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Six-word stories: unlocking the secret storytellers in your organisation

2 October 2018

Storytelling has long been an important part of the human experience. Stories help us understand ourselves, each other and the world around us. When organisations discover the best stories for their cause, they increase their chances of opening hearts, minds and wallets.

Most people have heard rallying cries like this, and are open to bringing the power of storytelling into their work, but… how to go about it?

I’m the creative director at Catsnake, the story agency. We work with all manner of charities to help them find, craft and tell their stories. Over time, we have developed a few exercises to help people unleash their inner storyteller, as well as understanding how powerful stories can be. I’m going to share one of those exercises here called six-word stories.

The inspiration for this exercise is, appropriately enough, a story about a writer. Legend has it that Ernest Hemingway challenged his friend to see who could write the shortest story. He won with his entry: “For sale, baby shoes, never worn”. Of course, context matters a great deal here. If you saw those same six words on eBay then your reaction may have been far less sad and more commercial.

Using this example as inspiration, this is a fun exercise which you can use to inform and inspire your staff and colleagues in the art of storytelling. I’ve run this exercise with all manner of audiences, from tiny teams up to ballrooms of delegates, from entry-level staff up to people so senior that they have staff to write their tweets. Here’s how to do it yourself.

1. Set the stage

Split the audience into teams of between two and six people. Explain the concept of a six-word story and provide some examples. I think there are three main types of six-word stories:

Self-contained: these stories contain all the key information the audience would need to get the message. Examples:

  • Found true love. Married someone else.
  • Time traveller dies tragically; 1964 – 1514.
  • loop! Help, I’m trapped in a

Shared understanding: these stories rely on information common to everyone. They could reference a person or event which only some people will know about. It’s fine to use these types of stories, so long as you’re confident your audience will have the required information. Without it, it can be an alienating experience for them. Examples:

  • “2pm”, Noah lied to the unicorns.
  • Unpopular messiah turns wine into water.
  • Clarification: Baby shoes were wrong colour.

These may seem obvious to some, but without prior knowledge of Noah’s ark, stories of Jesus or Hemingway’s competition, they would be much less effective.

Word Play: I love a good pun. In fact, for the last two weeks, I’ve made one word-based joke a day to see if any will land with my colleagues; sadly, no pun in ten did. However, they’re not right for this exercise. Self-contained stories and those which reference a shared understanding are great for this exercise. Advise your audience not to rely on wordplay or puns as they’re often not really stories and might divide more than they unite. Examples:

  • Cheating chicken footballers fracas: foul play!
  • I just wrote a great cliff-hanger.
  • Unfortunately, haiku possibilities seldom appear here.

2. State the challenge

Ask each group to develop three different six-word stories over the next 20 minutes – one happy, one sad and one funny.

Give them a broad restriction, such as the location of the stories, a certain object, or in the sector you work in. This actually makes it slightly easier as it focuses the mind.

3. Share the results

After the 20 minutes are up, each group should take a turn to read out their mini-epics.

After each group has read out their gems, I suggest you give them a round of applause (well, not just you, the entire room). It helps provide closure, shows support and brings people together.

4. Debriefing

After the stories have been shared, ask the audience how they found the experience.

To those who found it hard, ask why. To those who say “it got easier”, highlight how this shows that storytelling is something which improves with practice.

Ask which emotions were easiest (normally the sad story) and which was hardest (often the happy story).

This debrief is a vital part of the process. It validates everyone’s experience, it shows that most people feel similarly, and it allows you to tease out the key lessons.

Hopefully, your audience will come away with some or all of the following thoughts:

  • Everyone is empowered to craft stories, and that teamwork can get you there faster. It’s not the preserve of “Creatives”™© who have flashes of inspiration that we mere mortals can only hope to witness from afar.
  • Storytelling is something which takes time and focus. Your first ideas are often not the best but if you keep at it then later drafts will improve.
  • Sad stories are easier to come up with, but happy stories do exist. This lesson is especially key in the third sector in which sad stories are far too often used when an inspiring or happy one would be more effective.
  • Understanding what your audience know (or don’t know) is vital in crafting a story that will connect with them.
  • Brevity is not the opposite of depth, significance or emotion.

After the exercise is over, you could choose to keep the creativity going and run a competition within the organisation each week or month for the best six-word stories. Unleash the creativity within your organisation so everyone benefits from the power of storytelling.

Good luck!

Image: Jessica Lewis on Unsplash

Read more: 

Simple ways to keep your digital team adaptable and creative

Stephen Follows

creative director, Catsnake

Stephen Follows is a writer, producer and storytelling consultant. He’s an expert in helping charities use storytelling to achieve measurable, pre-defined goals.