09 September 2013

Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking review

I bet a lot of scientists can relate to this little anecdote (my emphasis):

I wanted to learn why I could teach a course in marine biology and say that giant clams don’t live in the ocean more than a couple hundred meters depth, yet Hollywood could make a movie showing them two miles down and my students were more likely to believe the crazy movie than me.

It grates on us working scientists when wrong information gets out there. We get grumpy and write long blog posts. And the entertainment industry is often, shall we say, lax in accuracy? But maybe the solution is not to blame Hollywood, but to use their methods. Therefore, Randy Olson, Dorie Barton, and Brian Palermo have teamed up to unravel how Hollywood makes its best stories in Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking.

There’s good stuff in this book.

This book has three main sections. The first, by filmmaker Randy Olson, talks about the importance of story, and offers a few tips for focusing in on what your story is. For instance, he introduces the “And, but, therefore” template that I used in the paragraph above. It’s an excellent, clear little tool that anyone can get if they want to make sure they are telling a story, not just dumping information. Honestly, the discussion of the power of “but” in creating a story is worth the price of admission alone.

This first part of the book contains much that Olson has been blogging about over on The Benshi for the past few years. I'm a regular reader, so this section was mostly familiar territory for me.

The second section, by Dorie Barton, is mostly an extended analysis of the movie “logline.” A logline is a short summary of a movie that contains nine elements. If you watch movie previews, you’ve probably heard loglines (“In a world of oppression, one woman will fight the system...”) , even if you haven’t heard the term before.

The third section, by actor Brian Palermo, discusses the benefits of improvisational acting. It encourages listening. Improv encourages you scientists to look more like an actual human instead of a being containing strange esoteric knowledge that happens to come in a human-like shape.

I’m sold on the benefits, but not sure how I can practice. While the first two sections discuss writing, and therefore can be practiced by one person (say, a book reader), improv is a fundamentally social activity. It might not be easy for a reader of this book to find a group where she could practice improv. (Palermo does include some games in an appendix to get people started.)

Olson proposes a storytelling oath:

You have to believe there exists a way to get completely disinterested people interested in what floats your boat. ... With communications you should swear, “Nothing is impossible to communicate.” And even add to that, “I just may not be good enough to do the job, but I shouldn't just give up and call it hopeless.”

Unfortunately, this is more asserted than demonstrated here. There are examples throughout of people who found their stories, but many of the examples fall into two categories:

  • One person learning and using one of the techniques presented here.  
  • Big organizations or big issues (Center for Disease Control, climate change) using some of the techniques here.

Near the end (section 4), there are three examples presented of people using the “Word, sentence, paragraph” model. These are all good, but none of them are researchers with original, data-driven research; a typical doctoral student, say. Given that this book is aimed at people who want to improve technical communication, the examples of a parent, litigator, and university undergraduate seem odd choices.

Maybe now that the book is out, the team will be able to find people who go through this process, and can share those in some other forum.

Let me try some examples of my own.

Olson talks about the “WSP” model for communication: Word, Sentence, Paragraph. It’s all about finding the essence of what you want to say. First, you try to distill what you're talking about down into a word. Once you've got the word, then you can relax it out into a sentence. Then you can let the sentence join with a few others into a paragraph.

I'm going to try this out with one of my lines of research, on the crayfish Marmorkrebs.

Word: “Responsibility.”

Sentence: “A new crayfish is invading countries around the globe, but we can slow it down if pet owners take responsibility.”

Paragraph: “In crayfish research, biologists are stunned to learn about a crayfish that reproduces asexually. Realizing that these crayfish could be an invasive pest, scientists begin studying the crayfish in the lab. But the crayfish start being found in the wild, in more countries, more often, faster than the biologists can publish papers about them. The researchers realize that the behaviours of people are as much to blame for the problems as the crayfish. Working with pet owners might be the only way to limit ecological damage from the crayfish.”

I’m not sold on my paragraph (pretty much a straight plug of elements into the movie logline), but it’s a start. Not every story is written in a day.

Let me try again, this time with “And, but, and therefore.”

“I’m a scientist, and I do important work, but nobody knows about it. Therefore, I decided to be a better communicator.”

Having read through the book, though, I might be able to make that sentence better:

“I’m a biologist in South Texas, and I study an invasive female crayfish that could cause millions of dollars in damages, but not many people know about it. Therefore, I decided to try something different than standard PowerPoint talks.”

Why is this one better? More details. More specificity almost always makes for a better story.

There is lots to try here. I look forward to putting the lessons in this book to use, and teaching them to my students.

Additional, 10 September 2013: This review was made possible because I received an advance PDF copy from one of the authors, gratis.

Related posts

Review: Don’t Be Such a Scientist
Flight of the dodo
Passion for evolution
Promoting the head dodo
This blog don’t have a video: the many niches of science communication

External links

Connection website
The Benshi
Amazon link


Anonymous said...

Love this! Your revised (more specific) sentences are so much better than the originals. Thanks for the storytelling reminder.

John R. Vokey said...

I read NeuroDojo today and I found an interesting review of Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking. But it contained a big blank line in the middle of a paragraph leading to an incomplete sentence and an uncompleted argument. Therefore, Zen really should fix it.