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The ABTs of science communication: Expert advice from a scientist-turned-filmmaker

Scientist-turned-filmmaker Randy Olson has been on a 30-year mission to improve the way we communicate science. Following his presentation at the Annual Meeting of ISMPP this year, we spoke to him about his transition from the bench to Hollywood and what he has learnt about the power of narrative in communicating along the way.

With your unique viewpoint gained from having worked on both sides of Science and the Arts, what could scientists learn from the film industry about audience engagement?

“They could learn that engaging an audience is hard, hard work — plain and simple.  Absolutely no one is a ‘naturally gifted communicator’ and if you think you are, you’re probably the one most likely to make a mess of things. I have a new book titled, ‘The Narrative Gym’. The concept behind the book is my deep-seated belief and realisation over the past decade, along with the dozen people working with me, that good communication is as challenging as physical fitness. It requires constant conditioning and maintenance. The belief that ‘I’m just good at it and don’t need to learn and practice’, is as misguided as if a professional athlete were to say that, which would never happen. This core belief in the need for hard work to master communication is the number 1 thing I learned from Hollywood, particularly from the improvisation actors of the legendary Groundlings Improv Comedy Theater, with whom I have worked for 20 years. They like to say, “improv is like a muscle that you have to condition over time. No one can step on a stage after not practicing improv for a year and expect to be any good.” This same belief needs to be established for scientists with communication in today’s world. Communication is far more difficult today, in the information society, than ever before. Every scientist needs to go to the ‘Narrative Gym’ and start working out.”

During your time in academia, were you already conscious that the traditional scientific rhetoric may be difficult for readers to engage with?

“Yes. When I was 18, I dropped out of college, wandered the country, then got a job on an oceanographic project in Puerto Rico. Thirty-four years later, I wrote my first book, ‘Don’t Be Such A Scientist’, and friends working in science complimented me for taking such a fresh and critical look at science communication. My old Puerto Rico roommate read it and said, “Anh, you were saying all this same stuff 34 years ago when we used to sit on the back deck of the research ship at sunset drinking beers. You would comment on how weirdly the scientists talked.” This was true, but I had completely forgotten about it. I love scientists, but they talk funny at times. And yet, here’s the crazy thing — way back at the start, a year after I was drinking those beers and noting the obfuscated way that scientists often communicate, a short paper appeared in The New England Journal of Medicine titled, ‘Medical Obfuscation: Structure and Function’. The author assembled a list of 10 common ways that papers of medical journals are written that lead to obfuscation (excessive complication), which results in the poor communication you refer to. Now here’s the sad part — that paper, as beautifully written as it was, has been cited less than 100 times in the 45 years since its publication.

And here’s the even sadder part — the author was legendary science fiction writer Michael Crichton, author of ‘Jurassic Park’. The paper was his last formal activity as a biomedical researcher before departing for his legendary and gargantuan career in Hollywood. There has never been an individual who knew the combined worlds of science and mass media at the level he did, yet, as I argued in an essay earlier this year in Ensia, all of his attempts to help the science and medical worlds communicate better over the course of 25 years went largely ignored and unappreciated. Especially that elegant little paper published in 1975.”

“The bottom line is scientists (and medical folks) just don’t listen very well and can at times be their own worst enemy.”

Scientists can be put off from writing more engagingly for fear that this will be perceived as sacrificing substance for the sake of style. Can you share some of the tips from your book Don’t Be Such a Scientist on how we can communicate science more simply and effectively without compromising on rigour?

“The challenge of communicating more simply and effectively without compromising rigor comes down to one word: TIME.”

“The subtitle of my book, ‘Don’t Be Such A Scientist’, is ‘Talking substance in an age of style’. This is exactly what you’re addressing — how can we talk substance in this information-overloaded and increasingly superficial society we’ve created? The answer is time — you have to find enough of it to have any chance of solving this dilemma.

If you’re going to treat communication with so little respect that you just quickly throw material together with no one’s input, well … you will never, ever communicate effectively. This happens all the time with scientists. How do I know this? Because I was a scientist, and was one of the worst offenders, constantly writing my talks at the last minute on the flight to the meeting.

You need to allocate time, not just for learning and conditioning (as I talked about above), but also for the actual act of communication. ‘Finding the narrative’ takes a large amount of time. You can do a poor job of it with little time, but to do it well, there’s no getting around the time element.

When I earned my PhD in biology (granted, a long time ago) I was not given one minute of communication training or even told that it was important. We were all left on our own to learn how to communicate through ‘osmosis’ (look at the good ones and emulate them).

Making this challenge even worse, there is a recent, ill-conceived movement of journalists built around the idea of ‘complicating the narratives’ for communication.  The belief is that the world is now awash in ‘simple false narratives’. The way to combat this problem, they believe, is to communicate ‘complicated true narratives’.  Which is wrong. The only way to defeat simple false narratives is to put in the time and effort to find the competing and superior ‘simple TRUE narratives’. This is frustrating news for most people — especially scientists. They don’t want to have to expend large amounts of time on communication. They didn’t have to in the old days of limited information, but times have changed.”

In your book, Houston, We Have A Narrative: Why Science Needs Story, you describe the fundamental building blocks of narrative structure as And, But, Therefore,” or ABT. Could you tell us more about these three key elements? 

“Yes, the three-part structure is as universal as DNA is in the creation of life. It was first spotted by the Greeks. It was articulated in detail by the philosophers of the sixteen and seventeen hundreds. It has been further revealed over the years, but it has also been somewhat lost in the information society — swamped by more complicated and alluring approaches that lead to the obfuscation Michael Crichton identified.

The core elements of how we think, reason, and communicate are as simple as three things:

  1. Set Up
  2. Problem
  3. Solution.

This is what Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist of the last century, identified for storytelling — the same three-part structure. It is ubiquitous, and it is time to bring back the realisation of its universality and power.

Once you look at the world through this three-part perspective you realise the three elements embody three forces — AGREEMENT, CONTRADICTION, CONSEQUENCE. Then you look at the English language and see that the most commonly used word of agreement is ‘AND’. The most commonly used word of contradiction is ‘BUT’. And the most powerful word of consequence is ‘THEREFORE’ (‘so’ is more common, but not as powerful).

From there consider what my good friend Jerry Graff, senior statesman of the humanities world and co-author of the 2-million selling textbook, ‘They Say, I Say,’ (used in college comparative literature and rhetoric classes), recently said to me, “Is it not the case that the word ‘but’ is the most important word in the English language?” What prompted him to write that was an editorial he was reading, where he noticed exactly what I’ve been saying for years — that argumentation is built around the central source of contradiction, and ‘but’ is the most commonly used word for it.

So, this is where effective communication begins — a focus on these three fundamental forces of narrative, the three words that best embody the forces, and then the realisation that the structure is absolutely everywhere. You find it in the Gettysburg Address, in nursery rhymes, in ancient poetry, in modern pop music, and in everyday communication about everything. The ABT structure is at the core of our culture. Once you realise this, you begin to see the power of the ABT Framework.”

Please tell us about the ‘And Frequency metric that you have proposed as a quantitative method to evaluate the clarity of a narrative structure. Can the 2.5% golden rule of And Frequency’ apply to all writing, including scientific communications, or are there any exceptions to the rule?

“I wish the government would erect a gigantic monument in Washington D.C. that was nothing more than a huge ‘2.5%’.  This has to be one of the deepest yet least appreciated properties of communication. I ask journalists this simple question all the time — “What is the ideal frequency of the word ‘AND’ in a well edited text?” Not one of them to date has had the slightest clue.

The answer is 2.5%. But who knew? I certainly never did —until I read about it in a study from the Stanford Literary Lab in 2015. They cited the value as if it were common knowledge — it should be.

To confirm this finding, I had an assistant calculate the frequency of the word ‘and’ in ten articles each from The New Yorker, The New York Times and The Atlantic. The results were fairly amazing. Sure enough, the values hover right around 2.5%.

The Stanford study looked at cases where this value gets disregarded — namely in the legendarily boring annual reports of the World Bank. When the World Bank first started producing annual reports in the 1940’s they were well written with a tight narrative. Not surprising, their ‘And frequency’ (AF) scores were less than 3.0%. But over the decades, as the World Bank grew in size and the annual reports changed from clear accounts of the previous year to assemblages of statements from a wide range of disconnected programs, the values began drifting upward to above 3.0%, above 4.0%, above 5.0%, and even all the way up to over 6.0% in recent years. This score means that more than one in 20 words of the report are the word ‘and’.

What this reflects is a lack of critical thinking in the editing process. Instead of taking the time to craft a coherent overall narrative, segments are just glued together with this word of agreement — AND we are engaged in recording this AND recent studies are focused on this AND …

The result is a lack of narrative which translates to a lack of leadership. As I say endlessly these days, “Narrative is Leadership”.  People don’t follow leaders who are boring or confusing. I showed this in May in an article in Medpage written with my colleague Dr. Dianna Padilla, where we analysed the AF for Trump versus Cuomo, as they gave their daily briefings at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic spike in April. Cuomo, who showed strong leadership by focusing exclusively on the pandemic, scored a significantly lower AF than Trump, who was trying to juggle both the pandemic and the economy, leaving him lost and giving speeches filled with ‘and’.”

“Narrative is leadership. The AF is a metric that reflects this.”

Your Story Circles Narrative Training program is built around the ABT structure. What are the most common narrative pitfalls that you see in scientific writing?

“First off, we ran our Story Circles Narrative Training program from 2015 to 2020. I had proposed it at the end of my 2015 book, ‘Houston, We Have A Narrative’, and it was going great until the pandemic. The whole training was built around what we termed ‘Demo Days’ which required 40 people gathering in a room for a day. The pandemic ended that yet gave rise to something even better — our ABT Framework course which is now in its 7th round.

Both of these are forms of ‘narrative training’, which is not just about writing — it’s about speaking, strategising and thinking itself. We live our lives in general in one of two basic modes — either in the narrative mode or non-narrative mode. The narrative mode is when there is a problem that is being addressed; non-narrative is when there isn’t a problem.

For example, you wake up in the morning, your mind is idling AND the window to your bedroom is open AND you can hear the birds outside AND you don’t have any problems consuming your thoughts. That is the non-narrative world.

BUT then suddenly your alarm goes off, you realise you’re late for a meeting and THEREFORE you begin scrambling to solve the problem of being late. You are now in the narrative world. Your brain is very active, things are exciting, you’re trying to solve a problem, BUT … the fact is, all you really want, is to get back to the non-narrative world where everything is peaceful and there are no problems.

This is how life works — problems and solutions. So it’s not surprising that communication works best when it is built around this same dynamic. The ABT is the template for the narrative world. It consists of ‘set up’ (AND), ‘problem’ (BUT), ‘solution’ (THEREFORE). It has a fractal nature to it — like the crystalline structure of an ice crystal, it is extremely simple at the finest scale, but can build on itself to achieve infinite complexity.”

“The problem that scientists fall into at times is the failure to utilise the ABT structure in their communication. They get so infatuated with their content and believe that the rest of the world shares their great passion for the material, that they fail to tap into the power of the narrative dynamic.”

“Basically, they tend to be so in love with the meditative non-narrative state (think of laying in that bedroom with the window opening just soaking in the beauty of science), that they don’t make use of the problem-solution dynamic found in the narrative world — but they should — and they can, through the power of the ABT Framework.”

How do the scientists undergoing Story Circles Narrative Training typically respond to the ABT structure, and what do you say to the more reticent participants to convince them to try it?

“One of the toughest things we’ve found is ultimately the need for what I have termed, ‘The Liz Moment’.  This refers to the experience of Liz Foote, one of our long-time trainers from Story Circles.

In 2012 she heard about the ABT and decided to give it a try for a presentation. The benefits she experienced had three main parts:

  • First, she found her talk easier to rehearse once it had the ABT form.
  • Second, as she gave the presentation, she looked out into the audience and saw a sea of engaged eyes, rather than the usual bowed heads of everyone looking at their cell phones.
  • Third, in the days after the talk, as she looked at social media, she saw people regurgitating the basic contents of her talk, propagating her core message more accurately than any previous talk she had given.

The experience prompted her to email me — a decision she probably regrets to this day as I immediately recruited her to our ABT mission. Between our Story Circles Narrative Training program and now the ABT Framework course, she is the veteran of a few hundred ABT related events and one of the core members of our team.

All of which has given rise to our realisation of ultimately the need for ‘The Liz Moment’ — where an individual has their own wonderful experience of putting the ABT to use. We now have about 15 people at the core of our ABT Framework course team. Each one of them has their own ‘Liz Moment’ story to tell, where they crossed the divide from, ‘This looks interesting,’ to ‘Wow, this is transformative.'”

 Randy Olson is the Founder and Director of Story Circles Narrative Training. You can contact Randy via rolson@usc.edu.

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With thanks to our sponsor, Aspire Scientific Ltd.

 


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