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Storytelling in 50 Words or Less

December 20, 2018 • Sara Eagin

Can you tell a compelling story in six words or less?

Hemingway’s six-word story challenge has inspired many writers, and more than a few high school English teachers and students, to test their skills. While six words might be a fun challenge, it is usually not a storyteller’s preferred way to tell a story that engages readers.

However, today we face a need for what I call “compelling brevity.” People’s attention spans are measured in seconds, and they have a ton of options and distractions. Persuading someone to read your content in the first place is half the battle.

Brand storytellers need to find concise, effective ways to capture attention. From Twitter to exhibit labels to PowerPoint slides, the demand for compelling brevity is everywhere.

Here are a few suggestions for telling a story in 50 words or less:

  1. Use a catchy opener. Your opening line needs to grab attention, explain the point or topic you are addressing, and make people want to keep reading.
  2. Get to the point quickly. The longer it takes to come to your thesis, the less likely people are to keep reading. Be direct.
  3. Make it relevant. Whatever you are sharing, help the reader understand why you’re sharing it. Why does it matter? Why is it important? Why should they care?
  4. Tie it to something the reader already knows. Make the reader feel smart. Don’t jump right to new information, or readers will get confused, feel stupid and stop reading.
  5. Let the reader help connect the dots. With only 50 words at your disposal, you must let the reader help fill in the gaps. Stick to the essentials.
  6. Don’t jump too far. Be careful not to jump too far and leave the reader behind. Don’t assume the reader knows everything you know.
  7. Cut, cut, cut. Anything that is not absolutely necessary to convey your message should be cut.
  8. Show, don’t tell. Seeing is believing. A picture is worth a thousand words.

The ability to tell compelling stories with fewer words comes to life in museums and exhibits. Writing a label for an artifact or photo is an art form that History Factory has been refining for 40 years. Here are a few great examples from the 2017 Excellence in Exhibition Label Writing Competition that we find particularly inspiring:

Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey, California

Morray Eel
Credit: 2018 AAM Excellence in Label Writing Competition

This label, alongside a tank of green moray morena (what you would likely call an eel), paints a vivid picture of the species and packs plenty of information in a small amount of space.


Detroit Institute of Art: “The World in a Cup”

Credit: 2018 AAM Excellence in Label Writing Competition

Here’s what this label says:

Every cup of coffee, tea, and chocolate tells a story.

A global story … both bitter and sweet, of vessels adapted and transformed, of economic systems built on power and subjugation, of identity, both self-defined and imposed, of traditions shared across time and place.

Perhaps there has never been anything simple about a cup of coffee, tea, or chocolate. #SiptheStory

This summary label of a display on the history of various beverages is enticing because it states the main point but gives readers space to connect the dots.


Detroit Institute of Art: Tea Scoop, 1600s–1700s

exhibit 3
Credit: 2017 AAM Excellence in Label Writing Competition

Here’s what the label says:

Small and unassuming, tea scoops are considered the most valuable of all tea utensils because they connect us directly with the masters who carved them by hand from bamboo.

Sugiki Fusai, the famous tea master who made this scoop, painted a poem on the container to commemorate a memorable tea gathering. It expresses how enjoyable it was to drink tea by candlelight after an unexpectedly warm winter day.

This object label goes beyond identifying the artifact as a tea scoop—something most people could probably decipher from simply looking at it. The text gives visitors some context and detail that is interesting to read.



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