Write with anecdotes: how to make your writing as large as life

Posted by Rich Jinks
Speed Reading Mode

Once upon a time, there was a tourist backpacking through the highlands of Scotland...


Ignore how bad that attempted Scottish accent was and consider the success of the first minute and a half of that video. Why does Andrew Stanton decide to introduce himself to his audience with a narrative joke?

  1. It’s not every day you get the chance to tell a packed-out crowd your favourite pub joke.
  2. (Perhaps more importantly) he knows how well stories work: stories engage us like nothing else.

Stanton harnesses the power of stories better than most. He wrote and directed Finding Nemo and WALL-E, he co-wrote Toy Story and (thank God) he only very rarely indulges in bestiality jokes.

Here at Articulate, we love Pixar, not just because we’re big kids, but because they’re the masters of storytelling, and we know just how powerful stories can be.

Write with anecdotes

If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.
– Rudyard Kipling

We've talked before about how effective stories are in marketing. Case studies, press releases, company origin stories and fictional advertising stories are all incredibly effective marketing techniques, but not everything you write can be presented as an overarching story.

Write with anecdotes: how to make your writing as large as life. Picture shows man holding book up to face and gesturing with his left hand to indicate that he is speaking.That said, in those instances where you can't shape your message into a story, you don't have to lose the power of narrative from your writing altogether.

By using anecdotes in your writing, you can pack the power of narrative into any topic. Short or long, funny or inspiring: anecdotes are an essential tool for copywriters, and you can use them to seize your readers' attentions, just like Stanton's joke engaged his audience.

The best anecdotes are more than just attention-grabbing:

  • They’re visual. A good story sets the scene, focusing your reader’s attention, and enabling them to visualise what’s going on. The effect heightens when the story is an active one. It's been shown that activity in stories actually stimulates the motor cortex of our brain. In other words, readers of active stories are unconsciously simulating the actions described; sub-consciously imagining themselves in that situation.
  • They’re relatable. By using relatable anecdotes in your writing, you can heighten the understanding and empathy your reader has for your point and so increase the chance that they will agree with it.
  • They’re memorable. Quirky, interesting, believable stories lead to a highly memorable experience for the reader. A fact wrapped in a story is 22 times more memorable than a simple fact according to psychologist Jerome Bruner.

Take a lesson from Aesop. Stories like ‘The frog and the mouse’ take complex ideas and weave them into short, entertaining narratives. Fables do what every good anecdote should do: they take interesting concepts, and they make them into metaphors which are immediately understandable, memorable and fascinating; even to a six-year-old.

In short, inserting stories into your writing allows you to communicate things to readers in the most effective way possible.

Write bigger

In their book, ‘Rework’, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson plate-up a buffet of anecdotal interest to support their points. This one stood out for me:

Polar explorer Ben Saunders said that during his solo North pole expedition (thirty-one marathons back-to-back, seventy-two days alone), the ‘huge decision’ was often so horrifically overwhelming to contemplate that his day-to-day decision-making rarely extended beyond ‘getting to that bit of ice a few yards in front of me.’

Write with anecdotes: write bigger. Picture shows someone standing on top of a snow drift looking into the sunset.

The authors follow this story with a simple statement; ‘Attainable goals like that are the best ones to have’.

The tactical use of an anecdote here gives the authors' point an impressive emphasis.

  • The power of big. The bracketed details of the length and time of Ben Saunders’ journey are awe-inspiring. By taking the concept of a business's journey, and comparing it to such an extreme physical journey, the authors emphasise just how difficult it is to build and grow a business. By comparing it to a tangible, physical feat, readers can better understand the concept and are more willing to accept the writer's argument that they should take a step-by-step approach.
  • The triumph of small. We can’t easily imagine a route to the North Pole, but we can visualise it a few yards at a time. Saunders turns his journey from one, big, 'horrifically overwhelming' target, into a series of significantly smaller, but far more attainable goals. In this light, we can see the logic of breaking down a business's journey and using small, solid progressions to achieve long-term targets.

Write with impact

In an article titled ‘The High Cost of Conformity, and How to Avoid It’ for Harvard Business Review, Peter Bregmen writes:

Write with anecdotes: write with impact. Picture is taken from a cyclists point of view, showing the handlebars of a mountain bike.I was biking with my friends Eric and Adam, both far more skilled and experienced mountain bikers than I …
… I suffered a pretty dramatic crash, falling down a ravine, flipping over a few times, and hitting my (helmeted) head on a tree. Eventually, I ended up in the emergency room. But not before riding another hour …
… Why didn’t I stop? I wish I could say it was bravery but, the truth is, it was nothing of the kind. I kept riding, quite simply, because Eric and Adam kept riding.

This anecdote is effective for a number of reasons:

  • He starts with it. Reading this article, we expect Peter to begin by talking about conformity, because that’s what the title is about. Instead he sways from our expectations and launches into a story about mountain biking. This seizes our attention, and we’re left asking ourselves ‘What has this got to do with conformity?’ Compelled to find out, we read on.
  • The metaphor is powerful. The close details of Peter’s crash means we can’t help but imagine the accident and empathise with him. We can sense the pain of ‘flipping’ down a ravine, and we can picture the danger of falling into a tree. The danger that Peter is really talking about - the danger of conforming at work - isn’t immediately imaginable: failing to treat potentially fatal injuries, is.

In short, by using the impact of a bike crash, Peter demonstrates the otherwise intangible dangers of conformity in a way that will make his readers far more receptive to it.

Write with the authority of fame

Personal anecdotes like Peter’s are great. They put the reader in the writer’s shoes and they connect on a human level. By using these kinds of personal stories, you can take big ideas and demonstrate them in an easily understandable, empathy-boosting way.

Stories about famous people hold a different - equally useful - power.

Take this article from Business Insider. The author devotes the entire piece to a story about Steve Jobs. Here’s a quick summary:

  1. Jobs is asked; ‘how does Java and any of its incarnations address the ideas embodied in OpenDoc? And, when you're finished with that, perhaps you can tell us what you personally have been doing for the last seven years?’
  2. The crowd groans.
  3. Jobs responds; ‘You know, you can please some of the people some of the time, but, one of the hardest things when you’re trying to effect change is that people like this gentleman are right - in some areas.’
  4. Jobs shifts into a speech about Apple’s ongoing journey to ‘better’.
  5. The crowd applauds.

Write with anecdotes: write with the authority of fame. Phot shows a statue of Steve Jobs..

The author, Biz Carson, doesn’t add much to her narration of the anecdote, she simply says; ‘Jobs's response in the five minutes that follows is a masterclass in how to gracefully turn an insult into an impromptu speech on vision.’

Carson allows Steve Jobs’s words to speak for themselves: she doesn’t provide any other proof for why his response is an exemplary way of dealing with critics.

Why? Because she doesn’t need to: it’s Steve Jobs. For us as the reader, rightly or wrongly, Jobs’s fame and success alone act as proof of the effectiveness of his methods. This story becomes one more feather to Jobs’s cap, and, simultaneously, Carson illustrates her intended message of how to deal with critics.

Write better

To hell with facts, we need stories! -Ken Kesey

Write with anecdotes and make your message more powerful. Learn to love stories, and learn to write better. Picture shows the pages of a book folded into the shape of a cartoon heart.

In all these examples, the writers communicate their points not with facts and figures, nor by using complex writing tricks, but by deploying well-chosen anecdotes. By writing with anecdotes, the writers tap into our natural affinity with narrative, and they energetically clarify what could have been dull, stagnant information.

You can write with just the bare bones of information - it's a particularly easy way to keep your writing concise - but it lacks the writer-to-reader connection that would allow your content to make a stronger impact.

Anecdotal evidence may not be admissible in court but, when it comes to talking to your human readers; human stories trump all.
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(Hat tip to Flickr users Jeffrey and Kate Ter Haar for their images.)

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