Knowing How to Tell a Good Story Is Like Having Mind Control | Alan Alda
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Knowing How to Tell a Good Story Is Like Having Mind Control | Alan Alda

August 13, 2019

I met a nanoscientist at Cornell University
who had a really interesting story. He had discovered, with his graduate student,
how to make the world’s thinnest glass—it was only one atom thick. The top of it was the same atom as the bottom
of it, and he called it “two-dimensional glass.” It was an amazing thing, nobody had ever found
a way to make glass this thin before, and it was picked up by one scientific journal. And it seemed like a more interesting subject
than one that would just get that much attention. And a couple of months later he was taking
our workshop when we were up at Cornell, and in the course of talking about his discovery
we realized that he had discovered how to make the world’s thinnest glass by accident. It wasn’t something he was trying to do, an
accident happened. And I said, “You know, this is fascinating. People like us, on the outside, in the public,
it’s an interesting story to us to know that something so groundbreaking, that helped you
understand the structure of glass and might have new uses for glass, that you discovered
such a thing by accident. What an interesting story that is.” And also in the meantime he had been cited
in the Guinness Book of World Records as having discovered the world’s thinnest glass. So now he had two things that would interest
the public. And the next time he gave an interview he
started off with the story of how it had been an accident that he discovered this. This human story now led into the technical
story about what was the world’s thinnest glass, how was it made, and that kind of thing. It became a story that was interesting to
other people who don’t know the technical details with that familiarity. And now his story about discovering the glass
was picked up by websites and newspapers all over America, all over Great Britain, and
venture capitalists started calling him, asking him if they could commercialize this process—just
starting with a human story that people on the outside of your work are interested in,
because we’re all human and we all think in stories. And every experiment has a story. Every life and science has a story and it’s
so common to hear people, when you say to them in a workshop, “Tell me your story.” They say, “Oh, I don’t have a story.” Yes, you do! What’s fascinating to you, when you really
think about it, about how you got from here to there? And the most important thing about a story,
it turns out—to me, anyway—is the obstacle that you found yourself facing as you were
trying to get to your goal. The story is not, “I wanted to get to Toledo,
and I went and I got there.” That’s okay. It’s not much of a story. The story is, “I was headed toward Toledo
and the airplanes were shut down, the cars were shut down, the railroad—how was I going
to get to Toledo?” That’s an interesting story and I want to
listen to that. If in the course of that it turns out you
discovered a new way to get to Toledo, I want to hear it. The glass of water exercise is something that
I figured out on the way to giving a talk. I wanted to give a talk to writers about what’s
the essential ingredient of a dramatic story. And I’m in the car with my wife and I said,
“I don’t know how to start this thing.” She said, “Well, why don’t you start with
some image.” I said, “An image, okay.” So an image of a story, a dramatic story,
I decided in that moment was: carrying a glass of water across the stage, filled to the brim. So when I got there I said, “Is there somebody
relatively brave in the audience? Come on up. Carry this empty glass across the stage.” And it’s a little awkward. The audience titters a little bit, but nothing
much is happening. She puts the glass down on the table over
there. Then I take a pitcher and I fill it all the
way to the brim, there’s hardly a molecule of water left before it starts to spill, and
she’s holding the glass and I say, “Okay, now carry the glass carefully across the stage
and put it on the table over there, but don’t spill a drop or your entire village will die.” Now she’s got an obstacle she has to overcome,
and she carries it so carefully, so carefully that the audience is riveted to the glass,
and if a bead of water goes down the side of the glass you can hear them gasp. Now, everybody knows there’s no village, nobody
is going to die, but just the imaginary situation that she has this important obstacle makes
this an engaging sight, and that happens in every story that has a dramatic obstacle in
it. The attempt to get past the obstacle, to get
where you’re going, to achieve what you’re trying to achieve, makes it an interesting
story. So my guess is instead of leaving out your
mistakes, instead of leaving out the problems you have in achieving something, whether it’s
science or whether it’s an interview where the prospective boss says, “Tell me about
your greatest achievement,” don’t just tell them about your greatest achievement, tell
them about the problems you had in solving the issue you were dealing with so you could
get to something you could call an achievement. That makes it an interesting story. It makes it a more human story and it doesn’t
make you a braggart, it shows you had something really tough to work on, here’s what you thought
you might do to make it better. It’s engaging, and what you want to do is
engage that new employer. You don’t want to just give them the facts. “Here are the facts, you ought to hire me.” He’s going to work with you. He’s going to work with a person. Give him the person, and if the scientist
gives the audience the person and how they felt and what they went through as they were
accomplishing this important discovery, we’re going to take it in better, we’re going to
understand it better, and we’re going to remember it.


  • Reply YouKnowMeFromSchool July 18, 2017 at 5:02 pm

    I though the FBI and Reddington couldnt disarm the bomb?

  • Reply roguecactus7 July 18, 2017 at 5:05 pm

    For sale, baby shoes, unused.


  • Reply Brandon Bohr. July 18, 2017 at 5:09 pm

    YEAH with your videos I am learning english

  • Reply nothing to see here July 18, 2017 at 5:24 pm

    That's why I hate stories. They're lies. If you respect people it's really hard to use stories to influence, because telling a story is inherently condescending. It's like training an animal. If they're trainable, you can care for them, but they're not equals.

  • Reply cjua2803 July 18, 2017 at 5:43 pm

    its funny how many new break throughs or everyday objects are created by accidents

  • Reply Personal Power July 18, 2017 at 5:44 pm

    Mastering the art of story telling is a beautiful thing!
    And it would boost my YouTube channel a lot. I wish I'd be better at it!

  • Reply YaraVerse July 18, 2017 at 5:49 pm

    GrandDad has the coolest hair in the whole world!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Reply David Stevenson July 18, 2017 at 6:40 pm

    Hawkeye always was quite bright.

  • Reply Tommy Boyle and the Party of One July 18, 2017 at 6:40 pm

    This guy just told us a story about telling stories

  • Reply sp277 July 18, 2017 at 7:07 pm

    Great ! Thank you very much.-

  • Reply Smart Cat Collar Project July 18, 2017 at 7:16 pm

    That's the problem being an INTP, you just don't like these layers of BS added to sell a story, you prefer the facts, the details… reality !

  • Reply Empathy Lessons July 18, 2017 at 7:35 pm

    I could learn a thing or ten from this

  • Reply orangecucamonga July 18, 2017 at 8:01 pm

    Atoms are elements. Glass requires at least two elements. Therefore glass cannot be one atom thick: the Cornell glass is one molecule thick (silicon and oxygen). And I am not even a scientist of any kind.
    I'm all for the power of stories and their influential purveyors but when a story about stories has a glaring inaccuracy only 20 seconds in, credibility is lost and I move on.

  • Reply NoLeads Ent. July 18, 2017 at 8:09 pm

    i guess i have mind control.
    my stories in tale reality in folds.
    check my channel out.
    its free~no adds

  • Reply Dylan T July 18, 2017 at 8:21 pm

    The obstacle is the way

  • Reply Psoriasis Channel July 18, 2017 at 8:37 pm

    Telling stories changes everything. Thank you Mr. Alda.

  • Reply Jungle Jargon July 18, 2017 at 9:57 pm

    True stories are the best. The story of evolution is a lie.

  • Reply Jordan Shackelford July 18, 2017 at 10:57 pm

    Am I autistic for watching stuff like this

  • Reply Divine Linker July 18, 2017 at 11:18 pm

    Sales basics: make them feel the bullshit.

  • Reply John terran July 18, 2017 at 11:28 pm

    wow people sure are retarded here aren't they? the man is explaining that when telling a story HOW you got there, WHAT obstacles you overcame makes it interesting rather than just telling the end goal since that shows the human side of us.

    …and what most people got out of this was that all Stories are bullshit and they are all lies? wtf kinda reasoning is that. imma stop reading the comments from now on.

  • Reply ZpointG July 18, 2017 at 11:29 pm

    …CNN knows well how to tell stories….

  • Reply Anuj Singh July 19, 2017 at 12:07 am


  • Reply Freddy July 19, 2017 at 12:23 am

    Sounded like Optimus prime was turning back into a truck in the background every time he started talking

  • Reply Nick Khaz July 19, 2017 at 1:23 am

    how come entire villages always die in white peoples stories?

  • Reply paladro July 19, 2017 at 2:20 am

    that's too much tuna

  • Reply Kewl Story July 19, 2017 at 6:25 am

    So basically "The devil is in the details."

  • Reply David Boson July 19, 2017 at 9:38 am

    you have 7 seconds or im going to other —

  • Reply Urbs Ambles July 19, 2017 at 9:59 am

    Wise and magnificent, thank you Mr. Alda. And Big Think!

  • Reply JJAttack July 19, 2017 at 10:40 am

    Yes Barry Allen.

  • Reply Dimitri Sanchez July 19, 2017 at 11:53 am

    "The Life of "Si" "

  • Reply Alejandro Marrón July 19, 2017 at 4:16 pm

    Amazing videos.. content.. knowledge.. thanks Big Think! we need more like u 😉

  • Reply Adrian Bräysy July 19, 2017 at 6:43 pm

    Pour the water out. walk up to the mic. look at audience. "Some men just want to see the world burn"

  • Reply SuperN0IS3 July 20, 2017 at 2:24 am

    oh the irony- when your video is titled how to tell a good story, and your own storytelling ability is shit

  • Reply Ethan K July 20, 2017 at 3:20 am

    But, Wait, How did he get to Toleto?

  • Reply Learnzz July 20, 2017 at 8:40 am

    Is this the guy from that boring Vietnam sitcom

  • Reply seth chizmar July 20, 2017 at 10:07 am

    Yes! Thank you Alan Alda, I finally have a verbal translation for why quite often the how is more interesting than the what.

  • Reply Hypurman1 July 20, 2017 at 12:56 pm

    Do you discover thin glass, or produce thin glass?

  • Reply NoCultist July 20, 2017 at 3:36 pm

    No one cares about the truth if the lie is interesting enough.

  • Reply Saleem Rana July 20, 2017 at 10:14 pm

    Fascinating. A story about a story, an explanation about the value of a story, a dramatic onstage demonstration of how to set up a story, and a practical example of how to apply a story to achieve a goal.

  • Reply Jackson Souster July 20, 2017 at 10:49 pm


  • Reply rillloudmother July 21, 2017 at 3:23 pm

    this story BS is for folks who are uncomfortable with abstraction.

  • Reply Opus Love Productions July 22, 2017 at 1:01 pm

    i hate story tellers. we're over here trying to have a conversation. you're over there trying to be the only one talking. stfu.

  • Reply Oz9 July 22, 2017 at 7:38 pm

    [carries glass of water nonchalantly across the stage, swishing it back and forth, slams cup on the table spilling water everywhere]

    "I've never liked the people in my village"

  • Reply Trish Truitt July 23, 2017 at 1:53 pm

    Great lesson in human psychology and very applicable for any type of marketing. Thanks!

  • Reply Pretender July 23, 2017 at 5:22 pm

    This changes everything for me in this instance. I've been conscious about how storytelling is everywhere, but I never thought to weaponize it quite like this.

    I'm currently writing a business plan, but I'm struggling, because the material is so dry. One thing that I came up with on my own is to consult my thesaurus of positive traits to think about what I wanted to project. I remembered that a credit card company would purposefully allow their clients to apply photos to their credit cards, since, if someone puts a picture of their child on the credit card, that 1). informs the credit card company that the user has an innate sense of loyalty and 2). allows them to capitalize on that loyalty by linking the family member to the credit card.

    So, the story that I wanted to tell was; I am loyal, I have emotional debts I feel I need to pay to my family, therefore, I will also pay my debts to my business partners.

    But I never thought about taking it to the next step. I've been using all kinds of scientific articles to motivate my business plan, but they all make the material so dry with statistics and everything. What I need to change is to make it into a story of how me, the protagonist of my own story, am overcoming obstacles in unexpected ways.

    This is an excellent piece of advice. Storytelling is second nature to me. So applying that to something dry like a business plan is genius. Thank you so much for the advice, this will change everything.

  • Reply Charles Brightman July 24, 2017 at 3:06 pm

    Everyone should ask themselves:
    "What exactly is being done to try to save any species from eternal conscious extinction?"

    For without at least one truly eternally consciously existent entity that truly exists throughout all of future eternity, even if only by a succession of ever evolving conscious species, then one day there won't be a conscious entity left to care about anything or anyone ever again. All of life itself would all be ultimately meaningless in the grandest scheme of things. Life itself would all just be an illusion, an illusion that would end one day and be forgotten.

    Now, there is a problem to be solved, or then again, maybe it all doesn't matter anyway.

  • Reply Awakened Anhedonic July 24, 2017 at 6:25 pm

    Yeah making up good stories is mind control. That's why US history is bullshit.

  • Reply Rick Kwitkoski July 25, 2017 at 1:14 am

    Good STORY! From the "Life of Pi", near the end of the movie the narrator asks, "Which story did you like better? The one with the tiger or the one without?" "With the tiger" is the answer. Of course, everyone knew that version wasn't true, but it definitely WAS the better story. Overcoming adversity.

  • Reply howdy July 25, 2017 at 3:27 am

    I didn't know Richard Feynman is still alive

  • Reply King22Rules88Hearts July 29, 2017 at 8:43 pm

    All world religions are man made stories……….and less information.

    Wait…. Politicians love these stories to fool citizens of our world.

  • Reply Shubham Kumar July 30, 2017 at 8:38 pm

    Where is the like button?

  • Reply Andrew Sand July 30, 2017 at 10:12 pm

    That explains Disney

  • Reply SamcroNomad July 31, 2017 at 4:37 pm

    in the begining of the video i was like, "mehh", by the end, i was like "Thank you Sir! "

  • Reply Izaac Wopz August 1, 2017 at 8:25 am

    Your story was boring.

  • Reply Julián Lorenzon August 2, 2017 at 12:26 am

    This is positively wonderful, i wish i could like it twice!

  • Reply cxa011500 August 2, 2017 at 4:35 pm

    Sounds great, but it's hard to tell stories when you have a boring life. My entire life feels like that empty glass. It seems like the essential ingredients you need are a destination and goals that you have reached, but I feel like a lack both. I haven't gotten anywhere that I want and I keep going down paths that lead nowhere. :/

  • Reply Nancy Mohass August 4, 2017 at 11:51 pm

    Today human being have one goal, that goal is to become "human " again and there are many obstacles that has been created by greed ! This is our interesting ! Story ,believe it or not!

  • Reply Nexus5 Google August 5, 2017 at 12:30 am

    Wow, my live has gotten more advanced just by listening to a famous interesting experienced fellow human being's wise words. Awesome!

  • Reply McGyver777ATGMAIL August 5, 2017 at 5:03 pm

    So, be yourself, let other people know a lot about yourself, including your short comings, unless of course you are a big fat kid that nobody likes, like me, then, lie. Lie through your teeth and tell interesting stories about yourself, and although they won't like you, at least you got someone to listen once in awhile, and that's something.

  • Reply king spartann August 6, 2017 at 2:22 pm

    نَحْنُ نَقُصُّ عَلَيْكَ أَحْسَنَ الْقَصَصِ بِمَا أَوْحَيْنَا إِلَيْكَ هَٰذَا الْقُرْآنَ وَإِنْ كُنْتَ مِنْ قَبْلِهِ لَمِنَ الْغَافِلِينَ

    (Abul A'ala Maududi)
    اے محمدؐ، ہم اس قرآن کو تمہاری طرف وحی کر کے بہترین پیرایہ میں واقعات اور حقائق تم سے بیان کرتے ہیں، ورنہ اس سے پہلے تو (ان چیزو ں سے) تم بالکل ہی بے خبر تھے

    (Sahih International)
    We relate to you, [O Muhammad], the best of stories in what We have revealed to you of this Qur'an although you were, before it, among the unaware.

    -Sura Yusuf, Ayah 3

    This is your and my God speaking.

  • Reply KryzMasta August 6, 2017 at 7:15 pm

    He's of course totally right. Because a) he's right, and b) he's Alan Alda. So we've concluded he's right. However, now everyone has seen this, everyone is doing this. So American Idol, America's Got Talent, and all those other godforsaken shows have people come in who are not really talented, but have such a tear-jerking story you're guilt-tripped into voting for them. I mean, what kind of human being are you if you don't vote for the kid with the chicken who overcame leukemia? Still, there's no denying his point. I wish we could all weed through the bullshit some more and find the actual valuable stuff (both the hard facts AND the story that makes it great).

  • Reply Poop Brain August 7, 2017 at 12:35 am

    No wonder so many discoveries were by "accident"

  • Reply Peregrine Moss August 8, 2017 at 12:11 am

    If the glass was two-dimensional, and the water looked like it was floating in air, imagine the gasps then.

  • Reply AWildBard August 11, 2017 at 4:17 am

    Alan Alda tells a story about how important storytelling is. Brilliant

  • Reply John S August 12, 2017 at 2:33 pm

    There's a lot of wisdom here. Life's a journey full of obstacles. We're story tellers. To get people to listen, tell an engaging story. They'll remember.

  • Reply LordByron123 August 12, 2017 at 5:10 pm

    Too bad Alan can't tell an interesting story.

  • Reply Rider on the storm August 12, 2017 at 8:49 pm

    Hello Hawkeye

  • Reply gorflunk August 12, 2017 at 10:10 pm

    Franz Kafka – An Imperial Message
    There are parallels between what Mr. Alda is telling us and what Kafka described.

  • Reply Deiya Pernas August 13, 2017 at 1:38 am

    Great advice! There isn't a story I have ever connected with that did not have an obstacle or a struggle.

  • Reply starpravesh August 13, 2017 at 3:01 am

    It's not the goal that's important, but the journey.

  • Reply John Bridges August 13, 2017 at 3:51 pm

    Beautiful! The glass of water analogy captures it all–a whole course on dramatic narrative in a single, simple metaphor. Perfect!

  • Reply If I Only Knew 2 August 17, 2017 at 3:58 pm


  • Reply Karlus Jackson September 1, 2017 at 10:58 pm


  • Reply Mary Seacross September 4, 2017 at 4:53 am

    On my way to Toledo my appendix burstand a whole bunch of Northerners from both New York and Michigan helped me because I'm from California true story

  • Reply My Thoughts September 18, 2017 at 8:33 am

    The title doesn't do justice to the content…This is great and so true

  • Reply Jason Hatt October 9, 2017 at 7:03 pm


  • Reply ثغامة عبدالله October 15, 2017 at 8:07 am

    That was funny mister Alan

  • Reply a b November 1, 2017 at 1:40 am

    Summary: Lead with an engaging story before sharing the technical stuff or instead of giving a short, boring answer with no human value.

  • Reply Gater Rater December 5, 2017 at 3:28 pm

    His eyes remind me the sloth from Zootopia

  • Reply WunderingWhi January 19, 2018 at 3:05 pm

    Could we speed up his rate of speech by 15 or 25%?

  • Reply TrizzySoSlow March 26, 2018 at 10:31 am

    He need to learn to read better

  • Reply Reality is Fake May 21, 2018 at 7:01 pm

    Alan Alda has such a weird fascination with Toledo.

  • Reply karan karan August 27, 2018 at 7:25 pm

    a simpler verson woulve been intresting…

  • Reply aksel k October 30, 2018 at 5:23 pm

    Such a clear old mind! His speech is so smooth, relaxing, and his brilliance is shinning. (i used image am i 😉

  • Reply Tejus Wadbudhe March 14, 2019 at 2:48 pm

    Thank you

  • Reply Tommy Paint March 23, 2019 at 2:18 am

    Alan Alda is a good dude!

  • Reply 95atnoon April 24, 2019 at 10:32 pm

    Thank you! Instantly applicable and powerful!

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