Your mind thinks in stories. Tell better ones to get ahead.

Knowing how to tell a good story is like having mind control. Alan Alda shares some incredible tips for captivating a crowd—or nailing your next job interview.

Alan Alda: 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.

People who are natural storytellers make it look easy, but cut to the moment you're in the hot seat—at an interview, a conference, or even in a social setting—and suddenly the suave-ness is not so forthcoming. So what is the key to telling a story that grips a crowd, and takes them emotionally from point A to point B? This has been a point of focus for actor and author Alan Alda throughout his career, and here he draws on two examples from his life: the first about a brilliant nano-scientist who couldn't get anyone to care about his breakthrough invention until he let slip that it was a total accident; and the second is a simple but astounding demonstration that involves a person carrying a glass of water across a stage. Not exactly riveting? Watch and learn, young grasshopper. Alan Alda's most recent book is If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?

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Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
Surprising Science
  • A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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Four philosophers who realized they were completely wrong about things

Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?

Sartre and Wittgenstein realize they were mistaken. (Getty Images)
Culture & Religion

Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways. 

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