Hari Patience-Davies explains how to set up an anecdote library for your most useful stories.
I’ve mentioned before how having an anecdote library can be incredibly helpful for job interviews and meetings – it’s a great way to choose, refine and practice the stories you think will be most useful for you.
An anecdote library is a private collection of stories that you spent some time curating that you can draw from when you need to.
Let’s say you’re currently working with a complicated technical product – something that people ask you to explain all the time. If you take the time – either alone or with your colleagues – to work out a good story or analogy to explain this product, then you’ll be able to call on it any time you need it, and not have to think quickly on the spot to explain it anew each time.
Your anecdote library doesn’t have to be big – so don’t be intimidated and think that every story you’ve ever told needs to be included. When I started mine, I began with just two stories, and it’s grown a lot since then.
An anecdote library can be a physical notebook or in a digital app or document. I use my Remarkable tablet for mine because it combines the best of both worlds – I can “write” the story out in my own handwriting rather than type it, but it is saved digitally which means I can access it as a PDF on my laptop or via the tablet itself. I’m a bit of a gadget geek, so the Remarkable is one of my favourite toys – but you don’t need a fancy e-ink tablet to start an anecdote library, a plain paper notebook or a notes app on your phone (ideally one you only use for the library) work just as well.
When populating your anecdote library you need a way of documenting your stories. My preferred story structure is the 4Cons – Context, Complication, Consequence, Conclusion (and yes one of them is a Com, want to make something of it?)
I also like to note down any key elements of Character, Action, Emotional impact, Sensory detail and Meaning (these are the five elements that any good story should possess).
So a page in my anecdote library, the template I have designed, looks like this:
Then, I note down the minimum amount of detail in each box that I need to tell the story. I try not to write it out in full, as that can commit me to using specific words which means I can’t adapt the length of the story on the fly. Instead I used bullet points and short notes – this is one of my stories after all, I lived it, so I don’t need to write it out with all the details like I might if I was unfamilliar with it.
Here’s one my stories in this format:
This story is about a time I witnessed a presenter make a very British reference (P60) on a very international training call, and how confused the audience was, and how their confusion meant they weren’t listening to the speaker anymore, but focussed instead on what the unfamiliar word meant.
It’s not a big life changing story, but it’s a nice example of remembering to present to the audience you have using language they know and avoid jargon or terms from other countries which could cause confusion. It’s a useful little anecdote, and I use it a lot.
Now you’ve got a template that you can use to document your stories, it’s time to decide which stories to start with. I would advise considering if there are any stories you tell regularly at work – maybe the story of why you chose your professional speciality or took this job. Maybe the story of your greatest professional achievement, or, one which is good for interviews, a failure from which you learned something which made you better at your job.
You can also include stories from your personal life – stories which has more general meanings or morals such as, “you can count on me” or “I don’t give up easily.”
If you’re having difficulty thinking of any stories to begin with then think of the stories you like telling – maybe one about the best trip you ever went on, or how you met your best friend or partner.
It really isn’t important how many stories you include in the anecdote library – so long as you start with a few, more will come to you, and having your anecdote library in an easily accessible notebook or app makes it easy for you to add them in as they occur to you.
So find your medium of choice, pour yourself your favourite beverage and consider, what are the stories I would like to tell better?