Short Anecdotes to Make Your Presentations More Compelling

an open book with illustrations coming to life as 3d drawings

In my quest to make this article a worthwhile read, I surfed and surfed all sources that would make it as comprehensible and helpful as possible. After two whole days of intense research, I had a lot of information at hand but didn’t know how to start the article. 

I scratched my head, but couldn’t think of any creative idea. Finally, I decided to do what all great thinkers do when they have to brainstorm – I had a bath (duh). And lo and behold, the result is this little piece of narration from an incident in my life – which we call an anecdote!

In this article, we will explore firstly, what an anecdote is, how it is different from a story, why it ought to be used, the different purposes of anecdotes, how to use it to make compelling presentations, tips to write one and a few examples. Let’s get started!

What is an Anecdote?

In simple terms, an anecdote is an account of a real person or incident that usually has a message. In other words, it is “a story with a point”.

For instance, if you talk to your mom about how you hurt yourself while crossing the street in the morning – that is an anecdote you are sharing with her.

How is an Anecdote Different from a Story?

a  pair of legs crossed on top of each other, one foot wearing a red shoe and the other wearing a yellow shoe, showcasing the difference between a story and an anecdote

It is easy to consider anecdote and story as the same thing. But these terms cannot be used interchangeably because of the many differences between them. 

An anecdote is typically as short as a paragraph or two at the most, and illustrates an incident that is odd, amusing, tragic, or might reflect a person’s personality or philosophy. But what is important is that anecdotes showcase a point. They usually serve as an analogy to a real-life message. 

You might say that even stories come with a message. True, but stories usually follow the framework of a hero, his struggles, and his final victory. The hero here might be a person, a product, or an organization. Even when it doesn’t follow this particular framework, it comes with a structure- something that an anecdote usually lacks.

Moreover, a story is a detailed narrative that gives the listener a sensory experience. An anecdote may or may not do that.

cotton candy in the making

Think of them in this way. An anecdote is like cotton candy. You see it for a brief moment of time and you finish eating it in mere seconds. It is entertaining and amusing, but it’s over before it started. The impact is present but doesn’t last for long.

a dish of steak and French fries

A story on the other hand is like a dish of steak with mashed potatoes. You can see the different elements, you can smell, touch, taste, hear yourself chew on it. In short, you become more involved in eating it and its impact is long-lasting.

Does that mean that anecdotes are less effective than stories? Of course not. When you have to give a presentation, you probably have many more points to cover, so you cannot possibly narrate a highly detailed story without compromising on time. In scenarios like these, anecdotes come handy to make an impact in a short amount of time.

When your aim is to motivate or inspire people or change the way they think, use stories. And when you wish to entertain, amuse or make a small point that connects with your larger theme, the anecdote is your best friend. 

Why Use Anecdotes?

a wall with a neon light sign with the words "we are all made of stories"

Consider this. If you want to persuade an audience to stop smoking, you won’t get any results if you tell them to stop smoking or merely talk about its harmful effects. People don’t like it when they are told to do something. Giving them stats or your own opinion on it wouldn’t make much of a difference either. 

Instead, think about what an impact it would have if you could share an anecdote on a friend of yours who died as a result of smoking. By doing this, you are making them feel something instead of making them think something. And when they feel something, they are more likely to be moved towards a change.

They Set the Stage

Another reason to use anecdotes is that they set the stage for the larger issue that you wish to cover in your presentation. Here is an example of an anecdote that my pastor used in his sermon on Christmas eve:

a image of many colorful balloons

“An employer once gave each of his employees a balloon and asked them to write their name on it. After they were done, he put all the balloons together in a room and then asked all his employees to find the balloon with their name on it within a minute. All the employees searched for their own balloons tirelessly but to no avail. The timer buzzed, one minute was over, yet not a single employee had a balloon with their name on it.

The employer asked them to try once more, but this time, he asked them to call out the name of the person on the balloon and give it to them. Soon enough, in less than a minute, everyone had their own balloon with them. The employer smiled and told his employees that this was the value of teamwork – helping your teammates achieve their goals leads to achieving your own goal.”

I wondered how this anecdote would relate to the Christmas eve sermon. Just then, my pastor said, “On this Christmas eve, we are busy looking for our own happiness. But true happiness can be obtained only when you give someone else joy. The true spirit of Christmas lies in the joy of giving. Help another fellow get their joy, and soon enough, you will receive your own joy.”

I was amazed at the versatility of anecdotes. This was not the first time that I had heard that particular anecdote, but it was the first time that I had seen it being related to Christmas. As you can imagine, this anecdote acted as a lead-in to the larger message of the pastor’s sermon on the Joy of Giving.

You might point out that anecdotes might be a “beating around the bush” way of introducing a topic, but it is essential to use this method in order to make a topic easier to comprehend and to simplify the complex part of the talk that is to follow.

Different Purposes to Share an Anecdote in a Presentation

There are a variety of purposes where anecdotes are used. Their usage lends a background for the larger content before it comes into the picture. Let’s look at the different purposes to share anecdotes:

1. To Cheer Up

two women with arms outstretched towards the sky standing with their backs facing the camera

Using anecdotes as a means to lighten the mood is quite common. In such cases, anecdotes bring back fond memories and serve as a tool to make people laugh.

For example:

  • A valedictorian shares his favorite moment in school life during his valedictorian speech.
  • A teacher shares her experience of flying in the plane for the first time before introducing a lesson plan on how airplanes fly.

2. To Persuade

a book in focus, with the title: Influence- the psychology of persuasion. Relating to anecdotes that pursue.

Anecdotes serve as great instruments to alter the way people think. Using real-life examples helps to persuade people to different ways of thinking.

For example:

  • An ex-youth group leader talks about their experience to new members of the group.
  • An old co-worker telling a recently hired one about their initial days on the job to reassure them.

3. To Raise Awareness

a no entry site with the words "caution" written on the bands

At times, talking about dangerous incidents is required to show how they can be avoided by following certain norms. For example:

  • Before presenting on the dangers of substance abuse, a survivor or presenter shares their own tale to make the audience wary of its ill effects.
  • A fire fighter can talk about a grave injury that resulted from flouting the protocol before giving a speech on fire safety.

4. To Reminisce 

a polaroid with an image of a card on which is written, "MEMORIES"

As you might have noticed, in most anecdotes people talk about events from their past. Looking back at moments in the past is a great way to connect with your audience. For instance:

  • An army official talking about his experiences in a certain war that changed his life.
  • A retired pilot talking about his experience with airplane system failure while giving a talk on aviation safety.

There are these and tons of other reasons to share anecdotes during a presentation. Let’s dig a little deeper on that, shall we?

How do You Start a Presentation with an Anecdote?

An attention grabber like a short anecdote is one of the best ways to start a presentation. The ability of short stories to capture the audience’s attention and keep them involved is not a recent discovery. However, it is important to know how to nail the art of telling a story in the form of an anecdote. Here are some things to keep in mind:

1. Be Concise

a hand holding an alarm clock

if you are starting a presentation with an anecdote, make sure that your anecdote doesn’t go above 60 – 65 seconds. Something like an anecdote must not be long-winded. If you plan on giving a short presentation, aim to keep your anecdote short as well. Similarly, you can keep a longer anecdote for a longer presentation. It is always a good habit to practice narrating your anecdote beforehand. No matter how well you know the story you are narrating, practicing its narration beforehand helps in keeping it crisp.

2. Follow the Template

An anecdote doesn’t usually follow a clear structure of having a beginning, middle, and end. However, having a rough structure helps to sort the essential and non-essential details of a given story. Try to incorporate the time, people, and place in about one sentence.

Then follow that with a few sentences that lead to the dramatic climax or the punchline of the anecdote. When it comes to anecdotes, it is best to keep a punchline at the end. While it isn’t necessary for an anecdote to have a punchline, it is a common practice to have one. This helps the anecdote to have an arc that takes the listeners on a little ride that can be visualized in their minds.

3. Relate it To Your Central Theme

You might deliver a stunning anecdote that entertains your listeners, but if it doesn’t link to your central theme then it really doesn’t have a point. The anecdote that you start your presentation with must speak in relation to the rest of your presentation. It must highlight your key idea. It might be tempting to start with a tried and tested hit anecdote, but it won’t make the impact you desire if it doesn’t relate to your key theme.

Three Types of Anecdotes to Include in Your Presentation

When it comes to anecdotes, there are certain common patterns that they usually follow. There are four patterns or types of anecdotes that you can base your anecdote upon:

1. The Origin Anecdote

This is one of the most common types of anecdotes. Anecdotes of this type are based in the past and involve the presenter looking back at the details of an event that occurred in the past, in their own life. It is often about something that the presenter overcame and hence, is engaging for the audience as they can see that the presenter has achieved their goal and is interested in hearing about how they went about doing that.

Such types of anecdotes have a story about struggle- loss of job, family, money, etc, and focus on a series of challenging situations that the presenter has lived through. This narration of struggle evokes emotions within the listeners.

Such an anecdote can be used at the start of your presentation, and can include answers to questions like- what was the situation? What did it do to drive you towards change? What was the atmosphere a year ago?

This can be followed by the key idea of your main presentation and the progress that you have made since. Such an anecdote is a great way to open your presentation by providing context and emotion to it.

2. The Discovery Anecdote

Another common pattern is the discovery anecdote – this type focuses on talking about an unexpected moment of discovery. For instance, a flash of inspiration, a strike of fate, or something good that happened by chance.

Such an anecdote could have a story about struggle and victory or a story about perseverance. It can talk about the way in which results were achieved through hard work.

This pattern of anecdote answers questions that refer to that particular moment of discovery. For example, at what point did you realize where you were going wrong? At what point did the solution dawn upon you? At which moment did you get a particular idea?

Presenting an anecdote of this type- that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats ensures that they are engaged and remember your presentation better.

3. The Failure Anecdote

word blocks with the text - learn from failure

Talking about failure is a topic that has gained popularity in the last few years. While it takes a lot to share these types of experiences, it is a great way of highlighting the things you learned. Moreover, an anecdote of this type, which requires you to be vulnerable, helps to form a connection with your audience.

It is especially engaging for the audience because sharing your mistakes will help them to save time and avoid them. And if your failure story also has a comeback, where you overcome that failure, it is all the more effective.

How do Anecdotes Make a Presentation Compelling?

As humans, we’re wired to learn by listening to narratives. If your goal is to sell your idea, you need to incorporate anecdotes in your presentation to ensure that your audience stays connected with you from start to end.

Frame your presentation in such a way that your anecdote weaves into the narrative and relates with your audience. When you add some personal anecdotes to your presentation, you are giving your audience something they can resonate with. 

This helps to establish a common ground with them. 

There is almost always a point for an anecdote. It is always connected to a larger issue. And because it is a real incident, it adds credibility to what you’re talking about. They help your listeners to step into your shoes.

Moreover, when your narrative resonates with your audience, the chances of them agreeing with your points and taking favorable steps increase.

Tips for Writing An Anecdote

a person writing in a journal

Before you start writing your anecdote, you got to ask yourself this question – what point do I want to make?

After you get the answer to that, you can start looking for real-life incidents of that point. Ask yourself if that incident is relevant to your main point.

Next, ask which of the following questions are relevant to the anecdote and answer them accordingly:

  • Who was involved?
  • What happened?
  • Where did it happen?
  • When did it happen?
  • How did it happen?

Remember to save the main point (aka the punchline) for the last. Do not talk about how hot the weather was if that is not adding anything to your narrative.

Remember to use the first person – I, me, my if it is about yourself. It is advisable to stick to the past tense and start in the middle of action after providing a brief background if needed. 

Also make it a point to show, not tell. Since you have to make an impact with minimal use of words, choose the best ones to deliver your message.

Some Examples of Short Anecdotes 

1) Moral lesson Anecdote

A school teacher was once correcting the essays of her student. As she went through one essay, tears ran down her cheek. Her husband, having noticed her crying asked what the matter was. To this, she handed him the essay her student had written. In the essay, the kid wished to become a TV so that he could gain the love and attention of his parents. He elaborated on how his mother watched the TV to be happy and how his father watched it with relief after coming home from work. The child expressed his wish to be a TV so that he could be the center of attraction and receive love from his parents. On reading the essay, the teacher’s husband said, “What a poor kid! Such horrible parents!” To this, the wife looked up at him and said, “That essay is written by our kid!”

In the above example, we observe how the punchline is kept at the end. No further explanation is provided and it is left for the audience to understand. The main message of this anecdote is to look at one’s own shortcomings before judging someone else.  

2) Humorous Anecdote

Let me tell you a funny prank I played on my grandfather as a kid. One summer, I found my grandfather taking a nap in his armchair. Being a naughty kid, I took some Limburger cheese (the one having a reputation for smelling bad) and put it on his mustache. After waking up from his nap, my grandfather exclaimed, “This room stinks!” He rushed out of the room to another one and then another one, only exclaiming, “This whole house stinks!” Not even for a moment did he stop to take a look in the mirror at himself. Desperate to smell something nice, he went outside. Only to experience the same smell and exclaim, “The whole world stinks!!”

The above anecdote is a humorous one for sure. However, it is essential to see the underlying message. It speaks volumes about what happens when we think only negative thoughts. Cynicism will only lead us to experience everything negatively. Hence, if we have to alter the way we see things, we need to alter the “scent” that we carry in our minds.

To Conclude,

We have learned quite a bit about the effectiveness of using anecdotes. Make some of your own like we did above and you will be giving compelling presentations in no time! Only remember, it has to have a point!

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