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Randy Olson on the ABT model

Scientists want to share their research and the public want to know what they’re up to but sometimes it doesn’t seem they share a common language therefore some help in communicating could be useful.

Connection Book cover

I tried liking Don’t Be Such a Scientist. Randy Olson seems like a fun guy and the book was likeable but there was something unconvincing about it. I’m not sure if the title highlights part of the problem “Don’t…” is rarely helpful feedback. That thing you’re doing? Try doing it again but don’t do that, might be a good idea but it’s not easy advice to follow. It was a good book, but not quite a great book. It was far better at pointing out there was a problem than identifying a solution. I’m now working through Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking and, so far, I’m finding it much more helpful.

For this book Randy Olson has teamed up with two colleagues from acting and storytelling and the result is there are helpful positive steps you can make. At the core of the book is the need to tell a story. If you’re researching something presumably there’s some point to what you’re doing, and this book helps illustrate what that is.

The core is the W-S-P Word, Sentence, Paragraph scheme. The paragraph is the story in a nutshell and the word is the whole thing compressed down into a single kernel. What’s catching my eye at the moment in the book is the middle scale, the sentence. The model Olson proposes for the sentence is what takes a fact or research and turns it into the basis of a story, the ABT model.

ABT is based on three key words, as used in the first sentence:

statement and statement but statement therefore statement.

What I like about this is there’s progression built into the sentence so there’s a sense of direction. The but marker also helps put in a reason why the thing you’re talking about matters.

I am wary of rigidly sticking to any narrative model. I read Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat and liked it, but there is a growing body of opinion that over-reliance on the model is hammering Hollywood movies into the same mould. It could certainly explain why I find most films tedious. However, ABT isn’t over-used yet and as a starting point for organising your thoughts, it looks to be very helpful. It also doesn’t usually work purely by itself, making the madlibs effect less obvious.

There is also a companion app available for iOS and Android. I don’t know how much help they are yet as I won’t buy them till after I’ve finished the book.

If you want more of a flavour of the ideas in the book, Randy Olson recently gave a talk at TEDMED introducing ABT and storytelling as communication.

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