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Is It a Story or Anecdote--and Why It Matters Which

02/06/2015 11:28 am ET | Updated Apr 08, 2015

The president wanted to hit a grand slam at his first all-hands meeting with employees watching the broadcast from around the world. Obviously, engaging those seated in the large auditorium in front of him would be easier. But he didn't want to miss this first opportunity to win their confidence and trust that he could handle the job left vacant by his predecessor.

"So you said you plan to open with a story about your time in Germany as a young sales manager and what you learned from failure with a client there. Let's hear it," I said in our coaching session together. He took his place at the front of the room. I flipped on the video to record, and he began.

"So what do you think?" he asked after finishing.

"Good energy. Passionate delivery," I said. "But it's not exactly a story."

He looked dumbfounded.

I went on to explain the difference between an anecdote and a story.

His face turned red. Sheepishly, he asked, "Am I the only executive who has missed that difference during their entire career?"

I assured him that he was not. A quick-study, he took the situation from his experience in Germany, and we shaped it into a great story to use in his "debut" speech. And I heard from several sources on my return trips to the company that he won their allegiance that day because it illustrated his humility and willingness to take a risk--and that he'd become an outstanding storyteller.

What you've just read above is an anecdote--not a story.

The Difference Between Anecdotes and Stories

An anecdote is an incident that's usually amusing, odd, sad, or tragic. Typically, an anecdote illustrates a point. Other anecdotes that are biographical or autobiographical often serve to reflect someone's personality, attitude, or philosophy.

Stories, on the other hand, have an "official" literary definition that you may recall from English class: A hero or heroine struggles to overcome obstacles to reach an important goal. (Of course, that "hero" might be an organization struggling to stay afloat and avoid bankruptcy. Or the "hero" might be a new product developed on a shoe-string budget struggling to become number one in the market. Or the "hero" might be a team fighting to prove its worth and avoid being laid off during a merger.) You get the idea.

So why should you care? As a leader, CEO, politician, coach, speaker, entrepreneur--why nit-pick about this issue?

4 Persuasive Pluses for the Story

Stories involve the listener in the struggle. As the hero overcomes this and that setback, the listener identifies with similar problems--or at least the frustrations and disappointment such problems cause. Empathy sets in. Listeners (employees, spouse, coworkers, suppliers) can begin to identify with the hero in the story, trying to solve the problem and reach the goal.

Stories forge a deeper involvement and engage emotions on many levels. The details necessary to set the scene and structure the story involve multiple senses: The physical scene. The appearance of people, things, or places. Fear. Beauty. Starkness. Hearing--conversations, disturbances, arguments, laughter. Withdrawal. Shyness. Mockery.

Stories bring closure on a significant goal. Listeners actually feel a sense of closure and satisfaction after the story "ends" in much the same way they feel at the end of a movie. Whether the movie or story ends "happily ever after" or butts up against some harsh reality, still there is closure--a truth to be processed and internalized.

Stories are memorable because they have structure. Although good speakers know how to tell even an anecdote well, a story stays in the psyche because it has a definite arch that is always the same: Beginning, middle, end. Not so with an anecdote. Anecdotes can simply be a slice of life.

Steve Jobs told stories to launch his Apple products successfully. Warren Buffet tells stories about his investment strategies and philosophies. Presidents and world leaders tell stories about what they've achieved while in office and where they want to take the country in the future. The next time you need to inspire your team, launch a new vision, or motivate people as a leader, perfect great stories.