When I’m in need of optimistic inspiration for creative storytelling, I come back to this wonderful archival BBC footage of Richard Feynman opining on the wonders of understanding the physics of everyday life.
The pleasure he derives from understanding how the world works from a scientific perspective (and how he delivers that passion) is infectious. Throughout the talk, he offers colorful new observations on everyday phenomena—a ball bouncing, hammering a nail, a fire, or how elastic bands work—that encourage us to appreciate things we may not even think twice about normally. “The world is a dynamic mess of jiggling things, if you look at it right,” Feynman said.
Image attribution: Wikimedia Commons
In talking about science, Feynman said, “I don’t want to take this stuff seriously. I think we should just have fun imagining it, not worry about it…there’s no teacher who’s going to ask you questions at the end.”
This is a wonderfully simple thought coming from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. It also speaks to one of the most fundamental storytelling techniques (which has been echoed more recently by another scientific storyteller, Chris Hadfield): the importance of not taking yourself too seriously. A sense of fun and wonder, and the lightness and humor that get reflected in the way you communicate on a topic, can make all the difference to the success or failure of a message.
Just a few years ago, ABC reported on the new trend of companies breathing a bit more levity into their marketing campaigns by making fun of themselves and the industry at large. Companies like Nordnet, Arby’s, and Newcastle Brown Ale created hilariously honest commercials that audiences found not only entertaining but genuine.
Nordnet begins their ad with this meta piece of dialogue: “Hello, I’m an actor. I’ve been paid $8000 to tell you how great Nordnet is compared to other banks. They chose me because I’m more handsome than their real CEO and because I look successful in a suit.” It’s this light, humorous, and self-aware approach to communication that breaks the standard mold and is often remembered more fondly than standard TV spots.
In an insightful essay in The Atlantic, author George Johnson compares the careers of Feynman and colleague Murray Gell-Mann, who Johnson argues was “probably the greater physicist,” while he talks about Feynman as a “celebrity scientist.” While Feynman may not have been as prolific a scientist as Gell-Mann (a debatable point), the author writes, “Feynman had a more vital gift: he knew how to package himself.”
Gell-Mann also believed that Feynman’s real genius was in “seeing beyond the dazzling surface of the equations to what nature was really doing.” Drawing connections to real life experiences is one of the hallmarks of successful creative storytelling. Feynman never lost that initial sense of wonder that drew him to study physics in the first place, and he realized the power of this underlying attraction for convincing others likewise.
One of his greatest legacies is the success with which he popularized physics through his books and lectures, reaching a far wider audience than the field of physics usually touches. He even inspired Bill Gates. On his blog, Gates says that “Feynman had this amazing knack for making physics clear and fun at the same time. I immediately went looking for more of his talks, and I’ve been a big fan ever since. Years later I bought the rights to those lectures and worked with Microsoft to get them posted online for free.” Gates’ advocacy is a great example of how good packaging helps messages spread to new audiences.
Not only did Feynman have the character and the passion to inspire a popular audience, but he also had a vivid approach to problem solving and communicating that became well known in academic circles. The birth of the “Feynman diagram” in 1948 ushered in a new way of visualizing challenging concepts in particle physics and quantum mechanics. Writing for Quanta, Frank Wilczek explained the value of these diagrams: “They help us bring our powers of visual imagination to bear on worlds we can’t actually see.”
Image attribution: Wikimedia Commons
Even for theoretical physicists, a visual aid to help bring a level of tangibility to abstract concepts is enabling. MIT professor David Kaiser wrote: “Since the middle of the 20th century, theoretical physicists have increasingly turned to this tool to help them undertake critical calculations. Feynman diagrams have revolutionized nearly every aspect of theoretical physics.”
A visual approach to brainstorming in the form of mind mapping is actually fundamentally similar to the way in which our brains process information. Interconnected networks of concepts and the relationships between them are the cognitive building blocks that give rise to meaning. I make use of mind maps in generating new story ideas as it lets me explore insights in a more three-dimensional way than simply listing out keywords. I often find I hit upon new ideas much more readily by bringing this kind of visual dynamism to them. Coggle is a great free tool for visual brainstorming.
Feynman’s communicative genius is in the way he recognized opportunities to help people understand complex concepts and ideas in new ways. He was an enabler of shifts in perspective and reminded people of the simple pleasures of everyday life. He encouraged people to recognize the miraculous in the mundane and, in so doing, inspired many future scientists as well as his own peers and a world of people who otherwise have no connection to or interest in physics.
Feynman’s approach to storytelling often guides my own. When I’m feeling stuck I come back to these core principles:
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Featured image attribution: Wikimedia Commons