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Data Storytelling with the ABT framework

Updated: Aug 24, 2022

MindSpeaking Podcast Episode 2 - Randy Olson, Ph.D. Marine Biology at Harvard University

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Introducing Randy Olson

Gilbert Eijkelenboom: Welcome everybody to the MindSpeaking podcast where we speak about the human side of data. My name is Gilbert Eijkelenboom. And I'm excited about this episode because today we have Dr. Randy Olson on the podcast and I'm really excited because I've been reading his book following his work, and why I'm excited this is because he earned a Ph.D. at Harvard University and became a Professor of Marine Biology. But then he got fascinated with communication of science, and therefore, he moved to Hollywood for a second career as a filmmaker, and now he's combining the two, the science, the science background, and the communication by writing successful books like us, then we have a narrative. And he's also giving workshops about the ABT framework. It's a powerful framework and I use it all the time. In my data stories, LinkedIn posts, and in my communications about my business. I'm very excited to welcome today, Randy Olson.

Randy Olson: Wonderful, great to be here, Gilbert Eijkelenboom

Gilbert Eijkelenboom: I'm located in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, a wonderful city. We're very far I'm starting the evening here and you just woke up with a coffee mug you just showed me? Yeah. So good morning. To kick it off.

Who was Randy Olson in Highschool?

Gilbert Eijkelenboom: I actually want to start not in the recent years, but let's take us back to some years back because I'm curious. Can you tell us a bit more about your childhood what type of person was threatened the Olsen in high school?

Randy Olson: God what a bad idea. It was a total waste of human existence. Lead right off. Outer neighborhood. Nobody is one of my buddies likes to say not amounting to much of anything so it really nothing good to remember from childhood and Junior High in high school. years. I think I went off to college with one preoccupation which was to consume as much alcohol as possible. But actually, also a second thing, which was to travel a lot get out there. So from actually from even when I was in high school, I think when I was 15 I was constantly trying to get my friends grew up in Kansas, in the suburbs, Kansas City, trying to get everybody says we got our driver's license. So let's go take some driving trips. And we did a couple of crazy trips down to Texas and Mexico, things like that. So I think there are actually there are things to be learned from my background, which is that I did have this. This preoccupation with experience, which I've come to learn is at the core of effective storytelling and communication, things like that. In fact, that's what we're learning in the training that we're doing now is that it's really hard for young people who don't have the experience yet to be able to use narrative narratives. The most powerful means we have for communication is the narrative structure which comes with age and experience. So we find that much to our surprise. It's the older people, they get this stuff at the deepest level. And then there's an age where younger people start to get it but youngest folks, it blows by them, for the most part. Got to gather age and experience. There's a famous anecdote you know, as you mentioned, I left and went to film school at the University of Southern California. And I will say the punchline to this anecdote was a cleaned-up version so that I don't offend your viewers but famous movie director, John Houston, a legendary director, the 1940s and 50s 60s. And near the end of his life he was they had film school there at USC, they would bring in famous filmmakers and have them sit for a couple of hours with whatever students showed up. And it was wonderful training on Friday afternoons, I would go to all of those few years before I was there, he had come as a guest and one of the students asked him, Mr. Houston you know, your movies are so rich and full of amazing characters. What is your secret to how can we get better at creating these sorts of characters? And he said, go to Mexico, and I'll put it plainly have intercourse with some prostitutes. That's what he said.

Haven't instead of sitting there and just recirculating and recycling the same stuff that other people spewed out, which said that was what I saw in film school, the vast majority of students were there had their whole life experiences based on all the movies and TV shows that they watched the very little real-world they were drawing on. And that's too bad because that's how we continue to lose track of what the real world is. If you care about the real world. If you don't care about the real world, then maybe that's not such a big issue. But that to circle back to your question, what is it in those early years for me that is at all noteworthy and that is the one thing is that from about 15 years ago, from early on, I just wanted to travel and then from 15 I was constantly trying to get my buddies to take trips with me as soon as I got to college, I was constantly traveling, getting out of Kansas going, Caribbean, Florida, things like that, travel, travel, travel and eventually became a scientist. I spent almost 10 years in Australia. So tons and tons of travel I mean that's how you develop a context and his perspective on the world is get out there and get to know the world.


Gilbert Eijkelenboom: That's that's fascinating because you mentioned travel I'm a big traveler as well. And I think with traveling you gain the experience of perspective. Like you mentioned, and also just the stories the but right the tension, the conflict and what makes it interesting to hear and listen to another story about you. binge-watching Netflix is not so interesting. It's yeah, and this series and that series and that series There's nothing interesting in there.

Randy Olson: Yeah, no, exactly. And I swear I think I tried as hard as I could to get killed in those early years. You know, we did so many crazy things and so much alcohol involved all the way along the lines. Then you know, as wild as it ever got, I ended up spending a night in the Texas State Penitentiary in Brownsville, Texas, one year in Spring Break the most insane night of my entire life with a whole bunch of other drunken lunatics, and lots of other crazy things. But somehow somebody was watching over me to make sure that I didn't get killed doing all those insane things that we did, and I survived all of that and went on to do all the things that I did. And you know, now at this point where I'm trying to make some sense out of it all, and interestingly, what that all eventually brought me to was my utter dislike of travel.

Teaching Storytelling to Children

Gilbert Eijkelenboom: Right, right. And use a five-day period. And what I find interesting and to dig a bit deeper there is that you say kids don't have the perspective. They don't have the experience. It's tough for them to grasp storytelling. The abt framework and we got to wise. stories matter also to your career switch which is notable. But what I'm interested in, is in I want to talk about is how come should we teach storytelling early to children, even though it's more difficult Do you think we need to start earlier now? With them? Yeah, I think

Randy Olson: That there's it's got to be worked on and thought more thoroughly through because you don't want to give them bad experiences and we've already accidentally with best intentions done that ourselves. So I guess we'll get into what the abt framework is, but it's this simple one sentence structure man, but therefore in the three forces of narrative than independent, it's extremely powerful. But when we got going, at the end of my Houston book, that's 15. I sketched out the idea that what we need to engage in now is narrative training. And keep in mind here from the outset, I'm not a gigantic fan of storytelling. I am interested in everybody getting an understanding of the narrative structure, which is not just the heart of storytelling, it's at the heart of argumentation. It's at the heart of rhetoric and science. And, I mean, orientation is rhetoric, but it's the heart of the logic and reason and the scientific method in telling jokes and everything. All communication has got this three-part structure at its core. And that's important thing is to get people to develop an intuitive feel for that three-part structure. Because until you've got a feel for that, you're just rambling all over the place and you're boring people and you're confusing people a lot. And I am interested in making the world a little less confusing and less boring. I mean, there's art is wonderful and art actually relishes boredom and confusion, and those are really powerful forces in art. But we've got a world right now. That is unraveling in some ways and communicating with Corbyn the country I live in right now. The Biomedical world has done an utterly disastrous job with the communication pandemic results is a third of the population not vaccinated refusing to be vaccinated not buying into the public health establishment and all their voice so that's right. Yeah, that's kind of not the society I want to live in. That's part of why I try and work on this stuff. So to get back to what we're saying here is that it's not about storytelling. That is one application of the abt but the abt is at the core of everything, including the scientific method. So when scientists write papers, they have the papers have a set structure, which is abt structuring, to make sure that they're communicating effectively. And so that's the thing that

Randy Olson's career switch: from science to Hollywood

Gilbert Eijkelenboom: You mentioned a few points about science, about arts. How to combine those, how to create an effective narrative. Can you take that back to your first career, second career, what made you switch? And what did it bring you?

Randy Olson: Brought me everything, the smartest thing I ever did, switching and walking out of the academic world. But keep in mind that I'm a different sort of individual and everybody's you know, you can't give this blanket advice to everybody you should all quit your jobs and do what I do. Do what I did. Absolutely, actually, nobody should do what I did. And I said that at the time, I was able to do it at age 38 Because I had no wife and children or anybody else responsible to I had created an idiotic life and nothing was at stake. And so why not jump into film school at age 30 at the University of Southern California, which is what I did, I walked away from my 10-year professorship but I had a clear vision. I knew that, basically, I could see that Hollywood knew something that the academic world didn't have a clue about. And I think one of the pivotal events for me was in 1993 when the movie Jurassic Park came out, and that movie was so powerful that it brainwashed, you know, a chunk of the population and the academic world benefited from it. And there was an article that came out in the Chronicle of Higher Education. A few months after the movie come out saying that all of a sudden applications for Ph.D. programs and paleontology skyrocketed. So all of these supposedly rational thinking, young people that are finishing their college degrees, all this education, suddenly went saw this movie with these animated dinosaurs and decided I want that, and all of a sudden, overnight, they're all interested in paleontology. Well, that's the power that Hollywood holds in. Not just creating these big movies, but knowing this narrative structure that's at the core of the ones that work. Yeah. Any movie that has a huge impact on the audience it's because it's got a really well worked out narrative structure at the core of its very smart minds. With deep narrative intuition and knowing how to shape that make that work. So that's what led me to dive into Hollywood.

Importance of Story & Narrative

Gilbert Eijkelenboom: I totally relate to your story and I also see it around me I work a lot with data scientists who in data analysts and they are the people with more academic experience, right? They come from an academic background and they have all the logical answers and the data, but in order to persuade other people and to make people move, you need to have a narrative, right. And that's why these communication skills are so important I talk a lot about the gap between data and business and I think similar to the things you're saying to academics and non-academics and what I'm wondering is why do you think story and narrative are even more important for if you talk to non-technical or non-academic people versus working with an inner group, people that are similar to you, David, tell us about that. Well, the starting point is simply the fundamental divide between narrative and narrative and people's brains. There was a book written 10 years ago called storytelling animal by Jonathan Gottschall. It's a cute nice book. But it's much deeper than that. We're not storytelling animals. We are problem solution animals. And every creature on this planet is a problem-solving machine. That's your primal deepest level of all. And that's your best hope of making sense of the entire everything is in terms of problem-solution dynamics, because that's what the brain is built around. And once you begin to accept that, that problem-solution dynamic has three parts to it. Set up problem solution. This isn't something that I discovered it's not something the screenwriters discovered. This is stuff that was first uncovered three to 400 years ago by the philosophers back in an era where people thought more clearly than they do today, and that this is something that just doesn't get talked about. We have got garbage for brains nowadays. We have done this the science world and technology world has done this to us, created so much. Wonderful, exciting stuff and information that everybody's brains are clogged and they can't think straight. Like they used to, they just cannot think straight. So three to 400 years ago, the great philosophers came up with the triad which is this three forces agreement, contradiction consequence that they embodied them with what they called thesis antithesis, synthesis, it's all the same stuff. Three fundamental forces.

Randy Olson: And as time went on, we added on all this garbage and basically obfuscated the world in the science world. Thankfully, a century ago, there was still enough clear thinking that they put together this convention, it's called the Imrat template of introduction, methods, results, and discussion. And that is now at the core of how scientists communicate. But they've taken that I mean, it's interesting that that's managed to still persist that fundamental four-part structure. But that said, there's so much else added on nowadays, and we've just obfuscated the Holy hell out of our world. And that's where we are and nobody can lead anymore and that's what we've got in the United States has this leadership crisis where it's just overloaded with information and it's turning into just the swirling mass and my latest, favorite term now is the information maelstrom and Marshall McLuhan was the media guru in the 1960s, who really was a visionary could see the future coming. His famous catchphrase was the medium is the message. And in his last two or three years, he died in 1980. And before the information explosion even happened in the 80s, he already had coined the term the Maelstrom was a drowned Poe Home, About this vortex out in the ocean where ships get sucked in and everything turns into chaos and just swirling around. And what Marshall McLuhan coined was the term the information maelstrom and basically said, we're going to get to the point someday where we've got so much information we can't make sense out of it. And that's where we are now. Read the information maelstrom. We are now at the point where disinformation is equaling information. And the people in charge of all these institutions cannot make any goddamn sense out of it, and the most important scientific journals, Nature and Science and all the major foundations you go to their websites, and they've all got a page on there about combating misinformation and you know what their advice is. shout at people and tell them that your facts, not the other people's facts. That's there's nothing innovative and powerful to that. I mean, that's just shouting. And last year, Rudy Giuliani who's one of the biggest nutballs His whole country was on meet the press, and in the middle of it heated discussion, he said to the host, you got to realize the truth is no longer the truth. And everybody on the left all the intelligence just sat up howling with laughter in him. But that's the only person I've seen really hit the nail on the head. The truth is no longer the truth. It doesn't work to shout at the masses and say our facts are better than their facts. That's not what that's what we got in the pandemic right now. We've got the whole biomedical establishment, who knows nothing more than to point to the content of their stuff and say, Listen to us, listen to us. Listen, that's people don't respond to that. And as a result, we got a third and maybe growing to a half of this country, just not buying it anymore. And what's going on in the past two weeks is beyond belief that nobody's even hardly talking about Robert Kennedy Jr. Came out of the book three weeks ago now, attacking Anthony Fauci, the lead spokesperson for the whole pandemic for the science community. And this book that Robert Kennedy Jr. has published. His last week was number one on Amazon. This is not a crackpot. Pod, little self-published, stupid thing. It's published by a major publisher, number one on Amazon and it's about Fauci and it claims that he's got this conspiracy going with Bill Gates and he's getting wealthy off the pandemic. It's complete, you know, anti-inflammation and yet, it's not only number one on Amazon last week, but then Mara Logan on Fox News came out and compare Fauci to Yosef Mengele, the angel of death, and the science world has no idea how to defend itself.

ABT Framework

Gilbert Eijkelenboom: Talk to us about ABT Framework. You also mentioned that the creators of South Park, use it, or at least they try to replace the hands with a button dev force. Please talk to us about it.

Randy Olson: So as I said, I went to film school in the mid-90s. At the University of Southern California did the whole three-year program that was great, got out made films for a long time, and learned and learned and learned when I cut about this narrative structure, stuff, and then in 2009, published my first book, drawing on all my film experiences. The first book was called Don't be such a scientist. That's the one that opens with the crazy acting teacher screaming and leaping out of me. And the longest chapter in that book, each of the four main chapters were echoed the title, so don't be so cerebral, don't be so literal-minded up is such a poor storyteller, and don't be so unlikable. And this was advised to the scientists. And then it got good reviews and became very popular. I began getting invited to all these big institutions to do workshops and they would say what do you want to workshop on? And I would say, I don't know never done before. But one thing I know is the biggest fattest chapter in the book was about Don't be such a poor storyteller. And I didn't have any solution in there. I just was all problems that became one of the critiques of the book was a nice to book, but all you did was just chew up the science room critique us and tell us how stupid we are. Do you have any solutions and I didn't for a while there very much? But then in November of 2011, on a quiet, Lonely Night, sitting in my living room watching Comedy Central they had this documentary about the making of the South Park animated series that by them was in its 15th season or so. And two co-creators told me about this technique that they use, and they said every week, we come up with the first draft of the script, it's 45 pages. And then we sit down we pull out what we call our rule of replacing, in which we go back to the script and every time we see the word and we asked ourselves, could you replace that and with either a button or therefore every time you're replacing and with butter, therefore, the story thing gets more interesting. When I heard them say that simple little thing, I fell out of my chair. I'd been through film school I'd had five writing courses at least, I've never heard anybody talk about these three words, and but therefore, but if there's one thing I didn't know, for my science career, it's the overwhelming power of simplicity, when you can find something the simple core of all this noise when you can find that one little formula that explains all this variation. That is when science leapfrogs forward. And when I heard this whole story thing that I've been wrestling with for 15 years, will down to three words. I couldn't believe I began calling on my screenwriting friends saying Have you ever heard this idea of these three words? They all said no, but it makes total sense, you know, matches up with the structure we've been taught and then I began researching and what I eventually found a way to was that they didn't come up with it. There's a screenwriting instructor, USC, Frank Danielle, who I was lucky enough to have his course the year before he passed away. And in a speech in 1986 heat as far as I can tell, track it back. That's the first real articulation of this dynamic and he's got two paragraphs in the speech that I quote endlessly. The first paragraph says that when we write first drafts of screenplays, but this is where everything you know this, this is where it starts in the body of listeners, right could be

Importance of Repetition

Gilbert Eijkelenboom: Imagine that I've seen it for myself that while using the abt framework at some point, you don't need to be as literal right? You don't take the template and go work through it because it's kind of automatic already when you create a storyline or create a LinkedIn post or presentation because it's slowly getting into your system. Yeah, you know, you said something

Randy Olson: About repetition and one of the great resources for your listeners if they're really interested in this stuff now has become Park Howell and his podcast the business of story. And Park came across the abt about eight years ago. When I first started giving talks on it, he read about it on Twitter and got in touch with me, and he instantly got it so he's a guy from a business world background in advertising and marketing. And as soon as he started hearing the abt it just hit him. This is at the core of everything that we do. And so we've worked together for eight years. He's been kind of my co explorer at times when I say he's actually uncovered a number of important things with it. And he's gotten so and it's funny to watch his journey because in the beginning, he said, Oh, this abt thing is really cool. And I think it's really a good thing for introductory people you know, who don't really have a feel for storytelling, but actually, most of our business people are pretty good with it. So we just use it for the ones that are, you know, kind of remedial and then he began presenting and workshops in three different times he called me up in workshops and said don't believe this guy presenting like eight different things today. People came up afterward. And they said, the most interesting thing he was that was EBT. And so his are just meant to begin to tell him that it's awesome. We connect with that. And he began using it more and more and more and now it's a central tool for all of his training and his book and everything like that. He now does the business version of the abt and not coincidentally, last year, I wrote a book called the narratives. Yeah. And then he came in this past summer and said, love the book. And I discussed people never get it unless it's got the word business on the cover. So he and I did a revision of it, where we rewrote the first and last chapters put in business, but it's just basically present presenting a different model. And he's the co-author with me. And so that's getting out there now. And it's just it is so powerful, like diamond and so he's become really, and if you listen to his episodes now and his podcast, week after week, he's bringing it up with the guests and saying, how do you resolve this? The problem you run into is a kind of territoriality. A lot of these people are story experts themselves and they didn't pick this up themselves and they want to have their own brand. They're all about branding and it's just really, you waste a lot of time with people that are refusing to listen, but the fact is, the intended results revealed seven people. Right, so it was a bar called right to set business or how the business of story great, great guy, great podcast and really the good practical application so much of this, right. I'll check it out.

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