March 26th, 2013
“Narrative Analysis” is EVERYWHERE in America today. It wasn’t this way a decade ago. It IS the zeitgeist. Get used to it. AND learn about it, or be lost.
TOURNEY NARRATIVE: The New Yorker has a nice article today about how the coaches (and one wife) make for better storytelling these days than the players.
HERE’S LOOKIN’ AT YOU, KIDS
I’m tellin’ ya, it wasn’t like this just a decade ago. Nobody talked to the President about, “the Democratic party narrative,” as Jon Stewart did a couple years ago on his show. News pundits didn’t sit around and discuss, “the NRA narrative,” as they have for the past couple months. And sports writers didn’t break down a simple basketball tournament the way that Ian Crouch does today in The New Yorker.
But his analysis is actually very good. He explains why there’s so much more interest in the basketball coaches rather than players in today’s NCAA Basketball Tournament. It’s because the coaches are interesting characters — they have backstories, personalities and distinctive styles. Players are young, faceless, temporary, and largely without any depth of character.
It’s very true. The biggest matchup this past weekend was between coaches Bill Self (of my beloved Kansas Jayhawks) and Roy Williams, the former Kansas coach. THAT was a good story, but it had absolutely zero to do with the players. Same for the biggest story of the weekend — Cinderella team Florida Gulf Coast — it’s all about the coach, Andy Enfield and his Victoria’s Secret wife (who doesn’t even get a name in the New Yorker article!).
The point to notice is this whole idea of “narrative analysis.” It’s everywhere. And at the center of it is storytelling. Which is why Dorie, Brian and I have developed our storytelling workshop over the past two years and are now writing a book about it. Welcome to “the narrative” of today’s communication.
March 21st, 2013
This morning I had a long Skype chat with Dr. Vicky Miller of the University of Bristol who boldly walked into an improv class in January with zero previous experience and emerged a different person. Yes, it can be that life changing.
THE FACE OF COURAGE. I have sooo much respect for this person — Dr. Vicky Miller who walked out of her laboratory and into an improv classroom. She contacted me last week to tell me about it. The experience has changed how she asks questions in seminars, how she interacts with people at meetings, and how she even reads Nature.
“HI, I’M VICKY, AND I’M A SCIENTIST …”
That’s how she said she started her class in January. The whole process actually began three years ago when she got married. She and her husband memorized their vows, but when it came time to “perform” them, her husband, a university lecturer who is also an actor/singer with a booming voice projected his words throughout the room, but she spoke up with her mousey voice and could hardly be heard.
The same was true when she would give science talks, until finally last May her friend Jane Oakshott, who teaches voice classes at Leeds University, convinced her to take three one hour classes with her. That was the start of the transition.
“People would say, ‘Speak up!’, but without technique you’re just shouting, not PROJECTING.”
In the voice classes they did a few improv exercises. “She made me do exercises, pretending to talk first to a dog, then a friend, using the same words, but to see how your voice changes depending upon the relationship. I couldn’t do it — it felt too silly — it was REALLY hard.” But when Vicky read my book over this past Christmas and read the things I said about improv training she made up her mind to address this challenge.
In typical scientist form (straight out of my book) she began by RESEARCHING the matter — reading several books on improv. But finally she realized the only way you can get to know improv, the ultimate experiential technique, is to, alas, experience it.
So she found an improv course at The Folkhouse in Bristol where they teach on-going education courses in things like painting, language, and acting. The first night she was so dreading it, “I didn’t even want to get off the sofa to go.
“That first night I felt really awkward, I crept into the room, sat in a chair, didn’t introduce myself to anyone, just wanted to sink into the floor and DIE!”
“We did lots of clapping games like zip/zap/boing — lots of clapping, things to get you out of your head. I introduced myself that night by saying, ‘Hi, I’m Vicky, and I’m a scientist, I spend all day pipetting, moving small amounts of liquid from one tube to another.’ But I REALLY ENJOYED IT from the start, and went home that first night feeling I wanted to go back and do more. I felt I was getting stuck, wanted to get unstuck, some in the class were automatically very good and very playful. I was determined to get better at it.”
short sharp shock
“The thing I find about improv is it gives you a CONTACT HIGH — my whole class began complaining that we finish the class at 10 p.m. — nobody can get to sleep until 3 am, all thinking about the ways we could do it much better.”
“We did a scene with objectives — I was given the role of ‘be the most important person in the room’ — instead of being quiet and reclusive, my normal self, it was so much fun to try that sort of thing in a place where there were no consequences. Actually, I’m just back from a science conference. Normally I would talk to two or three people, but because of this training I probably talked to about 50 people, able to relax and exchange ideas — ALL because of what I’ve gained through the improv class.”
“One of the most memorable nights we did the typical “Whose Line is it Anyway,” where people come in the door and they have an objective — I was throwing a party, one guy came in the door who thought I was a goddess, one guy thought I was suicidal, and a woman who thought I’d stolen some very important jewelry of hers. I had the one guy bowing down, other guy clutching me asking if I was okay, and then the woman, reaching up under my dress to see where I had hidden the jewelry! ALL IN FRONT OF THE REST OF THE CLASS! No questions I will ever get in a science seminar are going to be that overwhelming!!!”
“The instructor was very good, very playful, very hands-off — just set us up and let us go — we would just do stuff. We were a very mixed group in terms of background, age, in terms of objectives for doing the course. Half would like to be actors, the other half doing for confidence skills.”
“Another favorite moment — we did a team exercise — we did the SUPERMAN exercise, where you walk around the room, one person yells Superman, everybody rushes over, picks them up, and flies them around the room. It was hilarious, but also you felt the bond of the team effort.”
sit in solemn silence
A TRANSFORMATION IN POISE AND CONFIDENCE
“We recently had a very big departmental seminar with a very important speaker. I asked a question which I would never have done before because I wouldn’t have been sure I would have been heard. There are so many more possibilities — not scared, not hunched down, not wanting to destroy others to make myself look good, I can PLAY with them now.”
dull dark dock
YOU, TOO, CAN IMPROV
The time has come for more scientists to bite the bullet and do this. It’s more than just fun and games — it can be life altering. Improv takes you into places and spaces you would never venture into. In a workshop last summer with a major environmental organization, as Brian Palermo of the Groundlings led the improv exercises, the woman who is head of their program said to me, “I’ve been working with all these people for two years but never seen this side of them — we never have the circumstances here for this sort of behavior — they’re actually all human!”
There’s a reason the Groundlings instructors are routinely brought into to run workshops in the corporate world (in my Benshi interview with Groundling Jeremy Rowley three years ago he discussed this in detail). Just like Dr. Vicky Miller, if you look around your neighborhood you can find your own local improv class. Then it’s just a matter of deciding you can be as brave as she was. Come on, what’s the worst that will happen — you’ll embarrass yourself in front of a bunch of strangers who are making even bigger fools of themselves, all behind closed doors.
Here’s Vicky’s overall advice to fellow scientists: “Just do it! It’s wonderful! Really engage — stop thinking, just react.”
This is gonna sound cult-like. The PCM (Process Communication Model) is the real deal. What does it do? It helps you make sense of human behavior in a practical, experiential (non-Nerd Loopy), visceral way. I spent 3 days last week attending a workshop on it. I started as a skeptic. Within an hour I was sold. It bears some similarity to Briggs-Myers (which the government has used for decades), but much more intuitive, practical and applied. It also shares a common thread with improv acting and Meisner acting technique (which formed the core of my book) in that it’s all about putting the focus on the other person. Both Clintons were trained in it and swear by it. Imagine a world where climate scientists no longer stared at climate skeptics and said, “Why do they act like that?” and shouted things that nobody listens to, but instead said, “I get it.” PCM could make that happen.
PRETTY CLEAR METHOD. “If you want them to listen to what you say, speak their language.” Taibi Kahler of Arkansas created the PCM approach to communication in the late 1970’s. The core principles are simple. You figure out what style of language people respond to — robotic orders, robotic questions, warm and comforting words, or highly energized pep talk — then you address them accordingly. It helps you understand why angry climate activists shouting at the right wing haven’t accomplished much. Nor has the Nerd Looped climate communication campaign of the academics. What is needed is this more pragmatic approach to communication.
WHY DOES HE BEHAVE THAT WAY?
Ever ponder this question? It’s at the heart of most people’s discussions of the anti-evolution and anti-climate science movements — countless academics scratching their heads baffled by, “Why do the anti-science folks behave that way?”
At the heart of behavior is personality. For both of my documentaries on the anti-science movements, “Flock of Dodos,” and “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy,” I came to the conclusion that it’s not about science, it’s about personality. If you were to map out the personality traits of the anti-science crowd vs. the science crowd, they would fall into two clearly distinct groups. So why wouldn’t you take a deeper interest in behavior?
And not the sort of behavior where you bring in teams of Ph.D.’s to give talks on all their clinical studies and sets of polling data, but rather of the visceral/experiential sort. I’m talking about the people who actually use behavioral knowledge in a practical setting — who actually INTERACT with human beings. If you want to consult the experts on this you should probably talk to acting teachers (the source of learning for my book), OR … people who run behavior workshops. Which is what I experienced last week.
THE PCM APPROACH
Before I get into the specifics of the three day workshop, let me bring the gist of it to life with one simple example. On the second day, the instructor, to illustrate how PCM works, said, “Last night when I decided to head to bed and tell my three kids good night I gave the first one a big hug — she’s a HARMONIZER/PERSISTER (meaning she values feelings and emotions), the second one, my son the basketball player, I slapped a high five — he’s a REBEL/PROMOTER (meaning he enjoys energy and excitement), the third I walked right past out of the room without saying a word to her — she’s a DREAMER/THINKER (meaning she prefers to just be left alone). Each one was completely happy in their own way.”
Had he tried to hug the basketball player, slap a high five to the dreamer, and ignored the harmonizer he would have had three uncomfortable kids. It’s that simple.
That one brief example kind of brought it to life more vividly than anything for me. Yes, as a parent you probably intuitively know that your basketball playing son doesn’t want a hug, but this is just the starting point. The ramifications of the personality types is endless.
And yes, the scientist side of my brain began the workshop by warning the instructor I doubted I would last three days — I’m so swamped with things to do and I’m such a short attention span lunatic. But let me just skip to how it all ended. In the last few minutes of the third day I said to the instructor and ten participants, “I know my profile says I’m a Rebel, which means I bore easily, but I just have to say I could honestly do another three days of this workshop without getting bored — it’s that fascinating.”
Take that in. I walked out of, “Django,” halfway through — it bored me. This is about the strongest possible endorsement I could give a workshop. There’s nothing cultish about it. It bears similarity to Briggs-Myers testing developed in the 1920’s and still widely used by the government. But it’s so much better.
It also has a common feel to Meisner acting techniques (I spent two years in a program) and improv acting (I’ve taken several levels of classes and now work with improv instructors in my workshops) in that all three emphasize putting the focus more on the other individual than on yourself. At the heart of all of them is developing your ability to LISTEN. And of course anyone who has heard me speak has probably heard me cite Peter Karieva’s review of my book in Science where he noted that I neglected the biggest problem of scientists when it comes to communication which is, “their inability to listen.” All of these methods of training (Improv, Meisner, PCM) cultivate listening ability, which means they are ALL of value to scientists and environmentalists and academics in general.
OKAY, NOW LOWER YOUR GUARD FOR A MOMENT HERE …
Trust me. I used to be a scientist.
It began with a 50 question questionnaire we had to fill out the week before. They use this to present to you the first morning your profile in a multitude of ways, breaking you down into the six personality types, telling you how much of each type you have (big surprise, my primary level is REBEL, with secondary level PROMOTER — most everyone else in the group had HARMONIZER as their primary or secondary level — I was the outlier, big time). Over the next three days that information becomes the central focus of the exercises and discussions.
The most important element is the “Channels of Communication” — which means basically developing the realization of things like sensitive people don’t like to be talked to bluntly, while there are some other personality types that actually prefer to be spoken to in plain, non-emotive terms.
This is something that has stewed inside of me for over three decades — from waaay back when I was doing my Ph.D. in biology and watched as an abusive professor wreaked havoc on graduate students. What I noticed was that his excessively demanding style caused the more creative students to crumple up while the more discipline oriented students seem to relish in his fierceness. That was the first time I realized that different people really need different channels of communication. This is one of the reasons the training instantly made sense to me on the first day.
A simple way to summarize a lot of the workshop is to say it’s a glorified and detailed exercise in the old adage of, “know your audience.” It’s saying: know which personality type someone is, then speak to them in the manner to which they are most responsive. But the difference is that it is a system that has been evolving since the late 1970’s when Taibi Kahler, a guy from Arkansas with an enormous IQ, first developed it.
Being from Arkansas he became buddies with the Clintons. They both got trained in it early on (see their endorsements here). Bill Clinton’s brilliant, “I feel your pain,” statement came directly out of his PCM training. Pixar Animation Studios has PCM trainers on their staff. On and on. It’s truly powerful stuff. It will have a major effect on me. I walked out of the workshop looking at the world differently. Not in a cultish way — just in the way of now having a simple, functional, analytical criteria with which to look at behavior. And all I can say is that the science world needs it — at least with some of the top level people.
I have no connection with it — I just happened to know the instructor who has been telling me for five years about it — saying I really should take the workshop. He himself is a great communicator so I knew all along there was something to it. I finally decided to take him up on it last week. If anyone wants to hear more about you’re welcome to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I can direct you to the relevant resources and share more details of why I ended up so impressed.
The science and environmental worlds continue to be so baffled by human behavior. PCM training is sorely needed.
March 15th, 2013
How do you have a vastly unsustainable 100 million sharks a year being slaughtered, yet USA Today telling its readers “it’s all good”? To the uninformed reader, this headline says one simple thing — sharks just got “global protection.” Plain and simple. And not true.
DON’T WORRY, BE HAPPY! Nice job with the messaging. Here’s the nation’s second largest newspaper sending out the word this morning that sharks are all set now as they “get global protection.” Whew. I guess there’s no problem with them after all. Time to close up all the major shark conservation groups and move on to protecting barnacles.
I sure hope somebody in the shark conservation world fell out of their chair when they saw this on the front page of USA Today, the nation’s second largest newspaper. It says sharks “get global protection.” Who cares about whatever the reality is (namely that I was in Fiji two months ago and saw the shark slaughter problem with my own eyes, its out of control and being reported at 100 million a year), the perception projected from this headline is that … well, sharks “get global protection.”
The article accompanying the headline fills in the details — that CITES voted to protect 5 species somewhere, somehow, while the article even mentions the 100 million sharks harvested annually. The proper headline should be “Sharks Still Getting Screwed.” And btw, in today’s rapid world, headlines are about all that matter for broad communication.
How can there be all the MASSIVE conservation groups with the massive budgets and massive teams of communications “experts,” yet this is what appears in the nation’s second largest newspaper? It’s the sort of bungling of conservation communication that has gone on for over a decade. Yes, I know what the communications people will say, “It’s the media’s fault, we can’t help it.” You won’t hear Hollywood publicists saying that when the headlines come out about their clients. The good ones know how to make sure the headlines match what their client wants. There are ways to achieve that, but only if you’re good at it.
Even the Japan Times will tell you sharks are in “freefall.”
March 12th, 2013
THE DAY THE LIGHTS WENT OUT. A great video collaboration of three groups.
REACHING FOR THE SKY, WHILE REACHING INSIDE
Last December, Dorie Barton, Brian Palermo and I conducted our storytelling workshop with the wonderful folks of the National Park Service in Fort Collins, Colorado. A couple months later, one of them sent us the above video they had just commissioned, seeking our opinion (hoping that we would approve). All three of us were thoroughly impressed, telling them it is the very embodiment of all that we teach in our workshop.
What a great piece of work. Which makes twice now that the folks we’ve run the workshop with have produced excellent work — the other being the NRDC folks with their couch video that we raved about last month (we did a workshop with them last August). Let me now extoll the virtues of this video.
STORY DEVELOPMENT – Each of the three groups played their respective roles. The National Park Service folks decided they wanted a short video that kids would connect with about the value of night skies. They partnered with the Global Explorers, who work with groups of kids and know the audience well. They in turn contacted Madhouse Productions in Toledo, Ohio who came up with the great little story of the kid and the night skies. I spoke with Rob Seiffert of Madhouse who directed the piece. He said their entire company threw their hearts into the production of the film. It really shows.
NARRATIVE – What a great little story. It’s set in total “storytelling mode” which is just about the broadest possible voice. It actually feels a lot like Martin Scorcese’s “Hugo” from a couple years ago. It’s a simple story, yet there’s a few twists and turns along the way.
Notice the story conforms completely to the “And, But, Therefore” template we talk about in the workshop. The story begins at 0:10 with a number of expositional facts: a “man” bought a house AND began painting the night sky AND his paintings sold like hot cakes BUT (right at 0:50) the stars disappeared as the man lost the night. They hit a second BUT moment at 1:05 with “But with every flipped switch …” which just elaborates on the first one. Then at 1:25 the narrator says, “Til one day he went out …” which is pretty much the same as the THEREFORE element — it’s the action he took in response to the circumstances.
In a single sentence you could restate this story as, “A man painted the night sky AND did well selling his paintings BUT then one day over-development ruined the night skies THEREFORE he figured out a way to put the lights out and restore his night skies.”
This is why the story works so well — it has a good, simple, logical structure to it. This is what story development is about — smoothing out the pieces of a story so they make sense and flow smoothly like this.
PRODUCTION VALUE – Amazing job from Madhouse Productions working on a limited budget. It looks like a major movie production, but was made for a fraction of the cost of what folks in Hollywood would have needed. This is one of the benefits of working with production companies outside of Hollywood. Having shot films here for nearly twenty years, I can assure you of this.
CASTING – The kid does an excellent job. There’s no dialogue, which helps, but still, there is performance involved in EVERYTHING when you’re making a film. I once had a film where we needed a close-up shot of a hand picking up a pen. I ended up letting my assistant director do the directing for the one shot as I took a break. When I saw the footage in dailies I couldn’t believe it — the actor’s hand came into the frame, paused for a second, then picked up the pen clumsily. Even something that simple can end up with a bad performance. Directing is endless. The kid is perfect.
MUSIC SCORE – Great calliope music, perfectly scored to the entire film — not just “needle drop.” It helps move the story along and bring it to a solid conclusion.
VOICEOVER – The narrator’s voice is so incredibly close to Morgan Freeman that two of my friends immediately said, “Oh, I love Morgan Freeman!” I’m not sure that’s actually a perfect thing. It’s the one element that’s a little odd, perhaps, but there’s no way that’s a shortcoming — to perfectly replicate one of the best and most distinctive narration voices in cinema.
Overall, it’s really a great film that I’m sure will have very long “legs” because of it’s high quality. No, it doesn’t give you a ton of factoids about night skies — that’s what websites are for. What it does do is hit you inside at an emotional level on why clear night skies matter.
The most important comment I have overall is that film is first and foremost an entertainment medium. It just is. Members of the general public expect films to be at least lightly entertaining. Information bogs down a film. You might say, “but what about documentaries?” Look at what Michael Moore did with that medium — he produced his wildly entertaining documentaries and set all the box office records. It’s just the way it is. It’s about the “arouse and fulfill” dictum — use the film to arouse the audience, then the website to fulfill the interest you have stirred.
This film is lightly entertaining. It’s great. It will have a long life. Congratulations to everyone involved. It’s a role model for all we are advocating with our workshops.
March 6th, 2013
Ugh. There they go again — the viscerally-driven celebrities, following the flaming sink of “Gasland,” and NIMBYism, stepping over a dollar to pick up a dime. Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute has an excellent essay today that summarizes the current “Gas Crushes Coal” controversy — how the evil fracking is extinguishing the MEGA-evil coal, but the celebs and enviros can’t seem to see the petrified forest for the wells. Or something like that.
THE ETERNAL SEARCH FOR THE TRUTH. Yes, celebrities are powerful and important communications resources, but sometimes they go too quickly with the visceral side of an issue. Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute tries to strike a balance with this essay.
SHORT ATTENTION SPANS VS. GRAPHS
The fracking issue is shaping up to be a text book case of guts vs. brains, feelings vs. data, local vs. global — particularly in the communication dynamics. Whatever happened to the old slogan, “Think globally, act locally.” The fracking issue seems to be advocating, “Think globally, then do the opposite locally.” Meaning the global problem is global warming driven significantly by the emissions of coal plants, but the local “fracktivisits” don’t seem to care that gas production has led to decline in coal emissions in the US, they just want the fracking out of their back yards.
Josh Fox used a visceral medium (a so-called “documentary” — and I’m sorry but as soon as you open your film with a hushed voice of conspiracy you ain’t documenting squat — you’re editorializing) to enflame the masses and lots of celebs have followed suit, including Matt Damon with his “Promised Land” (which has a rotten 51% on Rotten Tomatoes, sah-ree). The result is an anti-fracking movement at a time when gas production has significantly reduced coal emissions.
As usual, the overall dynamic is reflective of the poor leadership of today’s environmental movement. I have talked in the past about the powerful leadership that produced loud, singular voices in the 1970’s for such issues as protecting Alaska and stopping nuclear power. Today the environmental cacophony can’t seem to pull its act together on these things to produce a coordinated singular voice.
And in the meanwhile, Shellenberger points out that major scientists, like Dan Schrag at Harvard, are presenting the data to show that this minor evil of fracking has made major strides in addressing the major evil of coal burning. Is it really that tough to keep a clear perspective on two things at once?
And how much do you think the anti-environmentalists enjoy watching the anti-fracking crowd battle the anti-coal crowd?
Lastly, didn’t Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (who is one of the celebrity voices behind the anti-fracking movemet) throw all his credibility behind the anti-vaccination movement — an effort that has not only been thoroughly discredited but was also 100% anti-science. Doesn’t credibility matter any more?