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When Is A Story Not A Story?

…When it is an anecdote.

Earlier this week, I attended a webcast with a topic that is near and dear to my heart, “Storytelling in a Virtual Classroom.”  It contained some very good information for presenters, but it had nothing to do with storytelling.  It was about anecdotes.

The session leader focused on a format designed to save time within the reduced session length of virtual classrooms.  He also wanted to overcome the limited attention span often accompanying these “PowerPoint with audio” presentations. 

The presenter correctly indicated that stories can be used to hold interest that might otherwise drift.  He supported this by outlining a structure:

  • Start with the point you want to make;
  • Illustrate the point with a story;
  • Provide an example or application that supports your point.

A side benefit, he contended, is that this structure can be quickly delivered.

It sounds logical, but it is not storytelling.  Speeding through events with an eye on the clock cuts the heart out of emotional involvement, and effective storytelling ties directly into the emotions of the audience.

Now, this structure can certainly work when the second step is changed to “Illustrate the point with an anecdote.”

An anecdote is a brief tale that is designed to reveal a truth or spotlight a character trait.  It is most often tied to a real life occurrence.  Although it can be humorous, it is not a joke.  …It is also not emotionally involving.  When it is finished, the listener should be thinking, “Oh, yes, that sounds right.”

Most anecdotes can be related in a couple of minutes or less.  The presenter sets up the situation, describes the action that plays out, and ends by verbally underlining the “main event.”

I do not want to denigrate the value of anecdotes.  They are an effective tool that the presenter can use to sway the opinion of an audience.  Abraham Lincoln was a master of the humorous anecdote that revealed flawed character traits.

However, I do want to offer an alternative for the time-sensitive presenter who is functioning in a virtual classroom environment.  Effective storytelling can rivet attention.  A long story well-told does not have to mean that you will lose your virtual audience.  Remember, radio dramas held audience attention for a good half-hour…and people came back week after week.

If your story emotionally moves your audience, you will have gone a long way in reinforcing your point.  An additional benefit is that well-told stories are easier to recall because people usually remember the opening and the resolution.  If they forget a specific element, they still remember the destination and can fill-in the needed path.

An anecdote requires a full memory of the incident because it is so short.  If a key fact is missing, the purpose of the anecdote falls apart.

So, virtual classroom presenters, think about the elements that made the radio dramas effective.  Many old radio shows are available for online listening, so take advantage of them and analyze their construction.  They will provide you with a terrific outline for structuring your classroom stories.

Best of all, your story will be remembered.

Thanks for reading.