Book review: Connection – Hollywood storytelling meets critical thinking

Thank you to Jarrod Green for this book review.

Scientists are sometimes criticised for being poor storytellers AND there are calls for more storytelling in science communication, BUT concrete advice about how to actually tell a good story can be hard to find. THEREFORE, Randy Olson, Dorie Barton and Brian Palermo’s Connection is an invaluable read for any science communicator who wants to sharpen their “story sense.”

A focus on storytelling might be off-putting to some. However, this is not a book about creative writing, nor is it trying to transform you into the next Kubrick or the next Dickens. Connection is about using the basic principles of story structure to communicate simply and effectively. As Palermo states, it’s about rendering your “splendid esoteric obscurity” into something engaging for a broad audience.

One of Connection’s key messages is simplicity and it’s hard not to admire the elegance of the ideas on offer here. Connection provides simple and memorable templates for communicating your story in a Word, a Sentence or a Paragraph (the WSP model). Olson’s ABT (And, But and Therefore) template is a particularly noteworthy element of the model. Adapted from the wisdom of South Park co-creator Trey Parker, the ABT template is an indispensable formula for a punchy elevator pitch.

Connection is based on a three-part communication workshop developed by Olson, Barton and Palermo. True to the experience of a workshop, all three authors write in a conversational and accessible style, making Connection an effortless read that doesn’t simply espouse good communication principles but also enacts them.

In the book’s first chapter, Olson provides an overview of the WSP model, which he frequently (and fittingly) conveys through anecdotes and examples. Some utilitarian readers may find the abundance of anecdotes unnecessary, but to feel this way may also be missing the point of a book where story is the foundation of both form and content.

In Connection’s second chapter, Barton applies Joseph Campbell’s concept of the “hero’s journey” to craft stories at the length of a paragraph (or longer). While Barton is not the first to draw upon Campbell’s work, her clear and accessible template for applying the hero’s journey represents a valuable contribution.

Rounding out the trio, Palermo’s chapter discusses the importance of improvisation for communicating on a relatable and emotional level.  Of the three authors, Palermo possibly has the hardest task in translating an improvisation workshop into a book chapter. Nonetheless, Palermo’s section still succeeds as an entertaining demystification of “improv.”Palermo’s insights into listening and openness make improvisation relevant to everyone, not just the theatrically inclined.

There are times where Connection is at risk of overstating (or at least oversimplifying) the case for storytelling. For instance, Olson refers to a functional MRI study as evidence of story’s unique power to communicate. While it may be possible to quibble with such examples, it is really not the point of Connection. If you accept the basic proposition that storytelling is a powerful form of communication, Connection provides you with the tools to make it happen. If you are hoping for a detailed and nuanced account of the science of story, it is probably best to look elsewhere (Olson rightly points to Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal as a good place to start).

Similarly, Connection’s fixation on Hollywood as the epitome of storytelling may rankle some readers, but the intent is not to elevate Hollywood above other traditions of filmmaking or storytelling. As Olson and his co-authors state, it’s more about tapping a source of storytelling expertise. If you want to learn how to craft a compelling story you could do worse than consult an industry whose livelihood depends on spinning a good yarn.

If you have read Olson’s previous book, Don’t Be Such a Scientist, you will find some familiar ideas in Connection. However, for the most part, Connection breaks into new territory and is a more focussed and practical book. If you only have time to read one of Olson’s offerings, make it Connection.

Everything about Connection comes in threes. Connection has three authors and three main chapters. It is centrally concerned with three-act story structures and its main ideas are expressed as three letter acronyms (WSP and ABT). So in that spirit, I would like to offer three words of recommendation. If you need a basic toolkit for communicating through story: Read. This. Book.

*Don’t have time read the book? Try Olson’s TEDMED presentation.