Six UC Irvine journalism professors shared their ideas about writing and storytelling at the Center for Storytelling’s inaugural event. At one point, professor Miles Corwin said, “I never met a great storyteller that wasn’t a big reader.” Each panel member then supported his statement by telling anecdotal backstories of their love for reading.
But something about Professor Corwin’s statement bothered me. My storytelling interests began at the knee of a my grandfather–a Boston cab driver with a sixth grade education. I can’t recall a single instance of him reading a book. A newspaper, maybe. A book? Never.
I wrestled with the notion for a couple of weeks before finding an answer in a fifty-year-old memory. “Do you like to cook?” I asked my grandmother as she pulled something wonderful out of the kitchen oven.
She looked at me quizzically. “I’m not a cook. I’m a baker,” she said, before explaining how most people are one or the other, but rarely both. My grade school brain couldn’t comprehend the difference. To me, cooking was the act of applying heat to food, but she told me that cooks use intuition while bakers use knowledge. Bakers rely on details and when they get it right, amazing cakes, cookies, and croissants emerged from their ovens. When they get it wrong, breads don’t rise, cookies crumble, and brownies become bricks.
That memory convinced me. Storytellers are cooks and writers are bakers.
Storytellers cook because they lean on gut instincts to guide their actions. Writers bake because it take years to master the intricacies of grammar, word choice, and building large vocabularies. Writers love language while storytellers don’t even need it, as proven to me once by Park Howell who told a story using only caveman grunts.
If you just laughed it’s because you get it. Park’s story has nothing to do with language and everything to do with the human condition.
Storytellers and writers speak to different parts of the human brain. Storytellers speak to our instinctive systems while writers speak to our cognitive ones. Storytellers communicate with mechanisms that execute below the level of consciousness while writers communicate with the systems above it. Storytellers trigger the fast/reactive parts of the brain while writers trigger the slow/cognitive ones. Storytellers study the human condition, while writers spend years learning ways to represent it linguistically.
So, while I disagree with Professor Corwin about the connection between storytellers and reading, I do think that we agree on something more important. The best communicators are double-threats. They combine storytelling with writing to speak to both parts of the human brain: the instinctive and emotional part AND the cognitive and logical part.
Storytelling is a craft that must be practiced. Before I started teaching storytelling, I was telling stories on Griddlecakes Radio, my fourteen year old podcast. Well, today I go back to my roots and practice my craft in a story about being scammed and learning from the experiences.
Feel free to click on the arrow to stream or the three dots to download Griddlesode S14-002.
Professor Barry Siegel opened the event by describing the organization’s vision: to demystify the activity of writing and help the local community tell their stories. The Center for Storytelling has lofty goals, including raising $500,000 and building a Storytelling Lab, complete with recording technology and member-access to storytelling experts.
Siegel then joined a panel with five other colleagues to share their thoughts on both storytelling and writing. I’ve attempted to capture much of their storytelling wisdom.
“Anyone who says that they love writing, probably isn’t a good writer.” Amy W.
“Writers are oddballs. Social outcasts.” Hector
“Writers are shy egomaniacs.” Miles ← the line of the day!
“I never met a great storyteller that wasn’t a big reader.” Miles
“If you steal from enough writers, you’ll develop your own style.” Hector
On becoming a better writer:
“You learn the most about writing by reading.” Barry
“To write you need nerve, will, and discipline.” Barry
“To be a storyteller, you must read stories like a writer.” Miles
“Read the masters.” Hector
“If you want to learn how to write a crime novel, read a good one and a bad one. You’ll learn more about structure from the bad one because good novels hide the mechanization.” Miles Hector pointed to The Gettysburg Address as his benchmark for great writing: It’s short (265 words), powerful, and to the point.
“Writing is a messy process that starts with flinging mud. Your first draft will be mud.” Barry
“It’s better to rely on excess in the first draft.” Hector
“Don’t start writing too soon.” Miles in response to question about writer’s block
Research…“If you don’t pay in the front end, you’ll pay in the backend.” Miles
“Have a schedule. I write a thousand words a day. No more. No less.” Miles
“Be boring so that your subject can be interesting.” Amy W
“When interviewing a survivor, remember that they were a normal person first.” Hector
“Interviewers are like therapists that tell the world what they hear.” Hector
“Interviewing is like dating. It’s accelerated levels of intimacy.” Erica
On the impact of writing:
“When you’re reading The Silence of the Lambs and your heart starts pounding, remember that a writer did that to you.” Amy W
“People read to know what happens.” Hector
“Look for moments that become scenes.” Erica
“People make stories interesting.” Miles
“People’s motivation must be on every page.” Hector
“Story begins with a world that you are interested in.” Erica
“Writing a story is a marathon. First you need to run around the block.” Hector
“Know your ending.” Hector
Facebook can identify you in a photograph. Shazam can name the song and artist that’s playing on your radio. An autonomous vehicle can identify and track multiple object (signs, traffic signals, vehicles, and pedestrians) all at speeds faster than humans. At first glance, these Artificial Intelligence (AI) applications seem awe inspiring. Surely, they’ll be taking over the world soon, right?
Why? Because they have nothing to do with human intelligence. AI applications perform their magic through training deep neural networks (DNNs)–highly interconnected, matrix-math-intensive models that can only do one thing well, such as identifying a face in a crowd, the name of a song, or a person in a crosswalk. And while data scientists describe these DNN architectures using human brain terminology like neurons, connections, training and inference, there’s little overlap with how people process information. Just consider that the human brain only consumes the power of a 20 watt lightbulb, while the energy required to train a single DNN gobbles up enough energy to run five cars over their lifetime–including the corresponding carbon footprint it leaves behind.
If power consumption doesn’t convince you that AI and human brains function differently, let’s look at each from the perspective of robustness. DNNs are fragile. A DNN that’s only trained to recognize the studio recording of Earth, Wind & Fire’s September wouldn’t be able to identify the same song performed by EW&F live. Yet, the ability for humans to identify songs is infinitely more robust. Once we hear a familiar song, we have the broad capability to recognize multiple versions of it. For example, if your friend picked up a guitar and started playing September, not only would those who knew the song be able to recognize it–independent of both key or tempo–they’d also be able to sing along.
Deep learning has tremendous advantages over humans when it comes to the processing large amounts of data, but, if those calculations ever hope to approximate the robustness of the human brain, AI scientists will need to change their perspective. The authors of the academic paper, Neuroscience-Inspired Artificial Intelligence explain the magnitude of the gap succinctly.
“Human cognition is distinguished by its ability to rapidly learn about new concepts from only a handful of examples, leveraging prior knowledge to enable flexible inductive inferences.” Pp 259
Human intelligence is built upon interacting with the environment around us. We gather information through our five senses, compare that information with prior knowledge, and determine the best course of action. We react to new situations through an age-old series:
assess fatal threats.
Once those are eliminated, we seek to increase pleasure and avoid pain.
And while step #2 mimics the supervised learning (carrot and stick) techniques used to train DNNs, the stakes associated with being right or wrong are infinitely more important to a living and breathing human. Until AI applications can incorporate human emotion into their models, machine intelligence will forever remain limited.
DNNs are handicapped by a fundamental flaw–they neglect the most important part of human intelligence: the human condition. AI Scientists understand these limitations and are looking to other disciplines for inspiration. They’re looking to neuroscience and psychology to close the gap. But rather than looking at human intelligence holistically, they pursue algorithmic solutions from a bottom-up perspective. The best way for data scientists to find the robustness of the human brain is to look at their experiments through the eyes of a storyteller.
A story is the result of people pursuing what they want…and we all want to remain living. It’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We must satisfy both our physiological and safety needs before anything else. We can’t worry about the future until we’re confident that we can survive the present.
This fundamental need drives our actions. Instinct alerts us to mortal threats. Our attention is drawn to things that defy our expectations. Our most vivid memories are based on experiential differences (first/last, hottest/coldest, happiest/saddest) while our ability to bond with other humans is built upon shared experiences.
Humans have a superpower–the ability to react appropriately to situations that we’ve never experienced before. Therefore, if achieving the robustness of human intelligence is truly the goal, then AI scientists must expand the scope of their exploration beyond the disciplines of pure logic and seek the counsel of storytellers. Storytellers study human nature–the actions of autonomous beings as they journey through the great game of life. They study these actions in the context of the environments that people live in. They understand how people assess a situation/thing/idea, create hypotheses, test those hypotheses, and then act based on what they learned. And all of those actions depend on the human capacity to trade risks and rewards, as they experience profoundly complex concepts such as love, hate, fear, or exhilaration.
Until DNNs can incorporate these complex concepts, their relative intelligence will continue to remain artificial.
AI Scientists, meet the storytellers. Storytellers, meet the AI scientists.
Photo Credit: Lee, Russell, photographer. Tulare County, California. Farmer teaching his six-year old son to drive his tractor. California Tulare County Tulare County. United States, 1942. Feb. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017817214/.
Most marketing stories are written as fairy tales, complete with their happily ever after endings. But, that isn’t life, is it?
In reality, life is a series of messy choices. While we’d prefer clean distinctions between right and wrong, frequently we’re asked to choose between bad and worse, also known as the lesser of two evils.
Business, as in life, is a series of nuanced tradeoffs. We’re constantly trading between a project’s schedule and its budget. Or, consider the freemium business model that offers customers a choice between time and money–built on the premise that young customers have more time than money and older customers have more money than time. Those with more time than money are willing to trade advertisement interruptions for free access to content, while those with more money than time are willing to pay for unencumbered access to it.
People make the right choices for the wrong reasons, the wrong choices for the right reasons, and everywhere in between. They’ll sacrifice today for something greater tomorrow, or choose to risk the longer term consequences of instant gratification. Sometimes their major decisions have minor effects, while seemingly minor decisions prove to have major effects.
Consider some of the most common tradeoffs in life:
Saving for tomorrow means not spending today
Choosing the devil you know is sometimes safer than the devil you don’t
Saving someone from a fire means risking burns
Losing the battle might set you up to win the war
Pushing through the pain helps you recover from injury
Taking one for the team contributes to a win
Working two jobs to accelerate saving for a downpayment
Laying off a few workers to save the rest
Tradeoffs are the spice of life. Identifying them leads to stories that audiences relate.
So, what are some of yours? Which tradeoffs do your customers make every day?
Photo Credit: Siegel, Arthur S, photographer. Birmingham near Detroit, Michigan. Kitchen utensils hanging below a spice rack with mint, caraway, thyme, and sage jars. United States, 1942. [July] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017878892/.
My friend Mike died last month. He was sixty-five.
We reconnected about two years ago through a chance meeting at Mineta San Jose International airport. We started catching up at the Santa Cruz Wine Bar in Terminal B (Mike loved red blends) and continued the conversation on our flight back to Orange County. We talked nonstop, making it feel like one of the shortest one-hour flights I’ve ever experienced.
At this point you’re probably wondering, what does this post have to do with business storytelling? Truthfully? Nothing..and everything…because after attending my third funeral in as many months, I’m feeling a bit introspective and have come to a conclusion:
The true value of one’s life is measured by the stories that people remember after you’re gone.
And so, rather than talking about business storytelling this week, I want to share my favorite Mike story with you.
* * *
First, you need to know that Mike was a very large human being–something like 6’ 9” and pushing to 300 lbs.
One day, Mike found himself jammed into a commercial airline seat on a long flight. He needed to stretch, so he walked to the back of the plane.
“I apologize,” he said to the stewardess with his Arkansas accent. “I know I’m not supposed to be standing here, but that tiny seat is killing my knees and I just need to stretch for a while.”
The stewardess smiled. “You can stand here for as long as you need,” she said.
A few minutes later, Mike noticed an elderly couple that kept looking back at him. That’s when the woman got up and approached. “My husband and I feel so safe with you here,” she said. “Thank you for your service.” As she returned to her seat, the old man flashed Mike a thumbs-up sign.
Mike flagged down the stewardess to get her advice on the strange interaction. “I’m not sure, but I think that couple over there thinks I’m an Air Marshall or something. Should we tell them?”
“No,” she said, gesturing toward a man seated mid-cabin. “You see that guy up there?”
Mike locked eyes with a timid-looking, shell-of-a-man. “Yeah?”
“He’s been nothing but trouble. But, I just pointed at you and said, ‘Now, do I need to have him come over here?’”
* * *
I’ll miss Mike’s wisdom, big heart, and massive hugs. But most of all, I’ll miss his stories: the adventures of running a Medical Devices company, how he sold bags filled with rattlesnakes to make pocket money as a kid, and the tale of an epic basketball battle between him and his Olympian/NBA center brother.
Our lives are measured by the stories we leave behind. What stories will people tell about you?
Photo Credit: Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. Headstones at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia. Arlington United States Virginia, None. [Between 1980 and 2006] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2011635737/.