Journalists get anecdotes.
PR not so much.
A few years back, we analyzed three months’ worth of tech stories in The Economist breaking down the content type by category.
It turned out that 17 percent of the articles were anecdotal.
We consistently find that the anecdotal content in business publications ranges from 15 to 25 percent per feature story.
Yet, if you were to audit the content created by the PR function, the percent of anecdotal content would be lucky to hit 3 percent, resulting in media pitches that miss the mark — sometimes badly — and stories in owned media that dull the senses.
With this as a backdrop, I’ve leaned on our staff to capture a cross section of anecdotes that recently appeared in media stories:
“Senator Amy Klobuchar was hungry, forkless and losing patience. An aide, joining her on a trip to South Carolina in 2008, had procured a salad for his boss while hauling their bags through an airport terminal. But once onboard, he delivered the grim news: He had fumbled the plastic eating utensils before reaching the gate, and the crew did not have any forks on such a short flight. What happened next was typical: Ms. Klobuchar berated her aide instantly for the slip-up. What happened after that was not: She pulled a comb from her bag and began eating the salad with it, according to four people familiar with the episode.”
The New York Times – Feb. 22, 2019
How Amy Klobuchar Treats Her Staff
In this case, the anecdote has morphed into a full-blown narrative dominating the news cycle. It even triggered a few satirical pieces like “The Best Combs a Presidential Candidate Could Use to Eat a Salad” from The Atlantic where they tested the comb in fork-like applications.
“Immediately after returning to California, Holmes decided that Balto would hardly leave her side on the quest to save Theranos. Each day, Holmes would wake up with Balto at the nearly empty Los Altos mansion that she was renting about six miles from her company’s headquarters. (Theranos covered the house’s rent.) Soon after, one of her two drivers, sometimes her two security personnel, and even sometimes one of her two assistants, would pick them up, and set off for work. And for the rest of the day, Balto would stroll through the labs with his owner. Holmes brushed it off when the scientists protested that the dog hair could contaminate samples. But there was another problem with Balto, too. He wasn’t potty-trained. Accustomed to the undomesticated life, Balto frequently urinated and defecated at will throughout Theranos headquarters. While Holmes held board meetings, Balto could be found in the corner of the room relieving himself while a frenzied assistant was left to clean up the mess.”
Vanity Fair, Feb. 20, 2919
“She Never Looks Back”: Inside Elizabeth Holmes’s Chilling Final Months at Theranos
Another anecdote that other journalists are “borrowing” for their own stories. Listening to a podcast on Holmes called “The Dropout,” her behavior generated a treasure trove anecdotes.
“On an internet occupied by as many finger-wagging ‘grammar Nazis’ as slovenly texters who prefer emoji to verbal displays of emotion, the Oxford comma has become a cause célèbre. This is especially true on dating apps, where many users have deemed the punctuation mark something they ‘can’t live without’ — a designation that’s put it in the same lofty category as cheese, the beach, and Game of Thrones.”
GQ, Feb. 20, 2019
Why Everyone on Tinder Is an ‘Oxford Comma Enthusiast’.
Not easy finding an anecdote on grammar and punctuation. Kieran Dahl managed this and more.
“Anyone designing hardware, writing code, or using a computer or a smartphone today owes a debt to the innovations developed in metropolitan New York decades ago. The first widely adopted programming language, Fortran, was created in 1957 by young coders working for IBM in an office on East 56th Street. Their wintertime breaks were snowball fights in Central Park.”
The New York Times, Feb. 22, 2019
It Started with a Jolt: How New York Became a Tech Town
I love this anecdote. The historical reference alone adds color to the story, but the snowball fights take it over the top.
“In late 2005, tech visionary and MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte pulled the cloth cover off a small green computer with a bright yellow crank. The device was the first working prototype for Negroponte’s new nonprofit One Laptop Per Child, dubbed “the green machine” or simply “the $100 laptop.” And it was like nothing that Negroponte’s audience — at either his panel at a UN-sponsored tech summit in Tunis, or around the globe — had ever seen.”
The Verge – April 16, 2018
OLPC’S $100 LAPTOP WAS GOING TO CHANGE THE WORLD — THEN IT ALL WENT WRONG
Nothing creates drama like a good old-fashioned crash. In the case of this article on the “One Laptop Per Child” initiative, an anecdote sets the stage as a momentous occasion. Note the details, the cloth cover, the bright yellow crank and the summit in Tunis, which bring realness to the storytelling.
We’ve kicked off a campaign at the start of the year called “The story is always there.”
By story, what we’re really saying is something interesting is always there.
That’s the beauty of the anecdote. Even one can lift a mundane narrative into something that stays with the reader.