Using Anecdotes: How to Capture Readers with a Slice of Life

Anecdotes are a powerful tool in copywriting, I explained to a beginning writer’s group. “I’ve never had a short story published,” I said. “I’ve never written a novel. And I never make up stories about the services and organizations I write about.”

I paused.

“But I’m a fiction writer.”

Some shifted uncomfortably in their chairs. A few cast looks of pity my way. Finally, one woman raised her hand. “What kind of fiction do you write?” she asked.

“I borrow techniques from my friends in the fiction community,” I told her, “and fill my writing with anecdotes.”

To my relief, I heard a collective, “Ah ha!” in the room and laughs all around.

Storytelling with anecdotes

Anecdotes are real-life illustrations

I went on to share that an anecdote is an itsy-bitsy, true story that illustrates a point and touches the reader's soul. In nonprofit writing, an anecdote gives a real-life example of the benefits of your cause. It lets the reader peek inside the lives you impact.

In other words, anecdotes are a classic way to show rather than tell. Which makes them very, very valuable ... unless they become mini-novels.

Anecdotes are focused

Remember, an anecdote is a snippet of life, not the whole enchilada. Get off topic, and you lose the opportunity to make your point with a story because you’ve lost your reader.

Use this checklist to help target your anecdote. Ask ...

  1. Did you zero in on the point? Why is your particular anecdote significant? Make sure its focus supports the main idea of your promotional piece or article. The point of the opening story above? All writers can make their writing sparkle with storytelling, once they learn some simple techniques ... which forecasts precisely with what the rest of this article is about.
  2. Did you chronicle what happened? Record the basic elements of your story – the facts. Who was there? When and where did it all take place? Now sift through and decide what pieces of the puzzle are necessary to get your point across. In the scenario above, it’s important for you to know that I spoke to other writers. But I didn’t need to tell you that the meeting took place in the winter. So I left that out.
  3. Did you indicate the problem or need? The element of conflict is central in fiction. Tension comes in many forms – it could be a full scale war or a verbal cat fight, but can also involve a daily difficulty or hurdle. I spoke to beginning writers. They have a need: they want to learn effective writing techniques. Make sure your anecdote communicates a problem that someone must solve.
  4. Did you add details? Collect as many pieces of information as you can. Then incorporate the details that add to your story’s point. Weed out the ones that aren’t necessary. In my example, the reader didn’t need to know that I addressed the writer’s group in a coffee house or that I wore a black pantsuit. But the fact that I have never written a novel is an important detail in the story.
  5. Did you use dialogue judiciously? Let your characters talk. They’ll communicate their thoughts and feelings to underscore tension or conflict. Eliminate any dialogue that doesn’t propel the story forward. Then, read the dialogue aloud to make sure it sounds realistic.
  6. Did you apply verisimilitude? That’s a fancy term for “as similar to the truth as possible.” I don’t remember the exact words I said to the writer’s group and I don’t have a recording of the presentation. It’s well within a writer’s domain to report a story as best as you can, whether it’s your own or one you’re sharing second-hand. The dialogue above is as close to the truth as I recall.
  7. Did you appeal to the senses? Let readers smell the pumpkin bread in the oven or the freshly-turned dirt at the building site. Let their skin prickle ... sweat pour down their backs ... ice cubes melt in their mouths. Aim to describe your scene through at least one of the senses, in a way that underscores your point. I let the reader see my listeners squirm in their seats when I told them I was a “fiction writer” with no credits. Then I let the reader hear an imaginary “ah ha” when the listeners collectively understood my message.
  8. Did you expose emotion and resolution? Good writing reveals humanity. Readers relate to copy that expresses vulnerability. They desperately want to hear how the conflict, tension, need or problem in the story was settled. An effective anecdote reveals some kind of resolution or answer to the obstacle. Readers of the above story can connect with emotions of relief: I felt release when writers learned I wasn’t a fraud, and the group felt assurance that I had significant information to share with them.
  9. Did you aim for simplicity? An anecdote is short and pithy. Complex stories lead the reader off track.
  10. Did you edit, edit, edit? Cut out any copy that doesn’t contribute to the one point you’re trying to make.

Use the same techniques as best-selling novelists do, but in targeted miniatures – and your anecdotes will capture readers’ hearts with your special slice of life.


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