#339) LSU, ABT, A-OK!

February 13th, 2014

Brian Palermo and I brought a big dose of ABT’s and Bunny, Bunnies to the undergrads and grad students of LSU and Southern University.  Our host said it made an impact — especially the ABT.


 FUNNY BUNNY.  This is what happens when Brian ends an improv session with the game, “Bunny, Bunny, Bunny,” then somebody says, “Quick, group photo!”


It’s been about 4 years in the making.  Every time I ran into Gene Turner at a meeting he’d say, “We’re still planning on hosting your workshop!”  And last weekend it finally happened.  And was great.

We had a really enthusiastic group of 32 undergrads, grad students and postdocs from both LSU and Southern University.  A lot of the S.U. students were studying “urban forestry,” and we learned some very cool urban forest facts we never knew — like China has the most urban forested city in the world, Chongqing, with a population of 34 million, and is almost 50% vegetated.  The closest city in the U.S. is Sacramento in the low 40′s.

They were great and we continue to hone what we’re doing with the ABT, now seeing it as THE major tool for the workshop with the Logline Maker being something for longer term and more advanced work.

Here’s what Gene emailed me on Monday:  ”It was great, and our usual monday AM discussion was kept in line by a collective effort to identify the ABTs and to insert them if not. My colleague at Southern University sent a note saying her students were continuing to talk about it amongst themselves today. She really liked it. I’m sure that I’ll hear much more. You’ve left all of us things to think about and reforms to put in place.”


Intrigued by the ABT?? Do something about it! Check out our ABTshare Project at http://www.facebook.com/ABTshare!


If we can put our faith in the metric of the IMDB Pro Starmeter, then I need to modify yesterday’s blogpost with the updating of the Starmeter scores (which happens on Mondays).  I stick with what I said about Bill Nye being the net winner.  But it appears to be a measurable fact that the cheeseball creationist, Ken Ham, benefitted hugely from the media exposure.  Just look at the numbers below.

ham on nye

 EENIE-MEANIE-CHILLI-BEANIE, HERE IS YOUR STARMETER RATING!   Who knows how they come up with these things.  I searched a few forums and read a few people speculating about it.  I’m sure you can find out somewhere.  It’s not a precise science, but there is a fair amount of validity to it.  My film school classmates all have Starmeter ratings that match their level of success pretty closely (I’m way the hell down about a couple bazillion so I know it’s accurate).  The key thing is it probably doesn’t really mean much until you rise above 10,000, as Bill Nye clearly has for at least the time being.



Evolutionist Jerry Coyne wrote an editorial in the New Republic in early January suggesting that Bill Nye would be “helping the discredited creationists he’s planning to debate.”  Well, did he?

The answer is pretty clearly yes.  Look at the huge jump that Ken Ham took in his IMDB Pro Starmeter rating.  And really, all that is showing is what you can already guess from the level of exposure the event received (it was all over USA Today’s website). There’s no doubt Nye served up a huge validation to Ken Ham, who just two weeks ago was as marginal as his 140,000 previous score reflected.

It’s very easy to shoot holes in the Starmeter rating — most actors find it frustrating trying to figure out exactly what it’s based upon. But there’s no denying it is a fairly accurate overall reflection of how “hot” someone is in the media world.  It’s probably about as reliable as the scores on Rotten Tomatoes for movies — you get the occasional baffler, but most of the time the score is pretty close to reality.

Regardless of whatever bump Ham received, look at where Bill Nye has reached.  In fact, Alan Alda (the Great White Science Hope) this week dropped to 3,096, meaning that Nye is just about on par with the 6-time Emmy winner.

Bottom line, 3,000 is pretty huge.  Anything above 10,000 is pretty huge.  Bill Nye scored big with his debate adventure.  And really, overall, as repugnant as some scientists may find creationists, they are an effective foil for reaching the general public. That’s just the way it works in the human race.  Sorry.


Aaaannnndd don’t forget to check out our new ABTshare Project at http://www.facebook.com/ABTshare! Learn your ABT’s and share your own stories with an audience. 


Bill Nye did just what he needed to do.  The science world should set aside its relentless powers of negation for once and simply support his efforts to become a broad, positive voice for all things science.  To all the bloggers who said he “lost” the “debate” — you’re being overly-literal minded (i.e. “such” scientists).  It’s that myopia that handicaps the broader communication of science in the U.S.

Nye Ham Debate

A STARMETER STAR IS BORN.  Bill Nye’s IMDB Pro Starmeter rank is around 7,000, which is pretty good.  Alan Alda is at about 1200, which is even better, but a lot of that is probably just from reruns of “Mash.”  The science world needs a trusted and liked voice for the public.  Bill Nye offers this.


Not sure if you watched the “debate” last Wednesday night between Bill Nye “The Science Guy” versus the Creationist Wonder from Down Under, Ken Ham at his Creation Museum in Kentucky.  Let me begin my assessment of it by addressing whether Bill Nye managed to “go for the jugular.”

Here’s the first thing you need to know:  there is no jugular.  I say this because I made a pro-evolution documentary, “Flock of Dodos,” that aired on Showtime in 2007, for which more than one prominent academic scientist said they found my film disappointing because I failed to, “go for the jugular.”

So there’s the first source of problems in this idea of “debating creationism.”  There is no jugular.  The contest is apples versus oranges.

In fact, let me tell you the best quote I never managed to squeeze into my movie.  It was from Bill Wagnon, a Kansas School Board member and professor of history at Washburn University in Topeka, who said the frustrating thing about the two sides of this issue is that they want to engage in battle, but can’t find a common battleground.  He said it reminded him of 19th century Europe where the British navy wanted to fight Napolean’s army, but they couldn’t figure out where to meet.

Which means there simply is no such thing as a “jugular” to go for, any more than a human could hope to slash the jugular vein of a ghost.

Last Wednesday night pretty much neither side was listening, and it’s not clear there’s much of a “battleground” audience to be played for in the first place.  Since 1982 the Gallup organization has been tracking the three main segments of the population who believe:  A) God made it all, B) God helped, C)  there is no God.  The proportions are amazingly stable over time with a little over 40% for the first two groups, and a slowly growing number of people in group C, going from about 10 percent back then to roughly 15% today.

Bottom line — it’s a pretty stable pattern over time.  And it makes you realize the stakes are non-existent for any given “debate” between evolution and creationism.  You might as well have a football player challenger a ping pong player to chess.  It just isn’t a competition.



However, there is a completely different perspective for this event, which is not substance but style.  If you accept that we live in a society today where it matters far less what people hear than how often they hear it, you begin to grasp the power and importance of simply “having a voice” out in the mainstream media.

Towards that end, Bill Nye is beating Ken Ham by about 160,000 popularity points.  That’s the difference right now in their ratings on the IMDB Pro “Starmeter,” which is the index Hollywood people use to figure out “who’s hot” in the media world.

In those terms, Bill Nye is indeed hot, and getting hotter.  And no one in the science world can touch him at the moment.  His current Starmeter rank is 7,074.  His closest science competitors are probably Neil deGrasse Tyson (roughly 16,000) and Richard Dawkins (around 44,000).

Guess what that translates into—who do you think the current “go to” guy for climate debates on CNN and elsewhere is—it’s the guy with the best Starmeter rank.  Of course Bill has been scorched more than once by trying to tangle with climate skeptic media machine Marc Morano, but for the most part, when you’re a minor media figure, exposure is exposure.

And in the meanwhile, what about Ken Ham — the fellow many scientists were terrified Nye was assisting by helping him get recognition for his event.  His Starmeter rank is a paltry 170,000.  Nobody’s going to be giving him his own TV show any time soon.

So the bottom line for the great “debate” is that it merely further stokes the media fire of Bill Nye.  Is that a good thing?

Let me defer to Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman.  A couple years ago the National Academy of Science featured him as the keynote speaker of their “Science of Science Communication” symposium.  In his big speech, instead of telling them to do a better job of presenting more data (be more cerebral), he went the other direction, saying

“Because of emotional coherence, the source of the message is extremely important, the source has to be liked, and the source has to be trusted, and if the scientific establishment is not trusted, then the amount of evidence really is going to have very little purchase on what is going to happen.”

If you take a look at the commentary around Bill Nye’s appearance last fall on Dancing with the Stars, what you find is that the audience loved him.  And given the generally good image of scientists in our society, you can assume they would trust him as well.

The science world desperately needs a popular spokesperson.  I could critique Nye’s specific style and even substance of the “debate” in great detail (i.e. the entire thing bored me in less than a minute), but that’s not what matters right now.  He is pro-science, he’s smart enough, he has a rising star, and if the science world is smart, for once they will set aside their inexorable desire to negate ruthlessly and simply help him push that Starmeter score as high as possible.

It’s about leadership in the media world, which is a topic that science is utterly clueless about.  Bill Nye presents an opportunity for a much-needed voice at a crucial time for science.  Towards that end, he was the clear winner Wednesday night.


In other news, be sure to check out our NEW ABTshare Project! Learn about the ABT template, read examples and share your own ABT stories on our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/ABTshare.

ABTshare FB


#336) The ABTshare Project

February 4th, 2014

Lots of people are putting the ABT template to use AND are finding it to be a powerful tool for finding “the narrative” in any material, BUT reading other people’s ABT’s could be valuable in gaining a deeper understanding of it’s use, THEREFORE we have created a Facebook page where everyone can share their ABT’s!


SHARE YOUR ABT’S.  Got an interesting ABT? Please post it on our new Facebook page for others to read.  Or read the ones that are posted.



Last week, in the middle of our workshop with the National Park Service folks at the NCSE someone said, “Hey, you should have a place where people can share their ABT’s.”  Which is something we had talked about last fall when we first released the app.

The more we work with the ABT, the more impressed we are with it.  Over and over again we’re finding it to be the most powerful tool for discovering the narrative spine of what you have to say.  The best way to get a feel for it’s use is simply to read a bunch of them, as you can now do at this Facebook page.

Spread the word!

I’ve been a limited fan of climate skeptics only in that they light a fire under the bloated American environmental movement.  But an NPR segment last week asks whether their bus has now left the station with so many major corporations accepting climate change and working on the potential profit angles.  Which is what I saw in Norway two years ago where they thought it was laughable that climate skeptics even exist.  I think if I were a climate skeptic I’d start looking for a new cause.


CLIMATE SKEPTICS HAD A GREAT RUN, BUT … I wonder if they aren’t ending up like the great scene in “Life of Brian” where everyone haggles about the meaning of the cast off shoe, until they all run away in a new direction, leaving this one guy behind, still trying to preach, but with no followers left.  Kinda looks like the future for the climate skeptics.



Warren Olney had a GREAT segment last week titled, “Cashing in on Climate,” on what I saw in Norway two years ago — that businesses can’t afford to be climate skeptics—they have long since been projecting their business plans based on the obvious patterns of climate change.

I spent two very cold, very dark, and very fun weeks in Tromso, Norway exactly two years ago.  We had a ball making the best student videos ever.  But while I was there they also held the Arctic Frontiers workshop where 1000 scientists and businessmen came together to discuss one thing—”How can we make a buck off of climate change.”

This segment of KCRW’s “To The Point” presents exactly the same story.  It tells about how long Shell Oil has been aware of and accepting climate change science, and even the big, bad Exxon Mobil is on board.

All of which makes you wonder if the climate skeptic agenda isn’t about cooked.  And overall, there’s a similar tone from the business community of, “Thanks a lot, dummies,” towards the climate skeptics in the same way that the Republican Party is projecting that tone towards the Tea Party these days.  They all had a lot of fun, but ultimately fouled things up for the smart people of the business world.

There’s reason to believe the mighty climate skeptics may be going the way of the dodo.  Which is a little sad as I found them so entertaining, but such is the Darwinian process.

Guess what the U.S Military Academy needs help with. Here’s a hint — same thing as scientists. I sat at lunch with these cadets asking, “So is there a communications department here?” Nope. “And no film program?” Nope. “And no media center where you guys can make videos?” Nope. Nothing. Doesn’t the military know what a fundamental part of today’s world communication is? One of them said, “Keep in mind, this place was founded by engineers.” Bingo.

West Point Lunch1
MA BOYZ. These are some of the members of the Film Forum at West Point. To my right is my buddy Tony Holland. He’s the cadet who contacted me last year, out of the blue, after reading about my book online. He had no clue my father graduated in the class of 1939. They are all incredibly sharp folks. And there are lots of women around, though not in this group.


My father, rest his soul, was the world’s worst storyteller. He had a passion for military history, and he bored the holy hell out of our entire family with it. It is out of some bizarre backwards respect and fondness for him that I am waging this planetary campaign against boredom.

So I’ve spent a few decades trying to pinpoint the source of the boredom in the science world. Now I see the same problems at the United States Military Academy. Amazing. They get very little if any training in communications. The result is a lot of robotic speakers. Which really is not a good thing in today’s rapidly communicating world. But I’ll let them grapple with that.

We had a fascinating screening of the latest rough cut of my movie, “40 Years of Silence,” to a small group of cadets. Even more fascinating than the movie than the movie was our post-screening panel discussion. I moderated it with the three very interesting fellows — John Patterson (founder of the Philippine Scouts Heritage Society and friend of my father), Dan Crowley who fought on Bataan in 1941 at the start of World War II then ended up as a POW, and Major General Edward Mechenbier who was a POW in Vietnam (see below).

west point
RETRACING MY FATHER’S FOOTSTEPS. Pretty fascinating day. Today’s cadets are not the rigid, robotic creatures of days gone by. In civilian clothes you would have thought you were just talking to a group of undergrads. Except that they all say, “Yes, sir,” to everything. Actually, they would probably be good at improv given that habit — they’re all set to say, “YES, sir, AND …” to everything.

west point2
90 IS THE NEW 25. That’s Dan Frickin’ Crowley in the middle. The guy is in my movie and is a medical marvel. He’s 91.5 years old, his girlfriend is 54 and extremely cool — he introduced her to two of the West Point colonels saying, “She served in the corps.” They smiled and replied, “Oh, Marines, hunh?” to which he howled with laughter saying, “NO! The PEACE Corps, in Africa for five years!” He’s as full of life as a 25 year old, despite having been a prisoner of war in Japan from 1942 to 1945. The fellow on the left is equally amazing — Major General Edward Mechenbier, who was a POW in Vietnam for 6 years after he was shot down. He ended up being the last Vietnam POW to retire from the military. He was as equally funny and charming as Dan. How in the world these guys could endure so much abuse and still have such a great sense of humor is truly amazing.

the old man
THE OLD MAN, 1939. That’s my dad, all dressed up, West Point cadet, Class of 1939. It was a different world back then, by a long ways. If he’d seen me there at West Point on Monday he’d have been pleased. Though if he’d heard Dan Crowley talk about how we need to “finish the job” with Japan he’d probably be as distressed as the poor cadets who didn’t quite know what to say to his political incorrectness.

On Monday I will be at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point screening the rough cut of my documentary feature film, “40 Years of Silence.” It’s going to be a fascinating day.

40 yrs of silence

 40 YEARS OF SILENCE.   A temp graphic for Monday’s screening.  We still have another 6 months of work to do on the movie.  Takes a long time to tell a good story.  This is the 5th year for this project.  Will probably come out about the same time as “Unbroken,” which has just begun post-production and is similar material.


This is a documentary that began in the spring of 2010 as a collaboration with my long time Executive Producer (also know as my mother, Muffy Moose). It started as an evening talk she and I gave in Wichita where she told about the personal side of her World War II experiences, and I delivered the military history side.  She met my father on the troop ship to the Philippines in 1939 on the eve of World War II.  He had just graduated from West Point, she was the daughter of Major General Richard J. Marshall who eventually became Chief of Staff for General Douglas MacArthur and spent more time at his side than anyone else in World War II.

In 2011 I began making a film — half of which we screened at Cornell that fall.  In 2013 we screened a second draft at Brown University.   Then I spent all last year creating a whole new cut, now titled, “40 Years of Silence,” which I will be screening Monday evening at West Point.

The new version focuses primarily on the American soldiers who were Prisoners Of War in Japan, using my father as a case study in how little they talked about their experiences when they returned to the U.S., and what the long term consequences may have been.  In the case of my family, my father abruptly walked out on all of us after 42 years of marriage.

It’s a complex film that has taken years to find the strongest way to tell the story.  It’s still not finished.  We’ll probably take another six months.  But the timing is actually good, given that an editor friend just told me they have to clear out of their editing suites at Universal Studios by the end of next week to make room for Angelina Jolie who has finished filming, “Unbroken,” in Australia and is ready to begin editing.  That’s the amazing story of Louis Zamperini, who ended up in the same prison camp as my father at the end of the war as they were both moved out of camps in Osaka.  Hopefully that will be a good movie that will help set the tone for this one.  Just hope she doesn’t need 4 years of editing as I have.

It takes time to tell a good story.  That’s lesson #1 in the world of storytelling.

My good buddy Park Howell, who teaches at Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability with its new Executive Master’s for Sustainability Leadership program, sent me this very cool revelation yesterday. See for yourself. Did Lincoln have good narrative instinct or what. He knew that almost 100,000 casualties in three days deserved something better than a droning “and, and, and” presentation. Pretty amazing. And if you’re wondering about the range of application of the ABT (And, But, Therefore) as a narrative tool, just look at this anecdote a friend sent about her 7.5 yr old son. Yes, it is indeed a universal narrative template.

abe lincoln

FOUR SCORE AND ONE ABT AGO.   See for yourself — does the text of his speech match the structure of the ABT or what.  He didn’t ramble on and on, didn’t feel the need to start a second narrative thread, didn’t stretch out his intro before getting to the “but” element.  He delivered the short speech, then got on his horse and rode off into the sunset, subtly pumping his fist, and muttering to himself, “Nayl-ed, it!.”



I am now averaging about one ABT revelation email a day as people are telling me about using the ABT for structuring their presentations or getting their students to summarize their projects with it.

Park Howell earned my undying respect last September as an early adopter of our book and app. He was one of the first to “get it” on the ABT. He wrote this great blog review, relating our materials to his awesome Zombie MBA presentation he gives to business school students at Arizona State University.

Now he has spotted something simple and profound.  Turns out a little piece of American history called the Gettysburg Address matches the ABT structure to a tee.  He has added the BUT, and replaced a later “but” with THEREFORE. Otherwise, it is what is known as the Bliss version of the address, which is the version most widely accepted (you can read about it here).



Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

But now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

Therefore, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth


So Abe was not only concise that day, he also had excellent narrative structure.  We can haggle a bit over where exactly to place the THEREFORE, but there’s no denying he got right to the point and intuitively understood the core principle that “a story begins when something happens.”  He laid out his starting premise, then started his story with, “now we are engaged in a great civil war.”

Such concision.  And even in an age of long attention spans.



Yes, folks, the ABT really is this simple, powerful and universal.  This is part of an email a good friend sent yesterday about using the ABT with her 7.5 year old son.  This is both amazing and yet not surprising.  Dorie used it with classes of six graders last fall — they got it in less time than you can say, “Four score and seven years ago …”


Hey Randy,

I thought you might get a kick out of this….

We got a Wii U for the family for Christmas and my 7.5 year old son would spend all day playing it if he could. He can play for 30 minutes a day, but the hitch is that he has to write a paragraph afterwards about what he did in the game. This has turned into an excellent teaching opportunity. Today’s paragraph featured a string of “and’s” – he unlocked this, he flew that, blah blah blah. First I had him use the dictionary to correct his spelling errors and then we sat down with his notebook and my computer to rewrite his paragraph. I told him your line that “a story begins when something happens.” I asked him where his story started, he looked at his notebook, and he pointed to the sentence: “My game was fun, but I couldn’t get into the fire chief’s office.” A-ha!! His story didn’t start until nearly the end of the paragraph, so I asked him about his first sentences. “Well that’s just a bunch of and’s!”. So we talked about how “and’s” are boring and if he writes a paragraph of and, and, and…my eyes glaze over and there’s nothing I can ask him about his game (he so desperately wants me to be interested in this game). But when he wrote that it was hard getting into the fire chief’s office, I had all sorts of questions: Why was it hard? Why did you need in there?  I told him about “And, But, Therefore” and I swear the light bulb went off – I wish you could have seen his face! So we sat at the computer and rewrote his paragraph.

He’s playing again (he owed me a paragraph from yesterday) and I’m going to have him write another paragraph afterwards. I’ll be curious to see if the ABT sticks. It was amazing though how quickly he got it. He didn’t question that his sentence “I flew a helicopter” was boring. I said, well why did you write about it then? “Well, it was a hospital helicopter and it was the first time in the game I got to fly a helicopter.” OK, well, why don’t you include that in your paragraph?

It is no wonder there are so many horrid writers out there. The way the school teaches them to write – the five sentence paragraph – is very boring. Overview sentence, three supporting details, summary sentence. It doesn’t encourage the kind of narrative structure that is so important. Sort of like the format of a scientific paper – the narrative structure can be incorporated but no one points it out to people learning to write….

 Anyway, random, but I thought you’d enjoy knowing that at least one 2nd grader will be using ABT in his writing from now on :D

Here’s some food for thought. We know the ABT (And, But, Therefore) template helps you find the narrative core of a thought. For the first 3 groups who used our Storymaker app last fall, their ABT’s averaged over 300 characters. Twitter only lets you use 140 characters. Which suggests that squashing your idea down by more than half might lose the entire narrative core. The 140 characters of Twitter comes from the 160 characters of SMS, which was created in 1985 by a guy calculating the average number of characters in sentences he typed. Nowhere along the line did anyone ever talk about narrative dynamics. So the technology has driven the narrative.  Is everybody cool with this?
twitter ABT

TWEET THIS.  Looks like, when not given any Tweeting constraints, people naturally construct an ABT of a little over 300 characters.  Which means they would have to cut that thought more than in half to squash it into Twitter.  The goal is for communication to be both concise AND compelling.  What does this say about how compelling Tweets are.  And is everyone certain 140 characters is the ideal length?



Interesting observations we’re making on the ABT template as we go along (if you’re not familiar with it you can hear about it here and read about it here).  We know it brings the gift of concision. At Kansas University in September we had volunteers describe a painting without guidance (they took 28 seconds and rambled) versus using the constraint of the ABT (took 13 seconds average, were very concise and more interesting as they told a story).  So we know it produces concision.  But what about being compelling?

In our workshops we have everyone read their ABT’s aloud.  What you find is some people who err in the direction of “over-concision” — meaning their ABT is so short it lacks information causing it to lack impact, meaning it is not very compelling.  I end up recommending they add back in a few key words to give it more punch.

Then others err in the direction of “lack of concision” as their ABT is too long and clumsy.  They need to trim their ABT.

All of which suggests there’s roughly an optimal length to the ABT.  Which then begs the question of how that matches with the 140 characters of Twitter.  And it looks like it doesn’t match.

Of course, most of the ABT’s constructed for the graph above had not yet undergone the group scrutiny, so they could all stand to be shorter.  Plus the words “And, But, Therefore” could probably be abbreviated in the tweet along with other words.  But still, it’s difficult to squash it all into 140 characters.



You may be thinking, “I’m sure some brilliant people somewhere have already considered this.”  Maybe.  But as we pointed out in “Connection,” the latest resource we could find on “the Elevator Pitch” (which is essentially what an ABT is) was Dan Pink’s bestselling book, “To Sell Is Human,” of 2012, where he devoted an entire chapter to the elevator pitch and reviewed 6 different versions of it.

Nowhere in that chapter did he come close to defining narrative structure as the core principle for creating a single sentence.  He did talk about “The Pixar Pitch” which is similar to the Logline Maker in our app, but that is long and clunky, and not likely to be “pitchable” in a single elevator ride, unless you’re stopping at every floor.

Nobody is working on the ABT.  It’s new ground.  And I think this is an interesting question to pose about Twitter.



Some guy sitting at his typewriter in Germany in 1985 — that’s who.  Seriously.  According to this article in the LA Times, Friedhelm Hillebrand counted the average number of characters in sentences he was typing and decided 160 was good for the initial conception of SMS (which became texting).  Subsequent committees considered it further and, based on the length of text in postcards and telexes, concurred.

Twitter then modified the 160 down to 140, and presto — the whole world now communicates through a length that was conceived with zero discussion of whether the thoughts that would be transmitted would have narrative form or strength.

Is it the right length?  This becomes an exercise in adaptationism and “Just So” stories.  I’m sure most people would want to believe 160 characters has proven to be perfect because no one has felt the need to change it.  But lots of things in our society are poorly designed yet will not be redesigned because the momentum against it is just too great.

Who knows.  The one thing I do know that I learned from the great evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould is that the real world — whether biological in design or human — never achieves perfection.


The bottom line is that it’s clear the technology is driving the narrative dynamics with Twitter, and not vice versa.  In discussing this with my former co-blogger Jennifer Jacquet, who is a professor and social scientist at NYU, she says in reference to the 140 character element in the creation of Twitter, “for all the talk of bottom-up and individuality in technology, most of digital architecture, much like physical architecture, winds up being top down with often little thought given to creativity.”

We knew it. Trey Parker knew it. Socrates, Kant, and Hegel knew it. An analysis of 800 Project Gutenberg books from computer science folks at SUNY Stony Brook shows the most popular and successful books have two traits: 1) simplicity of writing, 2) contain “more conjunctions such as ‘and’ and ‘but’.” Time for Judge Judy to rap her gavel and say, “ABT: CASE CLOSED.” But also the study is a little frightening for writers.

popularity score

“WELL THAT’S FANTASTIC, you wrote a novel and invested three years of your life and we can just put it into this little program here that says it has a Popularity Score of … 39 percent and it’s done — nobody wants to read your novel, your three year investment of creative energy is commercially dead, thanks to this new program.”  (inspired by this classic South Park moment)



If my TEDMED Talk and Science letter weren’t enough, will you believe DAAAAAAAY-TA (as Oscar-nominated actress Melissa McCarthy once said in one of my films, “That’s a mighty big word — does that make a little man feel like a big man?”).

Seriously, friends. What more does it take. I was told that some of the scientists at SICB felt the ABT was “too simple” “too constraining,” “too whatever (meaning they just didn’t like it for reasons they couldn’t quit pinpoint).”

Now there are data to show it works. The ABT is the tool I used to turn the CERF Sea Level Rise plenary panel from “a pile of s****y facts” (to quote famed geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky) into a structured narrative presentation that held the interest of 1,000 people for an hour. It is indeed that powerful.

And now there is a major breakthrough — a quantitative study that shows a clear correlation between the ABT elements and successful communication. Yes, it’s only a correlation, but come on … use a little instinct at this point.  Don’t let your data obsession cloud your common sense.



The study by three members of the Department of Computer Science, SUNY Stony Brook quantitatively analyzed 800 famous books that are part of the Project Gutenberg collection. One of their findings: successful books contained “heavy use of conjunctions such as ‘and’ and ‘but’.”  Which is two thirds of the ABT.

And why not — we are proposing that the ABT is THE universal narrative template.  It is the very core of storytelling. So all this finding says is that the most popular books were the ones that had the most story structure. Which is simply what you would expect from a “storytelling animal” (to use Jonathan Gotschall’s title of his excellent book).

Furthermore, it pointed to “simplicity” as a key element for effective writing.  Which is the core message of our book, “Connection.”

I love the findings of the story, except that …



On a separate note … yeeks … think what this study means.  They claim to have an 84% accuracy in predicting the success of a book based only on the elements they analyze.  Does this really mean it is now the case that you can spend three years slaving over your great novel, only to send it to a literary agent who will use this program to instantly give it a “popularity score” then write you back saying, “It is with the deepest regret and with the sincerest desire to not impede your literary efforts that I must inform you …”

Pretty mind bending.  Makes me think of a friend who said she spent all afternoon filling out a job application on-line for Bed, Bath and Beyond, finally read it over, clicked the SUBMIT button expecting to get a note saying, “Please wait two weeks for notification,” but instead got an INSTANT rejection, basically saying, “No, thanks.”

What a strange, metric-obsessed world we are continuing to create.