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The viral storytelling trick progressives can learn from Trump

The simple secret used by Hollywood screenwriters, Oprah, and even Donald Trump.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses supporters during a campaign rally in Cleveland, Ohio on October 22, 2016. (Credit: JAY LAPRETE/AFP/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses supporters during a campaign rally in Cleveland, Ohio on October 22, 2016. (Credit: JAY LAPRETE/AFP/Getty Images)

The single most important communications skill is the ability to tell a memorable and emotionally compelling story.

But few progressives, environmentalists, and climate scientists are trained in story-telling. So that puts them at a disadvantage in all debates, including the climate debate.

“One hundred thousand years of human reliance on story has evolutionarily rewired the human brain to be predisposed to think in story terms,” as the author of a 2007 book, The Science Behind the Startling Power of Stories, explained.

Yet very few schools teach the simple secret to telling a viral story: the “And-But-Therefore” (A-B-T) technique that marine biologist turned environmental filmmaker Randy Olson has been championing for years.

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Boiled down to its essence, A-B-T is simply replacing the word “and” in your speech or writing with the word “but” (or equivalents like “yet”) wherever possible to introduce the kind of conflict and narrative tension we expect in our best stories. You also replace “and” with “therefore” (or equivalents like “so”) to introduce the resolution of that conflict and tension.

It may seem hard to believe that such a simple idea could be so powerful. But almost every viral English speech in history makes use of this structure — and these specific words — as explained in my new book, How to Go Viral and Reach Millions.

"How to Go Viral" book jacket cover
"How to Go Viral" book jacket cover

That includes Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Oprah Winfrey, and even Donald Trump.

I say “even Donald Trump” because many people I talk to — especially progressives, environmentalists, and scientists — remain puzzled by Trump’s 2016 victory. They often draw the wrong conclusions, or worst of all, mistakenly believe there is nothing to be learned from a man as flawed as Trump.

But as I discuss in the book, Trump and his digital campaign team (along with the Russians) mastered virality, which explains much of why he is now President. Indeed, until and unless progressives fully understand and embrace viral messaging, our democracy and the future of a livable climate are at risk.

It’s true that Trump uses his viral skills to tell lies and bully people. Emotionally compelling communicators have always been able to use their skills to deceive and corrupt.

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Indeed, a 21-year-old Cicero described the birth of rhetoric’s dark side in his book De Inventione: “But when a certain … depraved imitation of virtue … acquired the power of eloquence unaccompanied by any consideration of moral duty, then low cunning supported by talent began to corrupt cities and undermine the lives of men.”

But just because Trump uses some of the best communications secrets for bad purposes, does not mean progressives and scientists and environmentalists should reject those secrets.

Quite the reverse. We should strive to emulate Trump’s winning practices while rejecting his losing ones.

“The ABT is the DNA of story.” —Park Howell, branding expert, host of The Business of Story podcast

Since stories are what consistently go viral, and since they are essential for memorable and persuasive speaking, the key question is, “What is the basic structure of narratives that go viral?”

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Put another way, what is the structure of narratives where there is conflict that leads to change and other emotionally compelling consequences?

More than 200 years ago, German philosophers developed the notion of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis to describe how intellectual change and transformation occur. An idea is posed (thesis), it is met with a reaction or a conflicting idea (antithesis), and the resolution, the outcome, is some synthesis of the two conflicting ideas.

For the purposes of a basic approach to viral writing or speaking, that complex notion was eventually translated by leading screenwriters into using the words and, but, and therefore: ABT. The beginning exposition lays out an idea or a situation with some ands, the conflict or reaction is introduced with buts and the resulting consequences or change are introduced with therefore (or equivalent words).

Let’s look at a simple rule for how you would use ABT in your writing — the “rule of replacing,” as screenwriters Trey Parker and Matt Stone call it. Parker and Stone are most famous as co-creators and lead writers of the long-running TV series, South Park (for which they won a combined 10 prime-time Emmys) and the monster Broadway smash, “The Book of Mormon,” named the best musical of 2011 (for which they won a combined seven Tonys and two Grammys).

Parker describes the rule this way:

[I call it] the rule of replacing “ands” with either “buts” or “therefores.” And so it’s always like: this happens and then this happens and then this happens. Whenever I can go back in the writing and change that to: this happens, therefore this happens, but this happened; whenever you can replace your “ands” with “buts” or “therefores,” it makes for better writing.

It’s that simple.

As Olson describes himself, he has a Ph.D. in Biology AND achieved tenure as a professor of Marine Biology, “BUT then he developed an interest in the mass communication of science, THEREFORE he resigned his professorship, moved to Hollywood and became a filmmaker.”

I’ve had the good fortune to get to know Randy over the past decade and even sit in on some of the story-telling training sessions he does for scientists.

Consider perhaps the first truly viral speech of 2018, the one Oprah Winfrey gave after receiving the Cecil B. DeMille award for lifetime achievement at the Golden Globes ceremony January 7. Olson calls this speech an “ABT Tour De Force,” on his blog, ScienceNeedsStory.com, one of the few places online that discusses the ABT framework.

As the New York Times chief TV critic, James Poniewozik, wrote the next day, this highly praised, widely re-shown inspirational speech “inspired a mini ‘Oprah 2020’ boomlet of speculation in political media.” He noted “it had the music and lyrics of the kind of acceptance speech that ends with a balloon drop…. But above all, it’s a story. And it’s a story about stories.”

Here are two key excerpts:

Each of us in this room are celebrated because of the stories that we tell, and this year we became the story. But it’s not just a story affecting the entertainment industry. It’s one that transcends any culture, geography, race, religion, politics, or workplace. So I want tonight to express gratitude to all the women who have endured years of abuse and assault because they, like my mother, had children to feed and bills to pay and dreams to pursue. They’re the women whose names we’ll never know….

I’ve interviewed and portrayed people who’ve withstood some of the ugliest things life can throw at you, but the one quality all of them seem to share is an ability to maintain hope for a brighter morning, even during our darkest nights. So I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon!

Olson explains that “Oprah has deep narrative intuition, and the leadership skills — at least in communication dynamics — that our system selects for.”

Olson developed an “index of narrative strength” to quickly determine whether your speech — or anyone’s speech — is a good one, or if it simply has too many “ands” and not enough “buts” — the key word of contradiction that he explains is the “heart and soul of narrative.”

To get the Index ranking, add up the total number of “buts” in a speech and divide by the total number of “ands.” Then multiply that ratio by 100.

You typically need a speech of a thousand words or more to get a fair estimate. Good speeches tend to have an Index of 20 or higher.

Olson analyzed the presidential primary debates and speeches of Donald Trump and every time he scored above a 20. Some of his long primary speeches were in the 30s. He averaged 28, higher than Olson has measured for any presidential candidate. That’s why he says of Trump, “There has never been a politician with this deep of an intuition for narrative.” A similar calculation for Hillary Clinton averaged about 14, one reason she failed to connect with so many voters.

Here’s a video Olson put together describing the index in September 2016 comparing the Democrat and Republican candidates for President.

Significantly, Olson has noticed that when Trump reads someone else’s words off of a teleprompter, his narrative strength drops in half, to Clinton’s level. Those canned speeches rarely sound like Trump, they are boring, and it’s obvious he doesn’t believe these words.

But if you analyze a recent uncanned speech, such as the one Trump gave in South Carolina on Monday discussing the GOP primary there — and a very wide range of subjects including his dislike of late-night comedians — you’ll find a narrative index of over 30.

Again, just because Trump uses narrative to tear people down and divide this country, it doesn’t mean narrative can’t be used to build people up.

After all, I analyzed perhaps the most viral speech in all of human history: Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” (King James Version) and found 98 “ands” and a remarkable 29 “buts” (and 13 “therefores”). So it has an Index of about 30.

The higher education system, especially for scientists, is skeptical of storytelling if not outright anti-story. But then, a major goal of the Enlightenment especially the scientific revolution led by Newton was to replace a story-based explanation for the world with a reason-based explanation. The story about rainbows being a sign from God that he’s not going to send us any more floods gets replaced by the basic science and math of reflection and refraction of light in water droplets.

But “no one ever made a decision because of a number. They need a story,” explains Dan Kahneman, in Michael Lewis’ 2017 book, The Undoing Project. Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics for his pioneering work on the psychology of decision-making.

I have to consciously practice story-telling in order to overcome more than a decade of being taught not to. But when I am able to, as I did in my speech on “Nerd Power” at last year’s March for Science, the response is invariably good.

The A-B-T is a tool that all scientists and environmentalists and progressives should use to tell viral stories.