How to tell anecdotes in English

The one thing that all humans share in common is our ability to learn and share experiences through stories.

Just think for a minute about your own life. How many stories could you tell people about what’s happened to you over the years? Hundreds? Thousands?

Stories are an essential part of communication. We love hearing other people tell stories. They are so much more engaging, so much more memorable than facts or theories.

Learning to tell stories in a foreign language isn’t as difficult as you might think. If you can tell a story in your own language, you should be able to use the same material and retell it in English. 

I’d like you to think of some incident that has happened to you  – or somebody you know – recently. Short stories about incidents (events that happen or occur) are known as anecdotes.  They are much easier for us to remember than stories from films or books because we have a personal attachment to them. We share anecdotes all the time. In fact, many scientists now argue that the brain is wired for stories because they enable us to make sense of the world. When we hear a story, we relate what happens to our own experiences. In other words, we make the story our own.

So, one of the most important skills you can learn in English is the ability to tell anecdotes. 

How to introduce an anecdote

We don’t plan to tell anecdotes. They emerge naturally in conversation. For example, somebody mentions a particular place, person or thing and you make a connection to something that you or somebody you know has experienced. It’s like a door opening for a few seconds, giving your anecdote just enough time to enter and make an impression on the people inside the room.

Here are some phrases you can use to introduce an anecdote:

Did I ever tell you about the time I………?

Have I ever mentioned the time when I….?

I’ll never forget the time I……?

Funny you should say that.  Have I told you about the time I……..?

Talking about / of …………, that reminds me of the time I …………..?

Using these phrases will indicate that you wish to tell an anecdote. You will get the floor (you have the right to speak) and people will listen to what you are about to say – as long as your anecdote is related to what was being discussed.

Setting the context

Once you have the floor, it’s a good idea to set the context. This basically means that you should provide a few background details so your listeners can imagine themselves in the situation. Think of it like the first scene in a film, where the director shows us where and when the story takes place, and who the principal characters are. Anecdotes should be short and sweet and too much context, especially if it is unnecessary, may bore or confuse the listeners.

It’s quite a few years ago now 

I was on my way to (place) to (verb)…. , when….

Do you know .(person or place)?  Well, we were

I’m not sure if you know ….. but it’s …….. 

I’m sure you all know about….. /I’m sure you’ve all been to……

Telling the story

After setting some context , you will provide want to create the narrative flow. In their simplest form, stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. Anecdotes are generally simple stories so I’d recommend that you follow a linear or chronological narrative (arrange the events in the order of time) at first. When you have told the anecdote a couple of times, you might want to make even more interesting by telling it in a non-chronological way. To do this, you might want to use past perfect tenses.

Also, remember that you might want to switch to the present simple and present continuous when you are sure you have the listeners’ attention. Using present tenses can make the story more real and immediate. Using this technique puts the listeners inside the event and makes them feel as if they are experiencing it in real-time. This is known as the historic present.

Adding emphasis

When you are telling a story, you do not have to stick to the facts. Telling stories is a creative act and you will entertain your listeners more if you add emphasis and even exaggerate at times. When we listen to a great story told well, we remember what is was like to be a child, when everything was new and exciting. Children don’t want to hear about ‘an ordinary princess‘, they want to hear about ‘the most beautiful princess in the land’.

Here are some expressions we use to add emphasis:

You’re not going to believe this, but…..

You should have heard / seen…….!

And the strangest thing / funniest thing / best thing / worst thing was…..

I’ve never heard / seen such a ……. thing in my life…..

When you have told most of the story, you need to end it in a memorable way. We often do this by saving the best part of the story for last. Stories or anecdotes are like punch lines in a joke (the final part which makes everybody laugh) and should surprise, shock, amuse, or provide the listener with some useful insight about the experience. Good anecdotes can even change the way people think about things.

And then, to top it all,…..

Just when I thought things couldn’t get any better / worse / stranger, ……..happened

And, you’ll never guess what happened at the end, well……

However, sometimes we decide to end with a kind of explanation about what had happened:

Anyway, to cut a long story short,…..

So, in the end, what happened was………

Anyway, it turns out that…………

The ending is, arguably, the most important part of an anecdote. It the listeners feel satisfied at the end, they are likely to remember the gist of the story. This means they can share your anecdote with people they know. Indeed, if you listen to your friends and family retell anecdotes, you will hear them add details to the original story. You may even find that they start telling an anecdote about your own life as if it had actually happened to them!

This week’s homework. 

Write down some notes about an anecdote based on something that happened to you. Practise telling it and try to use some of the phrases listed above. After you have told it a few times to yourself, try telling it to a friend. Then, next time you are speaking English with a group of people, try to introduce the topic related to the anecdote. For example, if you have a restaurant anecdote, move the conversation towards food. Finally, use one of the anecdote introduction phrases to get the attention of your listeners and tell your story.

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