Four words and one picture were all it took and my mind was transported to another place and time.  Narrative wound in colourful threads between the words and around the picture to weave a rich narrative. Four words. One picture. Magic. And I found it on

What? I hear you say. I’ll get to that. First some thoughts on brevity and why it can be so powerful in storytelling. Let me start with a ‘story’ (albeit most likely just legend) about the great storyteller himself, Ernest Hemingway.

So the legend goes, Ernest Hemingway made a bet while lunching with some fellow writers that he could pen the world’s shortest novel. A bet he won when he handed around a napkin on which he had written ‘for sale, baby shoes, never worn.’ There it was, the three act narrative; exposition, confrontation and resolution in six words. Quote Investigator so aptly describes its brilliance being that, “the reader must cooperate in the construction of the larger narrative that is obliquely limned by these words.” I couldn’t agree more.

The concept of the six word narrative has since grown legs and become a kind of genre in its own right. Fershleiser and Smith co-founder Larry Smith started a contest in which people wrote six-word stories of their own, as memoirs — then put hundreds of them into a book, “Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure.”

You can check out some great six word stories on twitter #sixwordstory.

Now back to my own story of brevity. I found it in an unusual place, searching where I came across a listing with the title ‘was once a church’. Beside these four words was a single photo of a building bearing some distinct church-like features, rectangular in shape, arched doorway and row of arched windows down the side. The building sat in the middle of a paddock, its original roof long gone having been replaced by a flat corrugated tin lid that had started to rust and weather. It doesn’t quite fit the full narrative scope of a beginning, middle and end but it certainly did make me ‘cooperate in the construction of the larger narrative’. It piqued my interest as I started to question and imagine how the story in front of me came to be. Why was it in the middle of a paddock? Was it moved there? Or was it the first building of a town that never became a town? What happened to its roof? Was it damaged in a storm? Was it stolen by migrating geese?! How long ago did all of this happen? My imagination ran away from me. It was enough narrative to start a story but it left space for possibility.

Of course it got me thinking about the stories we tell in our businesses, to our teams and to our customers. Do we leave them space to fill for themselves and become their own little piece of the story? Do we leave space for possibility? Being overly prescriptive runs the risk of feeling sterile to your audience.

Sometimes moving your audience is done by giving them space to create some of the narrative with you. Andrew Stanton of Pixar is often quoted as saying to his co-writers ‘don’t give them four, give them two plus two.’ In other words, don’t spell it out for them, give them all the ingredients and let them put it together themselves. Not only does it leave a little room for personal interpretation, it allows them to feel that they have somehow participated in the story instead of being broadcast to.  

So how do we leave space in our stories for our audiences to fill? Here’s a few ideas:

  • Include questions if you are telling stories to a live audience – physically get their input
  • Ask your audience to imagine a scenario as you describe it – get them to imagine themselves in your story
  • If you are writing your story read back through your text and cut back some of the extraneous detail – if your story still makes sense without it, you probably don’t need it all
  • Consider where a picture may be able to replace some of your text

Shakespeare may have said it best, “Brevity is the soul of wit,” (Hamlet).