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How the Word “But” Could Save The World

(The post was first published at Scientific American Blogs.)

Candidate Hillary Clinton’s speeches were less compelling than those of now-President Donald Trump. We all understood this. But I, for one, would stumble over my own words each time I tried to describe what made Trump’s speeches so much more effective.

Fortunately, Randy Olson and Jayde Lovell will tell you what made Trump’s speeches so much more effective without stumbling—and they have summarized the method to make it handy for us scientists. I learned about their approach at their session at the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, Texas last month. Their method, called “ABT” for “And, But, Therefore,” forms the basis of Olson’s most recent bookHouston, We Have a Narrative (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

How the Word "but" Could Save the World
Trump’s finger-in-the-air gesture is a visual “but.” Credit: Saul Loeb Getty Images

As a candidate, Clinton spoke in lists, as many scientists and other intellectuals do, marshaling a wide range of facts and expressing many angles on each topic. Olson and Lovell would say that Clinton spoke mostly in “ands.” Trump, on the other hand, asserted only his opinions and plans, leaving no room for disagreement. Olson and Lovell would say that Trump speaks in “buts,” each sentence ablaze with narrative.

This claim rang true to me immediately. I think I even feel the word “but” was implied by Trump’s favorite index-finger-in-the-air hand gesture. It reminds me of a similar gesture I taught my kids to use when they need to say something but they have their food in their mouths.

Olson and Lovell go a step further and argue that the ratio of “buts” to “ands” in a speech serves as a useful diagnostic of good narrative. Olson has analyzed many well-known speeches and writings, counted the number of “ands” and counted the number of “buts” in each one. The but-to-and ratio predicts Abraham Lincoln’s victory over Stephen Douglas, he explained. Clinton’s speeches tend to score near 1/5 (one but for every five ands). Trump’s but-to-and ratio generally ranks the highest among all presidents, typically coming in around 1/3.

Indeed, others have pointed to the hazards of overusing the word “and” and the importance of using the word “but” to make communications sound conversational or to appeal to regional crowds. In an attempt to improve the writing style of communications from his institution, the chief economist of the World Bank recently proclaimed that he would not clear a final report for publication if “and” comprised more than 2.6 percent of the text.

Jack Grieve, professor of corpus linguistics at the University of Birmingham, maps the use of words on Twitter to help understand the evolution of language. He pointed out to me that tweets originating in the South tend to use the word “but” more often than tweets coming from elsewhere in the United States.

But this simple index does not impress everyone. Professor Jennifer Mercieca at Texas A&M University, a historian of American political rhetoric, admonished me that Trump tends to fill the pauses with random conjunctions. “I think my rhetorical studies colleagues would feel a little uncomfortable just counting the numbers of  ‘ands’ and ‘buts’ and ‘therefores,’” she said.

But … Olson and Lovell’s ABT method goes beyond “and” and “but.” For maximum power, Olson and Lovell recommend combining “ands,” “buts” and “therefores” into a verbal hat trick, and repeating this verbal pattern over and over to organize your narrative. You might drop the word “therefore” or replace it with the word “so,” for example. But regardless of the exact words chosen, Olson and Lovell argue that the strongest way to make a point takes the form: Agreement (and) Contradiction (but) followed by Consequence (therefore). Here’s an example of the ABT method in an abstract that my student Steven Silverberg recently submitted to the American Astronomical Society:

M dwarfs are critical targets for exoplanet searches, and debris disks often provide key information as to the formation and evolution of planetary systems around higher-mass stars, alongside the planet themselves. But fewer than 300 M dwarf debris disks are known, even though M dwarfs make up 70 percent of the local neighborhood. Therefore, we have undertaken a search for new disk-hosting M dwarfs using the Disk Detective citizen science project….

I added in the word “therefore” for the purpose of this illustration, but it was implied anyway. Here’s another more colloquial example from Oprah Winfrey’s recent Golden Globes speech. Oprah tells you the news and then tells you what had better happen next, spelling it out with an “and”, a “but” and a “so”:

“I’ve interviewed and portrayed people who’ve withstood some of the ugliest things life can throw at you, but the one quality all of them seem to share is an ability to maintain hope for a brighter morning, even during our darkest nights. So I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon!” — Oprah Winfrey, January 7, 2018

On Olson’s blog, you can read a breakdown of Oprah Winfrey’s entire Golden Globes speech, color-coded by element. The speech consists of four cycles of Agreement, Contradiction, Consequence, sometimes literally linked by “and,” “but” and “so” and sometimes not. Olson provides a similar breakdown of Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream speech.

Although she didn’t trust the but-to-and ratio as a gauge of narrative, Mercieca smiled at the ABT method. “It’s the Hegelian thesis, antithesis, synthesis model,” she explained, referring to a triad often ascribed toGerman philosopher Georg Hegel, and sometimes taught in writing classes. Indeed, Olson refers to Hegel in his blog and his book as the true originator of the ABT concept.

Certainly, there have been times in my writing and speaking when I have instinctively begun blurting out all of the facts I could think of on a topic, to the pain of my audience. Other times, I have written myself into tangles of ”however”s, “yet”s and “while”s. It’s not my fault. As scientists, we are trained to assemble all relevant pieces of evidence, narrative be damned.

But next time this happens, I will recall Olson and Lovell’s (and Hegel’s) wisdom. Because it should be clear to all of us now that when we venture into the public eye, we must hone our storytelling skills if we intend to lead the world to a safer, more scientific place. “People can’t really think without narrative,” Mercecia told me. “Narrative is leadership,” Olson informed us.

So I challenge you: fire up your video recorder or word processor and calculate the but-to-and ratio in your next public communication. If it’s under 1/5, you might want to sign up for one of Olson and Lovell’s Story Circles training courses. If it’s over 1/3, you might be ready to run for office. Let me know how you’re doing @marckuchner (and share your numbers with @ABTagenda@JaydeLovell@JWGrieve and @jenmercieca too).

Then go forth and save the world.