Never underestimate the power of anecdotes and storytelling in business communications.

Cross-posted from Ishmael’s Corner
By Lou Hoffman

I am an unabashed fan of the anecdote. I’m also convinced that it’s one of the most underutilized storytelling techniques in business communications.

Executives often perceive anecdotes as fluff and put the kibosh on such content before it sees the light of the day. That explains why if you audited the content generated by PR (in-house + agency), you would find most efforts capture little or no anecdotal content.

It makes no sense.

Journalists, the masters of industrial-grade storytelling in business, have honed the use of anecdotal content to an art form. Anecdotes can be particularly effective in dealing with complex subject matter, as was the case in our support of the Bell Labs 50th anniversary for the discovery of the “Big Bang.” Among the mainstream media covering the story, NPR looked to bring out the humanity of the two scientists with anecdotes such as this one trying to eliminate the hum from the signal that they thought might be originating from birds:

“There was a pair of pigeons living in the antenna,” Wilson says. Wilson and Penzias got on their lab coats, climbed inside their giant microwave contraption, and wiped out the pigeon poop. The birds kept roosting in there. Penzias and a lab technician eventually took matters into their own hands: “The only humane way of doing it was to buy a box of shotgun shells,” Penzias says. “So that’s what finally happened to the pigeons.”

As Heisenberg says in “Breaking Bad,” “That covers it.”

In another client example, we landed a Fast Company feature story on Nautilus earlier this year that uses three anecdotes to frame the piece:

  • Previous office building nicknamed “Taj Majal” by employees for being grandiose (not a term of endearment)
  • Conducted raffle for some employees to join the execs in New York City to ring the bell at the New York Stock Exchange
  • CEO joined the internal kickball league

The mashing of these anecdotes actually creates the headline, “What Happened When Nautilus’s CEO Ditched His Fancy Office and Joined the Company Kickball Team.”

Both examples put a face on the company and do so in a way that takes you behind the curtain with fresh wrinkles to the story.

There’s another reason that anecdotes should be part of your communications arsenal. They bring realness to the storytelling.

If I stand in front of you and tell you that I’m a great dad — illustration below for those who think visually — what do you think?

What is the first thing that pops into your mind?

You’re thinking just the opposite. Such a statement triggers the perception that if I’m saying this, I’m probably not a great dad.

But what if I were to talk about getting up early on a Sunday morning because my kids wanted to try to their hands at a strawberry crepe? Leaving nothing to chance, I even bought a crepe pan from Williams-Sonoma that guaranteed a perfect outcome. Yet, in spite of our diligence in following the recipe, we ended up with a dish that looked more like strawberry mashed potatoes than a crepe.

You still might not nominate me for dad of the year, but you do take away the impression that I’m engaged with my kids.

I read a great line some time ago from Raymond Mar, a professor at York University in Toronto, who conducts research on storytelling: “Everyone has a natural detector for psychological realism.”

That’s the power of the anecdote, helping the reader/listener feel that the story rings true.

Side note: More on anecdotes in business communications can be found in the post, “Reverse Engineering the Storytelling Techniques in a Fast Company Feature.”

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