When we share a story to illustrate a point or a concept, and that story becomes longer than it needs to be to bring home the point, that's a belabored anecdote. When you're someone who started a rocket company that now does delivery work for NASA, then you can get away with this — go ahead, keep sharing your belabored anecdote because you're Elon Musk. But when you're teaching a classroom full of adolescents, or when you're speaking at a department meeting, you (and I) really can't.
So, some rules of thumb:
- If a story comes to your mind while teaching, and you feel that it could help students understand something better or that it could help create the kind of classroom culture you're making, share it — but do so efficiently. My classroom cannot become (God forbid) the Mr. Stuart Show — it must become the Us Getting Better at World History and Life Show. Every minute listening to your anecdote is a minute that students can't spend reading, writing, speaking, or arguing. The anecdote has a price tag, so don't belabor it.
- If you think of something from your teaching practice that might prove productive for your fellow colleagues in the meeting you're in, share it — but do so efficiently. Having a pint at the bar with your colleagues is the perfect time for inefficient storytelling; sitting in a department meeting is really a poor time.
- For an anecdote to be worth sharing, it must give something of value to the listener, who has just given you something of value (their time). It would be a bit rude to have someone give me their time so that they can listen to me indulge myself with an anecdote.
I've learned (and am learning) all of these the hard way, so if you struggle with the belabored or untimely anecdote, welcome to the club. It's a small thing, but the small things matter.
- This is the conversation between Sal Khan (of Khan Academy) and Elon Musk (of SpaceX and Tesla) where I first heard the term “belabored anecdote.” At the start, Musk is explaining why he was late to the interview, and during the story he mentions something like, “Well, this is getting to be a belabored anecdote.”