For years I’ve wanted to write an algorithm that would predict whether a story is emotionally compelling or not. This would be a major breakthrough for natural language processing. It would also allow us to automatically rate most of the narrative content on the Internet.
While I am not there yet, I am making progress. Using the wisdom of James Pennebaker from The Secret Life of Pronouns I was able to write a story point of view detector that seems to finally work. Not only does it tell what the story’s point of view is, it can also assign a confidence score to its prediction, as well as reliably detect stories that lack a dominant point of view (result is “none”), or share two alternating points of view (result is “mixed”).
That’s what goes into any good algorithm. If asked to decide between A or B (the simplest choice), there are actually four possible answers: A, B, Both, or Neither.
Storytelling: The Six Major Points of View
After many rounds of testing I decided that, practically speaking, there are 6 points of view:
This may come as a surprise to anyone who has listened to an English teacher drone on about grammar. They were wrong, or at least not teaching from an evidenced-based body of knowledge.
Emotionally Compelling: Mixed or “I” stories
The most powerful point of view if you want to tell an emotionally compelling story, according to The Secret Life of Pronouns is the “mixed” perspective, followed by first person singular (“I”) stories. “Mixed” perspectives alternate between two points of view. And after you realize this, it’s obvious. If you want people to connect with you, and find your point of view credible, you need to spend a little bit of time telling the story from their point of view.
What 98,447 stories can teach us
Below is a chart showing what fraction of stories are told from each of these perspectives for three large bodies of narratives. GlobalGiving requires that every project leader report back to donors four times a year for every project. The report is supposed to be informal, conversational, emotionally engaging blog-type writing. And since 2010 we’ve been collecting stories in East Africa written by regular citizens about some specific community effort they witnessed — the Storytelling Project.
Lastly, for the last two years I’ve been getting a “story of the day” by email from a project of my favorite Artist, Jonathan Harris of “I want you to want me” fame. His storytelling site, Cowbird.com, manually curates good stories from the thousands of submissions. Their 812 stories are a positive control group in this experiment, answering the question:
“From what point of view should an emotionally compelling story be told?”
It stands to reason that all of the 812 cowbird stories are good, and their point-of-view (pov) patterns are reflective of what makes for good storytelling as a rule. Let’s compare these three groups:
|GlobalGiving Project Reports (N=35,689)||East African Community Stories (N=61,946)||Cowbird.com Story of the day (N=812)|
|fourth 0.35||fourth 0.29||first singular 0.514|
|first plural 0.268||third plural 0.197||third singular 0.112|
|third plural 0.126||None 0.18||fourth 0.108|
|third singular 0.098||third singular 0.117||None 0.078|
|second 0.069||first plural 0.084||first plural 0.07|
|first singular 0.046||first singular 0.078||second 0.057|
|None 0.04||mixed 0.049||third plural 0.033|
|mixed 0.003||second 0.007||mixed 0.028|
As you can see from the table, there are dramatic differences. A graph of this makes the differences clearer:
How POV affects story quality: Three major conclusions
First, 51% of Cowbird stories are first person singular (I, me, my, mine), compared to 4.6% of GG project reports and 7.8% of East African stories. If you want to reach people emotionally, only your own story will work. Instead of you telling his story, have him tell his own story with “I” pronouns.
Second, only 1 in 300 GlobalGiving project reports are told from a mixed point view. About 4.9% of East African stories and 2.8% of Cowbird SotDs have a more complex, mixed, alternating point of view.
Third, too many GlobalGiving project leaders have a “fourth person” pov perspective. “Fourth person” is my name for stories that lack any pronouns at all, or contain a lot of definite articles (a, an, the). They tend to focus on objects over people and relationships. Fourth person (in my algorithm) also uses more organization only jaron (such as the words “ngo”,”cbo”, and “foundation”) than pronouns. All of these make for reports that read like cold blooded reports and not warm, personal, emotionally compelling stories.
Since the point of communication is to affect each other’s lives, we should drop the old style reports in favor or just telling the truth and being authentic. But changing your pronouns won’t make your story better, if it was never your story to begin with. You need to actually help people tell their own stories, and be a steward of their words. For too long we’ve let organizations harvest the words of others to further their (organizational) objectives, and this algorithm will finally allow me to out the worst of the bunch and force them to shape up.
Your English teacher mistaught you; get over it.
From an early age we were exposed to thousands of badly written pages that reflected an outdated belief that formal writing is good writing. True human beings are not the stiff, stodgy, static things on those pages. We want to connect, inspire, engage, comfort and challenge each other, and we use short, personal, evocative writing to do that. When I step into my professional clothes I carry along my intuition about what kind of storytelling makes for great science, real innovation, and elegant art.
Which world do you want to build today? The “Professionalized” one that gave us global poverty, a financial crisis, and broken politics? Or the no bullshit one gave us The Muppets, Neil Degrasse Tyson, and Doctor Who?
But who am I to preach?
Old habits die hard. I ran my own algorithm against this blog post and it predicted that I am writing from a “fourth person” perspective with an 80 percent confidence rating.
OUCH! I soooo suck as a writer. Or so my computer tells me.
So I went back into this and changed some of my “you” and “we” statements to “I” statements and ran it again.
“fourth person”, 92% sure, 108 pronouns, 6.3% of text is pronouns
Pronoun counts by POV type:
[('fourth', 40), ('first singular', 31), ('second', 17), ('first plural', 10), ('third plural', 7), ('third singular', 3)]
The reason why I failed? I used too many “its” and “these” and “those” and not enough “I”s in it.
Oh well. [I'm] Hitting the publishing button now.
I’m just not ready to give up my cool ‘it’ pronouns. At least not yet.