Blast from the Past: On Jonah Lehrer and Lies

In the wake of the Jonah Lehrer scandal in which he was caught fabricating quotes for his best-selling book Imagine, How Creativity Works, we thought back to the words of Michael Sitrick a Hollywood crisis manager to the stars and prominent CEO’s, known as the Spin Doctor.

“Public Relations is about persuasion and persuasion depends on credibility, so you can’t lie.”

You could just as easily substitute “journalism” for “public relations.” Although we understand that writers like Lehrer shape a narrative by massaging quotes and emphasizing some parts of the story over others, our belief in a writer’s carefully constructed arguments is dependent on our belief that he or she has more or less accurately reported the “facts.”

Lehrer risked his credibility by fabricating quotes of Bob Dylan in the service of creating a more persuasive argument. It was a form of writer’s Russian Roulette. The story might have been more effective with the fabricated quotes but when he got caught lying by Michael Moynihan of Tablet Magazine he lost his credibility and his ability to persuade us of anything.  This is in turns made him a pariah to those who have given him a vehicle for his work. They had to protect their own credibility. Lehrer resigned as staff writer from the New Yorker and his publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has withdrawn his book. Continue reading “Blast from the Past: On Jonah Lehrer and Lies”

Two Scribbled Lines Are Worth a Thousand Words.

We were humbled to see this sketch by Demetri Martin (from his book This is a Book) that summed up in two scribbled lines the very point that we’ve been trying to make.

Demetri Martin Art of DoingSometimes we can feel a bit like a broken record—going on about how we came to discover that the extraordinary people we interviewed for our book didn’t just take a steady glide path to their great successes. Instead, their vocational journeys were scattered with obstacles and setbacks that required them to struggle and scuffle just like the rest of us.

And then we were humbled to see the sketch by Demetri Martin (from his book This is a Bookthat summed up in two scribbled lines this very point that we’ve been trying to make.

Demetri is an author, comedian, actor, artist, musician, writer and humorist. He’s won an Emmy and a Writers Guild of America Award.

Demetri, if you are out there, reading this, we’d like to interview you about the squiggly line of your own success.

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Alec Baldwin and Robert Carlock on What Made “30 Rock” So Funny

We went to Silvercup Studios to interview Alec Baldwin and Robert Carlock (show runner and co-head writer) of the recently deceased and already acutely mourned “30 Rock” for a chapter in our book on “How to be Funny (on TV).”

Alec Baldwin and Robert Carlock on the set of "30 Rock" on "How to Be Funny on TV" for the book, "The Art of Doing"
Alec Baldwin and Robert Carlock on the set of “30 Rock”
We went to Silvercup Studios to interview Alec Baldwin and Robert Carlock (show runner and co-head writer) of the recently deceased and already acutely mourned “30 Rock” for a chapter in our book on “How to be Funny (on TV).”

Alec Baldwin, who plays Jack Donaghy on “30 Rock,” described his relationship with the show’s writers as a “singer songwriter thing.” He told us:

“[The ’30 Rock’ writers] have ruined me. When someone who wants me to host a show pitches me with, ‘Soooo…you’re a Cub Scout Master and you get stuck in…’ I want to tell them, ‘I work with the funniest people in the business, and you guys don’t know what funny is.'”

And Robert Carlock told us about what it was like to write for actors like Baldwin:

“Comedy is musical, the timing and the pitch. And you’ve got people like Alec Baldwin doing the acting, you can only blame yourself when it doesn’t work.”

Read our exclusive interview with Baldwin and Carlock excerpted from our book, “The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well,” on The Daily Beast here.



Will the Better Storyteller Win This Election?

In most elections the partisans already know who they’re voting for—their votes are based on policies not necessarily politicians. But in an election as close as this one to persuade the small slice of “undecideds,” both Obama and Romney (and their army of supporters) have used every means to shape their story including advertising, stump speeches, visual presentation and robo calls. And just as much effort has been put into destroying the narrative of the other guy.

Although a thousand tangents have been taken and small bore arguments made by the candidates, Obama’s storyline could be summed up as, I inherited a mess that I’ve done a lot to fix and if you elect me again I’ll continue fighting for the Middle Class. And Romney’s might be summarized as: I’m a businessman who knows how to get this economy going.

When we talked to Richard Gerrig, an author and professor of psycholinguistics who’s researched the cognitive effects of narrative, he told us that anyone under the sway of a story can be transported: [Expand ]

“You are so immersed in the narrative and involved with the characters that you are not just identifying with them, you become part of their world and have a stake in the story.”

In other words, in the grips of a story, we experience the narrative in the same way we would if we were actual participants in that story. An effectively told story can so weaken our rational powers of cognition and reason that the story can seem to become proof of its own content.

And in this election both Romney and Obama are vying to be the one who tells the story that “transports” more voters than the other.

Storytelling, of course, is an art not just practiced by politicians. Many of the superachievers we interviewed for our upcoming book recognized the power of narrative. Whether it was to develop a brand or sell a product or even market a rock band, the men and women we talked to told us about how they had put great effort and thought into shaping narratives to communicate with their target audiences.

One of our favorite lines was uttered to us by Michael Sitrick, an L.A. crisis manager, who rehabilitates the tarnished reputations of misbehaving celebrities, CEO’s and elite athletes. In its brutal simplicity, his line could be the motto of any political candidate, party or operative hoping to win an election:

“If you don’t tell your own story, someone else will tell it for you.”

On Tuesday (or who knows when), we’ll see which candidate was the better storyteller. [/Expand]

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How a Bestselling Author Makes His Sentences Sing

In the process of working on “The Art of Doing,” we assimilated dozens of life lessons, tactics and tips—some that even helped us write this book. Stephen Dubner coauthor of the freakishly phenomenal “Freakonomics,” a book that has sold over 4 million copies, spawned a blog, a radio show, and of course, more books, told us,

“Writing was originally a way to preserve oral speech and I’ve never forgotten that….I prefer to write in a way that draws on the oral tradition.”

This was a lesson he learned as a child. Dubner’s family wrote its own DIY newspaper, the Quaker Street Quacker. And being the youngest of eight children, Dubner found competition to be published fierce. His mother would sit with him at the kitchen table and say, “Well, let’s read this out loud and see how it sounds.”

Dubner, who once fronted a rock band, considers writing and music twins.  He uses repetition, call-and-response and varies the lengths of his words and sentences the way a composer varies musical notes and phrases. And Dubner, who has written five books and hundreds of articles (most of which will be read silently by his readers), never forgot his mother’s advice, telling us,

“After writing every sentence, I read the words aloud.”

Even though we sometimes felt pretty silly, we tried this, too—reading aloud what we wrote. Surprisingly we found the ear to be an unrelenting critic. Hearing your own written words can be cringe-worthy. You can’t miss the clunky construction, uncommon word usage and convoluted logic. You’ll also hear when a sentence sings.

So whether it’s a memo or a memoir, a Tweet or a term paper, according to Dubner, listening to your writing by speaking the words aloud can help you write with greater clarity, simplicity and directness.

Oral Tradition Fact: 1906, Mark Twain begins to speak his autobiography aloud to a stenographer, accumulating half a million words. According to The New York Times, Twain argued that “speaking his recollections and his opinions, rather than writing them down, allowed him to adopt a more natural colloquial and frank tone….” Or as Twain himself put it, “One would expect dictated stuff to read like an impromptu speech, brokenly, catchily, repetitiously, & marred by absence of coherence, fluent movement, & the happy things that didn’t come till the speech was done—but it isn’t so.” 2010, Autobiography of Mark Twain Vol. 1 is published and becomes a bestseller.