December 8th, 2010
A QUESTION FOR SCIENCE TATTOO AUTHORITY CARL ZIMMER
Carl, if you’re out there reading this — would it be too nerdy to have this tattooed on my arm? And how much weight lifting would I have to do for it to actually fit? Not sure it would work if it had to wrap around into my arm pit, or be such a small font size you’d have to get really close to read it.
Regardless, it’s a beautiful statement. I heard it yesterday from one of the scientists at the workshop on “obesity intervention” I’m taking part in at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. And I have to say, I’ve never heard it stated so clearly.
My talk was about the importance of storytelling in mass communication. This statement on simplicity is really what it’s all about. In the same way that solving a mathematical proof is about doing it in the shortest, simplest, most eloquent way, such is the case for storytelling as well. Same thing for editing a film — what is the most concise, efficient, and ultimately simple way to do it.
There’s a famous quote attributed to Steven Spielberg saying, “If you can’t tell me the story of your movie in a single sentence, I don’t want to hear it.” They call it “high concept” in Hollywood. The next time someone accuses me of advocating the “dumbing down” of science, I think this statement on simplicity will be my answer.
And lest you think it’s just me and my short attention span, trust me, it’s everywhere. For example, on Sunday in the NY Times there was an article about the Wikileaks mess. They quoted a U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan (home of Borat) Richard Hoagland who had written a set of suggestions to diplomats on how to write effect “cables” (i.e. the secret missives that the Wikileaks folks are sharing with the world). Here’s what he said:
“Work on storytelling … the trick is to
catch the reader’s attention,” Hoagland advises.
“The first three to five words are all they
will see in their electronic queue.”
There you have it — he’s advising diplomats to tell their story in 5 words. Nice. Makes a Tweet look like a tome.