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  • RANDY OLSON: SESSION 2.5: “The ABT in Politics”


    Here’s the video SwingLeft.org did on the ABT in 2018, produced by Aaron Huertas.



    And here’s the video that’s a compilation of pieces of commercials in the pandemic era.



    Lianne Allen-Jacobson to everyone:
    Question from a scientist: I love Park’s advice about making your customer your hero. But, I’m not sure who my customer is! (maybe this is part of my problem). If I’m writing a paper about coral physiology, is my customer the coral? the coral scientist? the taxpayer that funded my research?

    It’s probably the coral reef research/conservation community. Dianna Padilla will address this in her presentation.



    Barbara Little:
    I’ve heard too that one person’s death is a tragedy but 1000 people’s deaths is a statistic

    This is one of the greatest short articles on realities of communicating an issue to the public. I hereby beg all of you to read it and re-read it frequently. It’s really tremendous — simple, short and practical.



    Darryl Finnigan:
    Do speechwriters take any narrative training? Is it that they major in comms/English? Or are there more training avenies for them?

    As far as I can tell, this is a huge problem in the political world — that most of them have ZILCH training and understanding of narrative. You heard me tell my story about James Carville and the Hillary Clinton campaign. When I was in the middle of that effort, a friend told me to watch Episode 3 of Season 3 of Veep. You can read the summary of it here:


    In that episode Selina (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) announces her candidacy for president. There’s scenes of her speech writers who have a big board full of different color Post-it notes — each color for a different writer. As one writer convinces her to add one of his bits, he runs to the board, takes down someone else’s colored note and replaces it with his.

    When I was trying to work with the young guy on Hillary’s team I told him about that scene and asked him if it was similar to their process. He said, “You’re not far off with that.”

    Most of the speechwriters tend to be history or political science majors. They know all about politics, but nuttin’ about narrative. Which is the problem.


    Evelyn Wight:
    Good distinction today between story and narrative – is there anything further we can read on this?

    Yes! Here’s my definition essay on the issue, from the end of last year’s, “Narrative is Everything” book.


    APPENDIX 1 – Defining “Story” Versus Narrative

    In 2011, my improv-instructor buddy Brian Palermo began making a bit of a noodge of himself in our workshops. I would use the words “story” and “narrative” liberally. He finally asked, “What’s the difference?”

    I scoffed, obfuscated (the very thing I complained about in this book’s Introduction) and said, “You can’t separate them.” I told him the terms are too broad and all-encompassing to parse. He said bullshit.

    We had that exchange enough times that I began to think about what he was saying. He was right. I was being lazy. So I put the same question to a senior communications professor at USC who had been a huge help over the years. He scoffed, obfuscated and dismissed me, saying, “You can’t separate them.” I wanted to say bullshit, but was a little more polite.

    By 2014, I had figured out what I feel is an effective set of working definitions for the two terms which I presented in Houston, We Have a Narrative. It’s now five years later. I not only stick with the definitions, I also think they are important, and that most people using these terms are just being lazy in not thinking this through.

    We live in an information-overburdened world now. We know that narrative structure is at the core of what we have to say. But you can sense the two words are not identical just by how people respond to them. Story has a sense of human warmth to it, while narrative is more cold and analytical.

    So here are my analytical definitions of the two.


    Famed mythologist Joseph Campbell did a comparative study of storytelling among the various religions and cultures of the world and found that their stories follow a basic form, which he called “the monomyth.”

    JOSEPH CAMPBELL’S MONOMYTH MODEL FOR A STORY. A “story” is this entire diagram. “Narrative” refers to just the bottom half— the problem-solution part of the journey—which is the driving force of a story .

    He defined the structure of a story as a circular journey that begins and ends at the same place. Along the way, it passes through three phases:

    1) THE ORDINARY WORLD (NON-NARRATIVE) – The first phase is what he called the “Ordinary World.” I would re-label this the “Non-Narrative World.” This is the initial part of the story, which is usually called “exposition.” It is largely intellectual. Information is presented, but there has yet to be a problem encountered, which means that the problem-solution part of the brain has not yet been activated. This is the A material in the ABT template. If it goes on for too long it will become the AAA template and bore everyone. We’ve all seen movies that left you wondering, “When is this going to start to get interesting?”

    2) THE SPECIAL WORLD (NARRATIVE) – The second phase begins when the problem is encountered. This is usually referred to as, “When the story begins.” The common expression in Hollywood is, “A story begins when something happens.” This is where that something happens. Before this we weren’t really telling a story.

    The “something” that initiates the problem can be finding a dead body, having the ship hit an iceberg, or having a tornado take a little girl to a new world. The corresponding problems are: whodunnit, how are we going to save everyone on the ship, and how is the little girl going to get back home?

    All of these problems activate the narrative process, which activates the narrative part of the brain. Joseph Campbell called this part of the journey the “Special World.” I would rename it the “Narrative World.”

    3) RETURN TO THE ORDINARY WORLD (NON- NARRATIVE) – The third part of the story starts when the problem is solved. The murderer is found, the people are saved, and the little girl returns home. This allows the narrative part of the brain to relax (mission accomplished) and return to a resting state. The final part is similar to the first part—i.e., more intellectual—now synthesizing and philosophizing about what was learned in the course of the journey .

    So this becomes the distinction. “Story” is the entire package. It’s the whole journey, from start to finish. It consists of both narrative and non-narrative material. It’s warm, human and multi-dimensional.

    As I mentioned in Chapter 2, Ronald Reagan was a storyteller. He would take the time to set up a story, providing human details to make it relatable. Then he would end it with some element of how the story relates to our world.

    Donald Trump is not a storyteller. He hates small talk, which is what he would call the details of the Ordinary World (the intellectual part—not his strength). He prefers to just “cut to the chase,” by starting with the problem.


    So here is how I roughly define the two terms:

    NARRATIVE – The series of events that occur in the search for the solution to a problem.

    STORY – The complete circular journey from non-narrative to narrative, then back to non-narrative.

    What this means is that “a series of events” that never gets out of the And, And, And mode of the non-narrative world is not, technically speaking, a story. This means that a resume or chronology is not a story. A series of events doesn’t become a story until a problem is established, which sets up the narrative part of the journey, which is the heart of the story.

    RANDY OLSON: SESSION 2.4: “The ABT in Business”


    Here’s an article that presents the the advertising video I showed. What’s funny to notice is that the text of the article makes no mention of the three forces at work. Which just shows you how the average person, even when handed something like this, sees CONTENT way more than FORM.




    David made this interesting comment:

    David Goldstein:
    Story of ME, story of US, Story of What Will Be….

    On Friday, Aaron Huertas made a mention of how strategists in the Democratic party are fans of Marshall Ganz and his “Public Narrative” concept, which is presented here:


    Ganz talks about there being 3 stories: the story of self, the story of us, the story of now.

    Which is nice, but I gotta be honest — I don’t get it. We know there are three fundamental forces of narrative — agreement, contradiction, consequence. The realization of this didn’t begin with Marshall Ganz — it began in the 1700’s with the great philosophers and what they called “The Triad” (or the Dialectic) of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.


    It’s the same three forces. Neurophysiology research now shows it’s how the brain is programmed.

    But what Ganz presents is basically BTA instead of ABT.

    He’s starting with the BUT in starting with the story of self. Think of Jerry Graff’s book, “They Say, I Say.” Notice the second part is the story of self — as in “here’s what I say.”

    Then he progresses to the story of unity or synthesis with the story of us, which unifies everything. Then lastly he ends with the story of now, which sounds to me like the “They Say” element.

    All of which says to me that it’s a strategy for polarization in society. But maybe that’s just me.



    Anu: Interesting that this model is a spiral vs. Campbell’s circle. Maybe I missed that, but why spiral vs. circle?

    Joseph Campbell’s “Monomyth” model is a circle where the hero eventually returns to the starting point, but is “wiser” as the Winkler video said.

    Park’s spiral is the same journey, but by being a spiral it shows visually that things are “a level up” when the hero returns to the starting point.

    You can learn more about it by ordering his new book!





    David Goldstein:
    If you do not lead with a story then the audience will lead with a story that you did not intend!

    Yes, exactly. Next Wednesday for our final session we’re going to have as our special guest, my friend Dr. Shirley Malcom


    A couple years ago I included this bit in the new content I added to the 2nd edition of my first book, “Don’t Be Such A Scientist.”

    Shirley’s Law: If you don’t tell your own story, someone else will tell it for you (and you probably won’t like what they say).

    She had said the same thing to me for years — you better tell your own story or someone else will. This became sadly true with Hillary Clinton as Trump began to label her as Crooked Hillary.



    Evelyn Wight to everyone: I just want to say how helpful it is to hear some of this again – I am taking the course this second time and feel like I am “getting” some of this MUCH better now.

    YAY, EVELYN! You said exactly what the folks on our ABT Framework Team keep saying. They’ve heard all this stuff for 5 years at least, yet still find it valuable to hear again. And even the same for me — I find it valuable to hear myself telling it all again. It just takes a lifetime to completely soak in.

    Really appreciate your saying this — thanks.

    RANDY OLSON: SESSION 2.3: “Therefore”

    Great session, everyone be sure to visit the Google Group now — the first 4 Working Circles have been posted.

    Here’s a few questions and answers.

    Elizabeth L Mclean: Do people/students that study the art of argumentation, doing oral speech and debates, follow a narrative framework?

    Yes, absolutely. You’ve heard me mention the best starting point for this — Jerry Graff’s book, “They Say, I Say,” which has sold over 2 million copies. Everyone should own a copy. The parallels with this course are 100% and he’s my good buddy for the past 15 years — great guy!


    David Goldstein: For World Bank the question should be how many authors are English first language speakers now vs. then…

    That’s certainly an interesting aspect of it and probably a factor in the change over time, but the important point is simply comparing today’s 5% not to the values in the 1940’s, but rather to well edited material that scores around 2.5%. It baffles me that there exists this simple, objective criteria that points out poor communication, yet is not used, and was even ridiculed.

    Julie Claussen: Are journalist taught the AND frequency, or is it more intuitive for editors that 2.5% makes a more interesting story?

    Do you know any journalists or editors? If so, ask them if they have ANY idea of this 2.5% value. I don’t think they do. I’ve never met anyone who has known of it, but as I said, the World Bank study cited it, then when we measured it for well edited magazine articles it was amazingly consistent. I don’t think it occurs analytically — I think it is a byproduct of a mind that has good narrative intuition.

    Elizabeth L Mclean: the irony of our times… a colleague of mine wrote a report entitled “lesson learned from lessons learned”… implying that what is learned is not actually put into practice 😛

    That’s a perfect title. When I made my movie “Flock of Dodos,” I went to the Tribeca Film Festival ready to give it a good premiere, be done with it, and immediately start my next movie. Little did I know I would spend the next two years doing over 200 screenings with over 100 post-screening discussions that I took part in. But that turned out to be the most important part of the process. For the most part, things do not “speak for themselves.” They only speak with someone obnoxious like me goes out and shouts at people that, “THIS THING IS IMPORTANT!!!”

    Which is exactly the story for that World Bank study. I think it was important, but unless someone like me beats a drum around it, it will be lost to history.

    This was exactly the deal with my editorial about Michael Crichton in January. He is already almost completely forgotten, but there is … (wait for it) a lesson to be learned. I wrote this article, teaching the lesson of the missed opportunity. And of course it came out, had one day on Twitter of the climate crowd telling me to shut up and quit promoting a climate skeptic, then the next day the climate skeptics all told me to shut up and quit promoting climate action, and then it was all done.

    Ah, what a lovely society we’ve created.


    dmarkbreiter: Does the analysis of “and” over time take into account other ways of connecting clauses/phrases (such as commas or semicolons)? It seems like that analysis might’ve just pointed towards shifts in English stylistics rather than narrative form

    For the World Bank study they only measured the proliferation of the one word, but they also included qualitative validation, like showing samples of the text showing how these days the word is used to string together disconnected subjects, on and on and on. The metric itself (frequency of “and”) may not be that precise, but the sample size is huge, meaning the pattern is definitely real.

    Evelyn Wight: How does narrative work across political beliefs? No matter how good trump is at narrative, it doesn’t reach me. Is there a study about the role of ABT/narrative to influence opinion – seems like it could only work with ‘undecided’ – it can’t sway opinion if your mind is made up. Or can it?

    The core principle is at the simplest of levels — that people do not follow leaders who bore or confuse. Trump never bored or confused his followers. His messaging, albeit bombastic, was always simple, clear and focused. The bulk of the Democrats lack that ability, and thus lack effective leadership.

    Ilsa Kuffner: Randy can you please provide a copy of your Scientific American article? Would love to read it. Thanks

    Hi Ilsa – here you go: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/a-new-tool-for-humanizing-medicine/

    Dean Pentcheff: There is some work I’ve read about that indicates that it’s hugely difficult to change opinions. Tune them, yes, moderate them, yes. But flip them? Almost never. (Which shouldn’t stop us trying!)

    Do you think Coca Cola ever manages to change opinions about their product or is their annual budget of $200 million a waste?

    RANDY OLSON: SESSION 2.2: “But” – Overall Thoughts

    Stacy Levy had this awesome comment near the end of the session, “Like therapy, the chat gets most intersting in the last few minutes of the session. ”

    That is a combination of true, hilarious and profound! The best questions come at the end. Here’s a few replies.

    Julie Claussen: Randy – it would be good to spend a bit of time talking about DHY

    Julie, you’re in the Platinum Club, so I know you’ve got a pretty good feel for DHY. Which means I guess you’re asking about it for the benefit of the new folks, which is nice. But for starters, everyone should already have some rough idea from the AAAS video. If you haven’t viewed it, it’s time to right now:

    In the simplest (and borderline disparaging) terms, DHY means basically “pretzel brained.” It means you have multiple narratives going at once which, if done skillfully, is the essence of lots of great art. Some of the best murder mysteries have several narrative threads going at once. And if they are done well, all the threads eventually resolves themselves and it becomes a satisfying experience.

    BUT … when it’s done in conversation and the person speaking heads off in five directions and never resolves any of them … it’s just plain confusing. Which is what you get from academics sometimes. And thus this silly figure in the AAAS video …

    ABT Evolution

    Oops. Ed Lozano — thanks for doing your best to explain the Christmas tree to Barbara in the chat. You made me realize this could be a recurring problem — my forgetting I presented it in Round 1, but not yet in Round 2.

    What Ed was referring to is this great bit in this great article by longtime Democratic party strategist Dave Gold (who spoke to us in the last session of the 1st Round). This is a really, really helpful thought to have in your head in working towards the single narrative (which we will discuss on Wednesday).

    Years ago, my political mentor taught me the problem with this approach, using a memorable metaphor: issues are to a campaign message what ornaments are to a Christmas tree, he said. Ornaments make the tree more festive, but without the tree, you don’t have a Christmas tree, no matter how many ornaments you have or how beautiful they are. Issues can advance the campaign’s story, but without a narrative frame, your campaign doesn’t have a message, no matter how many issue ads or position papers it puts forward.


    Here’s the article I talked about.

    Yui Takeshita had this great question: To write a concise ABT, you need to omit details by definition. So by telling a compelling story, you will always be criticized for being ‘dishonest’, or not telling the whole story. so how do you navigate this dilemma?

    Let me start by talking about this issue for scientists. They are the ones who routinely and mistakenly see themselves as the arbiters of “the truth.” But they, along with all other humans, face this endless dilemma of basically having to use the ABT to communicate the AAA because it’s more effective.

    In 1964 Nobel Laureate P.B. Medawar delivered a talk titled, “Is the Scientific Paper a Fraud?” You can read it here: http://www.weizmann.ac.il/mcb/UriAlon/sites/mcb.UriAlon/files/uploads/medawar.pdf

    What he was agonizing over was the fact that you do a bunch of research, but no journal will allow you to publish all of it. Which means you face this same subjective process that Ronan Farrow is being dinged about. You have to choose what to include and what to leave out.

    I’ve been at scientific talks where someone asks the investigator whether they measured a specific element. The speaker says yes, and the whole audience groans, “Well why didn’t you tell us about it???” Meaning that the entire talk would have different significance if that bit were included. The group knew it, the single individual didn’t. THIS is a major part of why we do Story CIRCLES (not Story Solos).

    Seriously. It’s the eternal subjective element. There’s no getting around it. You just have to develop a good set of ethics, and then accept that sometimes if you tell the truth or paint an accurate picture of the world, you won’t reach as many people, but that’s no reason to not tell the truth and paint an accurate picture. The question is whether you can find the ABT form for it rather than just giving up and going with AAA.

    I know the pain of this all too well. In 2006 I premiered my feature documentary “Flock of Dodos” at the Tribeca Film Festival. Alongside us, in the next theater over, was the premiere of a movie titled, “Jesus Camp.”

    My movie was interesting, quirky, fun, crowd pleasing, but was not the shocking, anger-filled anti-right wing polemic that “Jesus Camp” was. Their movie was vastly dishonest, painting a portrait of supposed religious indoctrination of teens in Missouri that one critic referred to as “Bush’s Brown Shirt” (a reference to one of Hitler’s youth programs).

    I grew up in Kansas. I went to religious gatherings in junior high where I watched my friends cry for Jesus (afraid I never managed it myself). They all grew up to be healthy adults. It was just a phase. I watched their movie in disbelief. I was complete distortion.

    Their movie got theatrical distribution and was nominated for an Oscar. My movie ended up on Showtime but never made it to theaters, and thus didn’t earn nearly as much money.

    My movie had strong ABT dynamics, which helped it reach a national audience on Showtime, but overall didn’t have as strong of a singular narrative. My story was, “Who is the flock of dodos — the creationists or the scientists?” It criticized both sides equally (which angered A LOT of scientists — the Smithsonian canceled an entire screening due to the protests of their scientists who hated being criticized). The message of “Jesus Camp,” was, “The right wing is evil.”

    Remember that Frank Daniel quote I mentioned, “Your story is only as good as your villain is evil.” They went with that. This recent article about “Jesus Camp” shows what a piece of junk it was. I really hate dishonesty, especially from my side of the political spectrum. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/jul/06/jesus-camp-christian-documentary-kids-10-years-later

    Ed Lozano : @Anu, If/Then, as I understand it, is using If/Then in the A section to put the argeement into context… When”And” is not enough…

    Ed Lozano, thank you again. This was Ed, a second time, trying to fill everyone in on what I thought I’d already mentioned to this group but had not.

    What he’s talking about is the use of “IF/THEN” logic for ideas you’re proposing. We want to know, “Why is this important?” This is one way to approach that question — to say, “IF we do this, THEN we’ll be able to …”

    Or you can use it in the negative direction, “IF we don’t do this, THEN the following is going to happen …”

    We’ve only recently stumbled upon the power of using it at times in an ABT. You’ll hear me bring it up some more.

    Evelyn Wight said: in the real world, almost nothing is really black or white/good or evil and boiling it down to that is problematic.

    This is true, but what you have to add on to it is, “… BUT the mass audience wants things to be simple and singular — they don’t want nuance (intellectuals do).”

    This then selects for stereotypes. Which is what our current president knows at a very deep level, and why he uses his single label insult names for his opponents like Crooked Hillary, Lyin’ Ted, and Low Energy Jeb. And it’s not just a handful of these labels. Look at this entire Wikipedia page for it — just scroll down it and take in the enormity of it:


    This is yet another disappointment of the Democratic party — that they aren’t able to make the connection between this behavior and flat out racism. There are racial stereotypes that are not tolerated at all, yet he is allowed to do this same sort of denigration, most of which is just laughed at. It’s the same thing.

    Albertha Joseph-Alexander asked: Can AAA evoke an emotion that is sustained and engaging?

    Yes. AAA is central to great art. I think boredom plays a key role in the pathway to deep emotion. By the way, you do all know that people don’t experience emotion nearly as deeply today as they once did, right? Our short attention span, brought on by the Information Age, combined with our brains slowly figure out ways to avoid pain. One prime example is mourning.

    People used to grieve and mourn and suffer the pain of the loss of loved ones for weeks, months, years, entire lifetimes. Today funerals are mostly designed to be celebrations of life where everyone is happy and gets over things as quickly as possible to “move on.” Which is fine, but it comes with a side effect which is simply not feeling things as deeply. Next!

    Try reading some of the greatest novels ever written — Tolstoy, Harper Lee, Fitzgerald, Dostoyevsky, Cervantes, Melville — they all have loooooong stretches of AAA, but there’s something going on where it’s digging deeper and deeper into your psyche so that when it finally does get to the ABT parts, the impact is deeper.

    I think. But then what do I know, I’m a former scientist.

    Ilsa said: Yes our polarized culture right now is hugely disturbing to me. Interesting idea, that the glut of information resutling from so many media platforms is selecting for polarized stories.

    This was a pattern that emerged in the 1990’s as the Information Explosion of the 1980’s began to really settle in. Almost every city that previously had two or more competing newspapers that previously were just several options for the impartial news suddenly underwent polarization. One or more newspaper moved to the right, the others moved left and we ended up with situations like MSNBC versus FOX for television news.

    There is so much about society today that was easy to predict if you were able to view things in terms of information overload. A great book early on that had a big impact on me was this:


    It was a brilliant book and (like so many other authors) I stalked the author and ended up having lunch with him. I was under the impression that his book had a big impact, but nope. He explained that he was an English Literature professor. The book was about communication. Nobody in the world of communication viewed him as a voice worth listening to. Such is the role of social dynamics in forming our overall knowledge. Often the information itself doesn’t matter. It’s how you’re perceived.

    And finally, in typical form, the funniest comments of the session go to Evelyn and Dean …

    Evelyn Wight:
    For some reason the lumberjacks made me think of golf – how can anyone watch golf on TV? Those who do are in the “in” crowd. To make it, or the lumberjacks, interesting I would need at least a character to follow.

    Dean Pentcheff:
    You don’t personally identify with the little white ball, always being struck away from its friends?

    Tax-free dju.dlbl.storycirclestraining.com.fvb.lo cytological there, [URL=https://www.globeclimbing.com/produit/perfect-descent-auto-belay-gate/?unapproved=297&moderation-hash=80f092a628ad1cd4e697ba92a1aa3ab9]stimulating,[/URL] emerge https://www.globeclimbing.com/produit/perfect-descent-auto-belay-gate/?unapproved=297&moderation-hash=80f092a628ad1cd4e697ba92a1aa3ab9 stimulating, [URL=https://www.herbio.ro/ro/termek/amestec-uleiuri-esentiale-respiratie-usoara/?unapproved=182&moderation-hash=28a270512c6d7b5c123dd044a4b6483f]angiogram[/URL] influencing https://www.herbio.ro/ro/termek/amestec-uleiuri-esentiale-respiratie-usoara/?unapproved=182&moderation-hash=28a270512c6d7b5c123dd044a4b6483f influencing [URL=https://buchwalds.dk/butik/ristet-kaffe/burundi-kayanza/?unapproved=16904&moderation-hash=a1e1b6881354ab872b0c065c5c218fd7]intramural[/URL] intramural https://buchwalds.dk/butik/ristet-kaffe/burundi-kayanza/?unapproved=16904&moderation-hash=a1e1b6881354ab872b0c065c5c218fd7 does, [URL=https://www.kingofdeal.com/product/dell-inspiron-15-6-5570-i5-8250-3-40ghz-8gb-256gb-ssd-windows-10/?unapproved=3122&moderation-hash=5d98c8f0b998d7534b195cc85af713b0]uterus:[/URL] metastasizing https://www.kingofdeal.com/product/dell-inspiron-15-6-5570-i5-8250-3-40ghz-8gb-256gb-ssd-windows-10/?unapproved=3122&moderation-hash=5d98c8f0b998d7534b195cc85af713b0 myelofibrosis, [URL=https://www.spinergo.com/hr/produkt/stolica-spinergo-music/?unapproved=231&moderation-hash=01758fe4e5ee37785594b0a15c255b6f]predispositions[/URL] myotonias https://www.spinergo.com/hr/produkt/stolica-spinergo-music/?unapproved=231&moderation-hash=01758fe4e5ee37785594b0a15c255b6f opening; social.


    FIRST OFF –  NEW FEATURE :  The Chat Log for the Session


    From here on we’ll post the chat log for the session along with my comments for that session, instead of waiting until the end as we did last round.  So here it is:  Download Chat.




    I was desperately hoping that someone from the Platinum Club would post the same critical point before I did.  Turned out Cara nailed it immediately.  Before I could even get started on the first one, she asked this.  Then 20 seconds later I made the same point.  Way to make us all look good, Cara!


    May 18, 2020     1:42 PM     from Cara Laasch to everyone: Who is the central character?  




    There weren’t a whole lot of questions — I think because it was the first session — but this question that Dean asked really stands out as one of the best questions ever.


    from Dean Pentcheff: Q. for Randy — for analyzing something like that anti-gun violence mission statement, is a useful first step to just reshuffle the A’s to the beginning, the B’s to the middle, and the T’s to the end? Or do you really have to start by boiling it all into soup and reconstituting?


    This was SUCH a good question because it gets to the divide between cerebral versus visceral.  In the beginning, you’re just learning this stuff by memory — memorizing the And, But, Therefore and the rules that go with it.  But as you get more comfortable with it, you begin to just feel it.  And that’s when you start developing the ability to take an entire project in, digest it, then as Dean says, “reconstitute” it.


    I love that word.  If you look at what I did with the gun group narrative, I did exactly that.  The first sentence (the blue text) was not in their text at all.  It’s just a set up line that I made up which embodies what they were saying, only more concisely.  Here’s the revised ABT again:


    The gun safety movement has spent years combatting gun violence AND has made some significant achievements, BUT the movement has ended up with a safe, centrist message that dampens enthusiasm among grassroots advocates and makes policy success less likely, THEREFORE OUR GROUP was formed in 2016 in the wake of the Pulse shooting to demand bold policies that move the country toward a future with fewer guns (and is now doing the following …)


    There weren’t a lot more questions in this first session, but I know there will be plenty in the sessions to come.


    In the meanwhile, just so the new folks know, here’s the names of the Platinum Club members (returning from Round 1) just so you can know if you see a question from one of them, it might be coming from a place of having a little more familiarity with things.


    Ellie, Dean, Evelyn, Jon, Julie, Albertha, 
    Sarah, Ed, Carolee, Linnea, Cara, Lianne, Chris 


    For me, I experienced the first spike in confidence when I read Houston, We Have a Narrative. I could see ABT everywhere and thought I was ready to use it like a pro, but then after the NPS demo day and starting a Story Circle I realized that I did not know as much as I thought I did. Only after working through 10 sessions of a Circle did my collapse in confidence start to increase and actually match my competence with this stuff.

    Anyway THEREFORE everyone in the course should take it again and/or do Story Circles if they really want to master the ABT.


    Evelyn: @VKOLLMAR – re the coke ad, reminds me of a book I read years ago called ‘subliminal advertising’ 

    Read a book on that many years ago (probably the same one you read)…it’s a thing but the writer of that particular book seemed to make it into a huge conspiracy theory…it’s basic marketing…

    Evelyn: Some things blow up even if they have horrible messaging/structure:  Plandemic……

    Sometimes the full narrative doesn’t need to be elaborated but plays off people’s internal agendas. In that way Plandemic plays off the unstated narrative of “Everyone is acting like the Coronaviruses took the world by surprise but it was really part of a secret plan.” So, in fact, it’s pretty good messaging…if you are predisposed to the underlying narrative.

    Allyson: Question: I still don’t think I understand what you mean about the difference between story and narrative. 

    Narrative is a structure for organizing the material. It can be a story and actually underlies good stories. I’m sure Randy has more to say on this so will leave the rest to him.

    Robert: BUT it is hard to put into effect. I get the most positive feedback from people who are already sympathetic to what I am trying to say.

    So turning this around a bit you are saying that those who are sympathetic are closer to your inner group so you don’t need to answer the “Why should I care?” issue.

    In my presentation did a lot of criticizing of the IPCC “Summary for Policymaker” section — specifically the articles by Sterman (2008) in Science and Tollefson (2015) in Nature.  But here was something nice in 2018 — a section added to the Climate Outreach Handbook for IPCC Authors that presented the basics of the ABT Template:


    Here’s a few answer to questions:

    CHRISTINA DORADO: You have said that you need at least 500 characters for good narrative structure but I am pretty sure we should not be trying to use ABT every 500 characters. Do you have any guidance on how and when to start to elongate the A, the B and the T for example in a scientific article?

    Hi Christina –  I’ve been meaning to get to this.  People often ask how do we use the ABT structure beyond a single paragraph, which I think is what you’re pointing to with the word “elongate.”

    I don’t have any immediate great examples from the science world (on the whole, science folks just aren’t that great at communication), but here’s one from the political world.  In 2018 Oprah Winfrey gave a tremendous speech at the Golden Globe Awards that overnight was hailed as a masterpiece.

    A friend sent me the transcript, I did my usual narrative nerd thing of breaking it down in terms of the powers at work.  When you step and look at it you see the basic pattern of repeating ABT’s.  She had an overall ABT, and then smaller scale ABT’s within it.

    I did a blogpost that showed my narrative nerd side in calling it “nested ABT’s.”   The next day the New York Times showed the difference between us by calling it, “a story made of stories.”  Which made me want to say, “Um … yeah, what they said.”

    And that’s what you ultimately want — to tell an over-arching story that is made up of smaller scale stories.  That’s the dream scenario.

    Here was my detailed analysis of it:  http://scienceneedsstory.com/2018/01/08/125-oprah-gives-an-abt-tour-de-force/

    ELIZABETH STULBERG: I think the If/Then idea is powerful, especially in science writing. I’ve been trying to incorporate it into my writing for the last week or so, but I can’t square the IF in my ABTs with the BUT because then where does the THEN go?

    Hi Elizabeth –  As I’ve mentioned, it’s only about 6 weeks since Marissa Metz and I stumbled upon the potential power of the IF/THEN clause, so we’re still trying to figure it out ourselves.  But what I’ve encountered so far is that it sometimes works best in the “A” part of the ABT, but then sometimes works better in the “B” part.

    For example, “We’re working on this system and IF we can figure out X THEN we’ll be able to do Y, BUT so far …”

    Or, “We’re working on this system and it’s really important, BUT we can’t get it to work and IF we don’t by the end of the year THEN we’re going to lose our funding, THEREFORE …”

    Lots of possibilities I think.

    MARISSA METZ:   There’s been a lot of emphasis on increasing our but/and ratio, but at what point does our work tip from a good amount of buts to DHY?

    Hi Marissa, great and logical question.  I think your overall goal is exactly this — to have the maximum number of BUTs without slipping into DHY land.   This is presumably where a good editor comes in.  There’s only a handful of speeches I’ve found that score over 30.  Every one of them is powerful and memorable.  But I bet every one of them also had a good editor.

    And by the way, look at the other end of the spectrum.  President George W. Bush gave 7 State of the Union speeches.  His scores for them were (honest to goodness): 4, 2, 3, 4, 5, 4, 4.   How in the world does a guy manage to do that.  Year after year, almost never using the word “but.”  And never speaking a single memorable word, other than, “They misunderestimated me” (I used to have a refrigerator magnet of him saying that).

    EVELYN WRIGHT:  Is that paper available online to read?  (THE IMRAD PAPER)

    Evelyn!  So glad you asked!  Yes, here it is — have fun reading it!


    MOLLY LOCKHART:  The ABT narrative format is more effective than the boring AAA format. However, in your experience, are there repercussions to avoiding the “expected” AAA format when communicating with traditional academics? Essentially: is it risky for an early-career scientist to “challenge the status quo” and use ABT format in scenarios where peer review/funding depends on it?

    MARISSA METZ:  Molly-I’ve been wondering the same thing. Seems that you can count on an “inner circle” much more during a paper review, but less so during, say a defense.

    Hi Molly and Marissa –  This is a fairly painful question.  Mike Strauss and Rick Nelson can both tell you tales of this — of higher level program directors being suspicious of ABT style communication.  But this is really their problem/flaw/shortcoming.  Every scientist should know about Nobel Laureate P.B. Medawar’s famous essay in the 1960’s where he asked, “Is the scientific paper a fraud?”  He was addressing this problem directly.  Here’s a good essay on it:


    LIANNE ALLEN-JACOBSON:  Question/Comment for Randy: My favorite movies are really convoluted- they are often puzzles that switch between times/point of views. I also tend to write with DHY. I wonder if you surveyed scientists (or writers in general) if you would see a correlation between movie prefrence and writing style?

    Hi Lianne (and Marky Mark Patterson) –  For starters, a couple years ago I had lunch with Dave Roberts who is a great and very smart writer for the online publication Vox.  He was a philosophy major.  I explained to him the Narrative Spectrum.  He immediately pointed to DHY and said, “That’s me.”

    Which is what you get with very cerebral folks — both the tendency to think/communicate with DHY, but also to be drawn to that sort of communication. But the goal is to be “bilingual.”  To be able to do both.  I’m not certain anyone can, but it’s at least worth striving for.

    ALBERTHA JOSEPH-ALEXANDER: Randy – Can the ABT narrative then be incorporated within the larger IMRAD in terms of the clarity of how the results/ discussions are presented?

    JULIE CLAUSSEN:  Randy to clarify – You use ABT structure within the IMRAD template for Introduction and Discussion?

    Albertha and Julie –  I like to say ABT stands for “Always Be Telling stories,” which means always at least be pushing to see if you can find a narrative form to everything which works.  Should EVERYTHING be ABT?  Probably not EVERYTHING.

    It’s kind of parallel to the South Park guys with their Rule of Replacing.  What they say is they go back through the script and, “everywhere that we CAN replace and AND with a BUT or a THEREFORE we do, which makes the storytelling better.”

    Notice the key word is “CAN.”  They don’t say to replace everything.  They say only where it works.  Same thing for using ABT in methods and results — yes, if it works, it’s better, but sometimes it doesn’t work so you CANnot.

    TANYA WILKINS:  I love that comparison to this being art … I have had a lof of feedback wanting ALL the rules, exactly the process to communicate effectively … I try to explain that a lot of this is organic and based on the research itself. “How is this advancing the narrative?” – great question to keep asking yourself.

    Hi Tanya –  You’re maybe beginning to see the source of my title, “Narrative is Everything,” for my last book.  Notice what Vogler says in that Preface I sent you — that the Heroes Journey draws on not just the work of Joseph Campbell, but also Carl Jung who is one of the founders of the entire field of psychology.  It’s very, very deep.

    And so towards that end, think of the idea of “advancing the narrative” of your own life.  It’s deep in the psyche — the desire to feel like you’re making some sort of progress in life.  Which then leads you to think of all the people suffering right now from the economic consequences of the pandemic — that the narrative of their life has been derailed.  You start to realize how deep this thing is hitting all of humanity.

    ELIZABETH STULBERG:  I would love to have copies of all these chat transcripts. I seem to have missed the ones at the beginning of the course – are they still available somewhere?

    Hello again Elizabeth — Good question — I think Matt will work on assembling them somewhere, for posterity.


    Marissa: However, I do like the way it feels optimistic with the current “but”

    But step back from this and put yourself in the position of someone with no prior experience with this or narrative. What is the problem/conflict that gives you that sense of urgency…that makes you want to know what they did? Making the ‘but’ another positive comment leaves the reader thinking “is there a ‘but’ coming?” There is no issue/problem to solve or address. So why read on? Think back to that comic sketch Randy showed at the beginning. Weren’t you just a little let down that there wasn’t a ‘but’?

    A Thought on Jargon

    The point is HOW you use jargon. If you throw it out as something your audience must know to understand your narrative then you’re asking them to stop and look it up. But if you, for example, say that we need to know X to understand Y and that [insert jargon] enables us to understand the extent and importance of X, then you’ve used jargon but not forced the reader to stop and read up on what it means…because you’ve told them the most important thing…that it answers your problem. You can then go on later to explain how it does that. Similarly, defining a half dozen acronyms in a short paragraph forces your reader to stop following the narrative and learn the acronyms. It’s not bad to use jargon or acronyms, but it comes back to the point Randy has made several times…that you need to use them in a way that advances the narrative (or, I would add, stops your reader in order to learn what they mean). This is why Randy for one case said don’t worry about jargon but with a later abstract said part of the problem was they lead with jargon. Hence Randy’s “…use jargon but in a narrative way.”

    mcollier: Yes, I always refer to cascading effects as falling dominoes when writing with the public in mind

    Excellent! It is an easy illustration that says LOTS about the inevitability of a cascade and that it can begin with a small act…but you don’t have to explain it!

    Dean: Could this be a graduate-level structure: AND BUT THEREFORE BUT THEREFORE…

    It’s a thumbnail version of what in Houston: We Have A Narrative is called the Logline…and is at the core of the Heroes’ Journey.


    Julie: I find this “fight” to state things simple so fascinating.  Medical doctors and scientist need their egos’ + confidence to succeed – but when communicating (or talking) with outer circle, do ego’s get in the way?

    Julie, I have no idea what you are talking about. In all my career I have never seen even the slightest shred of professional ego from any scientist or MD (and if you believe that I have a bridge for you). Short answer: yup!

    Allyson: Do you recommend using ABT in press releases? Any good examples out there?

    I don’t have immediate access to examples but YES! If you want to be sure that the media gets your story correctly you NEED to give them the narrative you want. It’s not a given that they won’t go a different direction but you’ve made putting your information into a story MUCH easier. One of our early graduates of Story Circles had a major paper and he structured the press release for it as an ABT and the stories that emerged in papers around the world reflected his narrative. Another good use of it is to coach scientists who are about to be interviewed to have several short ABT responses in mind for likely questions. Again, if you make it easy for a reporter it’s more likely that they’ll repeat your message. Many years ago I was interviewed by a newspaper science reporter about a major study on which I worked. But I rambled and shortly into the interview he said, “Look, here’s what I want to say that you told me.” He read a sentence with which I did not agree…but I gave him no alternative. So the next morning, his sentence is what I “said.” Yes it was dishonest, but the point here is that I let him control the narrative.


    Questions about using ABT in a longer piece

    As Randy explains, we are working with a single ABT for you. That is to build the ability to recognize it and develop it. As you grow in learning how to use narrative it becomes more intuitive. After a couple years of working with Randy I sat down one day to write a short fictional piece about the adventures of a surfer named (oddly enough), Randy. It was one of those pieces where I started with a place and described “Randy’s” day. But what I found was that as I was writing I could “feel” things slow down (to becoming more AAA) so had to pause and think of a “but” that occurred to pick things up again. I now see this sort of “rhythm” in most things I write. In a larger piece, like a grant proposal, there should be an overarching narrative that is a concise and simple answer to “why should we give you this money?” But the “journey” through what you describe in detail should also contain “smaller” ABT structure that serves to advance the overall narrative.

    Elizabeth: I think the If/Then idea is powerful, especially in science writing. I’ve been trying to incorporate it into my writing for the last week or so, but I can’t square the IF in my ABTs with the BUT because then where does the THEN go?

    Here’s one thought: The IF/THEN isn’t always the solution but it can be powerful for some things. 

    If we could fund 10 student research programs Then we would markedly improve the output of our degree candidates BUT we lack the funding for such a program. 

    So the IF/THEN sets up the hypothetical ideal and the BUT says what the problem is in achieving that. And the Therefore is how you will solve that problem.

    Marissa: There’s been a lot of emphasis on increasing our but/and ratio, but at what point does our work tip from a good amount of buts to DHY?

    The ratio is a “rule of thumb” type measure. Too many buts is not the issue in DHY as much as too many narrative threads. The key is not the number of buts BUT rather, do they all advance the core narrative. Michael Crichton’s AAAS speech has a very high But/And ratio but it never deviates from his core narrative. Robert’s point is accurate.

    Robert: The point about DHY is that each D, H, Y is introducing a different narrative direction.

    Molly: Question for later: The ABT narrative format is more effective than the boring AAA format. However, in your experience, are there repercussions to avoiding the “expected” AAA format when communicating with traditional academics? Essentially: is it risky for an early-career scientist to “challenge the status quo” and use ABT format in scenarios where peer review/funding depends on it?

    You’re always going to run into academics who “know” how something should be written and will never like anything that doesn’t fit their narrow definition. I had a colleague whose attitude about writing was that he did not want ABT but rather AAA. His reasoning was that he didn’t want to be told the point of the writing but rather get all the data and make the decision for himself…and to be quite charitable, his writing was uninspiring. But granting agencies and grant reviewers want, above all else, to know WHY SHOULD I CARE? If you make them figure that out for themselves they’ll put your proposal down half-way through. Several years ago I walked into a review meeting and one of the reviewers held up a proposal and said, “I’m half way through this and I STILL don’t know what he’s doing!” So I would argue that because peer review or funding depends on it you SHOULD use narrative. Recall the explanation by Cathleen Hapeman from the AAAS Video about how well their plan did in review. I was in that review observing and the fact that the plan was crystal clear from the outset what it was about is what made the outcome so successful.

    Eric: I think Randy said the AAA works well for your inner circle, but not so well for the outer.

    But too often the “inner circle” is smaller than we think. For a group near the inner circle you may not need as much set up…but it’s always good to begin with the parts everyone agrees on before telling them about the problem you want to solve.

    Tanya: I love that comparison to this being art … I have had a lot of of feedback wanting ALL the rules, exactly the process to communicate effectively … I try to explain that a lot of this is organic and based on the research itself. “How is this advancing the narrative?” – Great question to keep asking yourself

    Tanya, in the words of Obi Wan Kenobi, “You have just taken a step into a larger world” ☺

    Regarding Crichton

    What lay under his disaffection with science? We may never know the answer. Some speculation: Perhaps some of it was his understanding that scientists are only human. Some of his heroes are scientist as are some of his villains. But also there is a tendency in the scientific community to eschew those who are seen as “popularizers.” Stephen Jay Gould ran into this difficulty as did Carl Sagan. Science’s conceit is too often that they want people to believe “we have all the answers.” That is counter to the real situation which is that we have an answer that is based on our best interpretation of the data we now have. So it’s not that science is wrong when the estimates for CoVID deaths changes but that it has new data. Crichton knew this about science and saw that the public did not. I recall a question at the press briefing after his talk at AAAS. He was asked how many and which genetic engineering firms he visited before writing Jurassic Park. His answer: “NONE! None of them know how to make a dinosaur!”



    Questions about Television Series that don’t seem to have a clear narrative.
    As Randy said, the individual shows are very well constructed with clear narrative WITHIN the show. Each episode has an “ordinary world” beginning, a ‘crisis’, and then a journey to a conclusion. More difficult sometimes is the narrative arc over the whole show. That can be simple (A planeload of people is heading to ???, but the plane crash lands on a deserted island, therefore they must learn to live together in order to escape.). But as a series drags on the progress of that narrative can get bogged down in the need to come up with 2 or 3 more seasons that were not anticipated. What made the short series Firefly so good was that they spent a season with interesting individual stories while also slowly developing an overarching story that was completed in a movie after the series was cancelled. Worse yet are series like Dark Matter where the major story arc builds to the reveal of a big conflict but because the series was cancelled, it was never resolved. For another good series that builds both individual and a larger story arc see the Canadian series Flashpoint.

    Eric: Should we be linear in the structure of our ABTs? For example, instead of “Because of our mission, we do xyz and…”, should we make it linear by saying “We do xyz because of our mission…”
    Like in much of this the short answer is “it depends.” The point is to not make your reader work to catch your narrative. In general being linear means you are not making your reader “resort” things in their minds while they are reading (which is why reading something that is chronological is easier to follow). So for me the principle is not to force my reader to do the sorting out.

    James: I think part of the value of ABT is that it promotes good flow of information. Too many nominalizations and passive constructions screw that up – so I would quibble with Randy on that – there’s not a neat content/form distinction on this – but I think it’s probably easier to talk about ABT as Randy does, but look at passives etc. when you go back to writing on your own – it’s a form of sentence issue and ABT is kind of a form of idea / form of thought template, it seems to me.
    I don’t think you are wrong in the importance of active over passive voice, but that is one of those issues that are for AFTER you have a clear narrative. First get the narrative and then issues like this fall into the area of refining it to be concise and compelling.

    Robert: With big environmental issues like burning fossil fuels leading to sea level rise, there is some value in simply repeating these over and over in different context (eg south florida) because so far people aren’t getting it.
    Yes people need to hear the message repeated but simply repeating it the same way each time can lead to a kind of deafness because “nothing’s new.” A weak analogy. Many years I spent a month working for a U.N. agency in Rome and was frequently asked to go to talk with people at another NGO across the city whose offices were in what had once been a cheese factory. My first time there the stench was almost unbearable. By several visits later nothing had changed but I never noticed it.

    Dean: Albertha — an example in my mind of what I think may be “incomplete causality” is a science fiction novel I remember reading and being disappointed with. After hundreds of pages setting up a complex and dire situation with a number of interesting characters, the problems were all resolved when they stumbled across a storehouse of alien technology with near-magical powers. Hmph. There was no reason for that thing to be there, and it magicked away all the knotty problems we’d come to appreciate. Just effect, no cause.
    Sort of like the disappointment I felt in the 1980s when a several yearlong and critically-acclaimed medical drama revealed in the final episode that the whole thing had been in the mind of a special needs little boy.

    Evelyn: Since Randy didn’t get to talk about that ocean comment Liz brought up above from Euan, can he or one of the other experts say something about it (about getting people to care about thigs they can’t see, like the ocean)?
    Not always a solution, but often I find it useful to find a simple little story from which I can use as an analogy. Get someone to understand the relationship between tadpoles and the contamination of a small pool before jumping into the impact of polluting the oceans on whales. And in a talk, if you start that with the magic words “Let me tell you a simple story…” the audience is primed to listen. But if you start with listing facts about the ocean they’ll be wondering where you are going and “when are we going to get there?”


    Albertha: How is the Dobzhansky Template used in relation to the ABT Framework? Example is it done before delving into the framework?

    Mike: I’ve used it both ways…before it has provided an organizational touchstone and after it helps to confirm the singularity of my narrative. So the short answer is “it depends.”

    Evelyn: This morning I am thinking about privilege and gender and whether there is any study of how/if narrative differs for women, or for people of from different cultures, or differing levels of privilege.  

    Mike: Evelyn, see the preface to Vogler’s book. He discusses this precise question.

    Robert: IF the “Therefore” past is the longest, isn’t it going to introduce new ideas not mentioned in the And and But sections?

    That’s the point of the singular narrative. The Therefore section doesn’t give you license to talk about anything you want. It gives you the opportunity to address the conflict you set up WITHIN the context of the And. If you “wander off” into other things that’s what we call a “sidebar.” The problem with scientific and even nonscientific writing is we have lots of neat “bits” we want to add but that aren’t really advancing the narrative and then you wind up with the problem of new directions and new ideas…and can lose the reader.


    tim: Does NI explain why some social media posts go viral? I”m wondering about the two Bakersfield doctors who surging in popularity with misinformation about COVID and shutdown orders.

    The public is primed for their narrative: “Everyone says COVID is dangerous but our data shows it’s not, so don’t be afraid.” Even if they don’t say this, there are others who will.

    DELL: I have a general question here: what is it that we want to be able to do, know and apply following this course with the ABT? I am enjoying the process and getting a feel for the ABT but kind of wondering where it goes from here? Thanks!

    We’re hoping that having become familiar with narrative you’ll keep working with it and using it and letting that growth in knowledge filter through all of your communications…so just basic transformation…nothing huge ☺.


    Today we had a minor breakthrough in how to get the most out of the Chat Window. From here on, let’s have the general guidelines be these: During my presentation, everyone should focus on posting QUESTIONS that I will answer (most of them) either in the Q&A or here. Then during the ABT Build session you should switch more to COMMENTS to help the person presenting.

    Here’s a few answers to questions.



    Tim Watkins:
    “Lost” was aggravating because it didn’t follow the archplot form. But it was wildly popular and engaging, yes?

    Yes, the numbers don’t lie. I never got into it, but I know it was a huge hit and even television milestone.

    As you say, it wasn’t archplot overall, but on the smaller scale it was endless ABT arcs. And think about how strongly it drew on the central power of narrative — contradiction. Everything defied expectation — “we would expect them to see this, BUT …”

    Michelle Collier:
    Game of Thrones has multiple protagonists but is wildly popular. Do you have any thoeries as to why this series doesn’t fit the sinlge protagonist prescription?

    GoT is “episodic” television, which means the story goes on, but episodes are packed with ABT “arcs” at all scales. And then, as you saw, the entire series eventually worked to it’s final THEREFORE.

    BUT … if you HAD to say, how would you answer, in the end, the question of, “Who’s story is it?” I think I know the answer, even though I didn’t watch all of it.

    Aline Zimerman:
    How do you explain the success of TV shows with multiple protagonists, like FRIENDS?

    Once again, TV tends to be episodic. Most episodes on sitcoms tend to have 3 story arcs. For each one, you can almost always answer the question of, “Who’s story is it?” Right? Think through your favorite episodes and see if you can answer that.



    Tanya Wilkins:
    Would it be possible to share those guidelines from NY Times?

    FROM DEAN: https://www.amazon.com/York-Times-Manual-Style-Usage/dp/081296389X



    Evelyn Wight:
    What year was this Michelle Wolf event?

    Here’s the link, but be forewarned, it’s not for delicate ears. She opens with, “Like a porn star says when she’s about to have sex with Trump, let’s get this over with.”


    Great session, keep the comments and questions coming.

    On Monday I talked about Christopher Vogler’s iconic book, “The Writer’s Journey.” After re-reading the 14 page Preface that I talked about, I’ve decided it’s such an important piece of writing that I’m just going to email the pdf of it to all of you for you read over the weekend if you’re interested. It’s really great.

    Here’s some answers to questions …



    Julie Claussen: The Dobzhansky Template, the Christmas Tree, the One Thing are all shades of the same horse – yes?

    Great observation, Julie. Yes, pretty much — basically two tools (Dobzhansky, Xmas tree) to help you find the One Thing. Which kinds of underscores how difficult the challenge is, and leads to this great comment from Evelyn.

    Evelyn Wight:
    It takes courage to select and stick to a “one” narrative when you live in complexity.

    Absolutely. Keep thinking about what I say — “Narrative is Leadership.” Just saying, “We’re gonna do EVERYTHING!” isn’t leadership. You have to pick a singular direction.

    Albertha Joseph-Alexander:
    The D-template helps you to come to writing your ABT framework with greater clarity. It’s like a good funnel to start to writing.

    Great comment — love the term, “funnel” to think about the Dobzhansky (or Bob Jansky).



    Lianne Allen-Jacobson:
    For the narrative index, have you counted the number of THEREFORES to see if documents tend towards DHY?

    Hi Lianne (and Marky Mark) – The usefulness of counting words is somewhat of a function of their frequency. As you saw with the World Bank reports, the word “and” is a really good index because it is used so much. “But” becomes a little more marginal because first, it’s not as common, and second, there’s a number of synonyms used a lot, BUT … it’s still pretty reliable, especially when combined with “and” in the Narrative Index (BUT/AND).

    However … (another word of contradiction), things are just too sparse when you get to “therefore.” Two reasons for that. First, the word is pretty uncommon. If you look at the Wikipedia page you see that it’s not even in the Top 100. Also, you see that “so” is number 41, but it’s only sometimes used as a force of consequence. And most important, most discussions seem to ratchet through a lot of agreement, contradiction, agreement, contradiction, while only occasionally coming to consequence/synthesis. All of which leads to no point in trying to quantify it.



    TIM WATKINS: Does NI explain why some social media posts go viral? I”m wondering about the two Bakersfield doctors who surging in popularity with misinformation about COVID and shutdown orders.

    That was a real mess what those two guys did. They are not epidemiologists. They run Urgent Care facilities in Bakersfield, did a little bit of COVID-19 testing, then extrapolated their opinions into the pronouncement that much of the public is desperately wanting(from ANY medical voice) — that the pandemic is over with. Epidemiologists were so horrified by their stunt that they convinced Youtube to remove the video of their press conference.

    As to why it went viral, it’s a simple case of “arouse and fulfill.” The mass audience was hyper-aroused, searching for this one specific message, ready to accept it from literally anyone with even marginal credentials. These guys delivered it, that was all it took for LOTS of people, including a couple of my friends to fall for it.

    Keep in mind what I’ve said before — if the audience is “aroused” — meaning they’re in the INNER CIRCLE — they don’t need ABT structure.

    Here’s the CNN account.



    Christina Dorado:
    Is there an app for practicing the skill of ABT?

    Christina – no app so far, but this is the purpose of the Story Circles idea — the value of pulling together 5 people who are versed in the ABT Framework to work on ABTs using the basic principles we’re practicing in the ABT Build sessions.

    The next best thing to Story Circles is what Liz is working on pulling together — some sort of meeting place for folks after we’re done on May 11.

    I have a general question here: what is it that we want to be able to do, know and apply following this course with the ABT?

    The one and ONLY goal of the course, as well as Story Circles, is the development of, “narrative intuition.” I delve into this in detail in, “Houston, We Have A Narrative.” It’s the goal of getting yourself to the point where you’re no longer thinking of the words in your head, but rather sensing the three forces at work (Agreement, Contradiction, Consequence) as you read, write and present material.

    As the Vogler book makes clear, it takes a lifetime to master this, and even then, no one is ever perfect at it (especially in a rapidly changing society), but you gotta start somewhere, which is what this is all about.



    Lianne Allen-Jacobson:
    How do you approach titles? Should they be mostly A, B, or T?

    Great question, Lianne. What do YOU think? Seriously. Let me know your thoughts. Anyone else, too.


    Robert McLachlan, in an email, asked if I would share a few of my favorite non-fiction books that relate to what we’re talking about. Here’s ten that I have loved over the ages. They’re all pretty old, and somewhat dated in some cases, but they’re all brilliantly written and made big impressions on me over the years.

    1 THE POWERS THAT BE – American media history in the 20th century through 4 individuals

    2 AMUSING OURSELVES TO DEATH – pretty much predicted Trump

    3 ECONOMICS OF ATTENTION – the shift from substance to style in our society

    4 FUTURE OF THE PAST – is history becoming useless trivia?

    5 NEGOTIATING WITH THE DEAD – Margaret Atwood, great writer on writing

    6 IN SEARCH OF EXCELLENCE – a landmark book in the 80’s that is about narrative at its core

    7 ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE – one of the greatest screenwriter/storytellers ever

    8 STORY – Robert McKee, the screenwriting guru’s bible

    9 LOSING GROUND (Pulitzer nominated) – why environmentalism became a mess, by my hero Mark Dowie

    10 THE SHALLOWS – what the internet is doing to our brain



    James Spencer:
    Steve Jobs commencement speech – awesome abt

    Awesome example. Here it is, folks. I recommend you copy and paste into your word processor, then do the color coding exercise — identifying each sentence as a simple statement of AGREEMENT (blue), a statement of CONTRADICTION (red), or a statement of CONSEQUENCE (green). I have no idea what you’ll find, but it should be interesting and will be a good exercise of the narrative part of your brain.

    I am honored to be with you today at your commencement from one of the finest universities in the world. I never graduated from college. Truth be told, this is the closest I’ve ever gotten to a college graduation. Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That’s it. No big deal. Just three stories.

    The first story is about connecting the dots.

    I dropped out of Reed College after the first 6 months, but then stayed around as a drop-in for another 18 months or so before I really quit. So why did I drop out?

    It started before I was born. My biological mother was a young, unwed college graduate student, and she decided to put me up for adoption. She felt very strongly that I should be adopted by college graduates, so everything was all set for me to be adopted at birth by a lawyer and his wife. Except that when I popped out they decided at the last minute that they really wanted a girl. So my parents, who were on a waiting list, got a call in the middle of the night asking: “We have an unexpected baby boy; do you want him?” They said: “Of course.” My biological mother later found out that my mother had never graduated from college and that my father had never graduated from high school. She refused to sign the final adoption papers. She only relented a few months later when my parents promised that I would someday go to college.

    And 17 years later I did go to college. But I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents’ savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.

    It wasn’t all romantic. I didn’t have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends’ rooms, I returned Coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:

    Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.

    None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backward 10 years later.

    Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

    My second story is about love and loss.

    I was lucky — I found what I loved to do early in life. Woz and I started Apple in my parents’ garage when I was 20. We worked hard, and in 10 years Apple had grown from just the two of us in a garage into a $2 billion company with over 4,000 employees. We had just released our finest creation — the Macintosh — a year earlier, and I had just turned 30. And then I got fired. How can you get fired from a company you started? Well, as Apple grew we hired someone who I thought was very talented to run the company with me, and for the first year or so things went well. But then our visions of the future began to diverge and eventually we had a falling out. When we did, our Board of Directors sided with him. So at 30 I was out. And very publicly out. What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating.

    I really didn’t know what to do for a few months. I felt that I had let the previous generation of entrepreneurs down — that I had dropped the baton as it was being passed to me. I met with David Packard and Bob Noyce and tried to apologize for screwing up so badly. I was a very public failure, and I even thought about running away from the valley. But something slowly began to dawn on me — I still loved what I did. The turn of events at Apple had not changed that one bit. I had been rejected, but I was still in love. And so I decided to start over.

    I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.

    During the next five years, I started a company named NeXT, another company named Pixar, and fell in love with an amazing woman who would become my wife. Pixar went on to create the world’s first computer animated feature film, Toy Story, and is now the most successful animation studio in the world. In a remarkable turn of events, Apple bought NeXT, I returned to Apple, and the technology we developed at NeXT is at the heart of Apple’s current renaissance. And Laurene and I have a wonderful family together.

    I’m pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been fired from Apple. It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

    My third story is about death.

    When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

    Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

    About a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I had a scan at 7:30 in the morning, and it clearly showed a tumor on my pancreas. I didn’t even know what a pancreas was. The doctors told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable, and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months. My doctor advised me to go home and get my affairs in order, which is doctor’s code for prepare to die. It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you’d have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months. It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your goodbyes.

    I lived with that diagnosis all day. Later that evening I had a biopsy, where they stuck an endoscope down my throat, through my stomach and into my intestines, put a needle into my pancreas and got a few cells from the tumor. I was sedated, but my wife, who was there, told me that when they viewed the cells under a microscope the doctors started crying because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and I’m fine now.

    This was the closest I’ve been to facing death, and I hope it’s the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept:

    No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

    Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

    When I was young, there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation. It was created by a fellow named Stewart Brand not far from here in Menlo Park, and he brought it to life with his poetic touch. This was in the late 1960s, before personal computers and desktop publishing, so it was all made with typewriters, scissors and Polaroid cameras. It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along: It was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.

    Stewart and his team put out several issues of The Whole Earth Catalog, and then when it had run its course, they put out a final issue. It was the mid-1970s, and I was your age. On the back cover of their final issue was a photograph of an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous. Beneath it were the words: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” It was their farewell message as they signed off. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. And I have always wished that for myself. And now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you.

    Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

    Thank you all very much


    First off, huge thanks to my buddy Park Howell for joining us.

    How much fun is that video montage of all the Pandemic commercials.

    Read some of the comments — they’re hilarious.  As Park pointed out to me, the guy who put this together intended it as a somewhat insulting portrait of all the manipulative advertisers, which it is.  But for us, it’s a pretty good educational tool showing clear as day the basic three part template of Agreement, Contradiction, Consequence.

    Which leads me to my first point and semi-concern.

    The goal of all that I do is SIMPLICITY.  I’m talking to you Dean Pentcheff and Evelyn Wight (and lots of others).  Keep in mind, complexity is easy, simplicity is really, really hard, yet very, very important in communication.  You’ve got to keep pushing yourself for it.

    I get a little concerned when I read through the chat log from the session that at times there’s a feeling of everyone adding on, “And there’s this — and this — and this — and this …”   Which is great, but … everyone, please, keep trying to bring things back to these three fundamental forces and seeing the core SIMPLE elements.

    Remember that quote from Joseph Campbell:

    Think deeply about what he was saying there — notice the part I put in red — OF COURSE there are differences, BUT … don’t get distracted by the differences.  It’s fun as a fan of everything cool in the world to marvel and wallow in the differences — it’s what makes the world interesting, BUT … if you’re looking to make sense of the world, the path to that lies in the similarities.

    This is basically what science is — looking for the simple commonalities — the theories and formulae that underpin all the variation.  That is what you want to be searching for, just as Joseph Campbell did, so brilliantly.

    Which takes you back to the video of the pandemic commercials.  You could watch all of the commercials that the clips come from and find yourself fascinated by how different they all are.  OR … you could look for similarities and eventually hit the realization of, “Hey, wait a minute — these things all have the same basic three part structure.”

    And by the way, if you’re not familiar with this iconic commercial from Apple in 1984, it is regarded as one of the greatest television commercials in history.  Have a look — you’ll now see the three part structure:



    Park is such a great guy, as you could see.  I was terrified for he and his brother a month ago when he texted me the news that his brother had the virus.  This is a really powerful episode for which you’re welcome to consider that really heartless comment, “Just because it happened to you doesn’t mean it’s interesting.”  This did happen to Park, but it is indeed interesting because, first, it’s painfully timely, and second, it has a clear narrative structure with the problem-solution dynamic at it’s core — his brother developed the problem of the virus, the doctors finally solved it, but ugh, it is a really painful journey he had to undergo.  And is worth everyone listening to — especially if, like me, you don’t yet know anyone who has been hit this hard by the virus.

    Here’s a few more items I’ve picked out of the chat log.



    MARISSA METZ:  How do we address the issue of “just because it happened to you…” when writing things like cover letters and personal statements? They are supposed to be about ourselves, but I often find these types of pieces VERY boring to read.

    This is the absolute place for the ABT.  The challenge is “get to the but as quickly as possible” (or as Park put it, “nail the but”).  Remember what Jerry Graff and I have both concluded — that “but” is THE most important word in the English language.  Therefore … imagine a cover letter that begins with, “Look, I like rich kids just as much as the next rich parent does, but let me tell you about where I grew up and how it influenced my view of the world.”

    That’s maybe a little too much attitude, but compare that to the standard And, And, And structured essay — “I grew up i the suburbs of Chicago.  I went to Aurora Hills High School where I developed an interest in … Zzzz …”

    Bottom line, practice nailing the but.  Liz and I nominate that as the official slogan for this course.  “The ABT Framework:  Nail Your But.”



    VANESSA KOLLMAR:  I’ve been told that “we dont care about the process you took to get your answer”. I always thought that the meat of the story was in the failures. good to hear its ok to talk about the process

    As you know by now, there’s a lot of simplicity and repetition in my answers.  This one fall under the simple note of, “Have good narrative structure.”   If you’re prone to fall into the And, And, And structure, then by all means, pleeeeeease don’t tell us about the process you took to get your answer.

    BUT … if you’ve developed a good eye for narrative, then you’ll be able to seduce us into listening to “the process you took to get your answer,” without our even knowing it.  Think about what I was saying about STAGE 6 – the Darkest Hour.  That is the sort of way that you can draw us in.

    “Let me tell you about how I almost had to quit graduate school because I made such a mess out of my dissertation research.  I thought the best way to study the cold water physiology of fishes was to go observe them in the wild in Antarctica.  I wasted an entire year of my life before I realized that I could address what I was interested in by never leaving my laboratory …”

    There are lots of ways to tell a good story about how the research was done, you just need to develop the ability to spot good story elements in the middle of a bunch of stuff that might otherwise look dull.



    ALBERTHA JOSEPH-ALEXANDER: How does the situation, conflict and resolution business framework link to making the customer the hero, the business the facilitator and the business overcoming failures?

    I don’t know anything about linking them.  I only know what I heard at Deloitte, which is that they use the template to analyze case studies of businesses.  For example, SITUATION:  A company producing widgets successfully for 30 years, CONFLICT:  A new product threatens to take over their market, RESOLUTION:  Rapid research on their widgets produces a new, more effective design that regains the market.

    That’s all I know about that template.



    ANTONIA FLORIO: Can you explain a bit more about what it means that science communication doesn’t exist? do you mean it shouldn’t be a separate field?

    This is a fairly terrible thing for me to say, but we’ve got 10 sessions here for me to keep making the point so hopefully everyone is fairly clear on it eventually.  My point is that the core principles that dictate how to communicate science effectively are universal principles that underpin the communication of economics, medicine, sports, entertainment, politics — everything.

    Things like the basic “know your audience” — that’s true for the communication of everything.  Remember my story about the old guy showing his photos of surfers to the group of activists.  Half of the audience had little interest in surfing.  That was an exercise in the communication of a sport, but it was the same dynamic as science.

    All the basic principles of communication (like “arouse and fulfill”) are universal to all subjects.  Narrative is the hardest part of the challenge.  It turns out the people of Hollywood have figured out more about the practical side of narrative than any other profession, so it’s important that people open their minds enough to be able to learn from outside their profession.

    I got a dose of this when I did a workshop with diplomats at the State Department.  Most of them got a lot out of it as I presented them the ABT Framework.  But one person left halfway through the day, telling everyone, “This guy knows NOTHING about our world — he’s from the science world — this is a waste of our time.”

    There’s a LOT of people I’ve encountered in the “science communication” world with the same attitude — “Your not from the science world, what could you possibly know that could be useful to us.”

    Don’t be like that.  There is no such thing as “science communication” in the real world.  Only communication principles applied to science.



    EVELYN WIGHT:  Current best practice/research is that positive messaging is better than negative messaging (in environmental field) – thus the success of ocean and earth optimism. It certainly FEELS better. But does it actually do a better job of getting people to act/change behavior?  Can you share some thoughts about how or whether success stories impact behavior change?

    This is a VERY deep topic at the moment.  Did you hear about the documentary Michael Moore produced and released last week for Earth Day titled, “Planet of the Humans”?   It set off a firestorm of anger on Twitter over the weekend.  It basically poops on all the positive messaging of the green renewables movement.  It specifically addresses the “win-win” idea of business and environmentalists partnering and pretty much says, “Nope, sorry, doesn’t work.”

    Lotta people are very angry about the movie, but there’s a lot of truth to it.

    The problem with positivity alone is that it gets numbing, and it glosses over the complexities of the real world.  We’ve had a horrible dose of it for the past two months with a president who feels passionately that it is his job to “maintain morale” with constant positivity, even it if involves a massive amount of lying.

    We can talk a lot more about this.  I’ve had a big dose of it in my ocean conservation work with my Shifting Baselines Ocean Project that I ran from 2002 to 2005.  People love success stories, but should the truth be compromised to deliver them?  I don’t think so.

    Tough issue.

    Here’s the Michael Moore movie.  Watch at your own risk and peril.


    There were a lot of thoughtful and insightful questions and comments in the chatbox today! I’d like to follow up on one of the questions/discussions about doom and gloom messaging for environmental organizations. I see this come up again and again, and I know there are a bunch of studies out there as well as some good and not-so-good Twitter hot takes, but a couple of my go-to publications are put out by the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia (“Connecting on Climate: A Guide to Effective Climate Change Communication” and “The Psychology of Climate Change Communication”) which integrate a nice array of solid empirical research that is applicable beyond the issue of climate change. Randy referenced Daniel Kahneman in an earlier session; there’s a lot of cognitive psychological principles in these guidebooks. The takeaway is that if you do have to invoke what is considered “doom & gloom” messaging (and let’s face it, that IS the reality and a big part of our “ordinary world”), you need to follow up with some specific “what you can do” messaging, to keep your audience from checking out due to hopelessness. There’s your “therefore.” This is where Jeremy Jackson & Nancy Knowlton landed as Randy noted during the session; they went from a depressing fixation on the “doom & gloom” to forming the ocean optimism summit. Another great communicator who balances the “despair and hope” thing really well is Katharine Hayhoe. Check out her YouTube series “Global Weirding” for starters.

    I also brought up New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo in the chatbox as I have been following his coronavirus briefings and paying attention through the lens of not just communication principles, but some of these behavioral science concepts as well. Check out this opinion piece from the Guardian that outlines “best practices” for leaders during this global crisis. You’ll see the alignment with behavioral science concepts, and you have heard Randy make reference to a lot of these themes as well during the past four sessions. Cuomo is one example of a leader skillfully and intuitively checking many of these boxes. So next time you hear his, or another one of these leaders’ speeches (for instance New Zealand’s PM Jacinda Ardern), watch for these principles in action.


    Fascinating session. For me the most interesting note was when Randy explained how your “A” and “B” should lead the reader to wanting to know the answer in the “T.” This is part rules and a LARGE part an art that is learned by doing. The set-up is just that…a set up of the issue you are addressing. What is the central argument of your piece? The A should begin to set that up…not just list a few random facts…remember the SNL piece from the first session? “Is there a “but” here?” You want the reader to be thinking ahead of you wanting to know what the conflict/issue is…why things won’t work, what is the barrier, what is needed? Now they’re ready to listen to your solution…but even there be sure you focus on the solution to the issue you raised. 


    Tim: Narrative is the sequence of events that occur in the special world — which is entered through a problem and exited through a solution

    Almost…but you need the set-up which occurs in the Ordinary World. Lots of science talks begin with “We set up this experiment in this way…” That’s jumping into the Special World without telling me anything about where you started or why…you miss the “why should I care.”

    Evelyn: Past, Present and Future sounds like a good framework for elevator speeches

    Cara: I think the ABT is very useful for elevator speeches 

    Only if you can keep it from being a list of what you did in the past, what you’re doing now, and what you’ll do in the future. Instead of “here is a situation, here is the problem, and here’s what I’m doing to solve it.”

    Julie Claussen For NGO’s, interesting to shift thinking of not being the Hero (we can save the world)…

    Cara: I am would be curious how many companies followed this advice of changing the “Hero” of the brand to the audience instead of it being the company?

    Dean: Perhaps it’s important that the BUT is limited to stating the crisis situation, where all facts and “things” are in the AND, preceding the BUT.

    So, across all of our disciplines — are our audiences the hero? And we (organizations) the mentor?

    Not necessarily. Depends on your audience and what you want to say. It’s very powerful in branding, however.


    Tanya: What if people think sharing the trying times is ‘unprofessional’??

    Tad: That was a great question, because “sounding professional” is the antithesis of an interesting narrative.

    I think a good narrative makes you sound more professional because it demonstrates a strong command of the subject…


    Robert: Evelyn, maybe a 2:1:3 ratio for A:B:T addresses your point

    Don’t fall into the trap of setting up a mathematical “boundary.” These are principles but the application of them is a learned “art.” So my usual answer to “How long should an A, B, or T be is “long enough but not so long that you bore the reader.”

    Liz Foote there’s some great psych research on how you NEED to include “what you can do” SPECIFIC actions if you’re using the “doom & gloom” messaging. I’ll post a resource in the narrative knowledge section

    One of the most memorable symposia I attended as a grad student was by a geneticist who quickly got through the A and B or a problem and launched into a description of the experiment that was the T…only to reveal at the end that it was a total failure for reasons they had not anticipated. By then we were all anxious to hear how they were able to overcome the problem (their “darkest hour”). Showing a failure is an opportunity to demonstrate your ability to think creatively and push through to a solution.



    Another great session. It should by now be evident that narrative is a powerful tool that takes work to achieve. These sessions are pretty intense with lots of material coming at you. Take some time to let it “settle in.” Rather than dive right into revising what you are working on, take a walk, exercise, even take a nap (we can these days without “the boss” wondering what we’re doing!). Then come back to the material with fresh eyes. Many of the best writers would tell you that their most difficult problems were not solved “pen-in-hand” but on a walk through the garden.


    Robert: Randy’s last point sounds important. It may be quite difficult to know what people know already and what their ordinary world is.

    Too often we are afraid to set up the ordinary world thinking we’ll bore a knowledgeable audience. Think of it more as being sure you and your audience all begin on the same page. If it’s closer to an inner group it need not be long…but it must be there. This is also where the “if…then” can be extremely powerful as it hints to the audience where you intend to go.


    euan: May take quite a b it of effort and care to find the agreement.. when dealing with the farming community  have found staggering perspectives I would never have guessed. So if you miss “agreement” with your audience your stuffed???

    I have seen people find the agreement in a physics paper…if you can get even two physicists to agree on something farmers (where most of my work is) should be easy! Seriously, that’s why it’s important to know your audience.


    DELL: Is it important to have the actual words And, But, Therefore in the statement or can it be other words that have the same general meaning?


    Park Howell: I think of the And, But & Therefore as narrative buoys that help you navigate a foggy story. When you’re just learning the ABT, use these three words. They may feel stilted once you get the hang of them, but your audience has no idea of the story structure you’re using while you’re making it exceptionally easy for them to digest your story. Use those buoys to safely land your message in the foggy harbor of communication. 

    And for me, most often I find that I prefer to leave them in…


    Julie Claussen: How do we know we have the “right specifics?” Scientists are told we are often too specific OR topics are very complex… what is the key for finding the best specific(s) to focus on.

    It seems to come back to some basic questions. In this case, which best advance the narrative?



    Robert: 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.

    Love this! It’s not about language but about narrative.


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

    I used to attend World Bank meetings…and got lots of extra reading done during them!


    Euan: The challenge is justifying importance of what I’m about to say (to get attention) in such a short space

    Back to that over-riding need: “Tell me why I should care!”


    Dean: Yes — less is more. And that’s the advice I hand out when I’m critiquing. How hard it is to cut detail from one’s own work 🙂

    Sometimes we are too close to our work. One trick I have used is to challenge myself to reduce the absolute number of words by say 10 or 20 percent. It’s not a rule but for me it makes me look at what I’m saying and helps me find those “interesting sidebar” sentences that don’t actually advance the narrative. 


    Julie: 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.

    There is, it’s called “narrative.” ☺


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

    Scientists love passive voice…the editors I worked with when writing reports for Congress worked to drive it out of me (and were only partially successful)


    James: 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.

    Yes, first because it’s always more compelling and second because while you may think your whole audience is your inner circle, they all may not be!


    Evelyn Wight: Are there resources anyone can share that overlay the principles of narrative/story telling with fund raising and policy making (books, articles, etc.)?

    I took a course from the Foundation Center many years ago on grant writing. The most important thing I took away was that my proposals had to make the reader care about my work. Sound familiar? It was not until I met Randy that I learned HOW to accomplish that.



    Great first session everyone! For many of you these are new concepts. Initially it seems simple to just use ABT, but as you begin to realize the subtleties through the Narrative Build sessions it can be a challenge. The key we have learned is to “just keep working on it.” 


    It’s a bit like learning to work with clay. You begin with the intention of producing a nice, polished piece. But your first attempts may fall far short of what you hoped. So you keep working to refine your abilities and learn about how the material “behaves.” As you work you become more accustomed to it and your results improve. 


    It’s not so much a set of rules as it is a skill that takes practice. 


    Evelyn: What is the role of audience in ABT structure (if any)?  That is, does your audience change the way you think about ABT?

    The audience is key but even if it’s a highly technical audience you should never skip the A on the assumption that they know it. It’s always important to let the audience know from where you are beginning.


    Dean: Citing “…could cause pandemonium” raises the issue of: why should we care? Can that be more focal and earlier. What is the importance/impact of the story you’re telling?

    Why should I care is at the center of almost every blockbuster movie or great piece of literature. Michael Crichton tells you that in Jurassic Park. George Lucas tells you that in Star Wars. T.V. crime dramas tell you that in the opening trailer. And great science writing starts there.


    Cara: Question: How should we balance the basic narrative and examples? I think the hotels and cruise-ships are examples for how the habitats are being destroyed, right? So would it make sense to keep it in the next version as examples?

    First get the core narrative then see how and which examples reinforce it.


    Antonia: do you want to have the “and” ratio to be around 2.5% or is it more that the lower the ratio, the better?

    It’s a general target; but it’s not a hard and fast rule. For nearly all of us if it’s greater than 2.5 the text is probably AAA. But there are exceptional writers (e.g., Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea) that “break the rule.” In large part because they have such a superlative command of narrative. So if it’s more than 2.5 you’re probably boring your audience.


    Robert: So is the goal that the whole audience should take away the same message? I often find that people latch onto the one point that most aligns with what they already know which is different for everyone

    There always are people who “don’t get it” but a compelling narrative assures you that more of the audience won’t miss your message.


    Antonia: Thanks for this. I’m curious if you ever found a case where writing in a format other than the narrative was more effective? Or have you always found narrative (or ABT) to be the most effective way to get points across?

    If you’re writing a technical manual, like for software, that may not be read in a linear fashion then maybe AAA. But I’m not aware of anyone describing the writing in a software manual with words like “compelling”, “riveting”, or “spellbinding”


    Euan: What is the power of inserting ‘questions’ specifically into your narrative?

    This is tricky. My own preference is not to insert questions. My bias is that if you have to tell the reader what your question is then you haven’t got a clear narrative. I would rather you construct the narrative so as to raise the question in the reader’s mind. Then you have him/her engaged. But that’s my bias.


    At a six-foot social last night with old friends and we sat around a campfire drinking tequila and I made up an ABT game. Each person would say a line and then add either AND, BUT or THEREFORE as they threw the story to next person. The rules were your line had to be short and illustrative and you had to use each word in order. For example: There was an extreme mountain biker AND… (Next person) he loved riding in the Rocky Mountains, BUT… (Next person) But he only had one leg, THEREFORE (next person)… Therefore he fell off his bike a lot, AND… (next person (and so on. They LOVED it. We played it for 90 minutes and everyone was laughing their asses off. I told them to make their BUTs as contradictory and outlandish as they like. It was a hoot.

    Another great session topping off a fun first week. This Chat Log feature is great — it doubles the whole experience.

    Sorry about all the technical problems with Webex. Matt feels certain once we smooth out a few of the minor glitches it will be better than GoToMeeting was. One recommendation he has is that if you’re having problems, see if you can use the PHONE APP which he found to be better than using your laptop.

    Lots o’ great comments and questions. Here’s a few replies.



    Here’s the entire video for which I showed the first two minutes. Try to watch it several times over the next couple weeks. You want to get the basic circular template emblazoned into your mind.

    Also, think about a journey you took — maybe your entire undergraduate career — then think about what was Stage 6 for you — your “darkest hour.” It’s always a fun exercise for your memory.

    THE CHRISTMAS TREE – just as I thought, this is really resonating for a lot of people. Keep in mind I’m going to have Dave Gold join us in one of the last two sessions. Try to craft some Christmas Tree questions for him. If you haven’t read his article (where he presents it), here it is again:


    ALBERTHA – great thought on “I Have a Dream” being the overall Christmas tree for MLK, Jr. Yes. I think that’s really true. Please ask the same question of Dave Gold when he joins us. And btw, one of the key powers for inspiring rhetoric is that it be “aspirational” for which that theme truly was.

    EVELYN – you mentioned you’re stuck on 4 different potential Christmas Trees — yes. Good! That’s exactly the realization you want to have. You need to realize that, then you need to pick one. Here’s the kinda vacuous/dumb yet valid book I mentioned last time titled, “The One Thing.”


    It’s hugely popular even though it says so little. Yet (and this is totally circular), whole point of “the one thing” is that you only need one thing — figure it out and you’re set. That’s about the extent of the content of the book, which is sufficient.

    Here’s the famous clip that inspired their book. This clip is great, you should all watch it and take it to heart:

    EUAN – don’t be too literal minded on “agreement” – you might be there to talk about major farming issues with the farmers, but if you can open the conversation by talking about the differences between TIG welding and MIG welding (seriously) you will open up channels of communication that will improve the odds of getting somewhere better than if you open by saying, “You people are doing farming all wrong here.” (btw, that welding bit comes from my years on the Great Barrier Reef, will have to share a few tales sometime soon).

    MOLLY – the ABT is your greatest tool for an interview. I’ve heard so many stories from people who have put it to work. The worst thing for an interview is to bore or confuse. Keep in mind the incredible power of that one word — “but.” Ask yourself how you’re going to make use of it, as quickly as possible. Imagine if you start the job interview by saying, “Here’s the thing — I really want this job, BUT …” You’ve got their attention immediately, in a powerful way.

    ELLIE – as you know by now, my endless advice is about SIMPLICITY. Complexity is so easy, simplicity is very hard. Which means start out simple. You can see I keep knocking people back on their ABT’s with the simple question of, “What’s your problem?” Before we dive into protagonists and antagonists and darkest hours and inciting incidents and culminations and all the other terminology, just take some time to get clear on the simple question of, “What’s your problem?”

    JULIE – The right specifics? This is what physical exercise, verbal communication, and people are for. Take long walks where you can think and rethink the SIMPLE core of your narrative. Then tell it to friends. You can shape things so fast verbally, long before you write anything and start complicating it. Try out the different possible specifics, in search of finally hitting that moment where your friend lights up and says, “oooo, THAT is interesting.” Narrative is about communication. It involves more than one person. Keep that in mind as you’re crafting your material.

    ALBERTHA – getting inner city residents to care about golf courses is certainty a staggering challenge, but you should always cling to the hypothesis that ANYTHING can be made interesting to ANYONE if you’re good enough. The problem is, as I CONSTANTLY say to myself, “You’re just not yet good enough … yet.” I’m constantly telling myself that. Don’t ever collapse into the belief that, “Well this is just a boring topic that can’t be made of interest to anyone.” I liken it to the Hippocratic Oath (“First do no harm”). My feeling is, “We must believe that nothing is inherently boring.”

    KATE – How dare you force me to use my own tool, the ABT, to explain the rationale behind my own course. Hmmm … Let’s see. “I was having a great time with my pandemic holiday AND my tennis game was getting better, BUT talking to Marissa Metz a month ago about her research on opioid addiction made me realize how flabby the narrative part of my brain was getting, THEREFORE … I realized it was time to get back to work, with this great course.”

    CARA – Yes, let me say a few more words on the IF/THEN element that we think might be a major breakthrough for the ABT Framework. Here’s the basic template now:

    _____ AND _____ BUT _____ THEREFORE _____

    becomes …

    The ordinary world AND why it’s important, BUT how it’s overturned THEREFORE what is being done in response

    And now we can develop this even deeper by expressing the “why it’s important” element using the IF/THEN piece of logic. Which means something like this:

    Opioid drugs have been used by humans for thousands of years AND if we can gain a through understanding of how they work then we can both help people deal with pain and prevent people from getting addicted to them, BUT so far we’re not able to untangle these two functions making them dangerous drugs, THEREFORE in our lab we’re focused on studying the physiology of the major neurons involved … (once again, thanks to Marissa for this great example).

    The key thing is that funders are always harboring this one main question in their mind, “Why should I care about the work you’re asking funds for?” This gives you a simple temple to address that question — “IF you fund me, making possible my work, THEN we will be able to do this, this, and this.

    FROM PARK HOWELL: (Park, who will eventually join us in one of my presentations) made this great contribution to the chat: I think of the And, But & Therefore as narrative bouys that help you navigate a foggy story. When you’re just learning the ABT, use these three words. They may feel stilted once you get the hang of them, but your audience has no idea of the story structure you’re using while you’re making it exceptionally easy for them to digest your story. Use those bouys to safely land your message in the foggy harbor of communication

    EUAN: You asked about simple versus specific — seems like they oppose each other. Yep. They do. Communication consists of equal parts SCIENCE and ART. The ABT is a bit of “science” meaning it’s an objective tool that can help, at least somewhat. But at some point you need to have the “art” element — meaning the INTUITION where you’re able to just feel what’s right. That part comes from one thing only — EXPERIENCE. You can’t communicate once a year and expect to be good. “A communicator communicates,” all the time. That’s what gives you the intuition part which is what guides in you using only the bare minimum of specifics, but also the right specifics that add strength rather than baggage.

    In response to Zach Palma: Emotion

    “I think the reason that Story Circles have had so much success within NPS is because we already have a leg up on the idea that using narrative to tell a complete story makes for a far more compelling message than a laundry list of facts about the scientific, historical, cultural, etc. significance of a site.

    Interpreters are already well-versed in reaching the “outer circle;” that audience with diverse backgrounds and interests. Unlike a scientist talking to a roomful of colleagues who are mostly on the same page to begin with, an interpreter can have an audience consisting of everyone from the civil war buffs and avid outdoorspeople, to the casual family vacation and foreign tourist. And you have just the one opportunity, the one interpretive hike or presentation, to tell all of them a complete story that leaves each interested, engaged, and hopefully with a deeper appreciation and respect for natural and cultural resources than they came in with. It’s no easy task, but I suspect that if you revisit some examples of successful interpretative talks or waysigns you will find elements of the ABT there.”

    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.

    I have enjoyed seeing the ABT Build sessions especially, as Randy has been sharing so much of his insights along with the tools we use in Story Circles, and how to specifically apply them. I think after seeing him work with 50 individuals’ narratives, we’ll all collectively gain so much. This is such a fantastic format, I never thought Randy would be doing a “course” but it is really fun and informative and I’m thrilled to be part of it. For anyone on Twitter, please use the hashtag #ABTCourse, and start some posts/join in the discussion. I’ve posted a few tweets already (I’m @footesea).

    This was a great first session with lots of energy. The questions being asked indicated to me that folks are really excited about narrative and learning about how to effectively use the ABT. I am looking forward to hearing more examples of your ABTs and watching your progress as we move forward in the course. This is fun stuff.


    Big thanks for a great first session — especially to Elizabeth, Jon, Linnea and Julia for being the first brave “volunteers.” The ABT build sessions will seem a little bumpy at first, but by the middle of next week I think they’ll feel routine and you’ll hopefully feel like you can guess in advance some of the notes I’ll give.

    ONE RECOMMENDATION: Do NOT take notes during the ABT session. None. Do only one thing, to the very best of your ability — LISTEN.

    The first half of the sessions — my presentation — is a good time for taking notes. But the ABT Build is a performance of sort, and an exercise in “puzzle solving” that you should be playing along with. You want the narrative part of your brain to be activated as you try to solve the puzzle of narrative structure on your own. Taking notes distracts from this.

    You may be thinking, “But I wanted to make a note of what he said about specifics.” Don’t worry, most of the basic notes will crop up over and over again, and you’ll learn them at a much deeper and more practical level if you’re experiencing it when it happens, rather than trying to figure it out later.

    If anything, hold off taking notes until the last few sessions. For now, try to be “in the moment” with what we’re doing.

    THE GOAL: keep in mind, the ultimate goal of the ABT Build session is have you develop the same ability I have to dissect these ABTs and strengthen them. The dream scenario is you finish the 10 sessions, then run the same exercise with your students or assistants or colleagues or whoever, where you’re the one helping them strengthen their narratives as you hear my voice echoing in your head because … you LISTENED so well.

    THE WORLD BANK “AND” FLAP: Here’s the report from Moretti and Pestre. Give it a good read when you get the chance, I find it so fascinating and a shame that it got so little attention in the non-academic world.

    THE DAVE GOLD ARTICLE: Here’s the great article I mentioned by Dave Gold, and here’s the paragraph about the Christmas tree analogy. It’s worth reading this article right now. We’ll talk about it next week in the session on the ABT and politics.

    Years ago, my political mentor taught me the problem with this approach, using a memorable metaphor: issues are to a campaign message what ornaments are to a Christmas tree, he said. Ornaments make the tree more festive, but without the tree, you don’t have a Christmas tree, no matter how many ornaments you have or how beautiful they are. Issues can advance the campaign’s story, but without a narrative frame, your campaign doesn’t have a message, no matter how many issue ads or position papers it puts forward.


    QUESTION FROM ANTONIO: Antonia Florio: Thanks for this. I’m curious if you ever found a case where writing in a format other than the narrative was more effective? Or have you always found narrative (or ABT) to be the most effective way to get points across?

    We’re going to dive into this on Wednesday. Yes, it turns out there are circumstances where the And, And, And structure is better than ABT. Tune in Wednesday to find out when!

    QUESTION FROM PAOLA: Paola Perez: what was the difference between lower case ‘and’ vs capitalized ‘AND’?

    I use the & to join together things that are just listing, versus the AND that joins together separate statements. Here’s an example from Jon’s ABT this morning:

    The University of Utah Seismograph Stations monitors earthquake activity in Utah & Yellowstone AND we’ve recently had a series of quakes in the Salt Lake Valley, some doing damage

    QUESTION FROM EUAN (FROM OZTRALIA!): Euan Belson: What is the power of inserting ‘questions’ specifically into your narrative?

    I think it’s best to avoid questions in the ABT — just keep things simple with the short, punchy phrases which can then be converted into questions in writing the full text. But that’s just sort of a guess on my part.

    QUESTION FROM CARA: Cara (Ricarda) Laasch: If the ratio between A+B to T in the ABT should be more heavily on the T, would reducing the A a singular statement cutting it too short? Example: Lithium-ion batteries are the most commonly used type of lightweight battery in everyday life, but they degerate quickly and are costly, therefore ….

    Yes, you don’t have to have the actual word “and” in there — it’s just what’s needed to set up the problem and solution effectively.

Submit items to Randy Olson at: rolson@usc.edu