Monday, January 14, 2013


It always surprises me how many people are bad at recounting anecdotes. To me the anecdote is as much a staple of engaging in social situations as trying to figure out what to do with your hands when the waiter takes away your wine glass. These brief, amusing little personal stories let us engage in a kind of conversational gin rummy; sufficiently engaging and interesting to stave off boredom, yet easy enough to understand that nobody feels left out. I don't think that everybody has to be an Oscar Wilde level raconteur but when there's an awkward break in the conversation anybody should be able to entertain a small group with an amusing tale.

First, and most importantly, is the use of "amusing". An anecdote is not a joke. That is not to say it can't be funny but rather that it doesn't have to be. What it has to do is amuse the audience. This can be because it's humourous, cute, tender, sympathetic, shocking (in a double take kind of way, not a dry wretch kind of way), or causes mutual indignation. Some people tell their anecdotes with no confidence, scared that they won't get the desired reaction. If you don't think your funny story is very funny and as a result rush past the punchline, it's not going to be funny. If you're not sure whether it is amusing, or quite what the point is, just don't tell it. Not only to avoid your own embarrassment but for the people listening who are discomfited by your discomfort, and for that one nice guy who tries to help you out with a forced laugh and a "yeah, that's so true".

An anecdote is differentiated from other stories a person may tell by its brevity. Keep it short. Nope, shorter than that. An anecdote is not a painting, it's a sketch on a napkin used to get the point across before being discarded. Keep your characters as verbal stick figures to whom things happen. If the audience needs to know more than a simple archetype (big fat guy, officious government employee, angry hobo) then you're going to spend more time providing character descriptions than telling the story. Keep it short enough that if someone suddenly realises they need to go to the toilet, they can intuitively tell that they will be able to hold out for long enough to hear the denouement.

Remember, too, that an anecdote is not an act of recall. "I was helping a friend move house a couple of years ago" is a solid opening. It provides a situation familiar to most people and situates the narrator's role in events. "It was mid August." What? Why is that relevant? "I tell a lie, it was early August, I remember because it was pretty soon after my brother's birthday." What's happening? "Actually no that was when I moved. I helped Jake move in October. Yeah, because it was during the playoffs." Have you decided to start dictating your memoir in the middle of a social gathering? Nobody you're talking to knows when it happened or with whom and they don't care. They can't help you remember. You are the performer, not the audience. The point of the anecdote is to amuse the listener. Any aspect of it which doesn't further that end can and should be cut, no matter how interesting or important it may be to you.

Not every anecdote can be told the same way in every situation. Lots of factors can affect how you regale a group with an anecdote. If it's a large group just accept that sometimes you'll get interrupted by impatient people or another conversation starting up. At a noisy party, keep it as unsubtle as possible so that missing some of the detail won't cause the anecdote to lose all meaning. If it's a specialised group, you can bring out the story about the kernel hackers that shouldn't even be considered at an extended family dinner where nobody even knows what an iterator is. Or there is rock bottom, the place where anecdotes go to die. Everything is going along well until some complete bastard utters those fateful words "oh, tell that one about..." and then says the punchline. Then there you are, left with a group of people staring at you expectantly and waiting for a hilarious story to which they already know the conclusion. The only advice I have in this situation is go hard or go home: either you tell the story as if it hadn't just been ruined and trust yourself to be able to pull it off, or you wave it away and tell the dismissive ten second version. You can stab the person who did it to you later.

Most people have a collection of anecdotes they've told many times, refined over the years, some culled when they are no longer timely, some replaced by Darwinian action. The good ones have multiple ways they can be told, a subtle variation for each social context. You don't need to have led an exciting or even interesting life to have good anecdotes, although that doesn't hurt. All you need to do is make sure you know what story you're telling, why it's amusing, what version you need to tell in the circumstances, and above all that any story involving a monkey is going to go down well.

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