February 2nd, 2015
After my panel last week with Derek Muller at the North American Carbon Program meeting in DC a few people noted how Derek and his video on climate boredom point to the subject of climate as inherently boring whereas I point to the communicators themselves as doing an inadequate job. Let’s take a closer look at this divide.
IS CLIMATE INHERENTLY BORING? I have a feeling this delegate from Iran to the recent climate change conference in Peru would say so.
DEREK: IT’S THE MATERIAL
Derek Muller produces awesome videos on his Youtube Channel Veritasium. In our panel he showed his video, “Climate Change is Boring.” Towards the end of the video he says, “The real reason I find climate change boring is because we know what the problem is — the science is well established and the solutions are fairly obvious, and yet action is not being taken.”
I love the video, but I don’t agree with his premise that climate is somehow intrinsically boring and thus a hopelessly difficult subject to communicate. I think there’s plenty of reason for hope that some day someone will produce a film about global warming that involves such excellent storytelling that generations will want to watch and rewatch it as much as “The Wizard of Oz.” Here’s how that could happen.
ME: IT’S THE MOZART (A HUGELY CREATIVE EYE IS NEEDED)
I love innovation and creativity. I pretty much live for it. And I know it requires less literal thinking.
A great case study of the power of innovation and creativity is what happened with the life story of Mozart in the movies. It’s a good parable for this climate boredom problem.
Similar to the subject of climate, for decades in Hollywood the subject of Mozart was seen as too boring to be the focus of an entire movie — there just wasn’t a good story. People figured he was such a genius, there must be a good story. But there wasn’t. There was only the “and, and, and” elements of a good resume: Mozart was a child prodigy AND he was a teen prodigy AND in his twenties he continued to be a genius AND by the time of his death at just 35 he was … still pretty much of a genius.
You could make a movie of all that, and the Mozart fans would probably love it as they got to hear their favorite music and coo over how amazing he was. But that’s not great storytelling. That’s a journey from Point A to Point A. And as a result, no one was able to make a memorable movie about Mozart. All the way up until 1984.
THE NON-LITERAL ROAD LESS TRAVELED
Finally a brilliant playwright named Peter Shaffer cracked the nut. Instead of telling the one dimensional story of Mozart the genius, he took a less literal, more creative approach to the material. He discovered this other character — Salieri — a man whose life story was indeed an interesting journey. Salieri began life thinking he was a peer to Mozart, but by the end of his life was forced to accept that he was a mere mortal, not made of the same stock as Mozart the genius, and thus ended his life a bitter and jealous man, filled with the sort of human frailties that interest audiences.
The play was turned into the movie “Amadeus,” which is #53 on the AFI List of 100 Greatest Movies. It’s one of my all-time favorite movies. And it should be an inspiration to people wanting to communicate about climate in a way that will stick with people many years later.
The fact is, it would have been easy in 1980 to say, “Face it, Mozart is boring, you’ll never manage to interest people in him.” But after the movie came out no one would have called Mozart boring.
THE SCIENCE COMMUNICATION HIPPOCRATIC OATH: “First, Do No Boredom”
I have said before, science communicators should almost take a sort of Hippocratic Oath swearing that there is no such thing as a boring subject, only inadequate communicators.
It’s the truth. Just watch HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. They manage to take the most trivial and unknown of sports events and tell fascinating stories set in those worlds because they have the ability to spot an interesting story when it comes along.
Perhaps some day the climate communication people, with all their good intentions, will develop this ability. But for now all they seem capable of is telling endless preachy “and, and, and” pieces that simply make things worse. And make it easy to feel like the subject of climate is inherently boring.
Some day someone will crack the climate communication nut as well as Peter Shaffer did for Mozart. And it will be great. And transformative as overnight people suddenly think climate is interesting. I will happen eventually, I’m sure of it. But until then, all I see is a dire shortage of creativity.
And if you want to see the consequences of the one dimensional, “and, and, and” approach all you have to do is watch the recent movie, “Unbroken.” The book was tremendous, but what Angelina Jolie did was sad and inept. She made a movie that was exactly the sort of one dimensional “and, and, and” piece that I’m bemoaning here. Her movie ended up being a series of episodes of Louis Zamperini overcoming one challenge after another. No arc, no complexity, no inner journey. Just a resume of accomplishments.
The Motion Picture Academy actually regained some of my respect by announcing only 8 nominations for the potential 10 Best Picture slots this year. Universal Studios spent all last year saying “Unbroken” would be a guaranteed nominee. Not only did it not get a nod, it’s doubly painful because it wasn’t like there too many nominees this year. There weren’t. The Academy basically said, “We’ve got space for your movie, but it’s just not very good.”
“Unbroken” ended up with around 50% on Rotten Tomatoes, but even most of the favorable reviews really weren’t that favorable. Angelina has learned the hard way there is more to storytelling than just listing facts. Telling good stories is hard, but absolutely essential to break out of the core demographic of followers.
January 29th, 2015
I’m willing to bet it’s the very best element-based meeting in the cosmos. I’m talking about the North American Carbon Meeting, where I took part in a panel discussion yesterday with two excellent communicators — video superstar Derek Muller from Australia and Banana/Coal communicator Peter Griffith of NASA. You can talk about nitrogen, phosphorus, argon, strontium, ruthenium, samarium, hassium or meiternium — none of them have a meeting that compares with this carbon meeting. However, there is an “element of truth” to Derek’s Youtube video channel Veritasium being the best in online science videomaking.
TWO NICE GUYS AND A GROUCH. Derek Muller (left) won my immediate respect by saying climate change is boring. In fact he has this excellent video explaining his thoughts on it. Peter Griffith of NASA also has a great short video about the carbonic difference between a banana and coal.
AND THAT’S WHEN THE CARBON DIOXIDE CONCENTRATION REACHED 400 PARTS PER MILLION …
So it was a joy to meet Youtube video legend Derek Muller from Australia (his Veritasium channel on Youtube has over 2 million subscribers) who has made entire videos addressing the difficulty of communicating this challenging yet important issue. We were on a panel at the annual meeting of the North American Carbon Program (NAACP) in Washington D.C., put together by the meeting organizer, my old buddy Peter Griffith (we go back to the Carboniferous Period where we met as undergrads at Duke Marine Lab).
Peter is one of the “thousand points of light” in the science world whose support gives me cause for optimism in the relentless battle against the science establishment (who have never supported anything I’ve ever done in science communication). He and I got reacquainted in 2009 when I spoke at NASA. We hadn’t crossed paths in decades.
IS THAT A BANANA IN YOUR PANTS OR A LUMP OF COAL?
Peter is one of those folks who is a natural born communicator, and not surprisingly has taken a great interest in my two books. In fact, my pushing and proding helped spur him to make this excellent video of his simple comparison of a banana and coal to convey the difference between new carbon versus old.
A lot of the major essays I have posted here over the past five years originate with Peter sending me an email with a recent thought or article. He is proof that you can be both an excellent (carbon) researcher and excellent (carbon) communicator.
Together the three of us on the panel opinionated on the difficult yet important task of communicating about climate change in a world that is driven not by facts but by narrative dynamics (which of course is the topic of my new book coming in September). People are always asking me who I think does a good job of communicating science …
Simple answer: Derek Muller. And not just a good job — his videos really are superb — both entertaining yet with deeper dimensions, looking at the basic science of how we reason and why some science topics are so elusive.
I hate to say this about all the well-intentioned feature documentary filmmakers out there, but Derek is the face of the future of filmmaking. The masses are losing their interest in the 90 minute format. All you have to do is visit Culver City in Los Angeles and look at the sprawling Youtube facilities to see where the future lies. Derek is on the cutting edge of this new medium of mass communication, and makes you realize the future is bright.
December 30th, 2014
It’s been a busy year of speaking and working with a wide range of organizations. The narrative/storymaking skills I’m teaching these days — developed in part in our Connection Storymaker Workshop over the past decade — are relevant to almost any profession — from Deloitte accountants to Monsanto Safety Officers (with the National Safety Council). I work with far more than scientists. And as a result, I see patterns across different demographics. Some audiences are blindly affirming, some are blindly negating, and some are right in the middle.
I SPEAK ACROSS A BROAD SPECTRUM OF ORGANIZATIONS. These are the 21 talks and workshops I did this year. Folks in the business community (and Hollywood) are more likely to be affirming and visceral, sometimes to an uncritical degree. At the other end of the spectrum, scientists tend to be heavily cerebral and can be blindly negating — dismissing ideas out of hand because there aren’t sufficient data or enough studies, regardless of how interesting the idea might be. Public health, in my experience, seems to hit the best balance.
I started this year by speaking to what I affectionately came to call, “The Wall of Blind Negation.” It was the audience for my opening keynote address in January at the annual meeting of the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biologists. It’s the main organization I was a member of when I left science. I had expected an enthusiastic crowd who would be eager to hear what I had learned in the two decades since I left science. And to their credit, the people who took part in my workshop really were into it. But my big talk ended up being almost like a Monty Python skit with a series of questions that were all negation. By the end I wanted to ask, “How can you be so certain that what I’ve presented to you here is so wrong?”
This pattern stands out for me because I speak across such a broad range of audiences these days. At the other end of the spectrum from scientists is the business community where accuracy and precision are not such a high priority. That means they can afford to be more affirming, less critical and negating. They tend to grab new ideas and run with them. You can feel the greater appreciation of innovation and novelty in the business community. You can also watch really bad ideas take off uncritically. Especially in Hollywood, where uncritical thinking is taken to the hilt.
In the middle of this spectrum is the public health world. I think because they have the word “public” in their job description they tend to be more practical minded when it comes to communication. They know that their work is of zero value if they fail to communicate it widely. As a result, I’ve found they are willing to pay without grouching, listen more closely, argue less, negate less, and generally have a greater understanding of the importance of communication.
In the end I have a hard time saying who is the best group to work with. I do appreciate the “acid test” that scientists are trained to subject ideas to. It can be frustrating and painful, but it does drive you to thinking deeper and harder. But on the other hand, when it gets to the point of a “wall of blind negation,” things can get rather ridiculously unproductive.
Here’s to next year being even more interesting, challenging and fun.
December 22nd, 2014
RAPPER Q-TIP USES TWITTER TO DELIVER A SHORT TUTORIAL ON RAP MUSIC TO AUSTRALIAN FEMALE RAPPER IGGY AZALEA. It’s in the form of an ABT, though he needed a little more than a single tweet to get it out.
KEEPIN’ IT SHORT ON TWITTER (JUST 40 TWEETS!)
As I mentioned earlier this year, the co-creator of Twitter appeared on the Colbert Report and mentioned that they are working on a longer version of Twitter — realizing that maybe 140 characters isn’t enough to convey coherent narratives (Colbert had been the victim of a punch line taken out of context on Twitter).
In the meantime, our Connection Storymaker Workshops revealed that when using the ABT narrative template, groups converge consistently on an average of around 300 characters. This suggests Tweets are less than half as long as what’s needed to convey a simple narrative statement.
LAYIN’ DOWN THE ABT BEATS
In the recent Twitter flap between young female rappers Iggy Azalea and Azealia Banks over black culture, rapper and record producer Q-Tip offered up his perspective on their conflict by posting a mini-lecture via Twitter. He only needed … 40 Tweets to get it all out. Isn’t that saying something about the narrative limitations of the medium?
Here’s his mini-lecture. What’s great about it is, sure enough, he follows the ABT structure, plain and simple. Notice the first two paragraphs are his set up — a series of expository statements that could be linked with “and’s.” The third paragraph starts with “But!” right on schedule. Then I’ve added “THEREFORE” in parentheses at the start of the last paragraph — you can feel it could fit there if you wanted. The last paragraph is the statement of consequences.
In a single sentence, he basically says, “African Americans have endured a lot of hard times AND the struggle continues, BUT through art we have found a voice, especially through hiphop and rap which now everyone can related to, THEREFORE I encourage you to enjoy what we’ve created, but just be aware of where it came from.”
That pretty much captures what he had to say, but even this ABT took 282 characters — more than double what a tweet allows. Which says something needs to change.
“HipHop is a artistic and socio-political movement/culture that sprang from the disparate ghettos of NY in the early 70’s Coming off the heels of the CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT and approaching the end of the Vietnam war it was a crossroads 4 America specially for blacks in the US our neighborhoods were PROLIFERATED w/a rush of HEROINE.”
“Our school systems here in NY dungeon traps with light for learning… blk men some of whom didn’t return from tours of duty n the ones who did came w/war baggage (agent orange, addiction, ect..)… these men had families but due to these events and throw into the mix the public emasculation… they proved to be handicapped parents. The surrogate parents? The STREETS… the streets of gangs, crimes, and the hustlers coddled us and swept us up.”
“But! Being a spirited, rhythmic & expressive people music art dance outlined our existence… it proved a way for us to exhault to scream to dance to laugh and find OUR VOICE… we weren’t at the time skilled musicians as kids. We had records, turntables, ideas and INGENUITY being natural chemist we took from whatever was availed to us and we created something mighty and special.”
“We cut breakbeats back n forth we took a hybrid of Jamaican toasting along w/ radio jock rap( hank Spann, Gary Byrd, ect.) and we put our rap down.. it was a neighborhood thing really. Black and Latino Kids were carving out their space and it became infectious… eventually Keith Cowboy coined the phrase hiphop . Yrs later the first rap record was recorded and now we r moving.”
“But during these strides this country still had the monster of racism and racial insensitivity breathing and ruling… believe it or not young black n Latino lives specifically weren’t acknowledged in mainstream American culture unless Of course.. the convo was abt gangs , being criminals or uneducated. And hey! Like I stated early our families were rushed our schools sucked and we were left to put devices to survive… but HIPHOP showed that we had DEPTH, fire, and BRILLANCE… the music was undeniable! It moved from NY N became national and even GLOBAL.”
Hiphop now was FOR EVERYBODY!! All of those who cld relate to the roots, the spirit, the history, the energy.. It reached YOU… it touched your spirit n took u up. We magnetized you! That’s what BRILLANCE does… now u are fulfilling your dreams … BUT! you have to take into account the HISTORY as you move underneath the banner of hiphop. As I said before… hiphop is fun it’s vile it’s dance it’s traditional it’s light hearted but 1 thing it can never detach itself from is being a SOCIO-Political movement.”
“U may ask why … Well once you are born black your existence I believe is joined with socio-political epitaph and philos based on the tangled and treacherous history SLAVERY alone this is the case it never leaves our conversation… Ever. WeAther in our universities our dinner tables our studios or jail cells… the effects still resononates with us. It hurts… We get emotional and angry and melancholy… did u know president Clinton was the ONLY PRESIDENT to apologize for it? did u know that remnants of slavery exist today thru white privilege? When certain “niceties” r extended your way because of how u look? Isn’t that crazy?”
(THEREFORE) “I say this 2 say u are a hiphop artist who has the right 2 express herself however she wishes… this is not a chastisement this is not admonishment at ALL this is just one artist reaching to another hoping to spark insight into the field you r in. I say this in the spirit of a hopeful healthy dialogue that maybe one day we can continue… I’ve been on twitter a long time and this will probably be my last series of tweets pretty much but I’m Kool with it as long as I got to share this w u. Zzzzzzz’s up! Peace!”
December 12th, 2014
It’s about the power of the singular narrative. It’s contrary to the mind of a scientist who wants to tell the world EVERYTHING. For the case of plastics in the world’s oceans, Marcus Erikson of 5 Gyres has given the media a single number — 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic now adrift at sea. Is that number accurate? It’s close enough — the equivalent of just saying there’s A LOT of plastic out there. But it’s a specific number, and that’s what the masses like. Which is why there’s now a minor tsunami of media attention in the NY Times, Washington Post, Nature World News and a trillion other media outlets.
HOLY CRAP, BATMAN! Marcus Eriksen frames himself amidst some of the 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic he is determined to rid the oceans of.
ONE ISSUE, ONE NUMBER
This is what the group 350.org did with the selection of their name. They decided to brand the entire climate issue with a single number, which was bold and wise. The payoff isn’t immediate — it’s a more long term investment, likely to be worth it only if the organization sticks around and receives a lot of media attention, as they have.
The real benefit is when there are discussions of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels — a snoozer of a topic — and suddenly there is a ring to one particular number — 350. Suddenly people find it a little bit easier to follow the discussion, and some of them hit that moment of realization of, “Oh, that’s why they named themselves that.” That is the eventual communications payoff, which can happen.
A TRILLION REASONS TO SIMPLIFY
In the case of plastics in the ocean, if you’re going to say there’s a lot of plastic out there, then please give us a number and make sure it’s an impressive one. That’s what Marcus Eriksen just did.
It has the right term associated with it — “trillion.” That’s great. You might add “give or take a few trillion,” but who cares. This is about conscientious communication — conforming your messaging to the constraints of the media world (the need for simplicity and singularity) yet being conscientious and knowledgeable enough to make sure your guesstimate is reasonable and responsible, as he’s done.
It’s what was done with terrorism in the Bush era by distilling it down to basically red, green, yellow, orange, whatever. The pundits loved making fun of how stupid that seemed, but the fact was it worked for the masses. Same thing with the deck of cards in the search for terrorism suspects. Simple, easy to ridicule, but effective for mass communication.
The bottom line is that if all you’re ever going to do is ridicule the simplicity of mass communication, then you’re going to end up in your ivory tower reaching no one, but proud of how you never compromised all your cherished complexity. Which in the end is pretty arrogant.
CORAL REEF MESS-AGING
This is what I’ve tried to say to the sloppy, non-strategic communications efforts of the coral reef community. What’s their “one number” for the state of coral reefs globally? There is none. They refuse to let their topic be simplified — constantly giving you the shopping list of threats to coral reefs. And as a result they have put “the mess” into their messaging. Are coral reefs today half of what they were a century ago? Ten percent? The same? No one can tell you and no one is brave enough to even try at a broad level.
The net result is an ineffective blur. It’s a world where tourists can visit tropical destinations, dive on degraded coral reefs, and feel they are seeing the same thing as a century ago. That’s how the tourism brochures present it. That’s how the Tourism Development Council of the ravaged Florida Keys presents it as I learned a decade ago. And that’s how the guilt-free tourists of the world view it.
Mass communication is not as easy as most people think it to be. It needs scientists who have media savvy.
Kudos to Marcus Eriksen for being one such individual.
AND … HE USED EXCELLENT ABT FORM
One more piece of communication excellence in this study. Look at the abstract of the PLOS ONE paper that Eriksen and colleagues authored. There’s the ABT structure in action. They set up their context with a first phrase (the AND element), they hit their contradiction word with “yet” (the BUT element) then they head off in a single direction (singularity!) with “Here we report …” (the THEREFORE element). This puts them in the same company as Abe Lincoln with his Gettysburg Address and Watson and Crick with their initial description of the structure of DNA. Good communicators converge on the ABT naturally, just like this:
“Plastic pollution is ubiquitous throughout the marine environment, yet estimates of the global abundance and weight of floating plastics have lacked data, particularly from the Southern Hemisphere and remote regions. Here we report …”
December 11th, 2014
This is it — right now, for Sony Studios. Let’s see how they handle it. They are facing the same thing as Climategate in 2009 when climate scientists had 1500 emails hacked. In their case they did a disastrously bad job of damage control — managing nothing more than having climate bloggers assure their followers the heat would pass. But it didn’t pass, and the event went down as a major dent in the credibility of the climate movement. Now Sony Studios faces exactly the same predicament of hacked emails and so far is following the same strategy, which is to take no action in hopes of it going away. The most important media voice in the business, Deadline Hollywood, this morning turned up the heat by saying now is definitely the moment for action. It’s a genuine potboiler.
SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL. Scott Rudin, who is legendary for being an abusive tyrant, is now in the crosshairs of the Sony hacked emails debacle. But the big question is whether they will take any damage control action.
TIME FOR HACTION
It’s all so similar and reminiscent of Climategate. Emails have been hacked at Sony Studios that make them look horrible beyond belief. Now, this morning, in their latest bit of commentary, Deadline Hollywood is pretty much calling this a “now or never” moment for Sony — either come out swinging, somehow, or watch your empire crumble.
Talk about high drama. It’s a fascinating moment for the biz.
#375) The Sometimes Dubious “Self-Correcting” Nature of Science: The “40% Phytoplankton Decline” Mess
December 9th, 2014
As people scold Rolling Stone this week for their inaccurate rape story, scientists should take a look at their own profession and realize how equally poor the policing of accuracy is. Last week I shouted out at a public event when I heard, once again, an environmental alarmist citing the blatantly erroneous number of 40% decline in the world’s phytoplankton population that was published in Nature four years ago then discredited by numerous scientists later in Nature. But that person can hardly be blamed when the entire profession is run in such a sloppy manner. And “sloppy” is the right term. Had the number been 4% then “self correcting” would be appropriate. But 40%? It was a surreal headline that was only barely addressed later.
SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN HAD NO TROUBLE PARROTING THE ERRONEOUS REPORT. Nature published a study in 2010 by Boyce et al. claiming the world’s phytoplankton had declined by 40% since 1950. To those of us with a background in plankton ecology the number was bizarre. Eventually a series of papers also in Nature showed how far off the mark that headline was. One of the papers questioned whether phytoplankton levels today were at all different from 1950. Bottom line, what a mess, yet allowed to just vanish with a tiny, “oops!” — less scolded publicly than Texas Governor Rick Perry’s inability to remember three things.
SAME AS ROLLING STONE
As the public rightfully pillories Rolling Stone this week for their inaccurate treatment of a rape story, the science world should keep in mind that it also makes plenty of mistakes and is not as perfectly “self-correcting” as it likes to think.
Three years ago at the Aspen Environment Forum in a Q&A a fellow who was certain the world is falling to pieces, in the middle of his rant about world decline, cited the Nature-published factoid of “40% decline in phytoplankton worldwide.” I later pointed out to the group that the factoid was nonsensical and was eventually completely discredited. Which then prompted the guy to come after me later accusing me of being a climate skeptic. When I tried to point him to the detailed, thoughtful treatment of the phytoplankton study Andy Revkin gave it on his Dot Earth NY Times blog (he did an excellent post titled, “On Plankton, Warming and Whiplash”) the guy shouted, “He’s a climate skeptic, too.” Such is the treatment you get for trying to police the truth in the science world.
Last Thursday night I attended a talk by Naomi Oreskes, also about the decline of our planet, where yet another rabid alarmist in the Q&A cited the same 40% study which irked me so much I rudely shouted out, “THAT’S WRONG,” causing members of the audience to glare at me as if I was Representative Joe Wilson shouting, “You lie!” at Obama. What can I say — I still have delusions of living in a world built around well established science.
Phytoplankton are responsible for half of the primary production on the planet. How do you reduce their biomass by almost half and not have utter and complete calamity? That was my first thought in 2010 when I saw the bizarre headline. And before you answer, “There is indeed utter and complete calamity in the world’s oceans,” let me cite the same sort of words of skepticism from Paul Falkowski, a member of the National Academy of Sciences who is one of the definitive voices on this branch of science. He dismissed the Boyce et al. paper by saying:
Inspection of the data reveal (not too surprisingly) large gaps in several areas of the oceans and I seriously doubt their conclusion that phytoplankton biomass declined by 40% over the past century. Were that so, we almost certainly wouldn’t be seeing the deoxygenation of large areas of the open ocean today.
DESTROYING PUBLIC TRUST
I really still can’t get over the Boyce et al. paper and the follow through. How does Nature publish such a cockamamie finding? Four percent would have been plausible, but 40%? An entire order of magnitude? And why isn’t there a public discrediting of the scientists who reached so far? All they ever got was a set of papers that politely said pretty much all of the world’s data “are not in accordance with their conclusions.”
But the real world problem today is that if you search “40% phytoplankton decline” you find pages and pages of websites citing the factoid uncritically — like the Scientific American article above that instantly propagated the crazy headline, presumably without running it by at least a few phytoplankton biologists.
Which is the problem with the whole retraction thing. Nobody hears about the retractions. And in this case, there wasn’t even a retraction — just the authors replying to all the papers discrediting their findings by basically saying they agree, more research is needed.
It’s pretty bad for a profession where credibility is its life’s blood. That’s really all I can say about it. The truth matters, and is supposed to matter to scientists, but this ends up being a case study of the Hollywood mentality of, “Next.” Meaning that rather than cleaning up the mess we made with the last project, let’s just forget about it and move on to something new. I see it all the time in Hollywood. But I expect better from science.
It’s not the way to build trust.
November 20th, 2014
Elizabeth Mclean, Ph.D. student at University of Rhode Island in Natural Resource Sciences wanted to improve her teaching and communications skills. She’s 6 weeks into her improv class. It’s working and she’s having huge fun. If you want to do something truly transformative with your life, I beg you to take an improv class.
IMPROV IN ACTION. Elizabeth Mclean (right) after her presentation at the American Indian Science and Engineering Society meeting with her co-presenters Dr. A.D. Cropper (left), his daughter, and Dr. Rafael E. Luna, author of The Art of Scientific Storytelling. Her new improv training played a central role in her relaxed delivery and successful presentation.
THE GOOD NEWS: NO ONE HAS EVER DIED TAKING THEIR FIRST IMPROV CLASS
Guess where Elizabeth Mclean is every Sunday evening. Here’s a hint — it doesn’t involve any Natural Resource Science, and in fact works best if she mostly shuts her brain down and just lives “in the moment,” with little critical thought.
Yes, just like British molecular biologist Dr. Vicky Miller who contacted me last year, she has taken a walk on the social wild side and is enrolled in an improv acting class. And just like Dr. Miller, she loves it. She had to show some initiative to track down a class — eventually asking a fellow scientist who guided her to an improv class offered in Wakefield, Rhode Island.
She was nervous her first night, as every non-actor is nervous when they enter their first night of an acting class. But unlike my experience in the Meisner acting class that opened my first book, where the instructor ripped my head off in front of a class full of laughing hyenas, she encountered incredibly friendly people — both instructor and students — who did something she wasn’t accustomed to in her daily life — they “acknowledged” her. They looked into her eyes, acknowledging the look that was passed on within a trusting circle, and “wow” “how powerful and simple it was, to be acknowledged and to acknowledge others whom she had just met”. That sort of experience is rare in most people’s daily lives where everyone is more into themselves and just doing what they’re doing.
IT’S ABOUT “COMMUNICATING AT A DIFFERENT LEVEL”
After six weeks she’s finding herself overcoming at least a little bit of her shyness and introversion. And this is important because some of the work she is doing in her scientific research involves working with fishermen she doesn’t know. That’s a social process. Improv strengthens social interactions. Bottom line, she’s getting exactly the right training for what she does.
“For me it’s about communicating at a different level,” Elizabeth says. That’s what it’s all about. And she said the other day, when she was teaching an introductory biology lab and was talking about physiology models, and asked the class, “What makes for a really good model?” and the student replied, “Dashing handsome looks”.”
She felt the improv training kick in. Instead of having a first impulse of negation and wanting to say, “No, that’s not what I’m talking about,” she found herself going in the opposite direction, at least just for a moment, affirming the comment with a good old fashioned improv, “Yes, and … what if that handsome fashion model were into a physiology model system, then what…?”
Improv can be life changing in the best way possible. I encourage you to look into it, and if you join a class, definitely get in touch with me as Elizabeth, Vicky Miller and others have. We’re all interested in your experience with improv.
November 18th, 2014
I went to a screening of the new Reese Witherspoon movie, “Wild,” for which she was both producer and lead actor. It’s a really “lovely” film which I enjoyed — Thumbs Up! But … in the end, she needed the help of famed geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky. Had he read her script he would have called it “a pile of sundry facts, some of which are interesting and even curious, but ultimately fails to paint a meaningful picture.” Bottom line, it’s a solid film, but still just an, “and, and, and” presentation.
WILD SCREENING. After a special Writers Guild screening of “Wild,” actor/producer Reese Witherspoon (second from left) and actor Laura Dern (far right) joined the panel discussion to talk about the movie. A good movie, but the basic story was, “I got divorced, and then my mother died, and then I went on a hike, and then I encountered a fox, and then I ran out of water, and then I got a ride with a scary man, and then …”
WHAT ARE WE TRYING TO SAY HERE?
I don’t think geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky had any aspirations of giving Hollywood knowledge they could use, nor do I think Hollywood is ever likely to listen to the words of a geneticist when it comes to narrative structure, but they should. In my upcoming book I will formally present what I have come to call The Dobzhansky Template. It’s a simple sentence, derived from his famous evolution quote, in which you fill in the blanks. Here’s the sentence:
“Nothing in _______ makes sense except in the light of _______ .”
It’s a shame Reese Witherspoon couldn’t have sat down with the template before making her new movie, “Wild.” The movie is beautifully shot and she is of course as endlessly watchable as she was in 1991 in her wonderful debut movie, “The Man in the Moon.” But in the end, the story doesn’t really say much.
It’s based on the book by Cheryl Strayed. In the Q&A Reese told about how Cheryl, living in Oregon, sent her a copy of the book six months before publication. Reese said she read it in 48 hours and knew she wanted to make the movie version of it.
It’s a nice movie — a bit of “Into the Wild,” a bit of “Eat, Pray, Love” as well as even, “Shirley Valentine” — basically another story of the great things that can happen when you go walkabout. But what it lacks is a deeper theme, which it could have had. And that’s where the Dobzhansky template comes in.
All you have to do is look at one of the greatest American movies ever made, “Ordinary People” which won four Oscars in 1980 including Best Picture. The Dobzhansky Template would be: Nothing in that family’s existence made sense except in the light of the death of their son. There’s your clear, simple narrative that wins you Oscars and creates enduring stories.
November 10th, 2014
The climate movement is a communications train wreck. It’s been 7 years since Pat Michaels made fun of the, “We’ve only got 10 years left” line from climate worriers in my movie “Sizzle.” Now the head of the UN comes out with “We’ve only got 30 years left.” I’m sorry, you can’t do that sort of “making it up as we go along” nonsense and expect the public to trust you.
“WE HAVE TO DO SOMETHING IN TEN YEARS — THEY’VE BEEN SAYING THAT FOR TWO YEARS — WHY DON’T THEY AT LEAST SUBTRACT TWO AND MAKE IT EIGHT?” This is the kind of clever critique that makes you want to be a climate skeptic (not really).
I am forever quoting Daniel Kahneman’s line about how the public needs a voice that is “trusted and liked,” otherwise all your evidence is worthless. Here’s a case study in “not building trust.”
Now the head of the U.N. offers up his own 30 year urgency deadline. To which I’m sure nobody cares because there just isn’t any sort of careful strategic messaging associated with the climate movement. It’s just endless “throw it against the wall and see if it sticks.”
The problem is, we have to do something about this in ten years. We only have ten years to act on climate communication.