Posts Tagged ‘anecdote’

The club’s Table Topics contest was over and someone asked me how they could have done better.

My answer: Put a story or anecdote into your speech to brighten it up and keep the audience listening.

Blank look. “But where do I find anecdotes?”

It was a learning moment for me. Some people see anecdotes everywhere; others never notice them. They just don’t see the story. They don’t see that there is the potential for story if only they poked around a bit and supplied some imagination

It’s like some people have an ear for music; others can’t help singing flat. Some people know immediately which color will look attractive on them and others go out in a mixture of orange and purple.

Some people are sensitive to the story, or even the potential for story, while for others it’s just another boring day.

I think it was Gretchen O’Donnell who said “Some people go for a driver’s license and all they get is a driver’s license. Others come away with a driver’s license and an anecdote.”

So are those with a tin ear for story doomed forever? I think you can start to exercise that sensitivity as if it were a muscle. Practice looking for story. Set a goal. ‘Today I will find and record at least one anecdote.’

Where will you find it? Ask questions. Listen (even overhear odd snippets of conversation and build on what might be the story behind those words). Observe behavior – movement, dress, reactions, the way people relate to each other.

Become sensitive to speech patterns, especially if they don’t quite fit the situation – someone asks angrily for a cup of coffee, someone is very upset when there are no bananas in the produce section. If you can discover the reason, great. If not, wonder what could be the story.

Watch relationships and interactions – mom and child, boyfriend/girlfriend, customer/sales clerk. Learn to feel when it’s pretty routine or when words or movements are a bit ‘off’.  Watch for a clue to the story behind this.

Ask questions, or make politely questioning observations . One day I saw a woman wearing a brightly colored knitted hat – not what most shoppers in the mall were wearing. I stopped and admired it and she told me a delightful story about her grandmother’s knitting. Bingo! Not only did I enjoy a pleasant chat with a stranger but I came away with an anecdote.

When you find anecdotes put them into your anecdote bank in a notebook or computer. When you get plenty, sort them in whatever way makes sense to you. Take time to build a few into longer stories (I can describe – from imagination – the  hat lady’s grandma and her house, her arthritic hands and her crotchety husband.)

Your anecdote bank is your secure investment in brighter speeches of all kinds.

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We often call this ‘the string of pearls”. The speaker has selected a theme and strung together a series of anecdotes and one-liners to illustrate it. You can, of course, use this structure with a non-funny speech, but it works very well to keep an audience laughing throughout your humorous speech.

You’ll find five useful secrets to this string of pearls structure:

1. Select your theme with care.

Try to find a theme that all the audience can identify with. If your audience is 50/50 men and women you’ll lose half the audience if you choose a huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ theme and the other half if you choose a ‘how to buy shoes’ theme.

Useful themes for humor can be related to family, workplace or just plain human dynamics. Almost all of us have odd little quirks and putting two or more of them together with the behaviors you have observed can be highly entertaining for your audience. Most people relate to interactions in a family or between people in the workplace. A neat wife has to co-exist with a slob of a husband, for instance. Or maybe you’ve watched an uptight micro-manager stuck supervising a popular slob  And it’s even funnier if you put yourself into the anecdotes as one of the protagonists.

2. Observe behaviors

Some of the funniest speeches demonstrate that the speaker has a sharp eye for the nuances of ordinary, every day living. They pick up on, say, the unusual response to a simple question. They start to notice other odd responses. Then they tweak and exaggerate each of them and look at possible results of the off-the-wall interactions.

I’ve seen this done with a husband-wife scenario following her simple request “Would you please take out the garbage?” Oh, yes, she said it with attitude. Build the attitude in all along the way. Attitude and the physical gestures that go with it, are important in building the laughter.

3. Chronological steps in a process

This can be simple steps in a short-term project (putting together a piece if Ikea furniture)  all the way to looking back on one humorously recurring aspect of your life. I’ve just finished one on 20 years worth of efforts to have a mid-life crisis.

The process could also be trying to persuade someone to do something. It  might be that you are unrealistic and the person is incapable of doing it. Or maybe they resist doing it and you have to overcome all the unreasonable obstacles they place in the way.

4. You

Poking a little fun at yourself pulls the audience in towards you. It takes the edge off your sharp-eyed observations of others if you can be equally sharp-eyed when look at yourself.

5. A dynamite opening and conclusion

Now you’ve established your theme and found all the short anecdotes and one-liners to go with it. The final step is to wrap up the package with a truly intriguing opening and a memorable ending.  Spend time editing these up from good to excellent. They are the frame within which your humor is displayed and they can make or break the entire speech

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Is your speech bright, technicolor, memorable? Often people think of speeches as dull, brown, boring. Not your speeches, of course, yours are not like that.

But how do you make your speech vivid and memorable? First you write stories and anecdotes into them. You never write a point without adding – at the very least – a vivid word picture. Better still, you add an anecdote showing people in action.

Let’s say you are doing a speech about emergency preparedness. Everyone, you say, should have a ‘grab and go’ bag. It’s a good, valid point, but easy to forget in a busy life. To make it memorable you have an anecdote about the family who didn’t have a grab and go bag when the earthquake or flood hit. You show them running around trying to find the important papers, their glasses, wallet, cell phone, medications, food for a couple of days. You show them getting in each others way, falling over the dog. Oh yes! The dog! What about his food?

You show, don’t tell, the confusion that can result. It can be funny – people remember better when they laugh. But then you bring out a grab and go bag and show, don’t tell the contents.

And if you use Powerpoint, make sure to throw in a few cartoons, just to wake people up.

Description can be an attention-killer. Always add a standard of comparison, preferably with a touch of humor. If something is large, or old, ask yourself How large? How old? Then use vivid description. “No bigger than a baby’s fingernail”, “Longer than two football fields”. “Well past retirement age”, “Older than the pyramids” “Too young to drive.”

Go through your speech and insert sensory words – a color, a texture, a taste, a sound, a smell – especially a smell if you can work it in. Did you smell the coffee brewing this morning?

Go through your speech again and take out all the ‘There is/there are/ there were/it is/it was. That makes you look at your verbs and choose active verbs that bring movement to mind. That sense of movement will add life to your speech.

Sometimes you can choose your speech topic and you can choose one that is lively and vibrant. Making it colorful and memorable isn’t too difficult. Other times your topic is not yours to choose. You know you need to do a speech about greater productivity, or sales figures. Find the people who are producing or selling. Interview them and get their stories.

The personal story, yours or theirs, will bring you speech to life.

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It’s all very well saying that your presentation or your article should be illustrated with anecdotes, but where do you find them?

Most top speakers have an anecdote file. When they have a quiet moment they think back on events in their life that still resonate with them. When they think of one that had lain forgotten for years they jot it down.

They may write it in a notebook or file it in a computer – the storage doesn’t matter. What matters is that their anecdote is now available as raw material for a future presentation.

The anecdote may be dramatic – the time when you lost, for just a few moments, your daughter on a crowded beach. That moment of panic, the fear, the feelings. That moment of panic connects you with your audience or readers. They have all felt it. This is an anecdote that will connect you at a deep emotional level.

The anecdote can be funny – a mistake you made, large or small. You could perhaps exaggerate the consequences, dramatize your humiliation. People in the audience will have made mistakes too, and been humiliated.   They will connect with that.

Your anecdotes don’t have to be moments of huge significance.  It could be something somebody said, especailly a child. There’s a wee girl in my neighbourhood who has adopted me as ‘Auntie Val, the Queen of the garden”. I was an only child so I’ve never been an auntie, and I’ve certainly never been queen of anything before. There’s a plant in my garden that she calls “Shrek’s ears”. Her sayings, her chatter and stories are going to be a huge source of anecdotes for me. They have a freshness, a charm that will pull the audience in.

My friend went to renew her driver’s licence and she came away with the new licence AND an anecdote she had uncovered as she chatted to the person behind the counter. She says she feels sorry for people who go to get a new driver’s licence and all they come away with is a new driver’s licence.

I came away with a great anecdote as I was stopped in a construction zone and chatted with the flag person. So you are not limited to your own experiences; you can use your skill to draw them from other people.

People who write memoir or family history stumble upon great anecdotes that reveal a moment in time, or a characteristic.

Almost anything you observe people do or say that is outside the ordinary can be the basis of an anecdote. Listen for them and jot them down. You’ve just been given raw material for  presentation.

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Clear anecotes

Any kind of writing – whether it’s for reading or for speaking – can be made clearer and more immediate if you use an anecdote or a story to clarify your meaning.

But first the anecdote has to be carefully chosen to enhance your overall purpose. And second, the anecdote itself has to be clear. If it isn’t clear you’ll lose the reader or audience.

Try the clarity test:

1. Does it contain all the necessary facts and information? If it’s important to know that the protagonist is a man with a limp, did you show him limping?

2. Does it have too much information? Is it therefore too long? Are there any words or paragraphs you could delete to give you a crisper illustration and avoid any chance of boredom?

3.Is it clear who is doing what? If, for example, you have two women in the story, when you write “she” is it clear which one you mean?

4. Is it clear why the person acted the way you have described? If the protagonist acts or reacts strongly, is it clear why he hasn’t just smoothed things over and walked away?

5. Have you chosen strong, vivid words that are right for your audience? Have you avoided long words and technical terms except where you really need them? The actual words you use can help to focus thinking or be a distraction.

6. Can you be sincere about this anecdote, or is it “Ho, hum, I’ll throw it in because it seems to fit” ? If you can put some feeling into it your readers or audience will ‘get it’ at a much deeper level.

An anecdote can be the lens that brings the overall meaning of your writing or speech into sharper focus. Its clarity can add depth and bring the message home. Spend time polishing it

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Anecdotes are the workhorses of the communications world. If you can’t afford the time, space, energy for a full story you can fall back on its lesser cousin, the anecdote.

People often use an anecdote and call it a story. That’s OK – the story police won’t be coming after them. That’s because everyone is so relieved to find an anecdote or story in the middle of a whole mess of facts and data that they don’t care which it is.

We use both stories and anecdotes to give context and meaning to information. That they also provide a little light relief is an added bonus. They give the reader or listener a moment to catch up to the flow and sort through the facts, arranging them to best effect in their unique brain.

But the primary purpose of anecdotes is to shine the light of meaning, context and relevance on cold facts. They answer the unspoken questions – Why should I be interested? Why should I care? What does this mean to me?

So a strong anecdote has as its central character someone who the reader or listener can relate well to. It might be someone who has a lot in common with your reader or listener, or someone who has a need that will be met by the use of the information. If you’re talking to doctors you might have a doctor as central character or a small child who is going to benefit from the application of the new information.

Take the example of a new therapeutic technique. Once you’ve gone over the information lighten the moment with an anecdote – how you got the idea while running for a bus, or after ten years of searching for a solution to a totally different problem. Or tell the story of one small patient who used to have to miss days of baseball practice as they spent time in hospital for treatment, but who can now come in weekly on an outpatient basis.

The trick is to show real people doing real things, facing problems and coming up with solutions. Their characteristics are immediately recognizable. They act logically although they may  make mistakes along the way. You give them some dialog and they speak in real, everyday words, not in bureaucratese or jargon.  With luck you can find a touch of humor and emotion to give extra sparkle to the tale.

And you know what? Long after people have stored the information away in long-term memory they will find pleasure in your stories and anecdotes.


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Let’s take an ordinary bland event and build it into an anecdote that would stand proud in a longer story or in a speech.

Basic anecdote: Mother in the kitchen drops a dish. Daughter comes in to see what the noise is. (At this point we won’t make it a touching or a humorous anecdote.)

The elements are mother, daughter, kitchen, dish and crash. Also the back story – what led up to this.

The back story sets the tone for the anecdote. Is this a stereotypical Mrs Cleaver mom who has slaved in the kitchen all day, a businesswoman late home after being stuck in traffic, an older mom starting into Alzheimers’s? Is the daughter a stereotypical bratty teen, an excited child, a middle-aged woman worried about her elderly parents?

You can set the anecdote in a ritzy kitchen, a farm kitchen, a hoarders kitchen. The dish can be precious china, full of a complete casserole meal for the family or just the dog’s water dish.

How, in a very few words, are you going to present all this? Let’s take the businesswoman mom. Tall. slim, well dressed, well made up, still in her business clothes. Impatient, annoyed, demanding.  Let’s contrast her with the excited child. Small, eager, a bit grubby after a day in playschool, happy her mom is home at last. The kitchen matches the mom, all the latest stainless steel gadgets, keeping up with the Joneses. The crash was microwaved food, spilled down the mom’s skirt, the dish upside down, supper ruined.

Pick your verbs and descriptors so that they carry weight. Let’s give the mom a name that matches her style. not Bethany or Martha. How about Gloria?

Gloria swept the toys aside with her foot, reached into the double door freezer and grabbed the package of three cheese lasagna. She rammed it into the microwave and poured herself, at last, a full glass of chardonnay. For just a second she paused to allow the wine to slide down her throat.

God, she needed that.

A smell of burning spoiled her moment of quiet. The lasagna – surely she hadn’t been dumb enough to leave the wrapper on? She lunged at the microwave and grabbed the dish, aiming to drop it into the sink where she could pull the plastic off with a minimum of mess but the sleeve of her new jacket caught on the corner and the whole dish of lasagna crashed to the floor. She gritted her teeth and swore silently.

Her daughter came running in, her shorts still grubby from the playground. She slipped on the lasagna and almost fell.

“Mommy, are you all right?”

“For crying out loud, how many times do I have to tell you? ‘Stay out of the kitchen when I’m making dinner.'”.


You could, if you wished, turn this into a touching anecdote, with the mom regretting her moment of bad temper. The writer can take it any way at all. But characters have been established that seem real and for whom we can feel some sympathy. Much of this has been accomplished by strong verbs. There’s action – you can see Gloria and even feel for her. There is detail – the double door freezer, the three cheese lasagna, the grubby shorts.


Strong characters, strong action, vivid detail – the three keys to a dynamite anecdote.

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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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So, by now you’re facing the Area contest or even the Division contest. Good for you! Congratulations! You’ve done well to get this far.

Now you’re starting to feel the pressure of the competition. How can you bring your speech up a few notches so you can stay ahead?

Here are some ideas, based on my observations as I judge contests:

– look at the structure of your speech. Is it logical or does it jump around? Make sure that the ideas follow logically

– make sure your jokes or humorous lines build so that the strongest comes last, as a climax

– hone those anecdotes and the transitions between them so that every word is exact and carries strong meaning

– sell yourself and your speech to the audience with your first words. At this level many of the people will not know you and they may not be pulling for you the way your home club members do. Give them an immediate reason to like you as a speaker and to find you funny

– start people laughing early in your speech, and keep them laughing. Don’t rely on a humorous theme that only has one good laugh at the end

– a humorous theme is not enough to carry your speech past club level unless the anecdotes that illustrate it are themselves funny. If they are stand-alone funny that’s good. If they are support-the-theme funny that’s even better.

– poking fun at yourself almost always works well. Try to make the mistakes be your mistakes, show how you bumbled your way through, going from bad to worse, trying to correct, just getting further into the glue.

– smile, share the joke with an open face, invite the audience to laugh with you

– go for big gestures, movements, wide voice variety. It doesn’t matter if you overdo it a bit – it’s all part of the humor.

– build a really strong ending. I know, I’ve said this before. And I’ll probably say it again – it’s so important.

And Good Luck! Break a leg! You’ll do great!

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“Yes” she said. “I love your posts on humor. But how do I put humor into a speech?

That’s a tough question. It’s like being asked, “How do I make a joke funny?”

To start with, you have to think that it’s funny yourself. Whether it is a joke, or a humorous speech, you yourself have to see and believe the humor. There’s no point thinking “This isn’t very funny to me, but maybe the rest of the group will like it.”

If you yourself think it’s funny, then  you will present it in a way that says, “I really enjoyed this and I can’t wait to share it with you!” Your enjoyment and enthusiasm comes across to your audience carrying the humor and the laughter with it. That alone will get you to first base.

Humor usually depends on the set up and the punch line. If it is a story it’s possible you might have 6.5 minutes of set up and thirty seconds of totally hilarious punchline at the end. I don’t advocate this unless you can make the set up really, really funny. It would be better if your story built along a series of funny events so there are some laughs along the way and one great burst of laughter at the end.

Humor doesn’t have to look  or sound like punch lines, in fact it’s better if it doesn’t. You build your story in a certain direction with characters carefully presented and then something happens to them. Something innately funny. Your dog shakes mud all over Aunt Priscilla’s pristine living room. You’ve shown Aunt Priscilla as a rigid woman and a fanatical housekeeper. You’ve mentioned her white carpet and cream colored upholstery. You’ve shown your dog, the lovable energetic Labrador puppy. Really, you should have remembered to close the door more quickly.

Now it might have been, in truth, that your dog shook that mud all over your own living room that is no big whoop for cleanliness. Story building puts it in Aunt Priscilla’s living room, even if you have no Aunt Priscilla. It’s just funnier. Imagine the expression on her face, imagine yourself trying to minimize the damage and making it worse. Imagine the dog, jumping up on Aunt Priscilla to invite her to play in the mess.  Imagine…

Well, that’s the point, imagine. Think of similar incidents you’ve experienced that are quite funny. How can you bring them in, build them, focus them to make them fit here and be very funny? How can you build in sideline humor – say two or three examples of Aunt Priscilla’s cleanliness.  (She’s the one who sanitizes her outside mail box because you never know who’s handled the mail.)

Your aim with your humorous speech is to draw people in with your own enjoyment, keep the laughs coming through a series of anecdotes within a main story, building to a big final laugh in your conclusion. Sidelights – similes, metaphors, sharp observations of human foibles keep the humor coming moment after moment in your speech.

How do you know if your speech is funny? Having your audience laugh time and time again is a really good clue.

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