Eight Tips for Telling a Good Anecdote


Stories grab attention the way no other technique can. Your anecdote may be serious, sad, humorous, enlightening, or inspiring. It may serve as proof that a situation exists in your organization, an example of what excellent organizations do to lead the industry, the epitome of innovation, a thought-provoking “war story” from one of your front-line employees, or merely a momentary inspiration.

Even with a serious point, humor generally helps. Your purpose is not to bring down the house with wildly funny stories; the audience does not expect Jay Leno or David Letterman. Humor, however, anchors key points and makes your message memorable.

Slanting your story to your audience—their point of view and their mood—adds to the impact. When done well, a humorous story adds an element of class and distinction. Stories pack power.

1. Know Your Reason for Using a Story
To illustrate a point, to entertain, or to build common ground with your audience––identifying your purpose will make your selection much easier. You also will understand the length of time you should devote to telling it and the effort that should go into telling it well. Never use a $100 story in a three-minute time slot to make a nickel point.

2. Set Up the Anecdote in an Intriguing Way
Not: “Let me tell you about a manager in our Miami office.” But: “Managers sometimes exhibit their greatest leadership skills when they make a mistake. This was the case in our Miami office last quarter when . . .”

3. Choose Relevant, Appropriate Details
It is tempting to talk while you think. Don’t. Either work out your story by talking it aloud until you perfect it, or write the story and then edit out the garbage. Ask yourself with each word, phrase, and sentence: Does it add to the mood? Does it create the scene? Is this detail necessary to move the story forward and make the point? Weed out trivial details that detract or add only length.

4. Prefer Scene to Narrative

Recreate the movie scene, add the dialogue, and step into the story as a character, if necessary, to breathe life into the telling.
Not this narrative: “I had a terrible experience the last time I visited my doctor’s office. The receptionist was surly and kept scolding me and other patients for “noise” as if we were children. Customer service certainly isn’t what it used to be.”
But this scene: “I’m not one easily persuaded to see a doctor. And I get particularly upset about the lack of customer service in most medical offices. But last fall when my fever reached 103 degrees, I finally stagger into my internist’s office, dehydrated, dizzy, and green from lunch. And the receptionist pushes a clipboard toward me and growls, ‘You’ll need to complete this.’ So I’m sitting there with all the paperwork piled in my lap, scrawling in the blanks: Name, rank, serial number, referring physician, address of hairdresser, IQ. And the clipboard breaks and shoots the spring in the handle across the room into the water cooler with a loud zing. Then this lady beside me starts to sneeze and wheeze so loud that it catches the attention of the toddler with measles next to her. So then the toddler starts to screech at his lung’s capacity, ‘Mommy, what’s she doing?’ About this time, the receptionist opens her cubicle window again and says, ‘Could I ask you people to keep down the noise please. There are sick people in here.’”

5. Perfect Facial Expression, Voice Tone, and Body Language to Be an Essential Part of the Story
In the same way that both content and delivery work together to make your entire presentation either dynamic or distasteful, a story and its delivery work together to create the total impact. A raised eyebrow, a haughty tone, or a shrug of the shoulders can carry—or reverse—your point.

6. Let the Punch Line Stand on Its Own
If you have to explain the punch line, it doesn’t work. Play with it until it does. Sometimes the substitution of one key word will make the difference between a laugh and blank stare, between an “aaahhh-haaa” and a “huh?” Practice the punch line and the punch word until others understand it. If they don’t, delete it rather than explain it.

7. Avoid a Big Buildup That Sets Up Disappointment
Inexperienced speakers warn, “Here comes a joke,” with a lead-in like, “That reminds me of the story about . . .” or “I’ve got a great story that makes a point about X. You’re not going to believe what this customer really said to me. But I want to tell you about this situation just to illustrate my point about the type of demands our customers are placing on us these days. This guy was really crazy. Really irate. Yelling. The whole thing was so ridiculous. You won’t believe this. Here’s what happened. . . . .”

With such a long buildup, the typical group reaction after you tell the anecdote will be, “That wasn’t so unusual.”

Just get into the story and make your point. The audience will let you know if it was funny, unusual, sad, or not.

8. Rehearse Your Stories and One-Liners “Off Broadway”

Before you use an anecdote “live” in a session or presentation, make sure that it works. And the best way to do this is to see how others react as you tell it. Tell it to your family and friends. Tell it at a cocktail party. Tell it at work in the cafeteria. Where do people laugh? At what details do people’s expressions change? Where do their eyes grow larger? Where are they shocked? Amused? Appalled? On the next telling, play up those parts. Create more suspense. Add more dialogue, less narration.

You will generally improve your delivery with each telling. Sometimes people laugh at things you did not think were the funny part—and vice versa. It is better to know this before telling the story “for real” in your presentation to drive home a key point.


Author of 44 books, Dianna Booher works with organizations and individuals to increase their productivity and improve their effectiveness through better communication: oral, written, interpersonal, and organizational. Her latest books: Booher’s Rules of Business Grammar: 101 Fast and Easy Ways to Correct the Most Common Errors, The Voice of Authority: 10 Communication Strategies Every Leader Needs to Know, and Speak with Confidence (all from McGraw-Hill). www.booher.com or 800-342-6621.




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