Using anecdote and story

Stories are a great way of exploring the past, the present and the future. Good stories have a plot, sub-plots, characters, choices, dilemmas and drama. Stories can be factual, fictional or both.

Stories, like anecdotes can be used by coaches or mentors to help illuminate situations and experiences. Stories and anecdotes can help strengthen the learner’s understanding and identification with the issue under discussion.

The key issues is knowing when and how to use them best. The stories and anecdotes need to be relevant and appropriate to have impact and value.

Useful ground rules, therefore, are:

  • Aim to use few well-chosen anecdotes
  • Before giving an anecdote, consider:
    • How specifically will this help the learner?
    • Is this the right moment to use it
    • Can I achieve more by helping the learner relate the issue to an experience of their own?
    • If I were in the learner’s place, would I value this story at this moment?
    • What does this say about my understanding of the issue?
    • What aspects should I emphasise, that make the relevance obvious?

Reasons for using stories and anecdotes:

  • To open up new perspectives for the learner, or stimulate new thinking
  • To help them compare their situation with another
  • To demonstrate your empathy with their issue

In general, if none of these reasons is appropriate, it is best not to use story at this point. Effective mentors and coaches often make it clear before they start a story why they are doing so.

Constructing a good story

Good stories have a number of critical elements. In particular, they have:

  • A context – the situation or environment, in which the action takes place
  • A plot and sub-plots – a sequence of related events
  • A moral – lessons, which can be drawn from the unfolding of the tale.
  • A development of mood – at each stage of the plot, the emotional backcloth may change.

© David Clutterbuck, 2014

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