CL1: March 2013: Story/Duo/Play

Legend has it that Hemingway once livened up lunch at the famous Algonquin Round Table by claiming he could write a story in just six words. Not a jingle, not a headline, not a summary, but a story with a beginning, middle, and end. He challenged the other writers at the table to ante up ten dollars each and, if he was wrong, he would match their wagers. The words he quickly penned on a napkin were “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Presumably, Hemingway made some money that day.

The Hemingway story may be literary legend, but the six-word story stuck. In 2006, the online magazine Smith resurrected Hemingway’s challenge and asked its readers for six-word memoirs. The challenge soon exploded into books, websites, competitions, and six-second videos. NPR recently invited listeners to submit their thoughts on race and cultural identity as six-word stories. And the Accent Interactive team took on its own six-word story challenge.

Play with a Purpose

Our first Creativity Lab took our team to the flamboyant American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore

Our first Creativity Lab took our team to the flamboyant American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore

We were participating in our first Creativity Lab. We’d modeled the day after an Artist Date but for teams. Our destination: Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum, which was featuring an exhibit on storytelling.

Enroute to the museum, we’d identified four essential elements of a story:

  1. Life gets knocked out of whack.
  2. A protagonist tries to set things straight.
  3. An antagonist tries to obstruct him.
  4. Things get resolved (completely or incompletely, favorably or unfavorably).

Now we were on a treasure hunt of sorts, looking for those elements in the visual stories before us.

Tucked in a corner of the exhibit was a sign about six-word stories and a painting one woman created from her story. The challenge was irresistible: Could we possibly capture all four elements of a story in six words? We paired off, found quiet crannies, and studied two photographs on our iPads. We had five minutes to come up with the six-word story unfolding in each of the photos before us. Click each image to see what happened.

Our team’s six-word stories for this photo included: Worm in apple cuts proposal short. / Picking apple and leaving you. / The problem with dating a fairy.This photograph inspired the following six-word stories: Dancer needs second job to survive. / Ballerina buries competitor in vacant lot. / Dirty job, holey jeans, dancing dreams.

No Way!

If you asked your team members to come up with six-word stories, what kind of responses might you get? Expect resistance, maybe even panic! But also expect surprisingly entertaining and effective results.

Expect, too, to be surprised by who tells the most compelling stories. Our man-of-few-words, tech wizard Tait, was crowned King of the Six-Word Story by the end of our Creativity Lab. His steel-trap mind could look at a photo and capture its essence before the writerly types among us had settled on the name of the protagonist. Enjoy discovering the storytellers on your team.

Worth the Effort

It’s pretty easy to write six-word slogans or six-word goals. But stories are another matter. Incorporating the elements of story—life out of whack, protagonist, antagonist, resolution—forces you to explore meaning in what’s occurring in your tribe, project, or business. Your gut tells you that even though the protagonist got life back in balance this time, it’s gonna get knocked out of whack again soon. And then what? What will motivate you to fight another day? Pie charts? Or stories about how you weathered that mess back in 2009?

Walking the Talk

A week after our Creative Date, our team members wrote their own six-word stories about the day. Here’s a sampling. How did we do? Can you find the essential elements of a story in them?

  • Kitschy store. Dynamic duos. Eloquent storytelling.
  • Art, food, fun fueled storytelling. Next?
  • Art invited Storytelling. A first date.
  • First date jitters—creative duos victorious.
  • Paired storymakers conquer spangled storyville—super!



Ken writes on topics like creativity, work, and productivity. Learn from his discoveries…and his mistakes.




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Creativity Labs