The story goes that Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to write a novel in just six words. His submission: "For sale: baby shoes. Never worn." He claimed it was his best work ever. Urban legend or not, it's a story that offers powerful lessons about how you lead, see your company, sell your idea, and far more.
In the larger sense, what this tale reminds us is that story is a potent tool no matter what we do. At once, it is a vehicle that carries a message, mystery, promise, and entertainment. It tells us something of the storyteller too. And in all of this, it affords the opportunity to connect the teller to others in lasting ways.
But the six-word story offers more, as both an exercise and a handy reminder we'd be wise to take into whatever we do.
1. Less is more.
You hear it frequently but it's true: you get more mileage from a shorter, tighter story or statement. Here's the thing: the reason less is more isn't based simply on the ability to come up with a company name, a tagline, a marketing pitch, or a mission statement that consists of fewer words. The power lies in your ability to reduce a much larger message or vision down to its essence. It isn't easy. But the exercise of working toward a short format is where the real reward lies. You come to know what's important and essential, leaving all else either out or to the imagination of the audience. It's the very reason Mark Twain used to say, "If I'd had more time I'd have written less."
2. Leave breadcrumbs.
We tell stories not for our own benefit, but to engage others. So when we craft our story, it's important to think about our audience first and foremost. People like a mystery more than a lecture. They want to be a part of the story in some way, to relate directly to it. Better still is a story that actually allows the audience to become a part of it - that is through the story they feel able to seek autonomy and mastery and even to create value of their own, all things proven to incentivize humans and keep them engaged.
3. Turn heads.
Serial entrepreneur and author of Begging for Change Robert Egger once told me that he goes through each day seeking the head tilt. What he meant was that sideways, Labrador retriever tilt of the head that is the surest sign of a curious mind. Egger believes that whether he's tilting heads through what he offers, or tilting his own head when he listens to others, something interesting and worthwhile is about to happen.
4. Invite imagination.
In Hemingway's short novel, we don't know exactly what happened, but boy do we want to. At their best, stories do more than invite people in and make them curious. They ask them to do some storytelling of their own, even if just in their own head. When they do these things, they are empowered to tap that shared but too often dormant skill of ours--creativity --and open up the possibilities.
5. Make them your own.
All of these lessons of the six-word story drive at one overriding and most important point: stories are most powerful when we--as storyteller or listener--are able to make them our own. We are a story-driven species, relying on stories to guide us, entertain us, and capture our essence and our potential. It's precisely why "the best stories are our own"--a final six words to remind you how to mine their power.