I interviewed Randy Olson, author of Don’t be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style and director of Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus. I contacted Randy because I his book and Flock of Dodos inspired me to learn how to communicate better. Thanks Randy for taking the time to be interviewed.
What’s your story?
“Story” is my story — it seems to be the unifying element in my two careers: science and cinema. I enjoy the telling of good stories — always have. What drew me into science was a half dozen or so marine biologists who had done amazing things and were excellent tellers of stories of their experiences. I decided I wanted to go gather my own stories of marine biology that I could tell to the world some day, then once I had accomplished that (after 15 years of conducting marine biological research everywhere from the Caribbean to Antarctica) I realized there were more powerful ways to the convey the stories to larger audiences through the medium of film, which led me to shift careers. In 1994 I resigned from my tenured professorship of marine biology at the University of New Hampshire, moved to Los Angeles, entered film school at USC and the rest is crazy history.
Do you think people need to be more extroverted?
Oh, I don’t know that they do. But they do need to give increasingly large amounts of thought to social dynamics and the way they are perceived. It’s unfortunate because most people want to just be “who they are” and not “self-aware” and just plain cool. That used to work in the 1950’s. There was a famous surfer named Mickey Dora who was like that — a cool cat who walked to a different drummer. And James Dean was said to be like that. But it’s a different world today, whether you like it or not. All of George Orwell’s efforts have proven to be in vain. Big Brother is firmly here and people, for the most part, seem to love it. With social media you get back what you’re willing to give out. If you want to really be successful you’ve got to be ready to put a camera in your underpants — that’s when people start to get interested. It’s an unfortunate dynamic, but it’s what society has opted for, so you really don’t have any choice in the matter. Bend over and take it, the age of social media is here.
How do leaders encourage their followers to be more extroverted?
Extroversion generally revolves around greater positivity, introversion the opposite. I work with improv instructors in the communication training I do with doctors and scientists. Improv is a highly social/extroverted process where you work in groups and do exercises that frequently are embarrassing. We go into highly analytical, anti-social settings of science and medical institutions, take highly introverted people, and force them into these extroverted exercises. It’s fun to watch them come out of their shells. So improv acting work is a way that leaders can cultivate more social outwardness. But again, I’m not sure it’s that crucial. People who are naturally introverted should be allowed to follow what feels most comfortable to them.
What’s one thing that’s easy to improve that would significantly improve one’s communication?
Learn the ability to distinguish between what is, and what is not “a story.” A bunch of facts, a chronology, a timeline, a description — none of those are stories. A story begins when something happens. “I live in southwest Los Angeles where there are lots of trees,” is not a story. But, “I live in southwest Los Angeles where there are lots of trees, AND YESTERDAY I WAS WALKING HOME AND DISCOVERED A DEAD BODY,” is a huge story. You really need to know the difference. Most people don’t.