How to use anecdotes as evidence

Sometimes the best way to answer a question isn't to list a bunch of numbers and facts—it’s to tell a story.

As human beings, we are wired to listen to stories and learn from them. That’s why a good novel, manga, movie or TV show can hold our attention longer than most meetings. It’s also why nearly all TED talks start with an anecdote.

Take a moment and think about how would you would answer the question below:

Who has had a major influence on you and how?

Many students will simply make a claim and then describe it. They might describe the person, as kind, intelligent, caring, passionate or something like that, and then rely on the listener to take their word for it

There is a common saying in storytelling: show, don't tell. It means to give examples, not just describe it. If I say, "He's a good person", it can be tough to understand what "good" really means. It's also not memorable. But if I say, "He's a good person. One winter, he saw a homeless man shivering, so he took off his coat and gave it to the man!" that is showing. That's memorable. 

So, the most effective way to get your point across for many questions is to use an anecdote. This way, you paint a picture for the listener—you show, not tell.

Let’s take a look at that question again:

Who has had a major influence on you and how?

    Who's had a major influence on me? Well... I did a homestay in Thailand back in high school, and my host father, Richard, was definitely a huge influence. He had a lot of great qualities, but the thing that stood out was that he was a genuinely good person.
    I remember this one time, we had all finished eating dinner, and he asked me and my homestay “sister” to clear the table. Then he rushed to the kitchen and said, "Come on, girls. Hurry. Before Anong [our maid] catches me doing the dishes."
    We were confused. He’d been working all day, and he was paying Anong to do the housework. So I was like, "Why do you want to do them?" 
    He looked back at me without a trace of smugness or self-righteousness and said, "Well, if I went into work tomorrow and saw that half my work was done for me, I'd be happy."
    That was a life-changing moment for me.
    That summer, I stayed at my aunt's place for two months, and she was amazed at my transformation. While before she had seen me as entitled, whiny and self-centered, during this visit I offered to help her whenever I could and thought about things from other people’s perspectives, not just mine. I started making good friends very easily, and one of my old friends from junior high told me that it was like I was a new person, and she really liked the new me.
    So... if I had to choose one person who had a huge influence on me, I'd choose Richard.

That's a strong anecdote. It has specific people doing actions for a clear reason.

It may seem like a daunting task to learn how to tell a story, but just remember these two things:

  1. You don't have to memorize the whole story—in fact, please don't as it will sound unnatural. Just remember the outline and a few words or phrases you'd like to use. It's kind of like Hitoshi Matsumoto's "すべらない話" (Suberanai Hanashi) where famous comedians get together and tell funny stories about their lives. Those comedians probably have a few stories they've crafted so they can tell them well.
  2. Once you're able to tell one anecdote, you can tell it over and over again in different ways in different settings to help you connect with people.

So think of a memory you really love, and in your next lesson try telling the story to your teacher. I promise they will learn more about you than if you simply gave them descriptions.

wired to [verb]—automatically thinking or behaving in a particular way.
anecdote [noun]—a very short story that can be about you or just be a story you know.
take someone’s word for it [idiomatic phrase]—believe what someone says or writes without checking for oneself.