November 20th, 2014
Elizabeth Mclean, Ph.D. student at University of Rhode Island in Natural Resource Sciences wanted to improve her teaching and communications skills. She’s 6 weeks into her improv class. It’s working and she’s having huge fun. If you want to do something truly transformative with your life, I beg you to take an improv class.
IMPROV IN ACTION. Elizabeth Mclean (right) after her presentation at the American Indian Science and Engineering Society meeting with her co-presenters Dr. A.D. Cropper (left), his daughter, and Dr. Rafael E. Luna, author of The Art of Scientific Storytelling. Her new improv training played a central role in her relaxed delivery and successful presentation.
THE GOOD NEWS: NO ONE HAS EVER DIED TAKING THEIR FIRST IMPROV CLASS
Guess where Elizabeth Mclean is every Sunday evening. Here’s a hint — it doesn’t involve any Natural Resource Science, and in fact works best if she mostly shuts her brain down and just lives “in the moment,” with little critical thought.
Yes, just like British molecular biologist Dr. Vicky Miller who contacted me last year, she has taken a walk on the social wild side and is enrolled in an improv acting class. And just like Dr. Miller, she loves it. She had to show some initiative to track down a class — eventually asking a fellow scientist who guided her to an improv class offered in Wakefield, Rhode Island.
She was nervous her first night, as every non-actor is nervous when they enter their first night of an acting class. But unlike my experience in the Meisner acting class that opened my first book, where the instructor ripped my head off in front of a class full of laughing hyenas, she encountered incredibly friendly people — both instructor and students — who did something she wasn’t accustomed to in her daily life — they “acknowledged” her. They looked into her eyes, acknowledging the look that was passed on within a trusting circle, and “wow” “how powerful and simple it was, to be acknowledged and to acknowledge others whom she had just met”. That sort of experience is rare in most people’s daily lives where everyone is more into themselves and just doing what they’re doing.
IT’S ABOUT “COMMUNICATING AT A DIFFERENT LEVEL”
After six weeks she’s finding herself overcoming at least a little bit of her shyness and introversion. And this is important because some of the work she is doing in her scientific research involves working with fishermen she doesn’t know. That’s a social process. Improv strengthens social interactions. Bottom line, she’s getting exactly the right training for what she does.
“For me it’s about communicating at a different level,” Elizabeth says. That’s what it’s all about. And she said the other day, when she was teaching an introductory biology lab and was talking about physiology models, and asked the class, “What makes for a really good model?” and the student replied, “Dashing handsome looks”.”
She felt the improv training kick in. Instead of having a first impulse of negation and wanting to say, “No, that’s not what I’m talking about,” she found herself going in the opposite direction, at least just for a moment, affirming the comment with a good old fashioned improv, “Yes, and … what if that handsome fashion model were into a physiology model system, then what…?”
Improv can be life changing in the best way possible. I encourage you to look into it, and if you join a class, definitely get in touch with me as Elizabeth, Vicky Miller and others have. We’re all interested in your experience with improv.
November 18th, 2014
I went to a screening of the new Reese Witherspoon movie, “Wild,” for which she was both producer and lead actor. It’s a really “lovely” film which I enjoyed — Thumbs Up! But … in the end, she needed the help of famed geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky. Had he read her script he would have called it “a pile of sundry facts, some of which are interesting and even curious, but ultimately fails to paint a meaningful picture.” Bottom line, it’s a solid film, but still just an, “and, and, and” presentation.
WILD SCREENING. After a special Writers Guild screening of “Wild,” actor/producer Reese Witherspoon (second from left) and actor Laura Dern (far right) joined the panel discussion to talk about the movie. A good movie, but the basic story was, “I got divorced, and then my mother died, and then I went on a hike, and then I encountered a fox, and then I ran out of water, and then I got a ride with a scary man, and then …”
WHAT ARE WE TRYING TO SAY HERE?
I don’t think geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky had any aspirations of giving Hollywood knowledge they could use, nor do I think Hollywood is ever likely to listen to the words of a geneticist when it comes to narrative structure, but they should. In my upcoming book I will formally present what I have come to call The Dobzhansky Template. It’s a simple sentence, derived from his famous evolution quote, in which you fill in the blanks. Here’s the sentence:
“Nothing in _______ makes sense except in the light of _______ .”
It’s a shame Reese Witherspoon couldn’t have sat down with the template before making her new movie, “Wild.” The movie is beautifully shot and she is of course as endlessly watchable as she was in 1991 in her wonderful debut movie, “The Man in the Moon.” But in the end, the story doesn’t really say much.
It’s based on the book by Cheryl Strayed. In the Q&A Reese told about how Cheryl, living in Oregon, sent her a copy of the book six months before publication. Reese said she read it in 48 hours and knew she wanted to make the movie version of it.
It’s a nice movie — a bit of “Into the Wild,” a bit of “Eat, Pray, Love” as well as even, “Shirley Valentine” — basically another story of the great things that can happen when you go walkabout. But what it lacks is a deeper theme, which it could have had. And that’s where the Dobzhansky template comes in.
All you have to do is look at one of the greatest American movies ever made, “Ordinary People” which won four Oscars in 1980 including Best Picture. The Dobzhansky Template would be: Nothing in that family’s existence made sense except in the light of the death of their son. There’s your clear, simple narrative that wins you Oscars and creates enduring stories.
November 10th, 2014
The climate movement is a communications train wreck. It’s been 7 years since Pat Michaels made fun of the, “We’ve only got 10 years left” line from climate worriers in my movie “Sizzle.” Now the head of the UN comes out with “We’ve only got 30 years left.” I’m sorry, you can’t do that sort of “making it up as we go along” nonsense and expect the public to trust you.
“WE HAVE TO DO SOMETHING IN TEN YEARS — THEY’VE BEEN SAYING THAT FOR TWO YEARS — WHY DON’T THEY AT LEAST SUBTRACT TWO AND MAKE IT EIGHT?” This is the kind of clever critique that makes you want to be a climate skeptic (not really).
I am forever quoting Daniel Kahneman’s line about how the public needs a voice that is “trusted and liked,” otherwise all your evidence is worthless. Here’s a case study in “not building trust.”
Now the head of the U.N. offers up his own 30 year urgency deadline. To which I’m sure nobody cares because there just isn’t any sort of careful strategic messaging associated with the climate movement. It’s just endless “throw it against the wall and see if it sticks.”
The problem is, we have to do something about this in ten years. We only have ten years to act on climate communication.
November 7th, 2014
800 unraised hands, all in response to the question I opened my keynote with at the Agronomy/Crop Science/Soil Science meeting. Only one fellow raised his hand and guess who he was — the author of a book on science writing. Science is a narrative profession that is narratively oblivious. I know this in part because I spent twenty years as a scientist and knew zippo about narrative. Which means if I’d been in this audience, I wouldn’t have raised my hand either.
SO WHAT IF WE DON’T KNOW THE ACRONYM, WHO CARES?
This will be one of the opening vignettes of my new book next year on narrative in the science world. On Wednesday afternoon I gave the closing keynote address to the meeting of the societies for Agronomy, Crop Science and Soil Science at the Long Beach Convention Center. The meeting had 4200 scientists and students in attendance. They estimated 800 or so stuck around for my talk which ended the week.
In the first moment of my talk I asked the audience to raise their hand if they were certain they knew the meaning of a certain acronym. I advanced the slides. On the screen was the acronym IMRAD. I scanned the ballroom and even took the above photo for the historical record, proving that no hands went up.
But then finally everyone to my left was pointing to one lone individual. That fellow turned out to be Josh Schimel, author of the popular and excellent book on writing scientific research papers, Writing Science Papers: How to write papers that get cited and proposals that get funded.
And there you have it — the exception which proves the rule.
SCIENTISTS ARE NOT TAUGHT NARRATIVE, WHICH IS A PROBLEM
In case you didn’t know — and I personally absolutely did NOT know until 6 months ago — IMRAD stands for the structural elements of just about every scientific research paper you read — Introduction, Methods, Results And Discussion.
So now you know. And you’re maybe saying, “hunh, okay, that’s interesting,” and thinking that’s it. But I’m here to tell you it shows something — the fact that out of 800 scientists only one knew this. And you can add to that sample size the 200 doctors, scientists and students at Johns Hopkins Medical School a month ago when I did the same exercise. Nobody in that crowd raised their hand.
And yet, there is an entire sub-discpline of folks who study the IMRAD. Try searching it on Google — you’ll get hundreds of pages of websites talking about it.
What this little experiment reflects is the idea that the narrative template that is at the core of how scientists communicate is not even taught in any formal way. There is no one pointing out to students from the first day of their science courses that this is an entire discipline that is built upon narrative dynamics. Science is a narrative profession, both in the doing and the communicating, yet there is very, very little awareness or thought given to it. This is the subject of my book that will come out next year — the identification of this as a serious problem in science, and my recommendations on how to address it.
November 4th, 2014
Wednesday evening in Long Beach I will be giving the closing keynote at the 2014 meeting of the three organizations of Agronomy, Crop Science and Soil Science. I will also be running a workshop on Sunday plus screening “Sizzle” on Tuesday night which is always fun.
CABIN FEVER CURED