Ask any scientist, be it physicist, biologist, social or political, about anecdotal evidence and any one of them will probably laugh at you. And with good reason. Personal anecdotes are just that: personal instead of objective. Just because one window washer in San Francisco can fall 11 stories and survive doesn’t mean OSHA can ease up on safety restrictions because Googling “man falls from building” doesn’t usually produce a lot of “and lived” results.
And yet, nothing drives home a point better than a substantiating personal anecdote. Personal stories can humanize objective claims and reframe them in a way that helps make your argument. Working for Keith Ferrazzi, I’ve become well acquainted with the value of a good personal anecdote. If you’ve read “Never Eat Alone” you know that one of its greatest strengths is how Keith’s personal stories illustrate the themes and advice of the book.
But all anecdotes are not created equally. For every illuminating story there are an equal number of “TMIs.” So how do you tell the good narratives from the bad?
Find the universal in the specific
One of my favorite singer/songwriters is Rufus Wainwright and one of my favorite songs by him is “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk.” It's about impulsiveness, addiction, love, empathy and compassion all wrapped up in a catchy little tune.
Rather than be a dour, overwrought song full of self-pity and woe, Wainwright finds the gentler details, like loving chocolate milk and jelly beans, which most of us can relate to, and tells the greater story about loving the whole person, warts and all, and being “kind if [they’re] a mess.” His point is not to bare his own soul about his foibles and flaws to gain sympathy, it’s to find common ground, to show that we all have these foibles and flaws and all deserve that kindness.
When choosing to share a personal anecdote, it’s critical to always ask yourself what the greater story is that you’re trying to tell and how the personal illustrates the universal. What detail can spark recognition in others that will make your point? What is your “jelly bean?”
Whether it’s a common frustration or an outlandish “truth is stranger than fiction” event, start from the end and establish what the “moral” of the story is and how it fits into your writing. Then, isolate what makes it unique to you and consider how others can relate to the specifics while still making the connection to their own lives. A great story with a tenuous connection to the point you want to make is less effective than a more workaday example that everyone understands.
You don’t have to be the hero of the story
Just because they’re your stories to share doesn’t mean they all have to be about you. Our egos are a hell of a drug and it’s difficult to give up control and allow someone, or something, else be the heroes of our stories. We may have triumphed over our weaknesses and mistakes and may even be stronger for it, but in the wise words of Tyra Banks, “Perfect is boring.”
Being great is great, but it isn’t always relatable. Sometimes, you have to be the villain, or at least the antagonist, to make your point. What matters is not how you’re portrayed but how clear the takeaway is. Remember, everyone loves a story about how your cat or dog got you through a difficult time. Give Rex or Fancy their moment of glory.
It’s probably not a teachable moment if you didn’t learn anything
Following up on not always having to be the hero, ask yourself what, if anything, you learned from this situation that you want to share. Not everything has to be a moment of enlightenment, but a good rule of thumb is if what you share doesn’t show some growth or epiphany, it’s probably not a strong enough story.
The point of personal anecdotes is to lead people to your conclusion. If you can’t articulate what it is you took away from the story, chances are no one else will, either. It doesn’t have to come with a great, big “The More You Know” rainbow, but it shouldn’t be pointless, either.
For example, I love telling the story about how I inadvertently insulted a co-worker and her father by mocking the idea of flying cargo planes for the Air Force. It turns out that when someone suggests that “you could always fly cargo planes” they’re speaking from experience because their father was a cargo plane pilot. Who knew?
Instead of putting the pieces together, though, I called it being “a flying truck driver” which I thought was hilarious but didn’t go over very well with my co-worker. Of course, I could have righted that ship immediately by apologizing, but I was young and foolish, and in my embarrassment I just said, “So you would know.”
I love telling this story because it, to me, perfectly illuminates the adage, “Think before you speak.” Also, it’s funny in a self-deprecating way, but mostly because it’s a very teachable moment. And some day I will learn that lesson.
Before you tell the story, remove at least one incriminating detail
Much like Coco Chanel thought the basis of style was simplicity, the foundation of a good personal anecdote is to spare the reader the stunned jaw drop from including too much personal information and just get to the heart of the story that will resonate.
You may think you’re connecting with people by being so candid about your own faults, but you’re more likely causing further awkwardness by forcing the reader to parse a piece of information that says a lot about you, but not in a good way. Confession may be good for the soul, but it’s awful for effective writing.
In the end, there really aren’t any hard-and-fast rules about how and when to use a personal anecdote to make your point. As with most writing, it all comes down to feel. Only you know what you want people to get from your story, but if you think your stories aren’t getting your point across, they aren’t, so save the space for something more effective. Like a good meme.