thinking, half feeling — more so than most. And it pervades his every word in Dorian Gray. Here’s a great quote:
aaaaa“I wonder who it was defined man as a rational animal. It was the most premature definition ever given. Man is many things, but he is not rational. I am glad he is not.” – Oscar Wilde, “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1890)
That was 120 years ago. Now compare that with with this quote from Daniel Kahneman near the end of his talk just two weeks ago which Andy Revkin posted here.
aaaaa“Because of emotional coherence, the source of the message is extremely important, the source has to be liked, and the source has to be trusted, and if the scientific establishment is not trusted, then the amount of evidence really is going to have very little purchase on what is going to happen.” – Daniel Kahneman (2012)
He’s talking about “likeability” which by definition is not rational. He’s saying man is not a rational animal. He’s reiterating Oscar Wilde, just in more technical language. Nuttin’s changed.
RIGHT SPEAKER, WRONG CONCLUSION?
So I’m guessing the organizers of the N.A.S. conference, given their title of, “The Science of Science Communication,” were hoping that Kahneman would play to the “scientism” precepts (the idea that EVERYTHING has ultimately an underlying science which if we can just work hard enough to discover we can solve all the problems of the world through science) and deliver the big statement of: “Just keep going with all the science of science communication you can manage!”
But to the contrary, he pretty much just echoed Oscar Wilde — man is not a rational animal. He just put it into more technical language of his Systems 1 and 2. In the end, same deal. Same as my boring book. Come down out of your head. It’s the ONLY hope for the science world. Enough with the misguided motto of, “Make Science Sexy.” Sorry, wrong message. The correct message for today — which is EXACTLY Kahneman’s message — is “Make Science Human.” Which means yes, emotion and humor, but it ALSO means INTUITION.
And yet, the title of one of the major talks at the NAS conference was about getting RID of intuition. Did it occur to anyone present that Kahneman’s entire thesis was 100% opposite of that title?
What a mess. When eggheads collide.
And if you want the definitive proof of how entirely misguided the whole science communication world is, just look at this new Gallup Poll that came out on Friday about attitudes towards evolution in the U.S. It shows that over the course more than 30 years, despite all the public programs and books shouting, “EVOLUTION IS A FACT” the change in public attitude is … pretty much nothing.
NUTTIN’S CHANGED. How strange is that? Since 1982, despite all the public programs promoting evolution as “a fact” in America, the numbers are pretty much the same, with only about 15% of the public buying the academic, secular version of evolution. Apparently someone needs to shout EVOLUTION IS A FACT even louder.
DON’T LECTURE US, JUST SHOW US HOW ITS DONE … PLEASE
I found Kahneman’s talk pretty dry, and I couldn’t make it through much of his book (he’s no Malcolm Gladwell unfortunately), but it’s great that his talk in the end did deliver a solid, simple message — science has to figure out how to be human. In film school the most fundamental principle they taught us was, “Don’t TELL us, SHOW us.” And that’s the limit of Kahneman’s message. He’s got the telling part down, but unfortunately he can’t show us what he means.
That falls to people like Trey Parker and that’s who the science world should be calling on to hear a talk that won’t be preaching to the converted. If they have the guts for it.