We’re told that anecdotes (brief retellings of incidents) are impoverished forms of communication, and stories (longer narratives with peaks and valleys and telling details and surprising twists and moments of reflection and insight) are the highest form of communication.
In a recent “The Undercover Economist” — economist and journalist Tim Harford’s reported column for the FT designed to answer questions based on the best available research — Harford asks the question “Should we take a few long holidays, or lots of short ones?”
But instead of diving into the research immediately, though, Harford begins with a humble anecdote. The anecdote is about a man Harford says he knows
who used to deal with a stressful job, working 15-18 hour days in a senior role, by slipping away to a rented house near Richmond Park in London.
There, he refused to be interrupted by messages except during office hours, spent time playing bridge well and golf badly, and he ensured that the location of the hideaway was a well-kept secret. The few colleagues who did visit were strictly banned from talking about work. Yet despite his apparently laid-back approach, this fellow got results.
To be clear, I know this person only by reputation; Dwight Eisenhower died before I was born. But this is how he responded to the burdens of being supreme allied forces commander during the second world war. He found it essential to take time off.
The anecdote is illustrative of what Harford finds in the research: holidays are essential to peak productivity and decision-making. (And short holidays, the thin body of research tells Harford, are better than long ones at that, although we need both.)
The anecdote is convincing — if Eisenhower “found it essential to take time off,” who the hell are we not to do the same?
The anecdote is memorable. Eisenhower took secret holidays during the war to play golf and bridge. We’re not going to forget that.
Finally (and equally important to the other three qualities): the anecdote is short. Three short paragraphs totaling just 132 words. Reading time: 33 seconds. We’re still paying attention afterwards.
If Harford had told a story instead about Eisenhower’s decision to take time off during the war…he’d still be telling it. Would we still be listening?
“Should we take a few long holidays, or lots of short ones” is a brilliant piece of research-based exposition on a question almost everyone who has the luxury of being able to ask the question has indeed asked.
And it is brilliant precisely because it is not rooted in story, but built upon two anecdotes and a quick scan of the salient literature. (The supporting anecdote: the long-delayed vacation that Lin-Manuel Miranda took years ago during which he read Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton — which inspired “Hamilton: The Musical.” A piece of art, as Harford points out, that’s in part about the importance of taking a break.)
Stories are the teller’s, and remain so after the telling. You listen to them, and you might be moved by them, but it’s like being moved at a concert — it’s impossible to recreate the experience for someone else afterwards.
A good anecdote, on the other hand, is the audience’s as soon as they hear it. We might credit Tim Harford for telling us about Eisenhower’s holidays and holidays in general — but what would be the point? It’s about Eisenhower. It’s about the research. And now, it’s ours — and maybe about a change we’re making in our lives.
Takeaway: You can tell stories about yourself or your research. You could also choose one or two very short, illustrative, convincing and memorable anecdote and then get on with it.
I advise my clients to stick with anecdotes unless they are already talented storytellers. Anecdotes are more portable than stories, people appreciate the brevity, and the good ones stay with us forever.