Leading by Example: How to Present Anecdotes in Articles

March 2021

tools needed to tell stories like laptops and podcast equipment

Image: Getty Images

Anecdotes in articles, whether in print, broadcast or digital media, are one of the best ways to attract someone’s attention. People want real-life examples that underscore a point or illustrate a problem. But these same people will pick a bone if that example doesn’t deliver.

That’s why it’s important that any brief story or scenario you incorporate align with the rest of the content.

A tale of two Austin area residents

Take the case of two Austin area residents, both renters, who endured last month’s winter storm.

A single, recently laid off woman in her 60s stayed with relatives that still had power. She returned home days later to find a burst ceiling pipe had damaged portions of her small apartment. Now she must deal with work crews, restoration efforts and insurance claims.

A couple in their early 30s with limited resources were forced to fend for themselves and their 6-month-old child. They gathered snow to melt and boil on a camping stove to make formula for their baby and rationed groceries on hand for five full days. They remained under blankets to stay warm after fuel ran out in the car they were using as an intermittent heat source.

If you are looking to illustrate the dire situation Texans faced, you’re going to open with the young family thrust into survival mode. Their situation is far more compelling.

But if your piece is about plumbing disasters, you may focus on the senior citizen who suffered a weather-related setback. Her issues are more relatable since a lot of people fear burst pipes that badly damage structures.

Narratives that go nowhere

Too often writers hunt for anecdotes that startle or jar without considering if they really fit with the remainder of the article. Twirling Tiger Media produces a niche publication for a large association, and one thing our content editors consistently flag are narratives that go nowhere.

  • If you open with a narrative, make sure it easily connects to the main point of the piece.
  • Keep the story short—no more than three paragraphs (and that’s being generous).
  • If possible, extend the story into other sections or bring it full circle at the conclusion.
  • Be descriptive, but do not let adjectives and modifiers take over. Use them judiciously.
  • Use specific names when possible. And when you don’t, briefly explain why they are unidentified.

Stay in your lane

Another potential pitfall: anecdotes that veer off course. That is, storytellers either keep interjecting odd details or tangentially related material that throws off a tale’s cadence. This is particularly annoying during podcasts or videos, when such asides ramble on. Pay attention to what’s straight ahead, rather than amble into the rumble strip.

Validate the vignette

Do not exaggerate for literary effect. And do not lie about what happened. It’s tempting to tweak the tenor for dramatic effect. Don’t do that. Nor mashup people and events to serve as composites. You’ll lose credibility if the subject later claims publicly that a situation unfolded differently. And, when possible, ask enough follow-up questions to help validate the vignette. These responses do not need to be included in the story; they are there for accuracy.

Partner with a professional

Editors are essential to storytelling too. They read or hear works with a different ear and will pluck extraneous material, producing a much crisper piece. If precision writing isn’t your strength, consider hiring someone for whom it is. They will by default apply the verification process already mentioned. It’s in their nature to question even the most mundane details.

There are wonderful stories to be told, some the entire length of a piece. For those that deserve just an opening or closing or scenario somewhere in between, choose carefully and write about them with clarity and concision. You’ll attract more eyeballs and ears.

Thank you for reading this,

Anne