Storytellers Question Their Beliefs


Marvin Minsky, co-founder of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, described a fundamental flaw in human thought that he called The Investment Principle:

“Our oldest ideas have unfair advantages over those that come later. The earlier we learn a skill, the more methods we can acquire for using it. Each new idea must then compete against the larger mass of skills the old ideas have accumulated.” 1 

First, we learn something new. Then, we practice applying it. Finally, we enjoy success as it becomes our go-to-move whenever we’re faced with a similar problem. But, what about adopting a new idea, variation, or technique that might solve the original problem better? Minsky suggests that we are so invested in the original idea, that it’s highly unlikely that we’ll adopt the new one.

So, how do we adopt new ideas? Minsky performs periodic evaluations of his old ideas.

“If I still believe something after five years, I doubt it,” he said.2

Storytellers should periodically question what we know. That doesn’t mean we must always change our views or adopt a new idea. Instead, it gives us an opportunity to review our mental inventories, weed out the bad ideas, and bolster the good ones.

One way is to revisit an issue from a different perspective. We are the heroes of our own lives. Darth Vader was the hero of his story, just as Luke Skywalker was the hero of his.

If a story is the result of people pursuing what they want, looking at what each character wants offers different perspectives. Luke Skywalker wants to destroy the Death Star because it stands in between him and the survival of his people. Darth Vader wants to protect the Death Star to quash the rebellion. Both are part of the same story, yet each views the end goal differently.

What do you still believe after five years? Question it. Find someone who disagrees with you. Read a new book about it.  Flip the script. Put something old into a new context.

You might just find a better idea, perspective, or story.



  1. Marvin Minsky, The Society of Mind (New York, Simon & Schuster, 1985) p 146.
  2. Stewart Brand, The Media Lab (New York, Viking, 1987) p 104.

Photo Credit:

Storytellers Train Elephants


You’re in a sales meeting where everything’s going well. Then, you say something that seems innocuous, but it turns out to be an inflection point in the conversation. Out of nowhere, the client clams up, suddenly “remembers” another meeting, and hastens your exit. As you walk to your car you wonder, “What happened?”

The short answer? You were probably run over by an elephant.

In How to Tell a Story in a Half-Second, we showed how the brain’s right hemisphere, the emotional side of your brain, is an order of magnitude faster than the logical, left hemisphere. When dealing with new information, our emotions command an unfair advantage over our rational thoughts. Therefore, if we want to win the trifecta of the human thought race, we must bet: instinct for the win, emotion to place, and logic to show.

I’ve always thought of this process as thinking fast and slow, but had no way to articulate the raw power of the fast parts. Then I read a great metaphor for the power imbalance between the two: the elephant and the rider.

Social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, uses an elephant to represent the instinct and emotional side of the human thought. The metaphor works because elephants are both powerful and have inertia. Once an elephant gets going, it can’t be stopped instantaneously. Instead, it must be steered by what Haidt calls the rider, the logical side of human thought who hangs on for dear life while trying to maneuver the elephant toward a specific destination.

While most communicators want to build their messages on pure logic, Haidt suggests that we “…talk to the elephant first. If you ask people to believe something that violates their intuitions, they will devote their efforts to finding an escape hatch—a reason to doubt your argument or conclusion. They will almost always succeed.” 1

Elephants are massive and powerful, yet they can be spooked by a mouse. Once they get going, they’re hard to slow down. Storytellers that ignore them are advised to proceed at their own communications peril.

Haidt believes “…that the Humean model (reason is a servant) fits the facts better than the Platonic model (reason could and should rule) or the Jeffersonian model (head and heart are co-emperors).” 2

In other words, reason is the heart’s servant. And while our ability to overcome both instinct and emotion with logic separates us from the beasts, we are still driven by them. Our job as storytellers is to prevent startled elephants from running over our audiences.




1. Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Vintage Books, 2013), 59.

2. Haidt: 79.

Photo Credit: Bain News Service, Publisher. “Hattie” and Hattie Snyder trainer and elephant. , . [No Date Recorded on Caption Card] Photograph.

Who Knew Storytelling Could be so Dangerous

Although most of this audience only knows me as the creator of the StoryHow™ Pitchdeck, another has known me as the host of one of the oldest storytelling podcasts, Griddlecakes Radio, now in its 14th season.

And so, rather than bringing you another storytelling perspective this week, I’m going back to my storytelling roots to tell an actual story–in audio form. It’s a story called, Who Knew Storytelling Could be so Dangerous?