Are You Telling A Story Or An Anecdote? Which Do You Need?

05/26/2017 08:42 am ET Updated Jun 02, 2017

No, it’s not just you. You’re not just imagining that half the blogs and books you’ve read in the last few years have urged you to learn to tell a great story. Here’s why.

Stories make things stick. Professional speakers, CEOs, entertainers, trainers, and leaders have learned that data, marketing messages, instructions, procedures, or just about any kind of information burrows into the brain better and stays longer when wrapped in a good story.

That in itself––besides the entertainment value—warrants knowing the difference between a story and an anecdote. Both have value.

Decide Which You Need—a Story or an Anecdote?

An Anecdote Defined

An anecdote can simply be an incident, a happening, or a “slice of life.” It may be sad, funny, tragic, odd, or merely amusing. Examples: Telling how badly a customer service rep treated you. Explaining the terrible ski accident your spouse had last vacation. Relating your first experience of being fired.

A Story Defined

A story, by contrast, has an official literary definition: A hero or heroine struggles to overcome obstacles to reach an important goal. The hero may be the storyteller, another person like your Uncle Hank, or a team. The “hero” might even be an organization struggling to stay afloat and avoid bankruptcy. Or the “heroine” could be an inanimate object—like a new product developed on a shoe-string budget struggling to become number one in the marketplace.

An Obstacle Defined

Obstacles that get in the way of reaching the important goal might be a new competitor, a boss, a tight budget, lack of experience, or stupidity.

An Important Goal Defined

An important goal might be a new career, a big raise, a successful product launch, profitability, integrity, saving your company, “doing the right thing,” stronger self-confidence, or any number of things the “hero” hopes to achieve by the end of the struggle.

Structure a good storyline, and listeners will root for the hero or heroine all the way to the end—and they’ll remember the key point!

When to Use Which

Consider the anecdote like cotton candy. You see it and taste it briefly, and then it’s gone. Its impact is short-lived. Primarily, an anecdote appeals to the mind; it may illustrate, clarify, or entertain—but has little long-lasting effect.

A story, on the other hand, satisfies like steak. You can touch it, see it, smell it, taste it, and chew on it awhile. Because you become involved with the hero’s struggle all the way through to resolution, the story makes a stronger emotional connection and impact.

Anecdotes work well to make a minor point, to clarify information, or to entertain. Stories work well to motivate, inspire, and change behavior.

Keep both anecdotes and stories in your bag of speaking tools, and know when to use each to accomplish your purpose.

For more thoughts on strategic leadership communication, pre-order the new book: Communicate Like a Leader: Connecting Strategically to Coach, Inspire, and Get Things Done (Berrett-Koehler). Click here to order at your favorite online store: http://www.CommunicateLikeaLeaderBook.com/Buy

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