Science AMA Series: I’m Randy Olson and next week I’m launching the fall series for my Story Circles Narrative Training for Scientists which will be coming to Yale, Tufts, UCLA, Genentech, the Smithsonian, AAAS, USDA, NASA and the National Park Service. AMA!

Abstract

Hello Reddit!

My name is Randy Olson. I was a scientist, I became a filmmaker, now I’m back working with scientists and environmentalists, helping them strengthen the narrative elements of their communication efforts using the narrative tools I present in my 3 books. My first book, “Don’t Be Such A Scientist” (Island Press, 2009) outlined the problems faced in the communication of science to the public. My recent book “Houston, We Have A Narrative” (University of Chicago Press, 2015) provides solutions via the tools I have developed — especially the ABT Template (And, But, Therefore) that I derived from Hollywood screenwriting techniques. Now I am about to embark on “the action plan” of the book which is putting the tools to work through my Story Circles Narrative Training. We are running Story Circles with a wide range of institutions from NASA, USDA, US Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service to universities including Yale Forestry School, UCLA Institute of the Environment, Tufts University and entering the biotech world with Genentech. Story Circles is a new approach to communications training built around 10 one hour sessions that are more “workout” than lecture. It takes time, but is fun, powerful and applicable to everyone. I’m eager to share the details of the training and the powerful ABT Template that we have labeled “The DNA of Story.” Looking forward to this AMA!

I’ll be back at 1 pm EST (10 am PST, 6 pm UTC) to answer your questions, ask me anything!

Hey, Randy - I wonder what you think about fictional representations of scientists. Is there anything we can learn from them when doing science communication in the real world? I'm thinking of relatively well-rounded examples like Ellie Arroway in Contact and Dr. Stockmann from An Enemy of the People (old Ibsen play) as well as more stereotypical characters like the "mad professor" and the "aloof genius."

AaronHuertas

Hello Aaron - I have volumes to say on this subject. The first thing that began my interest in the entire topic of scientists and the media was an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education in May, 1989 about “The Literary Image of Scientists over the Ages.”

The starting point for the entire topic is Michael Crichton and the excellent keynote address at AAAS in 1999 which sadly seems to have fallen on deaf ears, leaving you wondering why the science world even turned to him for his thoughts. Michael Crichton, not surprisingly, had deep, deep “narrative intuition.” I showed this with my analysis of his AAAS speech which turns out to be stunningly ABT-rich (just look at it, the ABTs jump out — he is pure problem-solution in his structure). Here’s the blogpost I wrote about this: http://www.scienceneedsstory.com/2016/03/18/29-michael-crichton-had-deep-narrative-intuition-duh/

What’s a shame is that Crichton never felt any need to help the science world much with communication. He could have been the secret weapon early on in the confrontations with climate skeptics, BUT … bizarrely … he jumped the fence and joined their camp, even contributing his narrative skills directly to them with his cockamamie, utterly transparent novel “State of Fear” in 2004 which was filled with stock stick figures for characters.

When I made my movie “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy” I traded about 40 emails with him over the course of 3 months. It was 2007 and he was totally cooked on the entire climate issue, telling me I needed to interview Bjorn Lomborg, claiming he was as victimized by the orthodoxy as Galileo. Crichton made some very valid points about the overwhelming power of narrative (at all costs) by all media. He could have been such a great resource for the practical side of science, but he had some messed up things in his personal life that I know from inside sources drove him in a number of irrational directions. Oh, well, he was human in the end.

Going back to your question about fictional characters, they key thing I think is to try and speak to the masses more than the obscure artsy crowd. To achieve this, the central challenge is simplicity. For example, “Gravity” was a great and simple story told very well and giving clear emotional insights into the limitations of humans in exploration. “Interstellar” was an exercise in “And, And, And … spaghetti!”


Hey Randy, often when communicating with a lay audience, scientists have to generalize findings or experiments in order to avoid jargon specific to their field. In the process though, often the specific conditions or limitations of the work are lost in translation. This is one factor that leads to the clickbait titles we see everywhere. What approaches can scientists take to improve the accuracy of their descriptions of their work, without talking at an obnoxiously technical and unapproachable level?

p1percub

Hi there - good question and always a challenge. What is essential (and is THE starting point) is to get the NARRATIVE STRUCTURE worked out. This is what Story Circles is all about — before worrying about STYLE (what sort of language to use, whether to use humor or emotion, etc) you need to first work out the structure.

This is why the ABT Template (And, But, Therefore) is so powerful. In “Houston We Have A Narrative” I have a section about the 3 versions of the ABT (informational, conversational, keeper). The more we work with that in Story Circles (keep in mind, this is all new), the more we’re seeing how important the Conversational version is. It is the stripped down form that enables you to get to the core of your argument, which is essential for clear communication.

What this means specifically is, for example, stripping out all the jargon/detail for the moment, creating an ABT in which you say something like, “Element A is known to work AND Element B is known to work, BUT no one has looked at the additive effects of both A and B, THEREFORE we are doing the following work.”

What this is doing is accepting that the terminology, even to your colleagues who know the field well, bogs things down narratively when you’re trying to refine the core of the story being told. So you strip it down to this extremely simple form that maximizes CONCISION at the expense of being COMPELLING for the moment. You work on it at this stage. You make sure everyone is in agreement that “This is what we’re arguing” then you build it back up, adding back only the essential information/jargon/details, and doing so in accordance to which audience you’re seeking.

This is a more analytical and systematic approach to developing an “Elevator Pitch” than what you see on so many websites where they implore you to be short and snappy and punchy and grab your audience and a whole bunch of other fun but overly-vague terms. There is a science to narrative. These are tools to help you be more systematic about it.


Hey Randy! A lot of people in the academic world / business world value 'The One Day Training' format. In fact, it's what we understand 'training to be'. One-off workshops are easy to include as 'professional development', they fit nicely into a budget line item, plus one-off lectures don't take much time! Why did you buck the 'easy money' train and decide to make a 10 week training program??

JaydeLovell

This sounds like a question from a disgruntled employee who has to serve as Trainer for a number of the groups, overseeing their Story Circles trainings of 10 one hour sessions. But in reality it’s a question from my Story Circles co-creator, Jayde Lovell, hitting on one of the most important issues we’re addressing with Story Circles (thanks, Jayde, it’s almost as if we were talking about this just yesterday …)

Yes, it’s time to take a stand on the issue of one day “Harnessing the Power of Story” workshops. You can’t do it. Not in one day. In fact, I would even suggest the one day approach can even be counter-productive — making participants feel like they “learned” so much because they crammed notebooks full of notes on The Heroes Journey and Joseph Campbell and filled out story templates. The result of which I have encountered which is people who literally, verbatim, word-for-word say to me “I did the one day storytelling workshop, I’ve got the story thing down.”

Which leaves me wondering how I’ve put in 25 years and written three books and still feel like I’m only part way towards “getting the story thing down” (a scientist said that to me last year about how the communications folks at his institute ran the one day workshops and now they feel like they’ve solved the story challenge).

Narrative is infinitely complex and challenging. It’s the fractal thing. Take a look at the book “Into the Woods” by John Yorke, a U.K. television producer. He’s one of the first people I’ve seen talk about story in terms of having a fractal structure. In “Houston, We Have A Narrative” I take that one step further by offering up the ABT template as the single, simple replicating unit of story — the element of simplicity out of which arises endless complexity.

Also, regarding the 10 one hour sessions stretched over many weeks, that’s about the building of intuition over time — something that simply cannot happen in one day. It would be like my putting you on a surf board in the morning for the first time ever and you’re ready to shred 6 foot waves by sunset. Not gonna happen.

Lastly, a big boss and a big science institution last year said they like the idea but are too busy for 10 sessions — could we cut it to 5? The answer was a big no, backed up by Mike Strauss at USDA who has facilitated 5 entire Story Circles now. He wrote the boss an email explaining how its in sessions 5, 6, 7 that you start to see the emergence of the beginnings of “narrative intuition.” You start to hear people glance at text and say, “oh, that’s clearly a DHY, though I can see a clear but and therefore, just in the wrong places.” That is the language of Story Circles. It takes a few weeks to start speaking it.

Right, Jayde? Parlez-vous Story Circle? Oui!


Hi Randy! I was wondering if you would recommend Story Circles Narrative Training for people outside of the scientific community.
Do you think it has positive applications for most industries?

RentalSuperhero

Yes! Absolutely! Story Circles consists of two parts. PART 1: DEMO DAY - this is a big group day of up to 50 participants, giving them a chance to explore what the full training involves, then, PART 2: STORY CIRCLES - the full 10 one hour sessions spread over many weeks and involving a group of only 5 individuals meeting either in a conference room or via teleconferencing (we’ve found they work equally well).

Already, for the 6 Demo Days and 10 Story Circles we’ve run so far we’ve ended up with a mix of mostly scientists but also a fair number of communications folks. The key thing is, narrative is very, very challenging, absolutely NOBODY is perfect at it (which is why you see major Hollywood talents occasionally producing terrible movies), not even the most brilliant journalists, and everyone can benefit by working on it.

Also, keep in mind the training is not about lectures and note taking. It’s more like going to the gym (which is the analogy we constantly use). We give you the narrative tools at the start, then each week you conduct a structured one hour workout where you apply the tools, first to published material, then to your own work.

It’s fun, doesn’t take much time, and if you give it time, can have a very big impact, as we’re now hearing from participants in our first prototypes last year. For many of them it took a year to put the knowledge to work and see how transformative it can be.

And directly addressing your question, here’s the podcast I did for the business world on Park Howell’s podcast, The Business of Story." http://businessofstory.libsyn.com/why-storytelling-is-essential-to-science


I love what you do, Randy, as is obvious from "ABT" coverage on @dotearth http://j.mp/dotABTolson But.. On contentious issues (climate policy!), those seeking stasis are sometimes good at the same story methods. And nobody's better than Madison Avenue at selling consumption driving many enviro problems. Therefore?..

revkin

Hello Andy! “The race is to the swift” (ugh, that line makes me think of the Swift Boaters, which is actually fairly apt). What we’re talking about here is the ability to “tell good stories,” and what’s at the core of that is narrative structure, which is what the ABT ends up being the magic bullet for. Science, with it’s obsession with facts, information and accuracy ends up being at a disadvantage when it comes to narrative structure, meaning the challenges are even greater.

As I said in my movie “Flock of Dodos,” “academics are handicapped by their blind obsession with the truth.” Which means this stuff is really difficult, which is why it’s crucial that communication be raised up as a higher priority than it usually is.

There are two ways to achieve excellent narrative structure. 1) NARRATIVE INTUITION - if you are someone who has strong “narrative intuition” (the term I coined in my book — a more clinical version of the Hollywood term “story sense”), or 2) TIME - no one in your group is that strong with narrative intuition so you have to just invest a lot of time, slowly “developing” the narrative structure of your content. This is the reason so many good Hollywood movies take years to bring to the screen — they can take a long time to eventually “develop” the story effectively.

Hate to say it but this was the advantage Trump brought to the primaries last spring. Back then he showed deep narrative intuition and he was THE spokesman for his campaign. I can show you quantitatively from looking at the ratio of Buts/Ands in his speeches and debate performances he had an amazingly high degree of narrative structure to what he was saying. However, since winning the nomination he has (thankfully) lost his way narratively and is now a mess. The question journalists should be asking now is who is writing his crummy speeches — it certainly isn’t him.

So the difficulty for scientists is they face the double challenge of achieving strong narrative structure AND being accurate. The anti-science folks aren’t hampered by this second concern (nor is Trump), so they have a huge advantage. Which means only that science should take communication even more seriously.


Hi Randy, thanks for taking the time to talk with us about your work. I haven't read your books yet, but they're definitely going on my list.

I'm an automotive engineer and the lab I work in is currently growing and having some struggles bringing all our new members up to speed. Our current training materials can be extremely dry and dense, even to people in the field. But it's absolutely vital that we convey the information well, since we're dealing with potentially dangerous equipment and scenarios.

Have you attempted using these techniques for training applications? If so, do you have any advice?

PapaNachos

Hello Papa Nachos - Yes! Narrative structure is the essence of good communication. Without it you are doomed to boredom or confusion. The starting point is to think about what I offered up in “Houston, We Have A Narrative” for a definition of the word “narrative.” I define it at “the series of events that occur in the search for a solution to a problem.”

Now think about that in your context. Automotive engineering is ALL about problem solving, right? So that’s where you start — by telling “the stories” of solving problems. It’s pretty much what “case studies” are about. Which means that all I’m saying here is pretty much old school — said countlessly over the ages — but there is one difference. The ABT template is new.

This is very, very difficult for a lot of people to accept. It is ancient in terms of it being the same thing the Greeks were talking about 2000 years ago when they began describing the structure of plays, but it is new in that it was not present on the internet in 2012 when I first searched it, and as I tell about in the book, it arises from screenwriting guru Frank Daniel in the 1980’s spotting that first drafts tend towards “the dreaded and then, and then, and then” form, followed by the “South Park” guys mentioning their “Rule of Replacing” and’s with but’s and therefore’s.

The ABT is an incredibly powerful tool as we are now experiencing on a daily basis with Story Circles, our narrative training program.


When working with scientists, what kinds of questions do you ask to get to angles on their research (e.g. a funny story, interesting inspiration for the research, unexpected result) that might be really interesting ways of framing it to a lay audience, but might not be recognized by the scientists themselves as interesting?

dekker44

The key principle is this: THE POWER OF STORYTELLING RESTS IN THE SPECIFICS. I bring this key rule to bear, in a big way, when I work with the AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors https://www.aaas.org/page/about-aaas-lemelson-invention-ambassadors-program, as I have for each of the past three years. They are a group of 7 to 10 A-mazing scientists who have anywhere from a few to several hundred patents and have included the inventors of little things such as digital photography (meaning THE guy who invented it at Kodak) and the CMOS chip (found in every cell phone with a camera today).

The most powerful science-based story they can usually tell is to dig down to THE MOMENT of discovery. Quite often this starts with them pushing back, saying “there is no one moment of discovery — it’s a long process.” But that’s too general and of little strength for communication. The fact is there might be many moments along the way, but for communication sake, the most powerful thing is to find one specific moment, then dig in.

It has been stunning to me the number of times I am met with this pushback, though I’ve gotten the same thing in interviewing WWII veterans for a documentary I’ve been working for a few years now. Everyone retreats into the generalities as a starting point — they are easier and safer. It takes work to remember the specifics, but that’s where all the power lies.

And of course, as I’ve discussed in the books, it’s also the hallmark of great liars — their ability to dredge up powerful specifics. If you want to see a great documentary illustrating this watch the documentary “The Imposter” on Netflix — it’s a head-spinning story.

So to get back to your question — the key thing is to get them to tell interesting stories that relate to what you want to convey — and to realize you have to push and push and push for those specifics because they are the essence of good storytelling.


This sounds very interesting! So each of your pilot sites will receive 10 one-hour trainings? Are any of these open to students and staff? If so, when will you be at Yale?

sethspeak

Hi Seth - I mentioned above the basic two part structure of Story Circles. The first part (DEMO DAY) is the INFORMATIONAL part. It’s where you get the lecture/discussion for a couple hours laying down the ground work, then are introduced to the narrative tools. By the end of the day you have a clear idea of what’s involved in the 10 one hour sessions of Story Circles.

From there, at the end of the Demo Day, people sign up for Story Circles if they’re certain they have the time and commitment for it. STORY CIRCLES is the INTUITION building part of the training. In our Demo day in July we had 50% sign up. In our Demo Day in August we had 93% sign up.

After signing up they slowly get matched up into groups of 5 according to their schedules. That group is sent kits that contain the 80 page workbook. There also needs to be a facilitator who oversees the group to make sure everything stays on schedule, but from there the group runs itself.

There is a one hour “cueing video” that runs for each session making sure everything moves along on schedule. It’s actually very effective in making sure no one talks for too long — as soon as the cue sounds the group moves on.

You’re welcome to come to my talk at Yale next week which is open to the public (the Demo Day exercises are just for the Yale group), the details for the talk are here: http://yibs.yale.edu/event/olson-workshop


Would you recommend teachers in STEM follow the same narratives you have for the scientific community?

kchowmein

Hi - what do you mean by “the same narratives”? We approach this term “narrative” from a very analytical perspective which I feel is important to do. The word only cropped up in a big way over the past couple decades. As I argue in “Houston, We Have A Narrative,” (and show in Figure 9), I think it’s a byproduct of the information era.

So I’m urging everyone to take a closer look at what the word means. I’m interested in the use of the word primarily in the context of three states of communication: boring, confusing and interesting.

Too much of science is written off as boring or confusing. The templates we have developed for Story Circles provide mechanistic, analytical, scientific ways to approach these three states of communication — getting beyond the usual arm waving and shouting of “You’re BORING!”

With the Narrative Spectrum (see the book) you can now get more specific, pointing to the absence of narrative dynamics — too much And, And, And — or too many narrative threads set off by words of contradiction, or lots of other specific, analytical criteria.

There is a science to narrative. It is only at it’s very beginning. The humanities world is not very tapped into it, and I think even fears it in many ways, but it’s time to spread this knowledge to everyone in the long term effort to reduce boredom and confusion. Seriously.


The USA is the country that suffers most under climate change mitigation sceptics and creationists, but do you have any plans for Story Circles outside of the USA, especially Europe?

VictorVenema

Hi - just getting started in the U.S., but definitely interested in anywhere that people are ready to do the serious work needed to strengthen the narrative part of their brain. We constantly draw the analogy of physical fitness. It is soooooo much like going to the gym. If you don’t take it seriously and put in the effort, it doesn’t happen.

Here’s our website which explains the whole model and how to contact us: www.StoryCirclesTraining.com


Science communication is often focussed on scientists, but there are many more non-scientists who love science and in the climate "debate" most of the arguments of the mitigation sceptics are long-debunked and need no specialised expertise. Could you therefore give tips on how non-scientists can communicate scientific topics better?

VictorVenema

It keeps coming back to story, story, story. If I give you a list of science facts I’ll probably lose you pretty quickly, but if I begin by saying, “There was a guy who built his house right on the lowest part of the shore, proud of how the high tide waves washed right up to his back porch, telling his neighbors that sea level rise is bunk …”

You need to do a little reading and thinking about the basic dynamics of what makes for a good story. You need to get a clear, intuitive understanding of what Joseph Campbell meant by “the ordinary world” and how that relates to getting a story going effectively. You need to come to understand the sort of optimization exercise you face with exposition — too much and you bore everyone, not enough and the story has no depth or resonance.

To answer your question, the best thing you can do is to be a great teller of stories about climate — especially original stories that you spot, in your own neighborhood, places where the climate is changing and how people are dealing with it.

The best thing you can do is develop the ability to answer questions not with information but with stories in which the information is embedded effectively in stories. It is the way the non-technical world communicates, for at least the past 4,000 years.


Hey Randy, I'm a student interested in looking at how narratives can be used in health contexts, as a means of making sense of illness and the life changes that come with it. I wondered whether this was something that you had looked at in your research, whether perhaps techniques used in these fields had informed your recommendations for scientists or more generally whether you had any particular thoughts on this application of narrative as a means of dealing with trauma? Thank you

fromagefrey

Hi there - yes, I’ve worked with a number of doctor’s groups and the NIH in recent years. The medical world is of course steeped in storytelling. A classic work is Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.” It’s sort of a tour de force of the power of storytelling in a health issue. The key challenge is the mixing of information with humanizing elements.

The key principle I presented at the start of my first book “Don’t Be Such A Scientist” is the basic communications dictum of “Arouse and Fulfill.” The perfect example of this in the health world is “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” That book opens with 100 pages of “fulfillment” — the human side of the story, telling about a woman growing up on a tobacco farm in the 1950’s with a life filled with violence and hardship. Once the author gets the reader deeply engaged through all the very humanized material she then begins to shift to the fulfillment side — starting to bring in the science.

There are a number of relatively simple principles behind making narrative work. That’s our whole philosophy of Story Circles. You don’t need to know that much, you just need to know how these few key principles work, really well.


Hi, Randy. I am a video editor for a science YouTube channel, and I was wondering if you have any tips for making videos more engaging to the general public.

Stinters

Hi Stinters - hate to sound like a broken record, but it’s this narrative structure stuff. One thing that Jayde and I have done recently in our Story Circles lecture is to take one of the most popular Budweiser Super Bowl commercials that tells the story of a puppy and a Clydesdale horse, keep the sappy music the same, but recut the picture so that the scenes are just random. You end up with classic “and, and, and” structure. The commercial just turns into “and here’s a puppy, and here’s some people, and here’s a farm, and here’s some horses, and here’s the car …” on and on, no story, no build, and as a result, not surprisingly, you feel nothing.

A study in 2014 of Super Bowl commercials showed that story structure was the most important variable accounting for their success — not the presence of animals or beautiful people — those things help, but it’s the telling of a story that overrides all.

So I think that’s my main advice — watch lots of commercials and study what they do. Then also check out my TEDMED talk on the ABT where I also showed a 5 second video that does tell a story and one that doesn’t.


How would I analyze my own writing according to the "ABT template"? ('softball' question, but I don't think you've mentioned the formula here yet)

SkepticallyPwnd

Why, my good man, what a surprisingly unscripted question from you given that you’re seated here in our office with us. I believe you’re referring to the simple extension of the South Park guys’ “Rule of Replacing.” Their advice is to strengthen the narrative content of material by replacing the word “and” with “but” or “therefore.”

“Therefore” is a relatively rare word in common discourse, but … “but” is very common. Most surveys of word frequency in common usage have “and” as the second or third most common word and “but” somewhere between 15 and 25.

So … if you take a piece of content, count the total number of occurrences of “and” and “but,” then do the replacing exercise, then count again, you will see a shift in the ratio. I have labeled this ratio (multiplying it by 100 to make it a round number) “The Narrative Index.”

it’s extremely simple. It’s extremely consistent. It’s extremely profound. And I guess because it is so simple, it is extremely discriminated against by journalists who are yet to see any value in it whatsoever as they continue to marvel as more simplistic metrics like word and sentence length that tell you nothing about narrative content.

All of which means, yes, here’s a simple exercise for you — just calculate the BUT/AND ratio for your text. If it’s less than 10 you’re lame, 10 to 20 pretty normal, over 20 strong, over 30 Herculean. Give it a try.


Additional Assets

License

This article and its reviews are distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and redistribution in any medium, provided that the original author and source are credited.