November 8th, 2010
It’s been a little over a year now since my book was published. Time to take stock of the responses as there’s a great deal to learn by looking at some of the misconceptions about the book.
………………………………………Once again, all together now, “Storytelling IS NOT the same as lying.”
One thing they made us learn in film school is that there is no such thing as a “wrong opinion.” You don’t argue with reviewers, you just do your best to listen. Some authors use their blogs as a forum for rebutting their reviewers. That’s not what I’m doing here. I’m only seeking to understand where people are coming from when they say these things — all of which I find both fascinating and further revealing of the points of resistance to what I’m advocating.
1 .“THE BOOK IS ANTI-SCIENCE”
Okay, seriously, do you think I would go the entire distance to tenure and then decide to crusade against the profession of science? Come on, now.
One of the interesting things that happened before the book was even published was the blog discussions about it that began to appear based only on the title. Island Press announced the title in the spring, and based on the title alone people began assuming they knew the contents. Half of the people said they liked my two movies and assumed that if it held the same messages about the need to understand the communications handicaps that come with advanced education, it would be an interesting and productive book. But the other half needed only the title to assume it would be sending “the wrong message” about science — namely a denigration of scientists in a time when science promotion (presumably) needs all the help it can get.
Specifically, a lot of people, even still, read the title as a negative statement. At one major science institute a group of scientists asked that my invitation to speak be cancelled basically because they perceived the title as, “Don’t BE a scientist.” What can you do about that. Eh hem … “read the book.”
Others have asked why it had to have a “negative” sounding title. I guess if I had to get analytical about it, I would say it falls under the “arouse and fulfill” principle. The “Don’t Be,” command creates conflict, which arouses interest. If I had titled the book, “Be a Scientist” … well, I don’t think that needs explanation.
2 .“RANDY OLSON ADVOCATES LYING”
I addressed this last week. I don’t. In the third chapter I do examine the dilemma between making a movie that is “accurate but not popular,” versus, “inaccurate, but popular.” I don’t advocate either direction. It’s rather obvious that everyone would like to make a movie that is accurate AND popular (though it’s interesting to note what Aaron Sorkin recently said about his brilliant screenplay for “The Social Network” — that “I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling.”) I only point out the difficulties of working in a less-than-perfect world. But I do think it is VERY important that everyone keep in mind the number of prominent climate scientists, quoted in the 2007 NY Times article I cited, who gave Al Gore high marks for his film, even though they conceded it was less than 100% accurate. Do THEY advocate inaccuracy? Bottom line: this stuff is just not easy.
3 .THE BOOK IS FULL OF NOISE AND NARCISSISM
This is what’s funny — the circularity of the responses of some of the bloggers who claim there’s too much storytelling in the book which they perceive as just annoying “noise.” They wanted “just the facts.” Nice and clean. This complaint didn’t appear in any of the major published reviews such as in Science and Nature, nor has it been voiced by any of the truly good communicators I’ve heard from. And why should it be — it’s the whole point of the book — using storytelling as a means of communication. Why wouldn’t I use stories to convey this point?
And of course some of them accuse me of narcissism. This was inevitable and expected. There is a basic (out-dated) ethic of sorts in the science world that scientists shouldn’t speak in the first person. There was once a time when it was pretty much forbidden in the writing of scientific papers. I could have written this book in the detached third person, “A communicator should do this and that.” But why. We know the first person is the most powerful voice. Why not use it?
And as for narcissism. Really? Did you read it? Did you see how many stories there are of me making a fool of myself in Hollywood? It’s definitely not the memoirs of a cool guy.
A crucial step happened at the beginning of the writing of the book when the editor asked me, “Is this book going to be about YOU scientists, or about WE scientists?” It was a powerful and important question. I think there was an element in both of my movies of, “YOU scientists.” But for the book I felt I needed to be as honest as possible. Thus all the embarrassing stories. But of course there are still some bloggers who felt the fact that I mentioned a few Hollywood details meant that I was trying to make myself look “cool.” You can’t win with some people.
4 .THE AUTHOR OFFERS NO “SOLUTIONS”
Say what? That’s ALL the book is made of — solutions. What it is indeed very light on is a description of the problem. I realized this when I was about 2/3 of the way through writing the book — that I had just assumed that everyone knows scientists are poor communicators. All of a sudden one day I sat up and said, “Roops! I forgot to set up the problem.” But fortunately, about the same time I learned of the book Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum were writing, “Unscientific America,” which is in fact all that my book isn’t in terms of doing a detailed job of describing the problems with science communication. So I cited them at the beginning of my book, saying that if you really want the detailed explanation of why something needs to be done to communicate science more effectively, go read their book.
From then on, the book is nothing but specifics on how to communicate science more effectively to broad audiences. And what are the specifics? Just start with the titles of the four main chapters — it’s right there — don’t be so cerebral, so literal minded, so unlikeable, and tell good stories. Could I have laid it out any more clearly? And if those instructions aren’t specific enough, then try actually reading the chapters.
5 .“A QUICK READ!” (but a slow learn)
This is the most profound point to be made. The book is only 185 pages and many reviewers have called it a, “quick read.” Which is nice. And yet, looks can be deceiving. I used to say in my talks last spring, “You might blow through the book in just a couple hours, but to fully grasp the principles that are presented will probably take ten to fifteen years.” It certainly did for me, as I tell about in the book — such as the four organs theory that I first learned in 1994 from my acting teacher, but didn’t really “get it” until 2003 when I began working with academics again.
Or in the third chapter when I tell about first learning the basic principles of story structure in 1989, then had it hammered into my head in film school in the mid-90’s, only to FINALLY understand what they were all talking about in 2005 when my movie, “Flock of Dodos,” was rescued by applying those principles of story structure to it. It took me 15 years to finally wake up and say, “Oh, so this is what they were talking about with the magic of storytelling.”
It’s really hard to convey this blindness that emerges as an academic. I’m now meeting lots of academics who have taken several workshops on communicating better, learned all the rules presented, and basically project the attitude of, “Okay, I got it.” But they don’t got it. I know because I’ve been there. If you had asked me in 2004 about making an effective film, after all those years of film school and writing courses, I would have said, “You need to tell a good story.” But I didn’t really grasp at any depth how important that is. I do now.
So I quit saying it will take you, the reader, equally long to fully grasp what I’m talking about because a friend said it came off as somewhat condescending. But it’s still true. For starters, if you really are a great storyteller, then why aren’t you making millions of dollars in Hollywood?
Storytelling is an eternal challenge, and no one is perfect at it. Just look at the greatest screenwriters. They’ve all got plenty of clunky scripts in their lists of credits. The best baseball batters only get a hit about a third of the time. Same for storytelling. Endlessly elusive. The best writers are still learning how stories work.
And more importantly, as our communications landscape continues to change, so do the dynamics of telling a good story. I listened to a panel discussion of several prominent book publishers at Book Expo last year where they asked the panelists, “What will novels be like in the future?” The one thing they all agreed on is that in the future, instead of having the luxury of starting a story slowly with plenty of exposition, the day will come where your story has to completely spring to life on the first page or you’ll lose the reader.
The telling of stories is a dynamic process, and very much shaped by the environment in which the stories are told. Sitting around a campfire versus stuck in a room of a burning building might both be circumstances that call for the telling of an important story, but the most effective structure is likely to be different for the two.
So my experience with the book is turning out to be just like what I experienced for my two movies — the best part is not creating the work, but rather the entire learning process that takes place after you begin sharing it with audiences. With every talk and screening I learn something new in the discussions. That’s turned out to be the best surprise of all.