When I was a graduate student I once asked the great evolution popularizer Dr. Stephen Jay Gould about his monthly column in Natural History Magazine — how in the world did he manage to come up with a new topic every month? At the time of my question he had been writing the column for five years. He said that when he first made the deal with the magazine to write the column he presented them with a list of twenty five essays he wanted to write, but that five years later he still had not written a single one of them. In fact the list had grown to more than fifty because every month when he sat down to write he already had several new topics that had come to mind. Well, I’m no Steve Gould, but I’m starting to feel the same way with this exercise. I have a growing list of things to address, and more importantly, interesting people to interview. But I also continue to see on-going elements of previous essays. So for today I want to run through three examples in recent weeks of previous essays brought to life in our society.
1 THE POWER OF SPECIFICS IN STORYTELLING (Essay #3): THE TOYOTA RECALL
Remember what I said in Essay #3 about the power and importance of specifics in telling a good story? Well you can see it played out right now in the sad situation with Toyota and their dysfunctional gas pedals. An article in the NY Times told about how there were a growing number of cases of people losing control of their cars with many ending in fatal crashes. But it was a single incident that brought about change with Toyota. It was the horrific story of an off-duty policeman in San Diego calling 911 as he and three passengers hurtled down a highway at over 100 mph. His words on the recording were heart-wrenching, ending with, ” hold on … hold on and pray … pray …”
As the article tells, “It was the tragedy that forced Toyota, which had received more than 2,000 complaints of unintended acceleration, to step up its own inquiry.”
The big number did nothing, the one specific story did everything — exactly as Nicholas Kristof described for communications campaigns about starvation in Africa. One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.
2 CASTING (Essays #4 and #5) – Sigourney Weaver demonstrates the power of spontaneity and unpredictability
Watch this wonderful interview with Sigourney Weaver. It is a very delicate art that she engages in — the idea of forcing your own agenda in an interview.
Actress Sigourney Weaver veers “off-script” on Fox News, delivering a stellar performance
Many people these days who are teaching workshops to scientists on how to conduct themselves when being interviewed advocate the idea of taking control of the interview in order to “stay on message.” The downside of such a tactic is to end up sounding like an annoying one-note person who is unwilling to listen to the interviewer and failing to connect in a manner to create a likeable, sympathetic dialogue. But if your spokesperson is as skilled as she, then you just might manage to enter into the world of “reality programming” where suddenly everything seems to have “gone off-script,” as it all becomes unpredictable, creating even a feeling of danger. Suddenly the normal, boring rules of discourse are suspended and a feeling of “this could go any which way” emerges which can be truly exciting.
This gets back to the “arouse and fulfill” principle. In the next interview (coming on Thursday), improv actor Jeremy Rowley will talk about “how to make someone interesting.” This is a perfect example. Sigourney Weaver as typical A-list actor out hawking her latest movie is not interesting. Sigourney Weaver as light-on-her-feet whippersnapper actor refusing to follow the Fox News script is suddenly incredibly interesting.
In terms of basic storytelling dynamics, she succeeds in creating a source of tension and conflict (the heart of a good story) that would not be there if she were just going with the flow of what the hosts are expecting. THAT makes for a great story!
And of course one of the ultimate examples in the recent history of television was when Jon Stewart showed up on the now-defunct (thanks in large part to him, in some people’s opinions) show “Crossfire” and humiliated bowtie boy Tucker Carlson (who soon thereafter quit wearing his trademark bow tie).
Television can be a mindnumbing medium. But it can also still be exciting when this sort of element of unpredictability is brought into play.
3 THE SUPER BOWL AD (Essay # 9) – Football Player Tim Tebow and the Ad for Focus on the Family
Okay, everyone who shares my political leanings, please try to stomach my talking about this. Remember in Essay #9 last week how I told about the opportunity in 2002 to make a Super Bowl ad about ocean conservation that could have changed the course of history if only someone had been brave enough to gamble $2 million on a single shot (instead of over $30 million on less risky smaller messaging campaigns that some people feel have amounted to very little)? Well, the anti-abortion organization Focus on the Family grabbed the reigns, stepped up yesterday, and appear to have done just that — they made the gamble and scored big.
They did exactly what I was talking about back then — spend a little bit of money on a mediocre ad, then blow $2 million knowing that just by showing up you will score a huge amount more media exposure through all the analysis that takes place around Super Bowl ads.
For starters, there was considerable advance media coverage about the basic idea of allowing an issue-driven ad to be aired during the Super Bowl, plus the possibility that they would be mentioning the hot button issue of abortion. When it finally aired, it turned out to be a what USA Today’s media critics deemed, “a dud.” They ranked it 54 out of the 63 ads they evaluated. But so what.
Another article in USA Today proclaimed that the ad, “Put the hit on the critics,” and verified that it accomplished exactly what they had hoped for — it got their message out to an enormous audience. It’s also worth noting that they accomplished their goal not by making a shrill, aggressive piece, but rather went with the “likeability” factor (i.e. Chapter 4 of my book) and avoided directly mentioning their agenda.
Am I applauding their cause? What do you think. I am pointing out that EFFECTIVE mass communication involves risk taking.