Book Summary: The three-word formula for powerful communication.

The Narrative Gym for Business: Introducing the ABT Framework for Business Communication and Messaging

by Randy Olson and Park Howell

The Narrative Gym for Business provides a practical, effective framework for shaping any form of communication intended to connect with and motivate the recipient. The heart is a simple three-part model for framing messages using narrative structure, which resonates with recipients in ways that science has proven non-narrative messages can’t.

Dr. Randy Olson is a scientist-turned-filmmaker. He was a tenured professor of marine biology (with a Ph.D. from Harvard) when he moved to Hollywood and went to film school. Besides writing and directing films about significant issues in science, he’s on a mission to help scientists (and others) become better communicators.

This edition, which isn’t just for business, is an adaptation of The Narrative Gym, published in 2020. For this version, Olson teamed up with Park Howell, a brand story strategist and host of the “Business of Story” podcast.

The Narrative Gym for Business is a short (101 pages) and easy read that covers the why, what, and how with examples throughout.

This summary reflects my takeaways from a useful book I recommend to others. Reading a summary isn’t a substitute for reading the book. There’s much more than I can cover here. Plus, this is my interpretation. If these ideas resonate with you, I encourage you to get a copy of the book from your favorite bookseller. Here are the Amazon links: eBook | Audiobook | Print


ABT is a framework for structuring communications intended not just to inform but also to connect and motivate. It’s a fundamental way of shaping communications to form an engaging and compelling narrative. A narrative that’s built around a problem. Olson and Howell say narrative is a “series of events that occur in the search for the solution to a problem.”

ABT stands for “AND” (the opening or set up), “BUT” (the problem), and “THEREFORE” (the solution to the problem).

“AND” — The opening material describes the situation before the BUT comes long to change it. The “AND” material should answer the all-important “what?” and “why should we care?” questions. To set the stage for the impact of the “BUT,” first explain how important the subject is and what’s at stake. Also referred to as the “agreement” section, ideally, your audience agrees with you on these points.

“BUT” introduces the problem. This is the linchpin of the narrative process. No problem means no narrative. It’s a departure from the “AND” world. Everything was going one way, then the problem came along and changed the direction.

“THEREFORE” is the action — the solution to the problem.

“And, but, therefore” make a story. “And, and, and” is a description (and boring). Olson and Howell point out that so much of communications, especially in the scientific world where Olson came from, is “AND, AND, AND….” There’s no narrative structure. No narrative means boredom for your reader.

Narrative lights up the brain. Researchers at Princeton University using fMRI scans have documented that materials with a narrative structure connect on an emotional level in a way that non-narrative materials don’t. Narrative makes us take notice.

Stick to the structure. ABT puts user-friendly handles on the three underlying forces of good narrative: agreement, contradiction, and consequence. Your AND or “agreement” material shouldn’t contain words of contradiction, such as “but,” “however,” “yet,” “contrary to,” etc. Likewise, don’t use words of consequence in your AND material. Words such as “therefore,” “consequently,” “as a result of,” etc. Using these words introduces noise. The “AND” material should be all about agreement and devoid of drama, contradictions, or consequences.

Focus on one narrative at a time. Set up a single problem in your AND or agreement section. Introduce that single problem in your BUT or contradiction section. Then describe its and only its solution in the THEREFORE or consequence section. The situation and the problem may have multiple layers, but tackle them one problem at a time. To do otherwise will complicate things, and complications will stress or confuse your recipient.

To help you get focused on a single narrative, Olson developed a tool he calls The Dobzhansky Template[1]. Complete this sentence: “Nothing in _____ makes sense, except in the light of _____.”  (Try as many as you like until you find the one that clicks.)

To clarify your problem, write it out starting with the words, “The problem is…” (Again, try as many as you like.)

Supporting points need their own ABT. Limit your supporting points to three or less and present each with its own ABT. But make sure each sub-point connects to the over-arching ABT. Follow the screenwriters’ rule: “everything must advance the narrative.” Here, that’s your overarching ABT.

“If/Then” statements make what’s at stake more clear and compelling. If/then statements come in two forms: positive and negative. Positive: “IF we do X, THEN these wonderful things will happen.” Negative: “IF we don’t do X, THEN these awful things will happen.” Both forms evoke primary human motivations such as hope and fear. Hope that we will achieve our goals and fear that we will fail.

Tap the power of moments. Pause for a minute and think about a movie that you’ve enjoyed. What do you remember about it? It’s probably a particular scene or line of dialogue. A memorable moment. Most of us won’t be using the ABT to script the next Hollywood blockbuster, but all of us can tap the power of moments to make our messages more memorable.

Significant, dramatic, or instantaneous change grabs attention. While there are many ways to create memorable moments, the ABT narrative structure is about change – change for the better or change that we want to avoid. There are two sections of the ABT where change occurs, thus ripe for moments: the but/problem and the therefore/solution sections. Changes that are dramatic, significant, or instantaneous are more memorable. They are more likely to grab your audience’s attention, increasing the chances of them remembering and telling others about what they just saw or heard.

Introduce your main character upfront. Your main character is the person, group, or thing your problem affects. Be clear about your main character and introduce them upfront. Don’t wait until the therefore/solution section, as many people mistakenly do.

Is ABT needed in all communications? No. If you are communicating with people within your profession who already know the issues and consequences you discuss, this structure may not be necessary. However, it can be helpful when communicating with people outside your inner circle or profession who don’t have your level of insider knowledge.

Be prepared for some pushback. The authors point out that “highly analytical people tend to dislike drama.” “[They] want to ‘let the data speak for itself.’“ But most of your audience doesn’t want to hear fact after fact after fact. “AND, AND, AND” communication doesn’t connect and doesn’t motivate. Just make sure that you can back up your points with facts and examples. That will appeal to the analytical folks.

The ABT has deep roots. Olson and Howell point out that they didn’t invent the underlying framing or even the ABT terminology. They say the underlying structure, which Howell calls “the DNA of story,” can be found throughout history, from Aristotle’s Poetics to Hagel’s thesis, antithesis, synthesis dialectic to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to the scripts for the TV comedy series, “South Park.” And they give credit for the ABT terminology to legendary screenwriting instructor Frank Daniel. But Olson and Howell have turned this deeply rooted framework into a handy template that we can use to strengthen our communications.

The ABT is about form, not content. It’s not a tool for making judgments about content — whether it is right or wrong, true or false, accurate or inaccurate, information or misinformation. That’s on you. ABT is simply a framework for communicating your message in the most powerful way possible.

Recap. The “AND” or agreement section is meant to be drama-free. Its role is to set the stage for introducing the problem by building agreement about the situation. The word “BUT” (or its synonyms) signals a change, a contradiction. It grabs the recipient’s attention and activates the brain. The “THEREFORE” or solution is the resolution of the problem, which brings a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction. The problem arouses the brain; the solution calms it. Thus, the narrative process doesn’t begin until the introduction of the problem. Everything before that is non-narrative.

Examples of the ABT at work

Book details and where to buy it:

Buy the book on Amazon: Ebook | Print*
Amazon rating: 4.9 of 5 stars
GoodReads rating: 5.0 of 5 stars
Page count: 101 pages
Publication date: Aug. 9, 2021
Free reference card summarizing the ABT:

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[1] Inspired by an essay by Ukrainian-American evolutionary biologist, Theodosius Dobzhansky, “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.”