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12 Short Anecdotes That Entertain and Enlighten

If “the most powerful person is the storyteller,” as Steve Jobs once said, it’s probably a good idea to have a few stories at hand. Narratives have a reputation for being more memorable than any facts and figures you can throw at your audience. As they convey purpose and meaning, stories illustrate a point much more engagingly. Sourced from history, literature and personal experience, short anecdotes are the ideal type of story. But before we dive into twelve entertaining and enlightening examples, here’s what makes anecdotes stand out in the storytelling world.

What Are Anecdotes and Why?

Anecdotes are short, often witty narratives about biographical incidents or other mostly true events. However, according to Clifton Fadiman, the author of The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes, these simple stories do “not flourish in isolation”. They’re “social products” passed on for entertainment, to make things more interesting and provoke deeper thought. Anecdotes serve as “decoration” for biographies or otherwise dry historical accounts.

And herein lies their popularity in everyday life. As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes in The Righteous Mind: “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.” In reference to psychologist Dan P. McAdams’ life story model of identity, Haidt points out that “among the most important stories we know are stories about ourselves.” Because one way we give our life purpose, McAdams suggested, is by carefully crafting our autobiographies; “life narratives” he sees as a “third level of personality”.

Narratives reveal someone’s true character we might say. And if we believe author Shawn Callahan, this even extends to companies. In Putting Stories to Work, Callahan explains how business leaders can use anecdotes to gauge “what’s really happening in an organisation”. Stories go beyond the facts and figures to reveal the soul of an organisation. (If it has one.) But we cannot impress with an anecdote if we don’t have one at hand.

12 Short Anecdotes

Here are twelve short anecdotes for various occasions; from philosophical and inspirational, to cautionary and purpose-driven.

1. The Best You Can Do

We start with an anecdote about Henry Kissinger. It’s taken from Kissinger, the biography written by Walter Isaacson.

One oft-told tale about Kissinger […] involved a report that Winston Lord had worked on for days. After giving it to Kissinger, he got it back with the notation: “Is this the best you can do?” Lord rewrote and polished and finally submitted it; back it came with the same curt question.

After redrafting it one more time – and once again getting the same question from Kissinger – Lord snapped, “Damn it, yes, it’s the best I can do.”

“Fine, then I guess I’ll read it this time.”

2. Atwood’s Duck

Some anecdotes inspire a whole new concept such as Atwood’s Duck. Here’s a modern one as told by software developer Jeff Atwood.

It was well known that producers (a game industry position, roughly equivalent to PMs) had to make a change to everything that was done. The assumption was that subconsciously they felt that if they didn’t, they weren’t adding value.

The artist working on the queen animations for Battle Chess was aware of this tendency, and came up with an innovative solution. He did the animations for the queen the way that he felt would be best, with one addition: he gave the queen a pet duck. He animated this duck through all of the queen’s animations, had it flapping around the corners. He also took great care to make sure that it never overlapped the “actual” animation.

Eventually, it came time for the producer to review the animation set for the queen. The producer sat down and watched all of the animations. When they were done, he turned to the artist and said, “that looks great. Just one thing — get rid of the duck.”

3. Facing an Angry Mob

The French writer Voltaire was known for his sharp wit. Here’s an anecdote from his short stint in England. Again, this is taken from Clifton Fadiman’s book.

Voltaire was living in exile in London at a time when anti-French sentiment was at its highest. One day walking through the streets, he found himself surrounded by an angry crowd. “Hang him. Hang the Frenchman,” they yelled.

Voltaire calmly addressed the mob with the following words: “Men of England! You wish to kill me because I am a Frenchman. Am I not punished enough in not being born an Englishman?”

The crowd cheered his thoughtful words, and escorted him safely back to his lodgings.

4. The Cobra Plague

Our next anecdote is based on a story by German economist Horst Siebert. With the narrative, Siebert coined the infamous Cobra Effect.

During the British rule of India, when the population of venomous cobras rose to worrying levels in Delhi, authorities offered a reward for dead cobras. People tracked the snakes down, killed them and turned them in. It worked — until it didn’t.

Some inventive locals began to breed cobras so they could make a profit by killing them and turning them in. Since that was not in the spirit of the incentive and didn’t solve the problem at hand, the British government ended the program. It worked — only it didn’t.

The cobras had suddenly become useless to the breeders. So they set them free, once again causing a cobra plague in Delhi. It’s even said that it was worse than before the government intervention.

5. The Tiger in the Dining Room

Literature is full of inspiring anecdotes. The Tiger in the Dining Room is taken from Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day. It’s a story about an aging English butler looking back at his life of service. The anecdote is gleefully told by his father (a butler himself) to illustrate the value of dignity and professionalism.

There was this English butler out in India. One day, he goes in the dining room and what does he see under the table? A tiger. Not turning a hair, he goes straight to the drawing room. “Hum, hum. Excuse me, my lord,” and whispering, so as not to upset the ladies:

‘I’m very sorry, sir, but there appears to be a tiger in the dining room. Perhaps you will permit the twelve-bores to be used?’ And according to legend, a few minutes later, the employer and his guests heard three gun shots. When the butler reappeared in the drawing room some time afterwards to refresh the teapots, the employer had inquired if all was well.

‘Perfectly fine, thank you, sir,’ had come the reply. ‘Dinner will be served at the usual time and I am pleased to say there will be no discernible traces left of the recent occurrence by that time.’

6. Saying Less

One of Robert Greene’s infamous 48 laws of power is the notion of always saying less than necessary. Here’s an anecdote Robert Greene uses to illustrate his point.

Down on his luck [the screenwriter] Michael Arlen went to New York in 1944. To drown his sorrows he paid a visit to the famous restaurant “21”. In the lobby, he ran into Sam Goldwyn, who offered the somewhat impractical advice that he should buy racehorses.

At the bar, Arlen met Louis B. Mayer, an old acquaintance, who asked him what were his plans for the future. “I was just talking to Sam Goldwyn…” began Arlen. “How much did he offer you?” interrupted Mayer. “Not enough,” he replied evasively. “Would you take fifteen thousand for thirty weeks?” asked Mayer.

No hesitation this time. “Yes,” said Arlen.

7. At a Crossroads

Since anecdotes are often used to embellish biographies, they can easily be misused as a means of propaganda. Some of the most sinisterly entertaining anecdotes come from the hermit nation of North Korea. Here’s one from the North Korean propaganda book The Great Man Kim Jong-Il, which is meant to showcase the dictator’s benevolence.

Early in the next morning after the guidance to an organization on the spot, the dear Comrade Kim Jong Il hastily walked up to his car, sat behind wheel and told his assistant to board the car. He was embarrassed, not knowing what the matter was. The dear Comrade Kim Jong Il told him that they were to leave right away as he was informed that an urgent matter came up.

The assistant, entering the car, was about to suggest calling the driver, but the car already started. Roadside trees and electric poles flitted by across the car window. The assistant knew that he hurried on account of a pressing affair, but the unusual speed of the car kept him restless. The car was racing at full speed along the street where Pyongyang Maternity Hospital was.

Suddenly the car slowed down. About 300 metres ahead of it a long column of hundreds of children which had just entered the crosswalk was crossing the road. The assistant suggested him to sound the horn. But the dear Comrade Kim Jong Il wordlessly slowed down the car to a stop. Schoolchildren were unhurriedly crossing.

“Why the column appeared at this moment!” the assistant fretted, looking at the column. “Dear Leader, we are pressed for time. The horn must be sounded…” the assistant said and then desisted from suggesting. The dear Comrade Kim Jong Il was looking out of the car window with a smile as if unaware of the passage of time. A smile lingered on his face for long. He seemed charmed with the appearance of children.

After a while he said quietly: “Children are perhaps going to do good deeds. We should not frighten them with the horn. We may be somewhat late, but should never frighten them.” Stopping the car at the crossroad, he waited long until the long column of schoolchildren crossed the road.

That day at the crossroad there was not only schoolchildren but also a traffic controller and passersby, but none of them knew that behind the wheel in the car there sat the dear Comrade Kim Jong Il they yearned after, waking or sleeping.

8. Feynman’s Impossible Feat

Given their emotional effect, it seems like a good idea to fact-check anecdotes. Such as this one about physicist Richard Feynman. It was skillfully generated by OpenAI. Only when asked it admits the story is merely a “fictionalized example inspired by his teaching methods”. While based on the legendary Feynman Technique, the faux anecdote is mostly untrue. Feynman was smart. But not that smart.

Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist known for his brilliant mind and playful personality, was once asked to serve on a government committee evaluating the educational system. During the committee’s meeting, Feynman shared his concern about the traditional teaching methods that emphasised rote memorization over deep understanding.

To illustrate his point, Feynman asked one of the committee members to pick a random topic they believed Feynman knew nothing about. The member suggested the topic of ancient Babylonian architecture. Feynman agreed to the challenge and asked for a few minutes to gather his thoughts.

When Feynman returned, he started explaining ancient Babylonian architecture with such depth and clarity that the committee members were astonished. Feynman then admitted that he had known nothing about the topic just a few minutes earlier. He had simply used his knowledge of general principles and his ability to think critically to piece together a coherent explanation.

9. The Sausage Duel

There are many stories surrounding Otto von Bismarck, the German chancellor of the late 19th century. Here’s a particularly witty one from Fadiman’s collection:

The German Chancellor Bismarck, enraged at the constant criticisms from Rudolf Virchow (the German pathologist and liberal politician), had his seconds call upon the scientist to challenge him to a duel.

“As the challenged party, I have the choice of weapons,” said Virchow, ” and I choose these.” He held aloft two large and apparently identical sausages. “one of these, he went on, “is infected with deadly germs; the other is perfectly sound. Let His Excellency decide which one he wishes to eat, and I will eat the other.”

Almost immediately the message came back that the chancellor had decided to cancel the duel.

10. Carpet Scene

We stay in Germany. In 1949, the first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany Konrad Adenauer made history with this anecdote commonly known as the carpet scene. It shows the power of protocol and symbolism.

Adenauder stepping on the red carpet at the Petersberg Hotel
The Carpet Scene

In 1949, Konrad Adenauer was elected the first chancellor of post-WWII Germany. At that time, the Allied High Commissioners resided at the famous Hotel Petersberg near Bonn. Here Adenauer was to introduce his newly formed cabinet to the commission.

The three commissioners were awaiting the German delegation standing on a large red carpet. Protocol assigned the German chancellor a spot next to it.

However, Adenauer defied protocol by deliberately stepping onto the carpet. This was widely seen as a first symbolic step towards Germany’s aspirations to see eye-to-eye with the commissioners.

11. The Ditch High Priest

Moving on to Japan for another entertaining story from the Little Brown Book of Anecdotes. A short narrative about bad temper and Alan Watts’ Backwards Law.

Kin’yo, an officer of the second rank, had a brother called the High Priest Ryogaku, an extremely bad-tempered man. Next to his monastery grew a large nettle-tree which occasioned the nickname people gave him, the Nettle-tree High Priest.

“That name is outrageous,” said the high priest, and cut down the tree. The stump still being left, people referred to him now as the Stump High Priest. More furious than ever, Ryogaku had the stump dug up and thrown away, but this left a big ditch. People now called him the Ditch High Priest.

12. The Parable of the Plank

The last anecdote comes courtesy of Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructor John Danaher. It’s a story from his childhood in which he illustrates the difference between training and competing in front of an audience.

In the 1970s, a young John Danaher was attending a high school in rural New Zealand. One day, an “enthusiastic amateur” stuntman dropped by to perform a series of stunts for the kids. The children watched in amazement as the Australian “daredevil” set his gloved hand on fire, caught a boomerang and walked across a plank he put up between the two buildings of the school. “How can he do that?” the children wondered.

After this final trick, the stuntman took the plank and put it on the ground, letting the children cross it one by one. It was easy for the kids. Then the stuntman looked at them and said something John never forgot: “The plank is the same. I put it up higher and so it took your breath away. But you guys just ran across the plank. The plank didn’t change, your perceptions of it did.”

BONUS: The Vodka Effect

I’ll close with a personal anecdote I’ve used to show how the law of unintended consequences can screw you over. Even if you achieve your intended goal.

In 2015, I visited a friend in Minsk, Belarus. The city was plastered with billboard ads for a local vodka. So it seemed. I had tasted the iconic drink the night before. The black, blue and silver label of the crystal clear liquor was very recognisable. But the billboards didn’t promote vodka at all. My friend filled me in.

A while back, the government had outlawed ads for alcoholic drinks. Being prohibited from promoting their alcohol, the company started selling the water they used for vodka production, too. The labels for the water bottles looked suspiciously like the ones used for their vodka. What I was looking at was an advertising campaign for their crystal clear “spring water”.

Closing Thoughts

Rather than a collection of facts on a resume or in a history book, anecdotes are about real-life experiences of what has happened and why; often rounded off with a punchline. Sharing the right anecdote with the right audience on the right occasion can be a powerful move.

Once you understand how they work, you can craft them from personal experiences to build a repertoire for every occasion. And if you’re looking for more eye-opening narratives, check out my articles on philosophical Zen stories and inspiring stories with a moral.