Nothing Says Storytelling Techniques Like An Anecdote

Cross-posted from Ishmael’s Corner
By Lou Hoffman

I am an unabashed fan of the anecdote.

Not in the sense that when one shows up on the Ed Sullivan show I’m moved to shriek.

There’s an intellectual argument for using anecdotes – namely journalists want them.

Sam Whitmore – if you’re in the communications business and don’t subscribe to SWMS, you’re missing a tool that can raise your game – was kind enough to allow me to borrow from his interview with Jim Kerstetter, executive editor at CNET:

“Do [PR people] read those long pieces and understand what’s in them? Do they understand that if someone wants to do a long story about a company, they’re going to say that: I want to spend the day, or I want to spend days, plural, at that company. I want to be a fly on the wall. I want anecdotes. I want to see those anecdotes. Or if I can’t be there, I want to be able to recreate them.

I think the man needs an ice cold anecdote!

In a world where news announcements are instantly commoditized by the Internet, anecdotes are really the gold for today’s journalists.

Even news stories gain a boost from anecdotes like the Associated Press story on a new Intel chip which after quoting the party line from one exec followed with this little ditty:

The flattery came after Bloomberg News reported Intel CEO Paul Otellini’s apparent misgivings about the new operating system. In a meeting earlier this week with Intel employees in Taiwan, Otellini said he believesMicrosoft is releasing Windows 8 before all the bugs are fixed, according to Bloomberg, which quoted an unnamed person who heard the remarks.

More typical, anecdotes end up being the life blood of feature stories.

I wrote about the Economist and a story on data mining, a topic that I think we can agree isn’t natural storytelling fodder.

Yet, The Economist jumps into the fray with this killer anecdote:

In 1879 James Ritty, a saloon-keeper in Dayton, Ohio, received a patent for a wooden contraption that he dubbed the “incorruptible cashier”. With a set of buttons and a loud bell, the device, sold by National Cash Register (NCR), was little more than a simple adding machine. Yet as an early form of managing information flows in American business the cash register had a huge impact. It not only reduced pilferage by alerting the shopkeeper when the till was opened; by recording every transaction, it also provided an instant overview of what was happening in the business.

Do I think a clever PR pro scooted the James Ritty anecdote to the Economist reporter?


But there’s still ample opportunity for communicators to build out storytelling content that includes anecdotes.

Keep in mind that once an anecdote is in the public domain, it plummets in value. Journalists can’t differentiate their stories with second-hand stuff.

This is also why you need to think twice before inserting a revealing anecdote into a news release. There are times when keeping an anecdote your pocket gives you a chip to play with journalist similar to what IBM did recently with The New York Times.


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