Last week I took part in a panel discussion on The Young Turks Network called “The Point” hosted by Cara Santa Maria. Not sure I made much sense (though we did find common ground on our “Dis a Pastor Day” concept), but Cara is really an outstanding moderator. The science world needs her skills.

GET TO THE POINT (please). A fun and interesting discussion of science issues with good folks.

Here you go — an excellent video from The Heart and Stroke Foundation using zombies. Here is your perfect delivery of substance in an age of style. This is exactly what I was talking about in my book. The filmmaking is first class, as is the script — a fun, simple story that with a great twist that suddenly delivers the substance of their message — how to do CPR, and don’t stop, you can’t do any harm if the person is going to die anyway. It’s really funny, clever and classy. This is what I mean when I say the public health world is a level above science and environment when it comes to broad communication. Oh, and guess where this campaign comes from … Canada.

CONVEYING SUBSTANCE IN AN AGE OF STYLE. Another group of folks who don’t need to even look at my book — they’ve got the communication challenge figured out.

don’t they eh?


Just when you’ve watched so many dull and vacuous environmental Public Service Announcements that you think it must be impossible to do something creative in today’s world you come across a video like this.

I knew last year that Dave Daigle and the folks at CDC were onto something powerful with their brilliant Zombie Disaster Preparedness Kit. Now comes this video from The Heart and Stroke Foundation (thank you Jon Rusho for sending it to me).

I don’t even want to ruin it by blabbering on too much. It speaks for itself. There’s already a half million views on the Youtube posting of it, and it’s not even Halloween yet.

Thank you, Jesus, for this proof that we don’t have to live in a world of total uncreative boredom.

Debating Presidential Substance in an Age of Television Style

WRONG CASTING. I do not dislike Rachael Maddow, but she (and her team of eggheads) is the last person you should to listen to for an accurate critique of the Presidential Debates. It’s like having a football coach critique a baseball game. Not wrong, just not the right person.



Why does this fundamental principle of television, over the ages, continue to baffle intelligent people? If you want the perfect, formative, highly readable “story” of how it all first came about, read David Halberstam’s brilliant 1979 foundational work, “The Powers That Be.” It’s a book that had a huge influence on me, long ago.

He tells the sad story of the World War II radio correspondents — of their brilliant and heroic work bringing the war to life over the Magnavox radios that inhabited living rooms across America in the early 1940’s. Eric Sevareid, William Shirer, Howard K. Smith and the greatest of them all who became the kingpin of the news media after the war, Edward R. Murrow.

In the late 1940’s television began to appear in the homes of America, and the CBS Television News founded by William S. Paley and staffed by “Murrow’s Boys,” sketched out a utopian vision of a nation where true democracy was fueled by this amazing instant delivery system of news and information. For a short while, they really did think it was possible to create an informed electorate powered by the leadership capability of television. They had a dream.

Then fast forward to Mike Judge’s 2006 cinematic masterpiece, “Idiocracy,” that paints the true picture of our society’s potential and you kinda have the alpha and omega of television. Basically it sucks. And is sort of doubly bad in that it continues to fool smart people into thinking, even 50 years after Murrow sadly, depressingly drank and smoked himself into his disillusioned grave, that television can uplift the masses. It can’t.

network style


So when it comes time for Presidential debates, the only thing worth thinking about is, “What are the memorable moments in the history of the debates?” Do any of those moments consist of one debater “out-debating” the other? Not really.

The number one moment in debate history is Richard Nixon pouring with sweat against Jack Kennedy in 1960. Halberstam tells the entire story in splendid detail. People listening to the debate on the radio thought Nixon won, but people watching television gave it solidly to Kennedy as everybody thought the sweaty Nixon looked like a nervous, insecure weasel. Kennedy won the election by only a slight margin. Most historians agree “how Nixon looked in the debate” played a pivotal role.

The second most memorable and widely agreed upon as an “important” moment was in 2000 when Al Gore irritated everyone with his repeated sighs in response to George W. Bush. It was the same thing. He just didn’t act presidential. And so he lost based on style, not substance.



The bottom line is that television is a superficial medium and this selects against heavily cerebral people. Which leaves me wondering why MSNBC assembles each time their panel of eggheads. Worst is Rachael Maddow, whom I don’t hate, I just think she’s largely clueless on this stuff. It’s like assembling a panel of football coaches to analyze the baseball World Series. They can do it, somewhat, but they’re not the right people.

Television is a superficial medium. Hollywood is overrun with superficial people. If I were running a TELEVISION debate analysis show, I’d have a panel of actors and directors. End of story.

Anybody see the Jon Stewart/Bill O’Reilly debate on Saturday? Jon Stewart stood on a platform behind his podium that he could elevate up to make him a couple feet taller than his opponent. So he could LOOK DOWN. Biden didn’t need the mechanics. He did it with his mannerisms. Just as I feared in my last post. Oh, well, he still did a solid job.

THERE I GO AGAIN. Biden was smart and authoritative, but … alas … he failed to read my last Benshi post (dang, I thought he was a fan). He did a bunch of superficial little things — like smiling — that he just didn’t need to do. They undercut his effectiveness. But were also likeable enough to not be comparable to Gore’s irritating sighing in his 2000 debate.



Television is a superficial medium. Are we all clear on that? As a result, televised debates, by definition, are superficial. The participants can throw out mountains of facts and figures. Most of the public (including me) can’t follow that crap. We’re too busy looking at facial expressions. Which means smiling matters.

Joe Biden definitely talked down to, laughed at, smirked at, scoffed at and generally dismissed his opponent Paul Ryan. Democrats thought it was cool or irrelevant, Republicans thought it was insulting and devastating. What did the general public think? I’m guessing a little bit towards the latter, and the Twitter trend agreed. In my last post I was worried about Biden’s risk of “rising above” and yep, he rose waaay above.

Politico gave a sampling of Tweets from major news folks ranging from Meet the Press host David Gregory (“Biden’s smiling is out of control”) to film critic Roger Ebert (“Joe! Stop smiling and laughing”).

If you wanted a good look at the blindness of liberal wonks all you had to do was watch the MSNBC panel of pundits. Steve Schmidt (who is a very savvy former Republican strategist) was the only guy who got it. He immediately worried about how arrogant Biden came off with the smiling and snark. Others, like Rachael Maddow, showed their complete blindness, focusing on what was said by the candidates. Sheesh. Come on. It’s television. You work in the medium. How can you be so clueless? Same for Chris Matthews, who took exception to Schmidt’s comments. They just don’t get it.

They don’t do they….


Politico zeroed in on the comparison of Biden’s performance to Gore’s annoying sighing in his 2000 debate with George W. Bush. But there’s a big difference. Biden was only a tiny bit annoying, while at the same time kinda fun and funny. Which is different than being a big wuss and constantly sighing.

I guess what really interests me with all this is that my book, “Don’t Be Such a Scientist,” had at the core of it a semi-contradiction that many people pointed out after publication, and which I never gave much thought to in the writing. The second chapter delved into the principle of “Arouse and Fulfill,” saying that you need to do something to wake your audience up. But the fourth chapter was titled, “Don’t Be So Unlikeable.” The arouse directive says its okay to annoy people, but the likeability element says don’t annoy people. That’s a contradiction to some extent.

The Biden performance was a textbook example of this. He aroused the hell out of the audience with his smiling. And for some it was unlikeable. But for others it wasn’t (and it really wasn’t — he’s a good guy, and there wasn’t any snideness in his smile). So in the end, it looks like he probably walked the fine line fairly well, with the ultimate assessment being the Politico headline of, “Joltin’ Joe wins the bout.”

Well done, Mr. Smiley.

Lordy, Lordy, Lordy … how will he ever do it. How will Joe Biden restrain himself from “rising above” in his debate with Paul Ryan. Yikes. It’s the biggest challenge he faces (audiences don’t like it), but he managed to avoid it with Sarah Palin so I’m guessing he’ll succeed again, though he may tear his hair (plugs) out.LOOK … I’M OLDER AND SMARTER THAN YOU.



In my book I talked about the basic problem of, “rising above” — meaning arrogance, condescension, and the idea of looking down on the person you’re speaking to. Audiences have little tolerance for it (unless it’s really funny).

This is what Joe Biden is facing on Thursday night in his debate with the youngster he’s paired up against. I don’t think I could manage to avoid it if I were him, but he faced the same challenge (even bigger) four years ago when he debated Sarah Palin. Back then he just laid low, didn’t commit any blunders, and let her score a supposed victory which was based on the fact that she proved herself capable of speaking in entire sentences and not producing any howlers that she had already become known for.

Here’s something more fun to watch– how many times Biden starts his sentences with, “Look …” As in, “Look, we don’t have time to take apart your budget …” I don’t know why I find it so irritating when someone uses this word over and over again, but he is definitely about the worst. I betcha he’ll say it at least 10 times during the debate. I’ll be counting.

You may think this is silly, but it’s not. This is high stakes communication combat. POINT ONE: Obama tells Charlie Rose in July the biggest mistake of his first term was his failure to “tell a story to the American people.” POINT TWO: Romney cleans Obama’s clock in the first debate as Obama tells no stories and comes off as dull. POINT THREE: Romney is suddenly springing to life as a storyteller. Your future may hang on who is the best storyteller. Yes, it is that important.

RIGHT ON CUE. On Saturday Mitt Romney was suddenly bearing his heart in Florida, giving speeches filled with personal stories. For such a dummy, he’s no dummy.



On Saturday, on CBS Evening News, correspondent Jan Crawford, following the newly fired up Romney campaign in Florida, reported on the powerful storytelling he is suddenly engaging in. Here’s the transcript of what she said, in the middle of which she shows him giving a speech.

JAN CRAWFORD: There is one other thing that is so striking that I have never seen it in the ten months as what we saw last night in St. Petersburg. Mitt Romney, a very private man who does not like to talk about himself — which is kind of unusual for a politician — told several personal STORIES at this rally last night, including one that was quite gripping about how a fourteen year old boy — a friend he had known through the church who was dying of cancer — asked Governor Romney to help him write his will. Take a listen to this …

MITT ROMNEY: He talked about his skateboard — who would get that — and his rifle, that went to his brother. I’ve seen the character of a young man like David who wasn’t emotional or crying — he had his eyes wide open. There’s a saying, clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose. David couldn’t lose. I love that young man.

JAN CRAWFORD: And campaign advisors say you’re going to be hearing that a lot more from Mitt Romney in the next four weeks — those kinds of STORIES.



How can this be happening? How can Obama’s advisers be so tone deaf as to not grasp the importance of storytelling??? Why has he not, over the past two years, developed at least one specific story of a Michigan man whose life was saved by the saving of the auto industry. Those stories have to be all over the landscape, yet there is NOTHING of the sort in Obama’s speeches.

Isn’t anyone on his staff familiar with how “The Great Communicator,” Ronald Reagan used specific stories over and over again to bring to life the issues he was addressing? This isn’t a frivolous option. It is THE central dynamic of communicating with the American public. And Obama is blowing it. And now it’s probably getting too late for him to suddenly show up with a bunch of stories.

This “humanizing” video from the RNC goes into detail about Romney’s story with David, the aforementioned cancer patient. David’s parents speak about Mitt’s experiences with their son, giving specific examples of times Mitt was there to support him and ultimately helping him write his own will. This all may have been crafted by his advisers and he might be just as dishonest about it as he was with his sentiments of compassion that got busted by the 47% factoid. Who knows? All I know is that if you look at him speaking in the CBS Evening News clip, he’s actually doing a very convincing and sincere job of talking about the kid. Whatever his advisors are doing with him, it is DEFINITELY working.

Obama supporters should be very concerned. Obama is stepping up to the plate with his communications skills and completely whiffing. This is an American tragedy unfolding, with communication skills at the heart of it.

Couldn’t you just give us a story or two? 

Need we say more? This is from the website of yesterday. Pretty much says it all.



You know … he just … I mean … why didn’t he … couldn’t he have just … Mr. President, I have a book for you to read.

Back in July there was an interview by Charlie Rose for ABC News in which he asked the President about his biggest mistake. Obama answered, “The mistake of my first couple of years was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right. That’s important. But, the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people.”

Um, yeah. So are you gonna make sure you correct for that in your big debate?

How did this happen? How did he identify, on national television, his own problem, then fail to rectify it in the most important debate of his life?

I’m very sad about this. Who coached him? What were they thinking? And how did he end up being so boring?

The power of storytelling rests in the specifics. You can bet that Romney wishes he’d rounded up his numbers and only talked about “half of the American public” instead of “the 47%.”

Obama’s number is 44. Romney will go down in history stuck with the number 47.



One of the fundamental rules I talk about in my storytelling workshops is that “the power of storytelling rests in the specifics.” It’s one of those simple rules that you may have committed to memory, but you’ll still fall victim to it because it’s much easier to generalize than to nail the specifics on anything. So it bears repeating often.

If you want to see an example of it in real life, just look at poor Mitt Romney. Let’s consider what would have happened, if on the leaked video Romney had said, “There are roughly half of the people who will vote for the President no matter what.” Would it now have much impact for people to show up at rallies with signs saying, “I’m one of the half.” Would that be very memorable? Would people even know what they’re talking about, or remember it a month later? If you wore a t-shirt saying, “Half” would most people make the connection? No, it would have stuck around for a week or so then faded into the noise of the campaign. But that’s not what he said.

He said, “47 percent of the people.” And with that he took ownership of a specific number for probably the next few years. If you walked around town right now with a t-shirt saying, “47%” just about everybody would know exactly what you’re talking about. Half can have lots of other meanings, but 47? What else does that say to you right now? Nobody else owns it. It’s his.

Unfortunately for Mitt, he was very, very specific. And now he’s learning the hard way about the power of specifics. You want to tell a strong story, you’ll want to talk about the 47 percent instead of the roughly half. He told a strong story. Now he’s stuck with it.

And the greatest irony is that the biggest thing dogging him right now in his campaign rhetoric is the lack of specifics in what he has to say about budget cuts. So in two ways he’s learning about the power of specifics, and the weakness of their absence.

In the Q&A after my talks I’m often asked, “How do we deal with uncertainty?” Andy Revkin had an excellent post on this on Thursday about Rachel Carson’s approach to uncertainty presented in a powerful study from Walker and Walsh celebrating the 50th anniversary of the publication of, “Silent Spring.” The answer I have always given audiences about uncertainty is that you need to be very, very careful about it. This study says the same thing, saying you need to “strategically” manage it.

What do climate skeptics have in common with this goddess of the environmental movement?



It’s really a fascinating article that Andy Revkin brought to his audience’s attention on Thursday with this blog post. In honor of the 50 year anniversary of the publication of Rachael Carson’s landmark book, “Silent Spring.” He points to a recent article by two researchers of rhetoric who basically say Rachel Carson used a lot of the same logic that today’s climate skeptics (and ozone skeptics and vaccination skeptics and cigarette smoking skeptics) use.

As Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway told about in their book, “Merchants of Doubt,” the skeptics have perfected the art of “doubt casting.” They’ve refined the ability to attack entire institutions of thought simply by asking the question of, “How can we be sure?” over and over again.

The data say the climate is going to get very warm. Yes, the climate skeptics reply, but you’re not 100% certain about that — so we should be careful about acting if we’re not sure of things.

The two researchers examined Rachel Carson’s detailed notes for her book and found the same form of logic — casting doubt on everything the pesticide makers said, talking about both ignorance and uncertainty, ultimately saying we can’t be certain these poisons aren’t poisoning us, so we should be careful of their use.

The bottom line, which is a little unsettling is: doubt casting on pesticide producers = good, doubt casting on climate scientists = bad.