Better Late Than Never: Book Review

May 15 2015 Published by under [Information&Communication]

I reviewed Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking by Randy Olson, Dorie Barton, and Brian Palermo (Prairie Starfish Productions, Los Angeles, 2013) a while back for a newsletter. As the newsletter changed, this review got bumped out several times and seems less relevant right now. However, I still like it! Using the structures recommended for communications in the book to summarize its messages really brought home to me the utility of the methods.


CoverRandy Olson definitely marches to the beat of a different drummer. After becoming a tenured professor, he left for film school at the University of Southern California. What could lead someone to follow this path? He became distressed at the inability of scientists and others who know facts to communicate those to the public, particularly in the area of climate science and evolution. He made some films and wrote his first book, Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style (Island Press 2009) to try and give logical, fact-listing academics some guidance. His ongoing quest to improve our communication skills led to collaboration with others involved with film work, producing this 2013 book.

This volume provides a frame work for storytelling. Think about the last movie trailer you saw. With a short bit of image and words the makers had to tell you about the movie and make you want to see it. If they can learn to boil a two-hour film into a 1 minute trailer packing a punch that makes you want to pay to go to the theater, then we can use these techniques to sell our information to patients and others.

The first component of the framework is a word. What is your message in a single word? This sounds easy, but I found this the trickiest part of the technique. I actually did this part of the exercise last. For an example, I used this structure to review this book. The obvious words include communication, connection, and story. After crafting the rest of the framework, I picked influence. The real goal here goes beyond merely transmitting information; we want to drive people to action, be it changing their health habits or accepting the reality of evolution. Others may pick a somewhat different word, but I stand by my choice.

The second component requires creating a sentence, using the construct “and, but, and therefore (ABT).” For Connection, I created this:

Scientists know a lot of facts that can help people and they need to educate the public, but they often have trouble getting their message understood, accepted, and remembered; therefore, they need to read this book to turn facts and figures into stories that compel behavior changes.

Finally, a more detailed paragraph can be constructed using a logline technique. All story narratives can be boiled down to 9 steps:

  1. In an ordinary world
  2. A flawed hero gets life upended when
  3. A catalytic even happens
  4. After taking stock
  5. The hero commits to action
  6. The stakes get raised
  7. The hero must learn the lesson
  8. To stop the antagonist
  9. So the hero can achieve their goal

Dorie Barton deconstructs Star Wars using this technique. You can fit any story into this structure, even documentaries. I have summarized Randy Olson’s biography using this technique:

A scientist wonders why students accept things they see in movies as reality, even when shown evidence that these things are wrong in the real world. He gets his life upended when he heads to film school to figure out why movies have more impact than scientific fact. After some course work, he realizes that humans are hard-wired for stories, especially those with emotional impact. He begins making films with classic narrative structure. Soon he realizes that all academics need these skills, and all of them cannot go to film school. Alone he cannot give them the skills they need to get their messages heard and remembered. In order to spread the word, he teams up with others who do script writing and acting. They start workshops to teach these storytelling skills. Then they write a book so more scholars learn to get their message out there the right way, the way that will influence people.

In addition to these models (Word-Sentence-Paragraph; And-But-Therefore; and the Logline), the live workshops put on by the group feature some improvisation exercises and actual storytelling. Brian Palermo acts and performs stand-up comedy; he gets to be “the fun instructor” in this group. I would love to participate in one of these live events, but for now I have settled for the book and the apps. Oh, yes, there are apps for Android and iOS devices that let you fill out these templates and then email your results. This work gave me a great starting draft for the material above.

Humans are wired for stories. We remember the narrative events and the emotional reactions to them far more readily than a series of facts. These techniques may help us have more impact in clinics and classrooms if we adapt them.

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