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Archive for the ‘The personal anecdote’ Category

A highly respected speech coach recently said “A good story links head and heart”.

Now, I’m the kind of person who hears something like that and has to prove it or disprove it to her own satisfaction. So I imagined a kid’s story about witches, dragons and escape from a moated castle. Does that link head and heart? I don’t think so. One vote against.

How about a romance? Another vote against.

Or a mystery story? Now there’s a link to the head as you try to puzzle out whodunit, but no link to the heart unless you have been made to care strongly for one of the characters in the story.  So that gets a sit-on-the-fence vote.

But what about speech stories? Think of political campaigns. “Hi, I’m John Doe. If elected I will spend a billion on the environment and a billion on infrastructure.” Compare this with “Hi, I’m Jane Doe. About ten years ago I saw this woman pushing a shopping cart full of her belongings and she looked so tired she could hardly stand up. That made me start advocating for a Food Bank and we opened one a few months later right here on Main Street.”

The environment and infrastructure are head issues. A homeless woman is a heart issue. Both need to be linked with the other aspect. The environment – where is the story that links this important issue with the experience and dreams of the listener? Homelessness – where are the stats that prove the value of intervention programmes?

The value of the story is that it brings the issue into focus for the listener, it reduces the abstraction level and makes the concept manageable in scale. It’s much easier to start with story and back it up with statistics than it is to start with stats and go to story.  Start with a story that touches the heart and you have people’s attention for what comes next. Start with stats and their eyes have glazed over already.

So in a standard Toastmaster speech – whether you want to provide information or change behaviour – get to the heart with the story and only then feed in the information or steps to be taken. Providing information right off the top skips the story step. You lose the why-should-I-care? moment.

People need the why-should-I-care? moment. Without it they might not care and they might not listen.

So when it comes to your speeches, yes, the story links heart and head. I believe the advice is sound.

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Think back over today or yesterday. How many anecdotes happened to you?

What did your kids or pets do that was interesting? What did your boss say or do? What did that nutbar down the hall do? What was the barista talking about to her friend as she made your latte? Was the school bus late again? Was there a line up at the check out?

If you don’t pay attention anecdotes will slide by unnoticed and you’ll be stuck telling the same old stories over and over. Anecdotes are the spice of life.  Don’t let them escape your notice or you will lead a life that is duller than it need be. Hands up all those who would like to lead a dull life.

Maybe your kid said something really cute today. (Grandpa, why do you have hair on your chin and not on your head?”) Instant anecdote. You mimic his tone and you observe grandpa’s reaction and the reaction of everyone else in the room.

You build the anecdote, adding detail, exaggerating a bit here, subtracting anything irrelevant. You practice it silently. You share it with friends. It gets better all the time. Next thing you know you’ve got an anecdote to illustrate – for example – grandpa’s patience or the fresh view of the world that kids have or family interactions.

Your boss – well, depending on how you feel about him or her, you’re going to come home  quite often with tales of the latest interesting/terrible thing they did or said. Whatever it was will have had repercussions, positive or negative (or both). Put it together in the best story form you can before you get home – “She said this and Mary Lou got annoyed and she said….and Betty sided with her and…” Build it. Add details. Exaggerate just slightly. Throw in some hand gestures and roll your eyes. The boss just gave you an anecdote.

The  nutbar down the hall is a windfall of anecdotes. Of course, in your anecdote you won’t call him a nutbar, nor will you name him. He will become the man who has talked with aliens and who knows that JFK is actually alive. People would rather draw their own conclusions than be told yours.

You can take his odd beliefs and carry them to their logical conclusions. You can dramatize his meeting with the spaceship. You can even pretend you were there with him. At the end of your anecdote bring your listeners back with something that shows you are understanding and not just critical and supercilious. “But no-one gets his work done faster or more accurately than he does and he’s always willing to help the rest of us.”

Overheard conversations and interactions are another wonderful source of anecdotes. Can you get into  the head of someone who says “My wife’s in hospital, so I’m free for a few  days.” What was that about? Can you backtrack and try to understand the story behind it? It would only be personal insofar as you overheard it but it holds wonderful potential for a story.

Dig your life out of its rut. And remind me to tell you the story of my $400 nail.

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Empathy is the holy grail that is sought by storytellers. Most of us try to achieve that sense of empathy in the first sentence or two.  How about:

“When I was five years old I was afraid of thunder…”

or

“When I was fifteen years old I was accepted into Harvard…”

We can all remember back to our childhood being afraid of something, so we understand at a deep level what the speaker is saying. The speaker makes a connection with us right away. Not many of us can remember being accepted into Harvard at any age, never mind at fifteen, so there is no sense of connection. We might wonder if the speaker is being self-indulgent and we mentally back off a bit until he comes down to a level that we are comfortable with and understand.

A personal story relies on empathy for its success but it can be a balancing act. Nostalgia is good and a little sentimentality can show the softer part of your nature but try not to overdo it.  You don’t want your audience wallowing in mush. You can tell stories about a difficult point in your life, showing the problems clearly. But don’t whine and wallow in victim-hood. Share a little of yourself with the audience but don’t use your story as a psychotherapists couch, with every detail revealed.

Empathy often comes from the telling detail. If you were afraid of thunder tell how you hid under the blankets or under the bed or in the closet. Maybe your older brother laughed at your fear. These are the details that bring your audience closer to you. They feel for you and they are open to hearing what you have to say next.

Once you have that empathy it will carry your message much more effectively. Whether it is inspirational or motivational your message now has a clearer path into the mind of each member of the audience.  Inattention or preconceived negative ideas are minimized.

No wonder achieving empathy is the holy grail of storytellers and speakers.

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You start it at the beginning. Okay, where is the beginning.

The beginning is close to the start of the action. So let’s quickly de-construct a simple anecdote.

My grandson was asked by an elderly relative to programme a ring tone into her cell phone. For a joke he programmed in Tarzan’s jungle call. She tested the ring tone and thanked him. He smiled and asked “What ring tone do you really want?” She replied “I like this one.” He offered to change it but she insisted on keeping it. So wherever she goes with her grandma handbag, if her phone rings Tarzan’s jungle call fills the room.

That’s the bare bones. I might add that this took place at a Hallowe’en party, that the relative lives in a houseboat, that she was cooking dinner at the time, that she has a sick husband, that my grandson is a really tall 20-year old. There’s a lot of background information that I might choose to use, or not. It would depend on time available. Yes, you can use an anecdote to use up time, or compress it to take up less time.

It would also depend on my reason for using the anecdote. If it was Hallowe’en when I was telling the story I’d add that in. If not, not. I’ve never found the houseboat or the sick husband relevant here, but her busy-ness is relevant when I use the story to illustrate different ages/different talents.

Yes, but where does the story begin? It doesn’t start with getting dressed to go out, nor driving to the boat, nor the welcome, the pouring of drinks etc. It starts with the first action of the story. She asked him to programme a ring tone. It is important to this story to note that she is elderly and he is younger. I could mention her white hair, glasses, holding a wooden cooking spoon. I could mention that he is tall, wears a hoodie and earrings. The contrast in style and abilities might need to be accented. But the accent embroidery, the setting, characterization and any backstory fits into the body of the anecdote. None of it comes before the beginning. We don’t need to know all about these people before the story starts.

Characterization and setting can enrich your anecdote or story, but never forget that it’s the action that counts. Start with the action.

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One of my problems as a speaker is that I try to cram too much information into one speech. Partly it’s because I want to share a lot about my topic. Partly it’s because I’m afraid of running out of material and having nothing left to say.

You’d think I might practice what I preach. What I preach is – your audience will remember only one or two facts, three at the most. So I might as well forget about packing in more and more information. What I need to do is pick my two or three best points and give people a good strong anecdote with which to remember each of them.

Some recent research from the University of Oregon supports this. Researchers found that information supported by narrative was transferred more effectively than that supported by:

charts,

tables,

graphs,

simple assertion.

The researchers went even further and said that the use of narrative made people more likely to:

remember the information,

use the information,

make good decisions based on the inforamtion.

So I am going to try to inform less and reinforce my few nuggets of information with narrative in the form of anecdotes. This will be easier for me to remember and also easier for my audience to remember.

All of life should be so simple.

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Stories and Anecdotes

When people ask the difference between an anecdote and a story, the quick answer is that an anecdote is shorter than a story.

That is often, but not always, true. We’ve all heard speakers who can spin one anecdote out over twenty minutes and we’ve heard stories that are complete in 5 – 7 minutes.

My dictionary tells me that an anecdote is a short, usually amusing, account of an incident, especially one that is personal or biographical. The word comes from Greek, via Latin and is based on their words meaning ‘unpublished’.

A story, the dictionary says, is the narration of a chain of events. Again the word comes from Greek via Latin. It relates to the word ‘history’ which is ‘a record or account of past events’.

So an anecdote is the tale of an incident. Just one incident, but often a defining one in the speaker’s or writer’s life. A story is several events that hang naturally together. It might be true, but very likely it is fiction, or at least partly fiction. The events might be strung together purely for entertainment, or they might  be linked in a way that teaches a lesson.

Motivational speakers who address their audience for an hour or more string anecdotes together linked by their reflections and lessons learned from the meaning of each incident. In the end the speech is almost like the story of their life to date – a series of events that hang naturally together.

Stories are more complex than anecdotes. You can only wring just so much meaning out of one anecdote. Stories, on the other hand, with their series of events can multiply levels of meaning depending on how the teller chooses to include or exclude events and how she chooses to manipulate the characters through the events.

Stories have a plot, which is just simply a plan. Anecdotes have no plan. They are just a record (perhaps embroidered) of one event. I could tell you about the big dog that attacked mine this morning. I could rattle on about it for half an hour. I could take lessons from it about dog training or leash laws. I could make it vivid, sharing my fear.

But in the end it is still just an anecdote. I can’t make it, by itself, into a story. I could include it in a story, as one scene. It would be vivid because it is something I actually experienced. It would be like one bead – attractive, but it would need a lot more beads to make a necklace.

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I was putting together an anecdote that took place in the early days of my teaching career. I had a decision to make about one of my students, a seven-year-old who had already amassed a poor reputation. My decision would probably affect his whole life. Should I follow all the strong evidence and treat him as a known trouble-maker or should I go with my gut and treat him as a small boy with nothing worse than mischief in his eyes? I lacked experience and I was being strongly advised to go with option number one.

I think this anecdote has a lot of story-strength for these reasons:

1. It’s about a child. Any story that focuses on children or animals will spark interest in your audience.

2.  The decision has long term, even permanent, effects for the child. This is not a decision whose effects will be forgotten in a week.

3. The decision-making battle is a strong one.  All the evidence and advice points to ‘treat him as a trouble maker’. I am new to teaching, inexperienced and lacking in self confidence. Who am I to reject the advice of trusted, experienced teachers? How can I possibly go with unsubstantiated gut feeling over all the evidence? It’s David versus Goliath.

3. Making the right decision has benefits to all. (Yes, I went with ‘just mischievous’.) The child starts to feel less of a pariah and is able to turn his energies in a positive direction. I develop greater self confidence. It turns into a win-win situation.

If, on the other hand, the decision had turned out positive for the child and negative for me the anecdote would not be so strong. In my speech I would have to ignore or play down the negative effects on me, otherwise I’d come across as a martyr. No-one really likes a martyr.

4. Most people relate to the anecdote because everyone has been new and uncertain in a job at some point in their life. It connects with an experience most of us have in common.

5. The anecdote has an element of suspense. Will she/won’t she make the right decision? And the situation and decision is very clear – I didn’t need to do a lot of explaining to make people understand.

This anecdote is a particularly strong one. When you come across your own really strong anecdotes store them for future use. Strengthen them further if you can. Analyze them to discover what makes them strong.

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I was putting together a speech on the topic of honesty and it reminded me of a boss I had years ago. Let’s call him Ivan. Ivan was the most honest person I’ve ever known. I was in his office one day when his phone rang. Quickly he said, “Don’t go. It’ll just be City Hall calling me back. It’s not private.” So I sat there and pretended not to listen.

Apparently he had phoned the city’s finance department to say that he had put an addition on his house – his very kind retired neighbour had built a tiny (two foot by three foot) mini-roof over his front doorstep so anyone standing there in the rain would not get wet. He was telling the finance department about this because he knew that any improvement to a home raised his municipal taxes and he didn’t want them to forget to raise his.

I think it took him three times to get this across to an incredulous city employee. Now I consider myself an honest person, but I remembered a short fence and arbour I had added to my house and, no, I hadn’t phoned to mention it to city hall.

The story about Ivan is a good one to include in a speech about honesty. It is as true as I can remember; as close to actual fact as my memory allows. But if I wanted to get maximum mileage out of this story I would change it a bit.  I would not be speaking about my boss Ivan. Instead, the story would be about Evie, a single mom who worked for me. She had to scrimp and save every penny and she was working on a special project with me – she did not have the benefit of a steady job and wage.

Can you see how much more powerful the story is if Evie phones city hall? Ivan could easily afford a slight increase in taxes, Evie could not. As it happens I did have a woman working for me then who fits the description of Evie so it would not be total fabrication.

So, where do you personally stand on changing the story? We all have our own standards of honesty and only you can answer that. Myself? Yes, I’d change the story (even if I didn’t have a real Evie).  I would do it because I always want to express my message in the strongest way I can. If I feel my message is important, and I usually do,  then I will do anything I can to sharpen my stories and anecdotes so they hit home as forcefully as possible. I take time to sharpen and polish my stories even if that means they end up not being completely factual.

I take pride in sharpening and polishing my stories. I want them to be the most pointed of weapons. Occasionally they remain true to remembered fact and that’s satisfying. But when you are speaking to try to change attitudes and behaviours the myth may be a better weapon than the truth.

And as a famous satrap once asked, “What is truth?”

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(The first in a series)

“Yes,” she said, “I’d like to use anecdotes in my speech like he does, but nothing interesting ever happens in my life.”

Oh really? There might be a hermit somewhere who has absolutely nothing interesting happening in his life but for most of us, with families, jobs, hobbies, shopping, church, and/or school going on we have life experience that is full of anecdotes.

Human nature, with its actions and reactions, its clashes and its strange turns of fate is just full of stories, and an anecdote is just a shorter-than-usual story. Where though, do you find them?

Don’t limit your search to yesterday or last week. Go back as far as you remember. Include:

– all your schools and classes, your college days

– every job you ever had, right from a lemonade stand, summer jobs, helping your sister move, to career moves

– volunteering

– all the groups, formal or informal, you ever belonged to

– your friends and your not-so-friends

– your holidays, neighbours, church and professional associations

– your family; not just close family but great uncles, second cousins, in laws and all their spouses and children

– the odd people you’ve seen from time to time and wondered about,

Think about all the people you can remember (and some you’ve forgotten) who have influenced your life in some way. Maybe  in just a tiny way, but perhaps more than you have thought. Do you remember anything they did, anything they said that is still in your mind, years later? Could you write it as an anecdote?

If you were writing an anecdote and you wanted to put in it a person who was, say,  bossy or ultra-feminine would you be able to draw on your memories and think of someone who was just like that?

My high school principal was the most delicately feminine person I’ve ever met. She had a gentle Irish brogue, big blue eyes, curly hair and she always looked slightly lost and indecisive. She also had a post-graduate degree from Oxford University and you didn’t ever want to be sent to her office. Not that she lifted a finger to you. She didn’t even raise her voice; it got even softer and more Irish. She didn’t dictate punishment, she just quietly asked, “Why?” But you left there, close to tears, feeling like something the dog had chewed up and spit out. Few people were sent to her office more than once.

You can see how I could turn my visit to her office (Yes, I was sent there – once) into an anecdote. I would describe my ‘sin’, my feelings, cocky to start with, but changing rapidly. I’d put direct dialogue in there, although I’ve forgotten by now exactly what was said just as I’ve even forgotten why I was there in the first place. But I’ll never forget being in that office, facing that person. I know now that she influenced me by showing that feminine and soft were not the same as weak. It’s a lesson that will be with me forever.

That’s how you turn a person who remains strong in your memory into an anecdote. You dress the memory in emotion, action and dialogue. The anecdote doesn’t have to be strictly true, just true to the spirit of your memory and to the message you want to communicate.

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