The Art of Public Speaking HTML version
An anecdote is a short narrative of a single event, told as being striking enough to bring out a point. The
keener the point, the more condensed the form, and the more suddenly the application strikes the hearer, the
better the story.
To regard an anecdote as an illustration--an interpretive picture--will help to hold us to its true purpose, for a
purposeless story is of all offenses on the platform the most asinine. A perfectly capital joke will fall flat when
it is dragged in by the nape without evident bearing on the subject under discussion. On the other hand, an
apposite anecdote has saved many a speech from failure.
"There is no finer opportunity for the display of tact than in the introduction of witty or humorous stories into
a discourse. Wit is keen and like a rapier, piercing deeply, sometimes even to the heart. Humor is
good-natured, and does not wound. Wit is founded upon the sudden discovery of an unsuspected relation
existing between two ideas. Humor deals with things out of relation--with the incongruous. It was wit in
Douglass Jerrold to retort upon the scowl of a stranger whose shoulder he had familiarly slapped, mistaking
him for a friend: 'I beg your pardon, I thought I knew you--but I'm glad I don't.' It was humor in the Southern
orator, John Wise, to liken the pleasure of spending an evening with a Puritan girl to that of sitting on a block
of ice in winter, cracking hailstones between his teeth."
The foregoing quotation has been introduced chiefly to illustrate the first and simplest form of anecdote--the
single sentence embodying a pungent saying.
Another simple form is that which conveys its meaning without need of "application," as the old preachers
used to say. George Ade has quoted this one as the best joke he ever heard:
Two solemn-looking gentlemen were riding together in a railway carriage. One gentleman said to the other:
"Is your wife entertaining this summer?" Whereupon the other gentleman replied: "Not very."
Other anecdotes need harnessing to the particular truth the speaker wishes to carry along in his talk.
Sometimes the application is made before the story is told and the audience is prepared to make the
comparison, point by point, as the illustration is told. Henry W. Grady used this method in one of the
anecdotes he told while delivering his great extemporaneous address, "The New South."
Age does not endow all things with strength and virtue, nor are all new things to be despised. The shoemaker
who put over his door, "John Smith's shop, founded 1760," was more than matched by his young rival across
the street who hung out this sign: "Bill Jones. Established 1886. No old stock kept in this shop."
In two anecdotes, told also in "The New South," Mr. Grady illustrated another way of enforcing the
application: in both instances he split the idea he wished to drive home, bringing in part before and part after
the recital of the story. The fact that the speaker misquoted the words of Genesis in which the Ark is described
did not seem to detract from the burlesque humor of the story.
I bespeak the utmost stretch of your courtesy tonight. I am not troubled about those from whom I come. You
remember the man whose wife sent him to a neighbor with a pitcher of milk, who, tripping on the top step,
fell, with such casual interruptions as the landings afforded, into the basement, and, while picking himself up,
had the pleasure of hearing his wife call out:
"John, did you break the pitcher?
"No, I didn't," said John, "but I be dinged if I don't."
So, while those who call to me from behind may inspire me with energy, if not with courage, I ask an
indulgent hearing from you. I beg that you will bring your full faith in American fairness and frankness to