How to use anecdotes to enliven your prose

Personal accounts and details can add color and credibility to your story, but don’t overdo it. Follow this expert guidance to strike a smart balance.

How to use anecdotes in storytelling

High-level executives, especially those with technical or engineering backgrounds, tend to hold a dim view of anecdotes.

However, anecdotes are a powerful technique for gaining media mentions and spreading brand awareness.

After reviewing three months’ worth of tech stories in The Economist, the Hoffman Agency found that 17% of its articles were anecdotal, says agency CEO Lou Hoffman. Hoffman continues:

After breaking down stories in the business media over the years, we consistently find that the anecdotal content ranges from 15% to 25%.

Reporters love including anecdotes in their articles. They especially like opening articles with visceral, jarring or memorable anecdotes. Employees enjoy anecdotes, too. That’s why communication experts urge PR practitioners to include anecdotes in submissions to journalists, corporate communication pieces, speeches and other types of PR content.

These recommendations can help writers find and develop effective anecdotes:

Determine the purpose, and delete fluff. Is there a specific reason for your anecdote? If not, leave it out.

Determine whether you intend to amuse, surprise, inspire, provoke or build common ground with the audience.

“Weed out trivial details that detract or add only length,” advises communications consultant Dianna Booher. Ask yourself if each word, phrase and sentence is necessary.

Have a strong ending. Anecdotes can deliver a powerful final punch—or let readers reach their own conclusion. “Without satisfactorily wrapping up the loose ends of a story, or letting it meander to a stop in the middle of nowhere, you risk leaving your audience feeling cheated out of their time and attention,” writes blogger Nathan B. Weller.

Seek details. Details can add vivid color and credibility to stories. For instance, an article in The Wall Street Journal on the departure of Apple design chief Jony Ive recounts a meeting between Ive and the design team. Describing the meeting’s location and time—and including quotes from attendees—countered Apple’s public stance that Ive departed amicably.

Ask questions. To uncover details, try asking questions and requesting examples. A Navy public affairs rep struggled to pitch a story about a squadron that had rescued a family of five lost in the Pacific Ocean for seven days, Hoffman recalls.

When he posted the story on Facebook, someone asked what kind of signal mirror the family had used to alert the Navy crew. After investigating, the PR rep learned that the signal mirror was the bottom of a soda can. Thanks to the anecdote, a local television station ran the story with the headline: “Local Navy Pilots Save Family Stranded at Sea with Help of a Cola Can.”

USA Today eventually published the story, again featuring the anecdote.

Don’t lie. “There is no art in it, no skill in it, and as a good PR you don’t need to do it. And you will be found out,” writes Alan Edwards, founder of PR company The Outside Organisation. However, it’s fine to embellish a fun story, he adds.

Find emotional hooks. Emotion grabs and holds audiences. It also enhances message retentionFind and include emotional elements that will hook readers—joy, sadness, anger, love—but don’t overplay them.

Visualize the story. Include visual elements that enrich the story. Use photo captions, for instance, to bring your story to life.

Be self-deprecating. “You need to be able to laugh at yourself. No one wants to continually hear how brilliant and clever you are,” Edwards says.

Anecdotes can transform dull copy into captivating articles or presentations. Of course, they can also be a distraction from your copy. If you use anecdotes, make sure they add more than they detract or distract.

A version of this post first appeared on the blog.

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