Tina Lewis Rowe

Insights, Information & Inspiration

Telling The Stories Of Your Life

The value of personal anecdotes in your work:

Personal anecdotes can help you:

  • Reinforce a learning moment.
  • Share a human situation in your work or life history.
  • Add humor, inspiration or energy to a meeting or presentation.

However, as you have likely discovered, effectively telling an anecdote of any kind is not easy, and telling a personal anecdote is even more challenging. If you have ever sat in a meeting or in an audience and mentally grimaced with embarrassment, frustration, boredom or irritation while someone told a story, you know you don’t want to get the same reaction!

Some of the negative reactions to personal anecdotes:

  • If you talk about your experiences or accomplishments excessively–even for the purpose of encouraging others or sharing what you have in common with them–you can seem to be bragging or living in the past.  
  • If you frequently talk about your past mistakes, listeners may laugh with you but start viewing you as an incompetent who has no right to critique their work or offer advice. (Even worse, the story gets repeated, each time with a twist, until one day you are asked, incredulously, “Is it true that you……….?”)
  • If you nearly always follow-up something someone else has said with, “That reminds me of the time when……” it can seem as though you have a “war story” for every situation or that you are trying to top that person’s story.
  • If your anecdotes are lengthy, very detailed or not particularly entertaining, you may be considered boring–especially if you have told the same story repeatedly.
  • If you tell stories that clearly are very exaggerated or not true, even for a good purpose, you will lose credibility and people won’t believe the true stories you share.

In spite of those potential problems, using personal anecdotes can be very effective.  The key to success is to use anecdotes purposefully and carefully.

  • Practice the story. Practice before you tell it the first time, and occasionally after that, so you don’t misspeak, or cast about mentally for the times, dates or details, and so you can tell it concisely and clearly.
  • Have a purpose for the anecdote. Do you want to reinforce a point, connect with people on a personal level, redirect thinking, or share a smile? Choose a story that is right for your purpose, rather than tossing in a story just to say you told one. 
  • Tell the truth. The truth may not seem as colorful, funny or dramatic as the new way you tell it, but if you tell it as though it really happened, it should have really happened. Otherwise, it isn’t a personal story, it’s a lie. You can change some details or put a funny or dramatic spin on it, but keep the essence true. Especially keep your role in it accurate.
  • Keep it brief. You may enjoy replaying every tiny detail in your mind, but others may wish you would hurry up and get to the point.
  • Keep the emotions you display and the tone of voice you use, appropriate for the story you are telling. If you laugh about details that a reasonable person would not find amusing, or tell an otherwise amusing story in a somber way, listeners may misunderstand your purpose, or think you are not very discerning about the situation. 
  • Put energy into it. Tell an interesting story, don’t just ploddingly recount an event. You should nearly always speak a bit faster when telling an anecdote. Be appropriately and comfortably animated. However, do not make it a speech class dramatic reading!
  • Finish and move on. Finish your anecdote with a few words to remind listeners once again of what the story was designed to illustrate, then segue back to the original conversation or presentation.

Monitor the reactions to your anecdotes.

*If people do not seem to be responding as expected–if they laugh at serious parts and nod solemnly at what you think is funny–you may need to tell it in a different way.  

*If someone tries to move you along by saying, “Yeah, I get the point,” or if they nod vigorously to indicate they understand, you may need to reduce the number of details or speak with more energy and a slightly increased speed.

*If you finish and your listeners are staring at you as though waiting for the punchline, develop an ending that wraps up the story in a more direct manner.

*If people are nervously smiling, but shaking their heads back and forth in a negative way, they may be sending a subconscious message that the story was not appropriate or that it was offensive or embarrassing.

*If listeners stop making eye contact, they are probably no longer mentally engaged by your story.

In all those cases, it may not be the story that is the problem, but the way you are telling it–work on that before you eliminate the anecdote, if you think the story serves a useful purpose.

A story notebook: Consider keeping a notebook or computer file to remind you of situations that have illustrative potential, and review your file occasionally or when you are preparing a presentation, so you don’t forget. 

The python story: One of my brothers, Manley Lewis, once reminded me of a situation I had told him about, and said, “That python story was the funniest story you ever told me.” I had completely forgotten that incident–but now I use it in presentations quite often to illustrate several key points.  The python story is one of the stories of my life.  Look for ways to effectively share yours.

February 28th, 2008 Posted by | Assessment Centers and Interviews, Life and Work, Personal and Professional Development | 6 comments


  1. OK, this is a long story of my own, but it points out what you are talking about. I was in a class a couple of months ago where the instructor started right away by saying, very seriously, “My son plays soccer.” I thought maybe it would be about winning or we’d find out his son was handicapped or something like that. Instead we listened to literally fifteen minutes of a long drawn story with no point!

    This was just a long boring story of his son getting up early for practice and how first this thing happened and then this other thing happened, over the last year. He stopped the story by saying, still very seriously, “He sure loves to play soccer.” Then, he looked at us and asked, “Do you know why I told you that story?” We all were numb by then, but I wanted to be a good student so I asked why.

    He stood there for few seconds that seemed like hours, then grinned and said, with a yippy-skippy tone of voice, “No reason, I just wanted to tell you about my kid.” One guy picked up his stuff and walked out, which got the instructor on the defensive and he started saying that the story illustrated how everyone likes to win, but it was too late. We hated him the entire time!

    Other than you and maybe a few other people, I think most people are better off not telling personal stories at all.

    What is the python story?

    Comment by Stormin' | February 28, 2008

  2. Tina says:That is a wonderful personal anecdote of yours! I love it! I’m going to use it in an instructor development class sometime, and say it happened to me! (Just joking you, Stormin’!) As for the python story, it has to be told not written. Most stories are far better in the telling than the writing. (Although I could almost hear you telling the one you just wrote about.) I’ll give you a hint: It’s about a python that was playing soccer with a kid….


    Comment by TLR | February 28, 2008

  3. Very good ideas, Tina. I’ll share my own horror story. I was teaching a church class when I remembered something that had happened several years earlier that would relate to the point I was making. Half way through the story I realized that it might embarrass my wife, who was in the class. I tried to recover and still tell the basic story, although making my wife’s role in it sound better. I didn’t realize how confusing it all sounded until one of the men said “Don, that hole you’re digging is just getting deeper, so maybe you’d better stop.” Everyone laughed, and many turned and looked at my wife. She had trouble forgiving me for that one.

    It taught me not to tell impromptu personal stories, so now I do a few trial-runs at home to make sure any story I want to tell fits the requirements you mentioned, of being clear and appropriate. Thanks again for your excellent posts.

    Comment by Don Roberson | March 1, 2008

  4. Tina says: You’re so right that impromptu stories can lead to trouble. Unless we’ve had time to consider a story’s value, clean it up a bit if needed, and practice telling it briefly and effectively, we’re better off leaving it out. Thank you for your story about a story!

    Comment by TLR | March 1, 2008

  5. I was looking for information about story telling and this isn’t exactly what I’m looking for, but it is good information. It looks like you give speeches, so maybe you can help me with this question.

    For speeches, do you take the actual object into your training, like if it is about the brass container? I tell a story about a hat and sometimes bring the hat but I don’t want to damage it. I can’t decide if having the item makes the story better or not. Do you have suggestions about that? Thank you for your time. I enjoyed looking over your site and will come back.

    Comment by Texas | June 30, 2008

  6. Tina says: Hello, Texas! Sometimes I have the actual item–I have taken the brass container, as a matter of fact. (Not the python!) But, it does become a bit much. If you think the hat is good, why not get another hat that can be used to illustrate the point, but that is not THE hat?

    I use PowerPoint in a slightly different way than some people do, and I often have photos of the things I illustrate.

    When I talked about things at work, like the brass container, I had it right there and could point to it on the shelf, which added a nice touch.

    But, I don’t think the actual item is necessary, and might even detract from the story if people are focused on it.

    Thank you for reading and commenting. I hope you’ll visit often!

    Comment by TLR | June 30, 2008

Leave a comment