Anecdotal evidence points to the effectiveness of anecdotes

Albert EinsteinI’d like to tell you a short story about failure. It centres around a young boy who struggled at school and was aged seven before he could read or write. Teachers would later say that the boy even struggled to remember his own address or telephone number (and this was in the days before the mobile phone took that skill away from us all!). Useless at maths, a failure at school, those teachers told him he would amount to nothing in life…

This was how the CEO of a successful tech company began a welcome presentation to newly graduated recruits joining the company on the first day. She always uses this anecdote to ease their nerves as she knew they would be anxious and feeling the pressure to succeed in a very competitive environment.

Using anecdotes effectively

An anecdote is a short story, or even a scene from a story, that can illustrate a point. Sometimes they feature well known people (this happened to so and so and yet they managed to overcome…) but more frequently they stem from personal experience – something somebody said or did that resonated, which is why we are telling the story.

As already discussed on this blog click here, the power of storytelling should not be overlooked by those giving presentations and speeches. Research has proved that stories stick in the mind in a way that a shopping list of facts and figures doesn’t and make a presentation so much more interesting to boot (Speaker-Listener Neural Coupling, Charles Gross, Princeton 2010)

Let’s take a look at the little boy’s story:

Within the first sentence we have the audience’s attention – Failure. Everyone in the room can identify with this, whether it relates to a job interview they didn’t get, a driving test they failed or their favourite football team getting thumped by the opposition.
In that first sentence, we also have a theme. The audience has some idea of where this journey is going, and because of a personal connection with the theme, ears are pricking up in interest (note – they will soon fold back down if you don’t maintain that interest, but this is a great start!).

Tips for telling anecdotes

Reality check: The trick to the anecdote is to stay within the realms of reality. That is why badly told anecdotes come across as contrived. Politicians are frequently guilty of this. In 2010, David Cameron was lampooned for using an anecdote to talk about immigration, citing the agreement of “a 40-year-old black man” he had met who spent 30 years in the Royal Navy (a very young recruit at 10 years old!).

Embellish respectfully: Leading on from the above, all retold conversations go through the Chinese whisper factory. This is perfectly normal. You remember the conversation you had yesterday slightly differently today. As the protagonist, of course you can give it some artistic license, but don’t gild the Lilly and stretch the audience’s imagination!

Keep it short: Nobody likes a meandering anecdote that notes down every detail. Keep the story moving, the theme in place and have a point to the end of your story.

Keep yourself out of the picture: Putting yourself on a pedestal is just an invitation for your audience to knock you down (think Donald Trump lecturing people on how good a businessman he is – Really Donald, how many bankruptcies?). Anecdotes are far less preachy when they come from someone else’s mouth – for example that of a successful CEO.

Who was the failed schoolboy?

Remember that failed pupil at school, the one that would never amount to anything? Well that was Albert Einstein…. And the obvious moral of the anecdote is that we all fail sometimes, even the greatest minds of our times.

So now you’re sitting there thinking, what a cheesy anecdote to illustrate this piece with… And you’re right of course. But you’re not blaming me so much as wondering why the CEO chose such a cheesy anecdote to tell. And while you’re questioning her logic, you’re also thinking well, she is a successful CEO so she must know what she’s doing.

And while you’re thinking of the successful CEO you are not questioning my use of the anecdote, which has been embellished (that anecdote was delivered by a headmaster on leaver’s day), but is short, got your attention and set the theme for this article….

Luan de Burgh

July 2016

Luan de Burgh is a speaker, writer and founder of The de Burgh Group – a specialist business communication training provider dedicated to helping people perform at their highest potential.