Stop Telling Jokes and Start Using Storytelling

(Note: This is a lightly edited podcast transcript from a project “back in the day.”)

I’m Sean Buvala and this week I’m looking at the difference between jokes, anecdotes, and stories.

Our subject comes from our listener in Tucson, Arizona, who emailed me and wrote:

a clloseup view of a mouth with closed lips, probably on a 10 yr old child “When I was listening to your remarks in a recent podcast about using the right story in the right circumstance, I thought of how I was subjected to some jokes recently, most were not very good, during a gathering. I guess what I’m trying to say is that folks, particularly adults, may misunderstand just what a story is and how it can make a difference during an exchange. It’s sad to say but some people think that jokes fall into the story category. I know you are aware of this sort of situation, and I thought it might seem a bit obvious, but in the business world some of the old guard, those over 40 who have learned this technique from being successful in sales books may be stuck in believing that a joke is a great way to break the ice. You might want to consider including the topic of jokes in one of your future podcasts.”

So, what is the difference between a joke, an anecdote, and a story? What is just enough to make a story? What’s the difference? Well, you bet that leads me to share a story for you this week.

Let me start with a story for you:

This is an adaptation of an Eastern European folktale; the story is “Just Enough.”

A long time ago, more than your years and my years put together, there lived a tailor named Joseph. And when he was an apprentice, he decided that he would give himself a gift when he completed his studies. He would make for himself a jacket, unlike any other. He saved his coins, and when the day came for him to finish his studies, he went out and he bought himself beautiful cloth to make himself a jacket. And he cut and he cut, and he worked and he worked, and he made himself this beautiful jacket. And he wore this jacket, and he wore this jacket, and he wore this jacket many years until it became too threadbare to be worn anymore. But rather than throwing it into the rag bin, he decided that he could make something else from it. He looked at it and said, “There is just enough here.”

And he cut and he cut, and he worked and he worked, and he made for himself a vest. And he wore this vest, and he wore this vest, and he wore this vest for many years as he got older. But after some time, the vest was too threadbare to be worn anymore. But rather than throw it into the rag bin, he looked at it and he thought, “Hmm. There is just enough here.”
And he took that vest and he cut and he cut, and he worked and he worked, and he made himself a cap. A cap to sit on his head. And he wore this cap, and he wore this cap, and he wore this cap as he became much older. But eventually the cap, too, became too threadbare to be kept. But rather than throw it into the rag bin, he looked at it and he thought to himself, “Hmm, I wonder, I wonder what else I could make from this? There is just enough here.”

He cut, and he cut, and he worked and he worked, and he made himself one little bow tie. And he wore this bow tie, and he wore this bow tie, and he wore this bow tie. Until one day when he returned home, his wife of many years looked at him and said, “Where is your bow tie?” And indeed, it was gone. He could not find it. He went back. He retraced his steps, and when he returned home, he said to his wife, “Oh, I have lost. I have lost this that I have had for so many years. There’s nothing left.”

And she looked at him and said, “Oh no, my dear. There is just enough left to make a story. There is just enough to share this story with your grandchildren for years to come. Just enough.”

I’ve heard so many variations of that story, that is just my take on it.

So, if you have attended any of the workshops that I do, you know that I have a definition of storytelling:

Storytelling is the intentional sharing of a narrative through words and actions for the benefit of both the listener and the teller.

One of the keywords in that definition is narrative. Narrative means that you’re telling something that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. These are the things that make it just enough to tell a story. We also define storytelling as having a benefit for both the listener and the teller.

Let’s look at jokes first. Back in the day, if you were around for “back in the day,” you might have read about how jokes are a good way to communicate ideas. However, a joke, unlike a story, does not engage an audience. It’s talking at your audience instead of with people. They have a one line setup, a couple of lines of tension, and then a resolution that may or may not be funny. And the other problem with jokes is that a usually requires an “us versus them” attitude. There has to be somebody in the joke who’s the butt of the joke. I don’t know if that flies anymore in corporate storytelling. I don’t know where it flies anywhere anymore. But it’s one of the challenges of telling jokes. There’s one lump-sum idea that’s delivered in a singular fashion, and it’s delivered at people. It’s not delivered with them. A story has a benefit for both listener and tellers, and jokes don’t do that. I tell you what folks. I really think you should dump most of the jokes out of your presentation style. This is not 1950. Let’s go beyond that.

Another place that people get confused is story versus anecdote. An anecdote, or testimonial, delivers a single fact, and it delivers it without being in context. For example, “Ever since I started using your product, my asthma cleared up.” That is an anecdote, and perhaps a testimonial, but it’s not a story. Or perhaps you might have something like “XYZ Auto Glass has fast service, and that’s why I use them.” Again, that’s an anecdote, not a testimonial. It doesn’t say to the people, “Here’s how my situation is like yours.” A story has a benefit for both listener and teller. It says to the listener “enter this with me.”

In the story you just about Joseph the tailor, I could have simply said, “I know a story about a tailor that turned a jacket into a vest and then into smaller and smaller pieces of clothing.” That would be an anecdote about that story. It wouldn’t actually be the story itself. Anecdotes can be effective but they don’t allow the audience to enter the situation of the story. “Have I had a chance to tell you how XYZ Auto Glass took care of my special needs? Here’s (How they did it? When they did it, and how it affected my situation?)” That’s a story because in a story you can say, “I can see myself in that place.”

the cover of measures of story how to create a story from floats and anecdotes by k. sean buvalaI know at this point you’re thinking, “Sean, I don’t have time for a long story in every situation.” I know. You’re right. The “Just Enough” story can easily be turned into a 20-minute audience-participatory event. I’ve done it that way. I know many tellers that do. Or, the story can be told in two and a half minutes on a corporate storytelling podcast. In our workshops, we teach you “episodic telling.” Make your story into blocks that can be added or removed as needed based on your time, yet still allowing you to keep the essential beginning, middle, and end of the story. Like the tailor, you don’t need to throw out something good. Rather, you can recreate a singular story into just enough time to fit your situation.

Of course, I have a book on this subject. “Measures of Story.” Get yours on the big Azon store here.