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One element that makes stories work

And Alan Alda was already on the ride to the venue with his wife. So the time was ticking. Tick, tock.

Actor Alan Alda had a problem. He was supposed to give a talk to writers on the essential ingredients of a dramatic story. But he didn’t know how to start it. He knew what to say, but the proper conduit to convey the message escaped him.

Let’s be clear, Alda is an award-winning – and a globally recognized – actor, writer and director. Indeed, he was going to give this talk because he was the right person for it. But he didn’t know where to start.

This was despite all his years as an actor, writer and storyteller. It would be a disaster if he wasn’t able to fulfil the objective of the training. All his years on stage and in films could come to nought if he didn’t quickly come up with a solution. In other words, his reputation was at risk. To boot, his audience is the most critical set of people you can find on planet earth: writers.

And Alan Alda was already on the ride to the venue with his wife. So the time was ticking. Tick, tock.

In the car, he turned to his wife and shared the problem with her. “I don’t know how to start this thing,” Alda said.

Like most wives, she gave him a bit of brilliant advice. Start with an image, she said. Start with an image? This may not mean much to you now. But Alan’s implementation of the advice makes it clearer.

The wife’s choice of an image was also understandable because she is an award-winning photographer and author of 19 books. Her latest book is “Just Kids from the Bronx.”

Accordingly, when Alda got to the venue, he requested for a volunteer. He asked the volunteer to walk to the end of the stage with an empty glass of water.  He said: “Is there somebody relatively brave in the audience? Come on up. Carry this empty glass across the stage.”

This wasn’t a problem. The volunteer quickly did as she was told. “And it’s a little awkward,” Alda recounted. “The audience titters a little bit, but nothing much is happening. She puts the glass down on the table.”

When she came back, Alan filled the glass to the brim with water until the water was about overflowing.

He said, “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 that the stakes were high, the volunteer was more cautious. She walked carefully while the audience watched with rapt attention.

“Now she’s got an obstacle she has to overcome, and she carries it so carefully, ” Alda narrated to Big Think, “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.”

They were rooting for the volunteer. They empathised and wanted her to complete her mission without dropping any water. None of them got distracted by other stimuli. No one looked at their phones. Everyone’s attention was on the lady and the glass of water.

Why did the audience pay attention? Or what single element on the stage caused the audience to root for the lady?

The answer comes in one word: obstacle. Yes, if you want the reader or the listener of your story to care and pay attention, Alan said, you should give your character an obstacle. And it shouldn’t be a small obstacle. In other words, give your characters a problem that is bigger than themselves. A problem that will test their resolve and would require them to mobilise all the resources within themselves and even push them to seek external support.

“That means the problem can’t be easily resolvable, either. If the character has a problem and she solves it, you have a paragraph. You don’t have a story, ” Bruce DeSilva, head of AP News features said.

You could see that even if the audience knew that the obstacle was made up, like the demonstration on the stage, the people still cared. They knew that nobody in the village would die if she spilt the water. Indeed there was no village. It was all made up there and then – in their presence.

That is how movies get us to care and persuade us to forget that it is all fantasy.

The problem or obstacle to overcome in a story is one of the biggest elements that make stories relatable, interesting and captivating. So find an obstacle for your character.

How is this relevant to an impromptu speaker? Whenever you’re invited to speak with little time to prepare, the best advice I can give you is to tell a relevant story. It may be a story about you or someone else. It doesn’t matter. Provided it is relevant. But during an impromptu speech, don’t invent a new story. Use what already exists.

Why? Because a story that exists comes with obstacles for the character. Even if it is a real-life story – especially if it is a real story because characters struggling with obstacles is natural to life. Now that you know what makes a good story, you only need to emphasise the right ingredients. For example, you need to emphasise the obstacle or the problem or the challenge your characters face.

Once again, as an impromptu speaker, you can use this insight to tell great stories.  However, I don’t want you to make up a story on the spot. But rummage through your big bag of experience and fish out one suitable for the occasion.

Out of all the impromptu speaking structures so far discussed, there is none more powerful than this one: storytelling.

But the obstacle is not the only element that makes stories great. There are three more. For a more rigorous discussion of that, read the article I wrote in September 2020 entitled “Start with a Story.”

But you don’t need to read it to start using stories in your presentation. Why?  “The good news is an awful lot of things in life that happen, happen this way,” Jerry Schwartz explained in the Associated Press Reporting Handbook. “They take this natural storytelling form. Because of that, the opportunities are everywhere.”

PS: This is a chapter from Ibraheem Dooba’s book “The Genius of Impromptu Speaking: 9  Structures to Move the Crowd and Speak without Fear.”

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