Action in Anecdotes

Professionals rely on anecdotes to make their abstract services more tangible to prospective clients.  Claims like:

  • Our experience helps us see things that your people might miss.
  • We will really fight for you.
  • We do the tough jobs for you.
  • We can access people you can’t.
  • There is a better way to look at your problem.
  • We are creative.
  • We really listen well.

may sound boastful or argumentative or simply sound the same as the way all your competitors sound.  And they certainly aren’t memorable.

A well-told anecdote overcomes all of these problems.  As described by Peg Neuhauser in her book, Corporate Legends and Lore, well-told means it contains four elements: plot, character, action and outcome.  In an earlier post, I showed how changing the character can change the message of an anecdote.  Here I will discuss action.

By action, Neuhauser means just that, usually in the form of somebody doing something.  An action, unlike an abstraction such as a “business unit” or “increased market share,” can be visualized in the mind’s eye.  The little movie it creates makes the anecdote sticky, because a client will remember it well after she has forgotten the abstraction.

This is easily seen by these two descriptions of the same event, which could be alternative sentences in a longer anecdote:

  • The RIF (reduction in force) affected 50 people.
  • She met with the three supervisors individually and then with the other 47 employees in a group in the cafeteria to tell them that they had all been let go.

Or by these descriptions of a thing, a new headquarters:

  • It increased their visibility and enhanced their reputation for innovation which is a critical element of their brand.
  • For a week after the building opened traffic actually slowed down on the expressway, it’s so unusual.  When people read the newspaper or see a story about the company on TV, they always see a picture of the building, it has become so much a part of their identity.

Adding an action isn’t always easy, because professional services don’t always center on actions.  What are the actions associated with a contract or an audit?  When faced with this situation, try having the character in the anecdote (The CEO stood before the board and . . .) or the client’s customers (Customers stood in long lines for over . . .) do something.

Put an action in your anecdote and your clients will listen in rapt attention.

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