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Using Anecdotes - Remember, People Like to Read About People

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Okay, I admit it: I'm a keen people-watcher. (Most writers are: we know people love to read about people - not things; not statistics; but people!)

We collect anecdotes and snippets of other lives. If you do the same, you'll find your readers avidly waiting for your next article.

I love to sit in a sidewalk cafe or at a table in a shopping-mall restaurant, and watch the crowd go by. I'm fascinated by snatches of conversation at the next table or between people who meander past. (I do draw the line at edging my chair closer so I can hear better!) I like watching mini-dramas being played out between warring couples... or friends who are meeting after a long period apart.

When I watch the evening news, what grabs me is how things affect the people in the stories. Who will ever forget the expressions on the faces of the people in the streets of New York on September 11, 2001? We shared their emotions as they watched fireballs engulf buildings, saw desperate people leap from the eightieth floor, or waited for news of loved ones working in the Twin Towers.

But stories don't have to be dramatic. They just have to strike a chord.

I've found my eyes filling at a story of how an old couple have been cheated out of their life savings and are forced to sell the family home.

I've laughed at tongue-in-cheek stories about incompetent bank robbers who write 'Fill this bag with money!' on the back of an envelope that they shove across the counter with a sack... overlooking the fact that the envelope has their name and home address on the other side.

I've rejoiced when a lost child is found and have been saddened by the sight of refugees trudging into the distance in search of safety.

No matter what your message is, show how it affects people and you'll have a much better chance of the reader staying with you. It's no accident that weight watching magazines feature two or more weight-loss success stories in every issue. It's no accident that the most successful car sales ads feature people having fun (or being envied, or being adventurous). We are all interested in other people.

1. Use Anecdotes

I've ghost-written a lot of books for business professionals. The topics range from negotiating techniques to presentation skills to real estate sales. In every book I've written, I've encouraged the person commissioning the book to tell me lots of stories.

  • Do they know someone who has lost a sale because they left out one vital part of the sales process?

  • Can they tell me about someone who has alienated customers - and why?
  • How has a sales person helped someone to find the perfect house for his family?
  • How was a real estate sale lost because of what a sales rep did or didn't do?
  • Who got a great deal by using one simple but powerful technique while negotiating a price?
      Whenever you write an article or a book, search for powerful anecdotes. People are willing to be convinced by the experiences of others. Subconsciously you'll have them thinking: Look at the terrific benefits from using this technique!
    • 2. Bring People To Life

      To write "powerful" anecdotes you have to be able to make readers believe in the people in your stories. That means you develop those people just as carefully as if you were writing fiction.

      Help us to 'see' these people. That doesn't mean you should stop and describe the colour of their hair and eyes and what they're wearing! The key is the emotions associated with the story you're telling. If it's about an irate customer, make sure we can see that customer's body language; hear the frustration and anger in his voice. If you put us in the mind of the salesperson, let us know what he's thinking as he faces this customer, and how he either (a) handles the situation well or (b) loses a sale and a customer for life.

      This applies no matter what you're writing about. By showing the emotions and worries of the people in your anecdotes, you're appealing to the emotions of the reader. Show the reader how to avoid pain or achieve pleasure - and you've got a sale!

      3. Bring The Setting To Life

      Don't have 'talking heads' in your anecdotes. People don't exist in a vacuum. They have meetings in offices, they run through the rain, they sip coffee in restaurants. They jump in and out of cars, talk while they're driving, and chat over a few drinks. They play golf or tennis; they go abseiling and scuba diving.

      Help us to see the setting when you tell us an anecdote. Don't just tell us what it looks like - use the five senses. Help us to smell the coffee; feel the pelting rain; hear the audience roar with laughter at a speaker's wit. All of these things make your story 'real' - and help your readers to believe in your story people and in your message.

      You'll sell more books, you'll attract more people to your website, and you'll win a growing band of followers...

      ...just by letting people read about people!

      (c) copyright Marg McAlister

      Marg McAlister has published magazine articles, short stories, books for children, ezines, promotional material, sales letters and web content. She has written 5 distance education courses on writing, and her online help for writers is popular all over the world. Sign up for her regular writers' tipsheet at

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