The new CEO wanted to slug it out of the ballpark at his first all-hands meeting. Employees were watching the broadcast from around the globe. Obviously, engaging those assembled in the auditorium in front of him would be much easier. But he didn’t want to miss the first opportunity to gain their confidence that he could handle the job vacated by his predecessor.

“You said you wanted to open with a story about your time in Germany as a young sales manager, what you learned from failure there with a client. Would you let me hear it please,” I said in our coaching session together. I flipped on the video recorder, and he began.

After finishing, he asked, “So what do you think?”

“Good energy. Passionate delivery,” I said.  “But it’s not exactly a story.”

He looked puzzled. 

I elaborated on the difference between an anecdote and a story.

Sheepishly, he asked, “Am I the only person who has missed that difference during their entire career?”

I assured him that he was not.  A quick-study, he took the situation from his experience in Germany, and we reshaped it into a great story to use in his “debut” keynote.  Later, I heard from several sources on my return trips to the company that he had won their confidence that day because it illustrated his humility and willingness to take a risk—and that he’d become an outstanding storyteller.

What you’ve just read above is an anecdote—not a story.

The Distinction Between Stories and Anecdotes

An anecdote is an incident—a “slice of life,” so to speak. It can be amusing, sad, odd, frightening, or tragic.  Typically, anecdotes illustrate a point or create a feeling. Other anecdotes that are biographical or autobiographical often serve to reflect someone’s personality, attitude, or philosophy. 

Stories, on the other hand, have a formal literary definition that you may recall from English class:  A hero or heroine struggles to overcome obstacles to reach an important goal.  (Of course, that “hero” might be an organization struggling to stay afloat and avoid bankruptcy. Or the “hero” might be a team fighting to prove its worth and avoid being laid off during a merger.)  Or the “hero” might be a new product developed on a shoe-string budget struggling to become number one in the market. You get the idea.

So why should you care about this difference?  As a leader, CEO, coach, politician, speaker, entrepreneur—why nit-pick about this matter?

Four Pluses for Telling a Story

  • Stories involve your audience in the struggle.  As the hero overcomes this and that setback, the listener identifies with similar problems—or at least the frustrations and disappointment such problems cause.  Empathy sets in. Listeners (employees, spouse, coworkers, suppliers) can begin to identify with the hero in the story, trying to solve the problem and reach the goal.
  • Stories forge a deeper involvement and engage emotions on many levels.  The details necessary to set the scene and structure the story involve multiple senses:  The physical scene.  The appearance of people, things, or places. Fear. Beauty. Starkness. Hearing—conversations, disturbances, arguments, laughter.  Withdrawal. Shyness. Mockery.
  • Stories bring closure on a significant goal.  Listeners actually feel a sense of closure and satisfaction after the story “ends” in much the same way they feel at the end of a movie. Whether the movie or story ends “happily ever after” or butts up against some harsh reality, still there is closure—a truth to be processed and internalized.
  • Stories are memorable because they have structure.  Although good speakers know how to tell even an anecdote well, a story stays in the psyche because it has a definite arch that is always the same: Beginning, middle, end.  Not so with an anecdote.  Anecdotes can simply be a slice of life.

CEOs tell stories to launch new products successfully.  Iconic investors like Warren Buffet tell stories about their investment strategies and philosophies.  Presidents and world leaders tell stories about what they’ve achieved and where they want to take the country or organization in the future.  The next time you need to inspire your team, launch a new vision, or motivate people as a leader, perfect great stories—not just anecdotes. 

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