Book Review: A Conversation about ‘Connection’

EarthzineOriginal, Quick Looks, Reviews

Earthzine Science Writer Elise Osenga and Editor-in-Chief Paul Racette connect in reviewing “Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking.”


“Connection” is a book by Randy Olson, Dorie Barton and Brian Palermo, published in 2013 by Prairie Starfish Production. Image Credit: Prairie Starfish Productions.

By Paul Racette and Elise Osenga
“Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking” is the joint production of a scientist lured to Hollywood, a story consultant, and an improv teacher: Randy Olson, Dorie Barton, and Brian Palermo. This unusual trio all felt drawn by the way effective storytelling can be used to share information or grab public attention. Their book offers advice for how stories can be used to help scientists (or anyone) connect with their audiences. We were so inspired by the book’s out-of-the-box approach to communication that we decided to shape our review as a conversation, sharing what we learned and personal stories along the way.
Paul:  Here’s something you may not know about me. I use to be a terrible presenter. I mean, I was absolutely terrible. I suppose my terror in speaking in front of others dates back to third grade when I was ostracized while trying to read in front of the class. I couldn’t read then and didn’t learn until I was 10. Have you ever seen a person up at the podium presenting and they’re so uncomfortable and nervous that you feel embarrassed for them? Well, that used to be me!
Elise: Yes, I have seen uncomfortable presenters on a regular basis! I was always a chatterbox, but fear of public speaking is very common. What helped you get over your fear?
Paul: While I was at Haskell Indian Nations University on a sabbatical, I had the chance to sit in several workshops with Indians. A practice I learned was that when participants started to speak their peace, so to say, they often began with a story. That’s when I first learned that storytelling is a powerful way of getting the attention of participants as well as a way to relax into the beginning of the presentation. That’s why I was so excited to read the book “Connection.”
Elise: It’s interesting that you first encountered this at the Haskell Indian Nation. As a park interpreter in a session on teaching with Native stories, respectfully, I learned that stories in Native American culture are almost always associated with learning, sometimes directly through the story, sometimes through an associated activity. Thus stories are treated with respect. This is why some stories are only told under specific circumstances or at specific times of year: to remove them from context would strip them of their purpose.
I feel as though in modern Western culture, because the primary purpose of stories is often entertainment, the use of storytelling for communication is seen as divorced from teaching or “scientific knowledge” even when this is not the case. Like you, I enjoyed the premise of “Connection“ —  that stories can be re-introduced in our culture as a useful means of gathering attention or highlighting the key point, even in a factual presentation. What I wonder though, is how accessible the book’s general points of plot-making would be to scientists unaccustomed to using stories. What do you think?
Paul: Certainly, parts of the book would resonate more with different individuals. People, scientists in particular, who like instructional recipes will appreciate Dorie Barton’s section on the “Logline Maker.” Dorie, like a master chef, brings her experience as an actress and screenwriter to describing the ingredients and how to combine them into a story. Just like working in the kitchen, a basic recipe can be a helpful start to cooking up a story feast for all to enjoy.
Elise:  Yes, I thought the Logline Maker was a particularly helpful tool too.  I also really liked the “word, sentence, paragraph” approach where the research has to be summed up in a single word that has emotional significance before being broadened to a more filled-out description. I also liked the “and, but, therefore” organization where the research is divided into what happened, the conflict (or reason for research), and the resultant action. What were some of your favorite tools or bits of advice from the book?
Paul: I know what you mean, Elise. Since reading the book, I’ve been trying out the “and, but, therefore” (ABT) structure and have found it quite helpful in laying the groundwork for a story.  I’ve been working on a couple proposals recently, and have been using ABT to draw the reviewers into the “story” and hook them on the need for the approach being proposed.  One of the real surprises in the book for me was from the actor Brian Palermo. His section on using improv describes how spontaneity can make a story relatable. The section inspired me to look into taking an improvisation class near where I live. I have yet to take a course, but I found a school that offers a few.
Elise: Improv seems to be a popular activity these days! And the people I know who’ve tried it seem to have become more confident and outgoing afterward.
Paul: I was surprised to learn in the book that Alan Alda, star of the television series “MASH,” has the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science which uses improvisation as a technique to train scientists. The approach has helped scientists to connect with people working outside their field.
Elise: Switching topics a little bit, was there any advice in the book that you found difficult to implement or confusing?
Paul: As a research engineer, I often have to boil complex topics and issues down to a few simple statements that others can understand. Sometimes it can be pretty challenging, if not discouraging, to reduce the essence of months of work into a few sound bites. “Connections” gives some good examples of how to use the (ABT) structure to make a story that, in a few words, connects a complex topic with an audience. I’ve been giving the approach to storytelling a try with some success.  But it takes practice. That’s not so much a shortcoming of the book. How about you?
Elise: I felt that the book offered really great starting tools. For example, I’ve shared the ABT approach in two presentations now, and both groups really appreciated it. I also think that the book is really helpful for people who have spent time already on this topic and need some new fresh approaches. I would even recommend “Connection” to writers. My biggest complaint about the book actually is that they did not spend more time elaborating on the tools they introduced.  Although I found the supporting anecdotes they included somewhat interesting, I felt that the authors could have spent less time on justification of their methods and more time on the methods themselves.
Paul: I agree. I would have preferred more practical examples to justification of the methods. Although for some who may question the effectiveness of using a story to communicate, the rational for the approach may be helpful. As a Certified Interpretive Guide (CIG), you must use stories in your work. How do you find storytelling helpful?
Elise: I learned a lot about using storytelling as a means to foster a sense of relationship with an idea or a place in my CIG class, but it was practice that really brought home to me how powerful of a tool that stories can be. When I was teaching and exhausted at the end of a day-long group or wanted the girls to settle down to sleep for an overnight program, regardless of age there were six magic words that would always snap the kids’ attention to me, “Who wants to hear a story?”
It’s been a couple of years now since I got to tell stories around a fire for work, but having this discussion with you about “Connection has reawakened a strong personal conviction for me. Stories are a powerful driver in our lives, and adults as well as children have a hunger for stories. The book may not provide the complete set of guidance necessary to turn a jargon-hindered scientist into an audience-nabbing orator, but it provides a strong start point for developing the skills and tools needed to use a story to bring science to life.