Home Forums Circularity RANDY OLSON: SESSION 2:  “But” – Overall thoughts

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      Randy Olson

      Hi folks — another great session.

      We’re definitely switching to WEBEX for Friday.  Matt will send out details shortly.  It will be much better.

      Lots of good questions and comments.  Here’s a few, with my responses (the “ME” part).  If I don’t address something you asked, please ask again.

      DEAN PENTCHEFF:   the AF scores (And Frequency) of John McPhee’s essays

      The “and” ratio. I checked out some writing by one of my favorite long-form non-fiction writers, John McPhee: “Looking for a Ship” = 2.4. “Annals of the Former World” = 2.8. “Draft No. 4” = 2.7. All consistent with high quality writing being low on the “and” quotient.

      ME:  This is great, Dean, thanks, and exactly as expected.  Looks like an average of 2.6 — what you get from a long time writer for the New Yorker.  Now, could you find 3 government reports and do the same?  And here, have a look at this — scores for Michael Bloomberg’s recent speeches as he was getting ready to run his misfired campaign for president.  N.I. is Narrative Index which we’ll get into next week.

      ROBERT MCLACHLAN:  Maori narrative

      If you listen to a speech in Maori without knowing much of the language, you will here “engari” (but) and “no reira” (therefore) as two of the most common words.

      ME:  This is awesome, can you tell us more — have you got a sample text?

      JAMES SPENCER:  Diplomatic boredom

      My cousin, a journalist married to a diplomat, finds diplomats the most boring speakers : )

      ME:  Trump is never boring.  Does that make him a non-diplomat?  As a matter of fact, yes, 100%.

      EVELYN WIGHT:  Mood Boosting

      I’ve been reading about how science shows that just looking at photos of nature (as well as being in nature) can boost mood. I would be interested in seeing an overlay of that research on the narrative brain scans. Those scans didn’t measure mood as far as I can tell – but emotion is key to good storytelling. Does anyone know of any good research/articles that crosses these two themes?

      ME:  I think I mentioned, the actual research on narrative and brain function is very scarce.  I talked about Uri Hasson at Princeton.  In fact, here’s his initial paper that’s really good.   And sorry about the quality of the figures from it today — Liz said it was unreadable.


      So when I first started communicating with him I was asking him all sorts of detailed questions, as you’re doing with the question about mood boosting.  He just chuckled, and underscored how primitive the research is.  It’s not just costly, there’s also a lot of debate in the neurophysiology world about the accuracy of Functional MRI.

      Here’s one of my all-time favorite New Yorker articles — Adam Gopnik on the need to be a “neuro-skeptic” which I wholeheartedly agree with.  It’s a great article.


      EVELYN WIGHT: Call to Action

      I’m interested in how Call To Action relates to ABT. So for the eDNA ABT, what do you want peopel to do ? Support the research? provide funding? I think the structure of ABT would benefit from thinking about these types of qustions.

      ROBERT MCLACHLAN:  Call to Action (also)

      What is “call to action”, is that a narrative technique?

      ME:   I gave a TOTALLY confused answer to this question in our Q&A.  On Friday you’ll see what I was thinking.  You were asking about “The Call to Action” for a public service campaign.  I was thinking of “The Call to Adventure” of the Heroes Journey.  whoops.  The difference will become clear on Friday.  If you want to get a jump, here’s the great video I’m going to show and talk about.


      You said there were two things to opimize when creating an ABT. The first is concision vs. content. What’s the second?

      ME:  What I said is that there’s two things you’re wanting to balance/optimize which are the desire to be CONCISE yet also be COMPELLING.

      JAMES SPENCER:  Passive constructions?

      How helpful is pointing out passive constructions /nominalizations in helping people to re-work their ABTs?

      ME:  Not sure I follow this — it’s probably over my head in terms of grammar.  I’m a former scientist who became a filmmaker — my background in English is weak to choppy to hackneyed.  Sorry.  Maybe explain further?  Are you talking about passive versus active constructions?  In which case I think that’s more about content than form.

      JULIE CLAUSSEN:  Specifics/Jargon

      On your statement on the importance of specifics. Scientists are all about specifics and warned not to be too specific… Assume there is an art to finding the right specifics.

      ME:  Yes, exactly.  All of this stuff is about using EVERYTHING in “a narrative way.”  For example, JARGON.  Big, big topic.  Amateur communications “experts” will tell you it’s some sort of blanket rule to never, ever, ever use jargon with the public.   Wrong.

      Jargon can be one of your most powerful tools — you just need to use it properly — meaning not at the start.  You need to open with AGREEMENT — the simple stuff that everyone in the room can understand.  Then, if you work slowly and skillfully, you can eventually bring the audience into the depths of the topic and then hit them with a limited amount of jargon at the right moment.

      But the clueless, narratively-deaf use of such things as jargon (which is pretty much what you’re pointing to with that word “specifics”) is indeed bad news.

      ZACH PALMA:  Emotion

      This builds on the emotion topic…. The majority of these narratives are based in science. Awesome. Does this narrative base change when our delivery style changes? I am an interpreter for the NPS. Interpretation takes science, history, social realities, etc. and connects EMOTIONALLY (or tries to) visitors and audiences to an idea. Basically basing off of the connection of emotion being much more likely to have a visitor leaving a place and actually holding on to that connection… as opposed to learning a cool fact and then forgeting about it later that day. Especially if our goal is behavior change. Also a big Peace Corps thing.

      ME:  The key concept, taken straight from the film world is that EVERYTHING NEEDS TO BE MOTIVATED.  For example, in theory, if you want to use the camera effectively, you only have it move when there is a “motivation” for it.  Bad filmmakers have the camera flying all over the place.  Good filmmakers have it move only when it is enhancing THE NARRATIVE by moving.  The same is true of emotion.   Unmotivated emotion is melodrama.  Motivated emotion is drama.

      EUEN BELSON: Emotive image up front?

      Contra to the emotive image being used later in the narrative … the reveal (maybe) … many use the emotive image right up front just to grab attention… how does that work?

      ME:  It’s like the opening anecdote in a good essay.  Take a look at any issue of the New Yorker — you’ll almost always find at least one.  In fact, here, I just reached over on the couch and grabbed the Jan 20 issue that’s been sitting there since before the pandemic.  I opened up, turned to a likely suspect, and bingo — check out the first paragraph of what looks to be a cool article about pine trees (that I don’t have the time to read).  Look at the ABT structure of it — right there, plain as day.  It’s an entire little story told before the article really begins, just to hook you in quickly.

      About forty-five hundred years ago, not long after the completion of the Great Pyramid at Giza, a seed of Pinus longaeva, the Great Basin bristlecone pine, landed on a steep slope in what are now known as the White Mountains, in eastern California. The seed may have travelled there on a gust of wind, its flight aided by a winglike attachment to the nut. Or it could have been planted by a bird known as the Clark’s nutcracker, which likes to hide pine seeds in caches; nutcrackers have phenomenal spatial memory and can recall thousands of such caches. This seed, however, lay undisturbed.  (THEREFORE) On a moist day in fall, or in the wake of melting snows in spring, a seedling appeared above ground—a stubby one-inch stem with a tuft of bright-green shoots.


      ALBERTHA JOSEPH-ALEXANDER:  Narrative vs. Story

      When you say you are not trying to teach scientists to tell stories but teaching narrative structure how are these things different.

      ME:  Great question that’s a teaser for Friday’s talk where I’ll get into this in detail.  Think of story as the car, narrative is the engine that’s under the hood.  Stories start off slow in the non-narrative world, then kick into gear with narrative, and then eventually end back in the slower, more relaxed non-narrative world.  We’ll dive deep into this.

      EVELYN WIGHT:  Narrative vs Story, again

      Albertha I wondered that too. I was surprised to hear Randy say he isn’t trying to teach scientists to tell better stories. Isn’t that the point?

      ME:  It’s narrative that is at the core of everything.  Storytelling is one use of it.   So is logic, reason, comedy and even the scientific method.  Tune in on Friday!


      I’m curious about toggling between AAA and ABT – is it worth pushing students/clients to think about developing ABT habits, even when they are talking to their inner circle.

      ME:  We are narrative-driven creatures.  The non-narrative world can be nice, and it’s where the best art resides, but in terms of doing things, it’s an ABT world.

      ROBERT MCLACHLAN:  Interpretation

      To Zachary: museum and park labels, interpretive panels etc could be a great playground for ABT. They definitely need work in my experience.

      ME:  Always keep in mind that “the brain is lazy” as we said in the AAAS video.  You can have all the interpretation be AAA.  It’s much, much easier.  It just isn’t as good.  This stuff is really the essence of excellence and begs the question of what you’re striving for — excellence or mediocrity.  If it’s the latter, there’s no real need for ABT.

      EVELYN WIGHT:  Wired for story?

      As I understand it, our brains are ‘wired’ for story, so sharing information in story format is a tool we can use to get info from us to our audiences. Otherwise, why bother? What other use is there for learning the narrative framework/ABT etc.?

      ME:  We’re actually wired for narrative, which is the basic problem/solution dynamic. I define the word “narrative” in my “Houston” book as, “The series of events that occur in the search for the solution to a problem.” That is what truly drives us — the existence of a problem. We are problem solving creatures. Storytelling is just one manifestation of that desire.

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