This comes up all the time. I heard it when I made a climate movie in 2008 that included climate skeptics. Back then, before Climategate, I was labeled by some in the climate community as misguided. When Participant Productions did the same thing this year with some of the same skeptics (Marc Morano, Fred Singer) they were admired. Now J.K. Rowling is hearing it in dealing with gay marriage. It’s a lame criticism.
GOD HATES FLAGS. This is some of the Twitter mess that J.K. Rowling is dealing with in calling out the Westboro Baptist Church over their idiocy. As she says, “gay kids need to see hate speech challenged.”
IGNORING THE BAD GUYS DOESN’T WORK
In 2004 John Kerry was attacked in his Presential campaign by the Swift Boaters. His “strategy” in response was to ignore them in hopes they would go away. They didn’t. They destroyed him. He lost, big time.
Same thing in 2006 with Al Gore’s campaign to save the world from global warming. In his movie, “An Inconvenient Truth,” the only micro-nod he gave to climate skeptics was to talk about Naomi Oreskes’ Science paper counting how many scientists disagreed with the idea of human-caused climate change. His answer was zero, which suggested you’d have to be a fool to think that way. That was all the screen time he gave to the roughly 50% of Americans then who weren’t buying his climate story.
In 2008 I made my small, humble, both silly and serious mockumentary “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy” which included 6 climate skeptics — three of whom continue to be about the loudest voices in the climate skeptic movement — Marc Morano, Fred Singer, and Pat Michaels.
The movie was invited for consideration by five “environmental film festivals” in DC, Georgia, Colorado and California. All five rejected it. Wasn’t their brand of planet worship (plus included gay and non-white people, demographics they’re not used to). In the meanwhile numerous enviros suggested I was “helping the enemy” by giving them screen time. I had to endure a lot of snide and stupid comments.
And then there was ClimateGate in 2009 where the climate community revealed it’s communications incompetence — so severely that even Jon Stewart made fun of them.
And then there was 2010 when the last piece of climate legislation collapsed and I attended a workshop in DC where supposedly the best minds in the environmental movement conceded they had completely failed in their mission. Apparently their opponents weren’t negligible.
And now there is this year’s documentary “Merchants of Doubt,” which features the same Marc Morano and Fred Singer, almost a decade later. This time around there are no comments of “helping the enemy by giving them screen time.” Apparently there’s been a change in the thinking. (Minor note: I guided the director, my buddy Robbie Kenner, to Marc Morano.)
Whatever. The bottom line is that Kerry, Gore and lots of others have slowly learned this basic lesson — that yes, you do have to roll up your sleeves and get down in the trenches to confront even the most dishonest of opponents. There is no high road in this stuff. It’s America. You can’t send people to prison camps if they speak out against the orthodoxy.
All you can do is communicate more effectively than they do. Which is bad news for lousy communicators.
CENTRAL NARRATIVE. It’s the basic divide between the two Clintons as Thomas Friedman pointed out yesterday.
BEING DECLARATIVE ABOUT THE NARRATIVE
Here’s something that currently distinguishes Bill from Hillary Clinton.
“Nothing in Bill Clinton’s Administration made sense except in the light of his overall take on the world.”
“Nothing in Hillary Clinton’s campaign makes much sense (so far) because of her lack of an overall take on the world.”
These are two extrapolations from what Thomas Friedman had to say yesterday on NBC’s Meet the Press. The first uses my “Dobzhansky Template” which I will be formally presenting in my new book in September (“Nothing in _____ makes sense, except in the light of _____ .”). The second is a variation on the first sentence.
Here’s what Friedman had to say about Bill Clinton yesterday on Meet the Press:
THOMAS FRIEDMAN: I’ve only covered one campaign, it was Bill Clinton’s, and I knew why he was running. From the beginning, he was a conservative Democrat, he had a take on the world and everything was connected to that.
That’s the Dobzhansky idea — that there was one central narrative and “everything was connected to that.”
Now here’s what he had so say about Hillary:
THOMAS FRIEDMAN: I think what hobbled Hillary last time, is what I see hobbling her again, which is — why — what is your take on the world — what do you really believe — and how is this connected to that — and until she fills that void everything — money and everything else is going to jump into there.”
Bottom line: Hillary is lacking a central narrative so far. Which is not good in politics.
MCKEE, ARCHPLOT AND MINIPLOT
Here’s a little more sneak preview of my upcoming book. A major part of it is reaching into the narrative structure developed within Hollywood for tools and templates that can be of use in science. One of the most powerful is Robert McKee’s narrative triangle. At the top of his triangle he places “archplot.”In his 1997 book, “Story,” he rather passionately defines it as the classical form of narrative over the ages. Here’s what he says about it:
“These principles are ‘classical’ in the truest sense: timeless and transcultural, fundamental to every earthly society, civilized and primitive, reaching back through millenia of oral storytelling into the shadows of time. When the epic Gilgamesh was carved in cuneiform on twelve clay tablets 4,000 years ago, converting story to the written word for the first time, the principles of classical design were already fully and beautifully in place.”
This is part of what I’m trying to say — everyone needs to understand the power, importance and shape of archplot. Bill Clinton does. Hillary doesn’t.
May 11th, 2015
I can’t say it enough. Daniel Kahneman said it. Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post said it yesterday on NBC’s Meet the Press. The most important question the science and environmental communities could address is, “How do we build public trust?” And yet there is little talk of this. Instead, they talk about “The public understanding of science.” Which sounds more like, “You people need to do a better job of learning this stuff.” The world doesn’t work that way any more. Sorry.
WHO CAN YOU TRUST? Above is what Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post had to say yesterday in talking about next year’s Presidential elections. The issue is age old.
A ROTTEN ACRONYM
It’s about to be three years since I began quoting Daniel Kahneman’s line about how, “the source has to be liked, and the source has to be trusted.” It’s such a simple element, yet is overwhelmingly powerful. And is fundamentally lacking in the mindset of the science community.
I know this well from a few years ago. I was recruited to the AAAS committee that went by the foul and disgusting acronym of COPUST. At the core of that acronym was the old phrase, “public understanding of science and technology” — the wretched PUST part of the name. I was told this phrase came from England where it has been in use for a looooong time. Which figures.
I quit the committee, saying I couldn’t be part of something with such an off-putting acronym. I recommended they rework their name into something that took the reverse perspective — instead of having the tone of lecturing the public, they send a signal that we are interested in what the public thinks of us. And in fact, given the Pew Poll earlier this year showing declining public trust in science, I’d say it’s about time for this mode of thinking. I recommended something that included the phrase “public perception of science.”
They did throw out the old name (yay!) and at least went so far as to put “engagement with the public” into the new name. Which is halfway there. But eventually they need to go the full distance.
It’s about LISTENING. People trust people they feel are listening. They don’t trust people who don’t listen. Scientists are VERY bad at listening. This is part of why we use improv techniques in our workshops — they foster listening.
Again, it all comes down to trust. As Kahneman says, it doesn’t matter how much data and how strong your arguments are. Without trust, you have nothing.
May 5th, 2015
There’s a popular and fun TED ED animated video about applying “communications theory” to lying that came out last fall which is nice, BUT … it’s still more complicated than necessary. It attempts to identify several characteristics of liars, but there’s a simpler principle underlying most of what is said, which is the fundamental rule of, “the power of storytelling rests in the specifics.” Bottom line: Dude, most of this stuff just ain’t that complicated.
LIAR, LIAR, WORDS ON FIRE
Last fall Noah Zandan, who is big on “quantified communication” posted a fun TED ED video about ways to spot liars using “communications theory.” He opens the video with a simple ABT about how lots of ways have been developed over the ages to detecting lying AND they all work to some extent BUT ultimately they can all be fooled, THEREFORE we need a different means to analyze the language of a liar. From there he points to what is called linguistic text analysis.
Which is nice, BUT … I’m going offer up an even simpler way to look at this, which is to examine the underlying narrative dynamics.
THE CLEAR TRUTH ABOUT OBFUSCATION
What he presents are four different shapes of the language used by liars. In the video he gives detailed explanations of each and offers up examples, especially from famous politicians who got caught lying (no shortage of material there). Here’s what he concludes — four language patterns common among liars.
1 MINIMAL SELF-REFERENCE – “liars reference themselves less when making deceptive statements” “often using the third person to distance and dissociate themselves from their lie.” What this means is putting the focus on someone or something else, leaving yourself more vague.
2 NEGATIVE LANGUAGE – “liars tend to be more negative” “for example they might say my stupid cell phone died, I hate that thing.” This means they add on extra, conflict-rich wording as a means of distraction.
3 SIMPLE EXPLANATION – “liars typically explain events in simple terms” “As a U.S. President once famously insisted, ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman.’” This means in addressing the material they need to lie about, they resort to vagueness.
4 CONVOLUTED PHRASING – “liars tend to use longer and more convoluted sentence structure, inserting unnecessary words and irrelevant but factual-sounding details to pad the lie.” They achieve vagueness through narrative confusion.
The overall pattern is: DISTRACTIONS: clarity good THE LIE: clarity bad
THE NARRATIVE RE-INTERPRETATION
I don’t know exactly what “linguistic analysis” is but it sounds more convoluted itself than what is needed to grasp the basic dynamic of what’s going on. The core principle at work is basic storytelling, for which one of the most simple and universal principles is that, “the power of storytelling rests in the specifics.”
Take a look at these four patterns described and you can see at their core, the main variable at work is simply specific versus general communication. If the liar is wanting to distract, then specifics provide the power. If the liar is wanting to be vague, then leaving out specifics is the answer.
1 MINIMAL SELF-REFERENCE – liars paint a SPECIFIC picture of something else, leaving themselves more general and vague
2 NEGATIVE LANGUAGE – conflict-rich SPECIFICS distract from the truth
3 SIMPLE EXPLANATION – the liar is covered up by not being SPECIFIC (remaining general and vague)
4 CONVOLUTED PHRASING – the lie is covered up by presenting an overly SPECIFIC narrative
He also goes on to apply “linguistic analysis” to the lies of Lance Armstrong and John Edwards. But in both cases, it’s the same simple pattern. When the dude is lying, the narrative is weak through over-complication or being non-specific. When he wants to be honest he is specific. Same, same.
He ends by saying how you can use this information in your daily life. He offers up the four categorizations, but I’d make it simpler, which is more useful — just develop a sensitivity to “the power of specifics” in storytelling.
FOREVER STORYTELLING ANIMALS
As Jonathan Gotschall said with the title of his 2013 book, we are, “Storytelling Animals.” This is the core premise of my upcoming book, “Houston, We Have A Narrative,” which will come out in September but is now posted on Amazon. What the book is about is that we have been recording stories for at least 4,000 years, but recorded science only goes back a few hundred years. Which begs the question of which means of communication would you expect to be more dominant?
The idea of “linguistic analysis” sounds cool, but in the end, the simplest and most powerful of all dynamics for understanding communication is simply narrative, for which there are just a few very simple rules of thumb that explain so much. The power of specifics is perhaps the most all-encompassing of all. The deeper you absorb it, the more you see how much of what goes on in our world is driven by it.
And p.s. — beware of communications folks looking to over-complicate the world. When I finished film school at USC I did a 20 minute video called, “Talking Science” where I interviewed faculty from both the Cinema School and the Annenberg School of Communication. That’s where I first saw this pattern, clear as day. The communications folks could theorize about how to communicate. The film folks knew how to actually communicate.