Are You SURE You're Telling a Story?

Dianna Booher

Are You SURE You're Telling a Story?

Could you be confusing that favorite story with an anecdote?  Before I mention why it matters, you’re probably wondering why so many blogs and books in the last few years have urged you to learn to tell a great story. Here’s why.

Stories make things stick. CEOs, entertainers, professional speakers, 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 Serves Your Purpose—a Great Story or an Anecdote?

So What’s an Anecdote?

An anecdote may be simply an happening, an incident, a “slice of life.”  It may be funny, sad, odd, tragic, frightening, weird, dumbfounding, or just ordinary.  Examples: Sharing a lonely moment during the holiday. Musing about the how two different generations react to a traffic jam. Telling how badly a customer service rep talked to you about a returned holiday gift. Elaborating on the scary ski accident your brother had last year on vacation. Relating your first experience of going into the hospital for surgery.

So What’s a Story?

A full-fledged story, by contrast, has this official literary definition: A heroine or hero struggles to overcome an obstacle or obstacles to reach some important goal. The hero may be you, the storyteller, another person like your Aunt Camilla, or a sales team. The “hero” might even be an organization struggling to avoid bankruptcy. Or the “heroine” could be an inanimate object—like a new widget developed on a minuscule budget struggling to be ranked first in the marketplace.

So What’s an Obstacle?

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

So What’s an Important Goal?

The important goal might be just about anything: A new career. A hefty raise. A stellar product launch. Profitability. Maintaining your dignity.  Saving your company from bankruptcy. “Doing the right thin.” Increased market share.  Better teamwork. Stronger self-confidence.  Or any number of things the “hero” or “heroine” 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. Plus, they’ll remember your key point!

When to Use Which—the Anecdote or the Story

Consider your anecdote like cotton candy. You see it and taste it briefly, and then it’s gone. Its impact is short-lived. Typically, an anecdote appeals to the mind. It illustrates, clarifies, or entertains—but has little long-lasting effect.

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

Anecdotes work well to make a minor point, to clarify an idea, or to entertain. Stories play a heavier role: They motivate, inspire, and change behavior.

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


For more thoughts on strategic leadership communication, pre-order Dianna’s new book: Communicate Like a Leader: Connecting Strategically to Coach, Inspire, and Get Things Done (Berrett-Koehler)