June 11th, 2014
Sorry. I’ve been holding back on this. Time to let it out. Two major science-based TV shows this spring have bored cosmically. But just when I found myself wondering if things have to be this way, I spoke at an NIH postdoc conference and heard one of the best speakers I’ve ever listened to — Dr. Cliff Poodry of Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He’s a living example of the ABT way of thinking, as in: Always Be Telling stories. He’s also the sort of “trusted and liked” voice that Daniel Kahneman talked about. The two TV shows were narratively dull (so many friends emailed me saying they were both just “and, and, and” presentations) and excessively obsessed with the celebrity element. But effective mass communication really isn’t that difficult. HBO Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel has no trouble accepting that the public isn’t that interested in sports. Why can’t science people realize the public isn’t that interested in science? Cliff’s talk was a tour de force of narrative instinct at work. He is a true role model and it was a treat to get to speak the next day, following him. And guess what the core of his talk was about — humans (science was secondary).
DR. CLIFF POODRY, THE VOICE SCIENCE NEEDS. He gave a tremendous talk on Sunday evening at the NIH IRACDA conference in Albuquerque. If you want to see everything I have advocated in my books brought to life in one person, this is the guy.
“YEARS” BORED, “COSMOS” SNORED
Okay, the wannabe hipster science folks have now taken their shots and failed. It’s time for a little honest assessment.
I’ve held off saying anything publicly about the two major TV series this spring “Cosmos” and “Years of Living Dangerously,” but I can’t contain it any longer. If you search “COSMOS BORING” you will find heaps of websites conveying their disappointment with Neil deGrasse Tyson and the “Cosmos” series (they should include in their critiques co-creator Seth MacFarlane, whose current movie has 33% on Rotten Tomatoes).
Equally disappointing is the Showtime series, “The Years of Living Dangerously,” which premiered to a cosmically low rating of 0.07 market share meaning that more people were (literally) watching reruns of “Family Feud” than the show that featured George Clooney and Harrison Ford playing journalists (Showbuzz Daily called it a “microscopically low rating”). All I know is that a month ago in Portland at the JASM meeting I asked a group of grad students if they knew the title (not one did), then asked them if they could guess what the show was about — they ALL assumed it was about X-treme sports like motocross. That’s a pretty sad messaging effort when that’s what the youth guess.
CLIFF POODRY, ONE OF MY NEW HEROES
So just when I start to think the communication of science is doomed with boring voices I get a huge surprise. I was in Albuquerque to speak Monday morning to 200 NIH postdocs at the IRACDA conference (which is clearly a beacon of hope for the training of good scientists as it’s an amazing program). It began Sunday evening in the big ballroom at the hotel with the usual science bureaucrats saying stuff that had me groaning inside thinking “can’t they do better than this?”, but then they brought on the featured plenary speaker, Dr. Cliff Poodry, and everything changed.
He was so good I began taking notes on my iPhone (it was all I had for notetaking — I’m sure everyone thought I was texting — they couldn’t have been more incorrect). Here’s what Cliff talked about: Humans. He told stories. They all had structure. They all had a quick set up, an interesting twist, then worked to a clear and thematic point. There was no “what’s he getting to” or “he’s droning on and on” or “I’m lost” that you get with so many science talks.
The next day in my plenary I referred to him so much that he later called me his publicist. But I just call ‘em as I see ‘em. And he was genuinely inspiring.
You’d have to talk to me directly to hear the specifics, but one example: he had a quote about how when an archer misses the bullseye he doesn’t blame the target. It made me think of the climate crowd who has done such a lousy job with their communications efforts (starting by putting all their stock in a boring climate movie) then blamed the right wing (who ought to be their target) for their failures.
He presented so many perfect quotes and anecdotes. He had a great quote from Max Delbruck about how artists see their work as a solitary expression to stand alone for the rest of time, but scientists give up their work to be absorbed, modified, amplified, and fused with other ideas (it’s such a powerful quote that makes you see why artists are pure ego while scientists are more selfless). So much great material. I wish it had been recorded. But then I’m also glad it wasn’t — you can’t really capture that sort of chemistry with a single video camera (trust me on this, I’m a filmmaker).
SCIENCE NEEDS A HUMBLE VOICE
I’m sorry but there’s something offputting about the desperate efforts to make science cool in recent years. It really isn’t working. What is truly cool about science is the humble side to it. The best and my most favorite scientists over the years knew about cool, had an intrigue with it, but in the end, were so focused on science itself that they simply lacked the element of “self awareness” that undermines cool. Which made them genuinely cool.
It was always the deal with everyone from James Dean to Jimi Hendrix. They didn’t sit and think about cool. They just were. There was something humble about them. And more importantly, there was something non-self aware — which is that thing you find in truly brilliant actors — that ability to live in a world where they’re not pretending that they don’t care what other people think — they truly don’t care. Which makes them interesting to watch.
Cosmos and Years both tried too hard. All you have to do is look at the Variety and Hollywood Reporter reviews for them — they could sense it. The reviewers weren’t very critical, they were just diplomatic in their assessments.
Sadly, there’s nothing special in either series. But there is in science. As Cliff Poodry knows.
June 7th, 2014
There I was, there I was, there I was … starting the Q&A at the end of my Opening Plenary for the 3500 scientists attending the Society of Freshwater Scientists meeting in Portland (probably about 1000 of whom came to my talk), only to be totally called out. No excuses. A classic moment.
SPOT THE MISTAKE. It was right there. I blew it.
HOISTED ON MY OWN ABT PETARD
So I was talking about positive and null results in scientific research. Not all outcomes are created equal. There’s a natural predilection for positive results versus null. And I thought up a fun way to look at this dynamic drawing on your knowledge of football.
How many famous quarterbacks can you name? Lots. They create the “positive” patterns in a football game. Now how many linebackers can you name. They work to create null results (no scoring). You probably can’t name many.
I put up this slide, saying I’m not a rabid NFL fan, but off the top of my head I can name all of these quarterbacks plus probably a couple dozen more if pushed.
But what about linebackers? I hit the clicker, up came the name of Ditka, and I said, “this is about it—Mike Ditka.”
I finished the talk. The first guy up for the Q&A, boldly, brashly, bravely offered up his comment as an ABT. He said, “I really enjoyed this talk AND you made a lot of great points, BUT … Ditka was a tight end, THEREFORE you might want to fix that.”
In an instant I was the laughing stock. Stooopid, careless communications dude. I wanted to say, “I knew that,” but it was too late — everyone was in hysterics.
But thankfully someone shouted out, “YOU WERE THINKING OF DICK BUTKUS!” And he was right. Ditka — Dick Butkus. Hopefully you can see how I might make the mistake. No?
That was bad. Never again. Great crowd and a great evening. Really fun. And a perfectly executed ABT to steal my thunder — well done and a memorable moment!
May 14th, 2014
Hey everybody, when’s the last time you saw a tapir? That’s right — it’s been a long while. And now it’s time to reach in your pocket and help save the tapirs of Honduras. Check out this simple, humble video that makes the case for the need to purchase a few video cameras, then give them a donation. Save the Tapirs!
THE TAPIR FORUM. Donate now or a tapir will come visit you and shoot you with a jet of hot urine (watch this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zWMfzvBrTqE)
THE ABT OF TAPIR CONSERVATION
It’s a great little video. Doesn’t waste time, gets right to the point, pretty much following the ABT template:
The tapir is a cool animal AND is rarely seen BUT sadly is being severely reduced in number from over-hunting and habitat loss, THEREFORE we need to get a better idea of their population size BUT we don’t have enough video cameras for this WHICH MEANS we need your help in purchasing more video cameras.
Nicely produce, not overly sentimental, just a simple plea and deserving of your support. Spread the word!
#351) FREE APP FRIDAY: For my session at the American Physiological Society’s Experimental Biology Meeting in San Diego on Saturday
April 23rd, 2014
I will be doing a 2-hour Connection Storymaker work session on Saturday afternoon, 3:00-5:00, at the American Physiological Society’s Experimental Biology (EB) Meeting at the San Diego Convention Center. In conjunction with the event we will be making the Connection Storymaker App available for free on iTunes from now until Sunday. Spread the word!
April 21st, 2014
The ocean conservation movement received two “setbacks” over the past year. First, Japan was ordered by the U.N. to give up its whaling in the Antarctic. Second, the tide has shifted in the shark finning issue, with China pulling back on it’s shark fin consumption. That’s two great villains removed from the story of saving the oceans. This isn’t an Onion posting I’m attempting here — it’s a serious issue. What do you do when you start to run out of villains? This is why I teach storytelling. It is at the core of EVERYTHING. And it’s a potential, eventual crisis for the ocean conservation community. Foreigners killing whales? Easy to raise money. Copepod populations declining? Not so easy. I’m not making light of these great victories, I’m just saying everyone needs to learn more about storytelling to grasp the complexity of mass communication. As the great screenwriting instructor Frank Daniel always said, “Your story is only as good as your villain is evil.” An “easy villain” shortage is emerging.
HAPPY WHALES TO YOU. It’s been a good year for whales and sharks. So what’s next to protect … the pteropods?
WHO WILL CRY FOR THE PLANKTON?
People support causes when they are motivated. Whales are incredibly motivational. They were motivational enough to save themselves in the 1970′swith the worldwide “Save the Whales,” campaigns. Back then there was one clear villain — the whalers — which made for plenty of motivational stories. But now … ?
What’s going to happen to the Animal Planet show, “Whale Wars“? I see there are other versions being filmed in the Faroe Islands (pilot whales) and Canada (seals), but it’s not quite the same as the big bad Japanese in the Antarctic.
SHARKLESS IN SEATTLE
At the same time as the whale lovers are losing their prime villain, the tide has turned on the issue of shark finning. I heard this last September in a talk from Peter Knights, head of WildAid. I have HUGE admiration for their work in mass media. They managed to do the very thing I was begging for a decade ago — to use mass media as the centerpiece of an environmental campaign.
He said they scored over $200 million in free air time in China with PSAs featuring Yao Ming and Jackie Chan speaking out against shark fin soup (which dwarfs the $10 million we scored a decade ago with my Jack Black Ocean Symphony PSA for Shifting Baselines, and is part of why I am so admiring of them).
The PSA’s were one major element in the Chinese government banning shark fin soup from formal banquets in China. Lots of other stuff followed from that one large gesture. But the net result is the story has now morphed from simple to more complicated.
WHY DO YOU THINK CLIMATE IS SO BO-HO-HORING …
Now you start to see the problem with climate — it’s basically the old Pogo line, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” It’s really hard to motivate the public when the ultimate villain is ourselves.
Bottom line, once again, it’s all about story. Which means that if you don’t have a good enough handle on how story dynamics work, you’ll end up resorting to things like getting the public to believe there’s an island of plastic trash in the North Pacific the size of Texas because “it makes for such a good story.” When in fact there ain’t. The truth is nowhere near as simple, or fun.
With each conservation victory, the communication challenge becomes more difficult. Which leaves you with three options: get better, lie, or quit. Hopefully environmentalists realize the first one is the only viable option.
“Who would have thought a means of communication limited to 140 characters would ever create misunderstandings?” That was Colbert talking about the flap over his supposedly racist comment which was tweeted without including the set-up to the joke. This is a perfect demonstration of what I was talking about a month ago—that our ABT Universal Narrative Template shows a natural tendency to need about 300 characters to create a sentence with a clear narrative structure. Tweets were set at 140 characters for technological reasons. It sure looks to me like a case of technology leading us in a stupider direction overall. As Colbert has discovered the hard way.
TWITTER SHOULD HAVE BEEN 300 CHARACTERS. That’s what our ABT findings are telling us. There was never a discussion about the length. Everybody got stuck with it, and now assumes it’s perfect. Until they get burned by it.
WHUT WE HAVE HERE IS FAIL-YUR TO KO-MUNI-KATE
What would have been the perfect length for Tweets? As I discussed in January, the length of Twitter was kind of just thrust upon the world by the technicians who designed it. There wasn’t a vote or a big study in narrative structure to find the optimal length, trading off brevity with clarity. The 140 came from text messages which are limited to 160.
People have a tendency to not question the existing world, and to assume that if something is sub-optimal in design it will naturally change itself to find the optimum. Who knows for Twitter. Maybe 140 characters really is the absolute optimum for effective rapid fire mass communication.
All I know is that we’re gearing up to run our Connection Storymaker workshop next week with Deloitte Touche in Boston. We’ve got the participants sending in their ABT’s. And once again, they are all in the 300 to 350 range.
I’m tellin’ ya, there’s something to this observation. People need 300 characters to tell a clear, cohesive thought. Maybe they can squeeze it to 250 with editing. Maybe with abbreviations get it down to 200. But 140? Really?
I predict something is going to arise to replace Twitter in the not-too-distant future. It will be similar, but will allow for a little more cohesion of thoughts. And will give users the room to include the set-up to a controversial joke (if they want to).
March 20th, 2014
I’ll be presenting the in-depth 2 hour work session of our Connection Storymaker workshop in the Grosvenor Auditorium at National Geographic headquarters on the morning of Wednesday April 9 starting at 8:30 a.m.(ugh, but yay!). It’s a lot of fun and packed with a great deal of very useful and practical information. And will be free — you just need to RSVP to email@example.com. Hope to see you there!
TIME FOR YOUR MORNING ABT!
The centerpiece of our CONNECTION Storymaker Workshop is the 2 hour “Big Show” extravaganza that Dorie, Brian and I have presented at numerous locations. Sometimes I do the whole thing myself, as I’ll be doing at Nat Geo Headquarters on the morning of April 9. The first hour is Narrative, the second hour is Improv with a few small demonstration exercises (just a couple people up front to convey the concepts).
The good people at Nat Geo will be sponsoring this and making it free to anyone who wants to take part. It’s fun, but also very practical. We’ll get into the Connection Storymaker app a little bit. And there will be lots of time for questions and discussion.
Hope to see you there!
Not only did I get to see the stunning new “Bill Nye Phenomenon” in person last Saturday, we now have (below) the first hand testimony from “the enemy,” uber-climate skeptic Marc Morano, who is seeing the results of Bill’s apparently very savvy decision to do the Ken Ham debate. The “don’t engage” advice some scientists offered up might have seemed like the safe pathway, but the truth is the only long term hope for evolution winning the popularity polls in America is for there to be some BRAVE leadership. Bill Nye has demonstrated this by taking a major chance, defying his critics, and is now rightly collecting his accolades. In the bigger picture, the science world needs to realize that communication does not follow the same dynamics as research — it’s not about peer review, it’s about courage.
NEWFOUND RESPECT. Bill Nye is becoming the 500 lb. media gorilla the science world has dreamed of.
THE POWER OF A POWERFUL VOICE
As if my witnessing “The Bill Nye Phenomenon,” in person on Saturday at the “Decoding Science” event at University of Missouri wasn’t clear enough proof of his new-found success, now I have testimony from “the enemy.”
Marc Morano was one of the stars of my 2008 movie, “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy.” I have never agreed with his politics and even challenged him in the movie. But I have a great deal of respect for his basic intuitive understanding of how mass media works in America. He understands it is first and foremost an entertainment medium. As does Bill Nye.
Look at what Marc said to me this morning in an email:
MARC MORANO: Randy, you are spot on about Nye being a rock star now. I witnessed it first hand yesterday during the Fox news taping. Nye was also a guest on this libertarian show, The Independents, and the hosts were so enamored with him they did not really challenge him on global warming because they were in awe of him. Nye is given access to Fox now to promote global warming uncritically due to his new status. I was skeptical of your blog a few days ago, but now I saw it first hand. The show will air Friday night at 9 pm and 12 pm EST, and you can watch Fox hosts coddle Bill Nye for first time ever. Stop the presses!
FROM THE CLIMATE SKEPTIC HORSE’S MOUTH: BILL NYE IS ON FIRE
Academics endlessly want TV and the movies to be informational media where they can just “present the facts” and have everyone take notes. Carl Sagan knew it wasn’t that simple. Neil Degrasse Tyson knows this. And now Bill Nye has demonstrated that he knows it better than anyone else in the world of science.
And yes, I still trade emails with Marc Morano. There is nothing immoral about this. Lots of academics think it is. They desperately seek a villain for their basic narrative. One fundamental rule they gave us in film school is that “your story is only as good as your villain is evil.” So they do their best to make their story better by making Morano as evil as possible.
But he’s not evil. He is a long time libertarian, and as such does his best to fight the government’s effort to respond to climate change. Which draws him into televised debates about global warming. Which has paired him up with Bill Nye on several shows.
I think it was reasonable for some scientists to take an initial shot at discouraging Bill Nye from taking part in the debate. My first instinct was to question it as well. But it’s now time to concede that he was right, the critics were wrong. 100% Bill addressed the criticism on Saturday – the suggestions that of his debate with Ham supposedly “helped the enemy” with the funding of their creationism park. The amount of money the creationists have been able to raise off the debate is not significant. And more importantly, it’s trivial compared to the media boost Bill has now received.
At this point scientists should simply quit trying to negate Bill Nye’s efforts and instead do what they always dream other people will do for them — “take notes!”
March 17th, 2014
Carl Sagan in his prime never had this sort of mass support and wild enthusiasm. Bill Nye, like him or not, is creating the “trusted and liked” broad voice that the science world has lacked. On Saturday I saw the phenomenon live and in person at the University of Missouri’s “Decoding Science” event that I took part in (which was excellent!). He filled the 2000 seat auditorium on Saturday morning where I literally arrived 10 minutes late, could not find a seat, so had to watch most of it on the TV monitor in the lobby. The audience went bonkers — cheering him for the Ken Ham debate, roaring with laughter at the corniest of jokes, then in the Q&A students asked him for Hi-fives, selfies and other hero-worship gestures. I guarantee you this is the result, more than anything else, of his having done the Ken Ham debate. I’m coming to the conclusion, goofball or not, he is perhaps more media savvy than anyone else in the ENTIRE world of science, and certainly far more than the scientists (with virtually no media experience) who have been taking potshots at him in magazines and blogs. Go Science Guy!
BILL NYE, THE MEDIA GUY. The top is my view from the doorway in the upper balcony — no seats even up there. I really couldn’t believe the size and level of enthusiasm of the audience. And he was great with them. And there’s something else — at the private lunch afterwards for the speakers and about 20 university honchos he was the nicest, humblest guy. He may be a cornball, but the fact is he’s very sincere, endlessly enthusiastic, and knows how to play into the broadest of narratives. He is the guy the science world has been needing.
SOME DAY SOON BILL NYE WILL BE ABLE TO TRAMPLE MARC MORANO
The first thing to know is that Bill Nye isn’t an overnight sensation. His media career is at a tipping point due to a masterplan he conceived of many years ago when he first created his bow-tied unashamedly nerdy public persona with his TV show. What’s more important to realize is the way he has created a “brand” for himself that he has kept rigidly consistent and is now reaping the benefits of.
The loudest media voice for the climate skeptics these days is my “Sizzle” star Marc Morano, who has appeared repeatedly on Piers Morgan on CNN. For the science community, Bill Nye is now the loudest, broadest climate voice. Gore doesn’t seem to be interested in the job any more, while none of the scientists who know the facts best have the media skills or stature to reach the masses. Bill Nye is the guy.
Previously Nye has debated Morano on more than one occasion, and probably kind of lost because Morano is such a media animal who is fun, energetic, vicious at times, and most importantly capable of explosive verbal diarrhea that can’t be contained. But I bet the day is coming when he won’t be able to hold a candle to Bill.
The defeat of Morano by Nye won’t ever happen through content — there’s no way to beat “the Gish Gallop” through substantive argumentation. But it is possible for Nye to become such a media monster that it turns into David vs. Goliath, where Morano is David who just gets stepped on. Just think of a high school kid debating Bill Clinton. The kid might get in a couple of funny zingers, but the odds are almost infinitely small that the kid could ever put a dent into such a massive media icon (though there are much greater odds today in the internet era than in the past).
Same deal for Nye. Which is why the most important scorecard from the Ken Ham debate was what it did for Bill Nye’s media stature. He’s now huge. Smart guy.