Thursday, March 29, 2018

Houston: We Have a Narrative by Randy Olson

Periodically I review books related to science communication. This is a review of Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story by Randy Olson (2015, University of Chicago Press, 256 pp).

Randy Olson is a former marine biologist who gave up his tenured professorship to move to Hollywood and become a film-maker. With "Houston," he builds on his earlier book ("Don't Be Such a Scientist") and the experience he has gained from the story-telling world of movies. The book has a simple message for scientists - you need a narrative. 

It's not that simple, of course, and Olson does a great job of introducing some simple methods scientists can use to communicate their science to other scientists and to the public. He emphasizes that the key to storytelling is to find the narrative core - the message people will take away. He employs what he calls a WSP Model, the shrinking down of the core message to one word, one sentence, and one paragraph. Two principle techniques are what he calls the Dobzhansky Template ("Nothing in _______ makes sense except in the light of ______.") and ABT.

ABT really is the central point of the book. The story should follow an AND, BUT, THEREFORE structure. Much of the book discusses what this is, how to develop it, and techniques for using it to communicate your story. It's simple, but powerful. 

There is much more: the Heroes Journey, the Logline maker, the story templates. And let's not forget McKee's Triangle of three pure story forms - antiplot, miniplot, and archplot. The archplot is the key. Study it, learn it, use it.

As examples he explains how the communication of climate change is "Bo-ho-horing" and fits a classic "miniplot" storyline. The combination creates a communications mess that explains why the public still doesn't understand the urgency. That's a problem. 

Olson's writing style is mostly fluid and with a wisp of humor threading through it. He leans a lot on his own experiences, both in the science world and the film making world. I would highly recommend all scientists to read the book and practice the techniques. Your colleagues and the public will understand you a lot better. 


Stephanie Barr said...

One of my strengths, in my rocket science persona, has always been communication. I have often been able to articulate the NASA customer wants in ways my teammates didn't understand and communicate my concerns to NASA in a way that was readily understood (even if they didn't like hearing it).

I think part of that strength is the fact that I tend to talk in stories (given my fiction-writing background). I include much of the tenets of critical thinking and scientific process into my novels in hopes that it soaks in, even in my fantasy novels and environmental consciousness and other important science topics part of my subplots in all my books, especially those that are more science fiction-ish.

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