I will be doing a 2-hour Connection Storymaker work session on Saturday afternoon, 3:00-5:00, at the American Physiological Society’s Experimental Biology (EB) Meeting at the San Diego Convention Center.  In conjunction with the event we will be making the Connection Storymaker App available for free on iTunes from now until Sunday.  Spread the word!

RETURN VISIT: I gave a keynote address and showed “Flock of Dodos” at the APS-EB Meeting about 5 years ago. Great to be coming back.




The ocean conservation movement received two “setbacks” over the past year. First, Japan was ordered by the U.N. to give up its whaling in the Antarctic. Second, the tide has shifted in the shark finning issue, with China pulling back on it’s shark fin consumption. That’s two great villains removed from the story of saving the oceans.   This isn’t an Onion posting I’m attempting here — it’s a serious issue.  What do you do when you start to run out of villains? This is why I teach storytelling. It is at the core of EVERYTHING.  And it’s a potential, eventual crisis for the ocean conservation community.  Foreigners killing whales? Easy to raise money. Copepod populations declining? Not so easy. I’m not making light of these great victories, I’m just saying everyone needs to learn more about storytelling to grasp the complexity of mass communication.  As the great screenwriting instructor Frank Daniel always said, “Your story is only as good as your villain is evil.” An “easy villain” shortage is emerging. 


HAPPY WHALES TO YOU. It’s been a good year for whales and sharks.  So what’s next to protect … the pteropods?



In the wake of the BP oil spill in 2010, this was a question my former Shifting Baselines partner Jeremy Jackson asked on the Diane Rehm show.  It’s a valid question, and it’s a problem.

People support causes when they are motivated. Whales are incredibly motivational. They were motivational enough to save themselves in the 1970’swith the worldwide “Save the Whales,” campaigns. Back then there was one clear villain — the whalers — which made for plenty of motivational stories. But now … ?

What’s going to happen to the Animal Planet show, “Whale Wars“?  I see there are other versions being filmed in the Faroe Islands  (pilot whales) and Canada (seals), but it’s not quite the same as the big bad Japanese in the Antarctic.



At the same time as the whale lovers are losing their prime villain, the tide has turned on the issue of shark finning.  I heard this last September in a talk from Peter Knights, head of WildAid.  I have HUGE admiration for their work in mass media.  They managed to do the very thing I was begging for a decade ago — to use mass media as the centerpiece of an environmental campaign.

He said they scored over $200 million in free air time in China with PSAs featuring Yao Ming and Jackie Chan speaking out against shark fin soup (which dwarfs the $10 million we scored a decade ago with my Jack Black Ocean Symphony PSA for Shifting Baselines, and is part of why I am so admiring of them).

The PSA’s were one major element in the Chinese government banning shark fin soup from formal banquets in China. Lots of other stuff followed from that one large gesture. But the net result is the story has now morphed from simple to more complicated.



Now you start to see the problem with climate — it’s basically the old Pogo line, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” It’s really hard to motivate the public when the ultimate villain is ourselves.

Bottom line, once again, it’s all about story.  Which means that if you don’t have a good enough handle on how story dynamics work, you’ll end up resorting to things like getting the public to believe there’s an island of plastic trash in the North Pacific the size of Texas because “it makes for such a good story.” When in fact there ain’t. The truth is nowhere near as simple, or fun.

With each conservation victory, the communication challenge becomes more difficult. Which leaves you with three options:  get better, lie, or quit.  Hopefully environmentalists realize the first one is the only viable option.


“Who would have thought a means of communication limited to 140 characters would ever create misunderstandings?” That was Colbert talking about the flap over his supposedly racist comment which was tweeted without including the set-up to the joke. This is a perfect demonstration of what I was talking about a month ago—that our ABT Universal Narrative Template shows a natural tendency to need about 300 characters to create a sentence with a clear narrative structure. Tweets were set at 140 characters for technological reasons. It sure looks to me like a case of technology leading us in a stupider direction overall. As Colbert has discovered the hard way.

colbert twitter joke

TWITTER SHOULD HAVE BEEN 300 CHARACTERS.  That’s what our ABT findings are telling us.  There was never a discussion about the length.  Everybody got stuck with it, and now assumes it’s perfect.  Until they get burned by it.



What would have been the perfect length for Tweets? As I discussed in January, the length of Twitter was kind of just thrust upon the world by the technicians who designed it. There wasn’t a vote or a big study in narrative structure to find the optimal length, trading off brevity with clarity. The 140 came from text messages which are limited to 160.

People have a tendency to not question the existing world, and to assume that if something is sub-optimal in design it will naturally change itself to find the optimum. Who knows for Twitter. Maybe 140 characters really is the absolute optimum for effective rapid fire mass communication.

All I know is that we’re gearing up to run our Connection Storymaker workshop next week with Deloitte Touche in Boston. We’ve got the participants sending in their ABT’s. And once again, they are all in the 300 to 350 range.

I’m tellin’ ya, there’s something to this observation.  People need 300 characters to tell a clear, cohesive thought. Maybe they can squeeze it to 250 with editing. Maybe with abbreviations get it down to 200. But 140? Really?

I predict something is going to arise to replace Twitter in the not-too-distant future. It will be similar, but will allow for a little more cohesion of thoughts. And will give users the room to include the set-up to a controversial joke (if they want to).