Folks like Copyblogger who teach copywriting often emphasize the importance of story. That’s because a story gives our hearts and minds something to hold on to. Stories make ideas sticky. But the thing is, the story has to be in your work for the right reasons.
☐ Anecdotes are engaging and relevant.
Like flashbacks in narrative nonfiction, anecdotes used to illuminate informational nonfiction must be engaging. That is, they should have entertainment value as well as informational value. We want interesting stories about fascinating people.
Such stories should also be relevant to the point and not just thrown in because someone told you to “start with a story.” It can be tempting to include a story because it was funny or unusual. But the story has to matter. It has to support the point you’re making.
One common issue I see with anecdotes is that occasionally an author will pile a bunch of them up to pad a book out to some arbitrary page count. If the point has already been made, further anecdotes making the same point just water down the message. And unless the stories are really remarkable, readers may start to skim. Make sure any additional anecdotes you add illuminate the point in different ways, or cumulatively build on what went before.
Another problem with anecdotes is that many of us have heard or read the same ones. I’ve noticed this in business books and among speakers particularly. I’ve even been guilty of it myself. If an anecdote that’s in common circulation is perfect to illustrate your point, often you’re better off just using it. That’s why I still use the “big rocks” story in time management seminars, with apologies to those who’ve heard it before. I’ve found that every time, there are people who haven’t heard it. And I have yet to develop a better illustration.
But if you can invent or discover or recall from your own experience an original anecdote that makes your point, that will help set your book apart. To see if the anecdote you have in mind has been used a lot, try looking for it in Google Books.
Bring a Personality Into It
Journalists often use anecdotes that center on people. Watch how they use anecdotes in news stories to help put a human face on what could otherwise be an abstract concept.
My favorite example of this is a Planet Money story about Yvrose Jean Baptiste, a Haitian businesswoman whose wholesale business was ruined by the earthquake there. Home destroyed, inventory lost, clients dead. Disaster. She had to start not just from nothing, but from a negative, because she still owed her lender for the cost of the destroyed inventory, which she would have sold to pay off her credit line.
I still remember that story all these years later, not only because of her beautiful name, but because her story struck my heart. It gave humanity to what could otherwise have been a dull examination of economics.
That kind of personal story is sticky—it helps ensure that people will remember the point you are trying to make.