Legend has it that when asked to write a full story in six words, novelist Ernest Hemingway responded: “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.” After coming across this quote in 2006, the online magazine Smith began the tradition of six-word memoirs to communicate stories. Several projects and books resulted, including Not Quite What I Was Planning. These in turn inspired National Public Radio to call for listeners’ comments on current issues using this concise form.
Six-word stories can make profound statements. NPR’s Race Card Project has many powerful examples, including “Ask who I am, not what” from Jessica Hong and “I ate pasta, family ate rice” from Melanie Vanderlipe Ramil. Smith magazine’s Six-Word Memoirs on Love and Heartbreak range from romantic (“He sees the me I don’t”) to heartbreaking (“For the children, I remain his”). The newspaper Forward’s call for six-word memoirs about mothers yielded similarly profound statements such as Jennifer Glick’s (“Mother, our lady of perpetual dissatisfaction”) and Ari VanderWalde’s (“Strong, independent rethinker of tuna casserole”). And the poignant memoir by Jane Eisner, Forward‘s editor-in-chief, who had recently lost her mother: “I didn’t slip on the leaves.” Her story fills in the gaps: “I have this very strong memory of going to school in the morning and my mom exhorting me and my sister not to slip on the leaves. For many decades I thought that was kind of ridiculous, until of course I became a mother myself.”
In the spirit of succinct yet profound brevity and the desire to create a messages that are impactful, what follows are the six-word memoirs of the 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellows with the call to explain how their training has changed them or their approach in communicating science.
“Building confidence and competence, cooperative capacity” – Max Boykoff
“Short tweetable thoughts increase science impact” – Trevor Branch
“Looking for answers? Just add water.” – Rich Camilli
“Effecting change? Leading, by always learning” – Kai Chan
“Rekindled passion for work and hope” – Jennifer Cherrier
“Complicated is easy, simple is hard” – Claudio Gratton
“Effective science leadership: some assembly required.” – Rees Kassen
“Exhilarating exhausting succinct and strategic metaphor” – Kevin Krizek
“Shift, reach, grow, new path forward” – Josh Lawler
“Speak to be heard. Not ignored.” – Stephen Porder
“Working on this; painstaking, plainspeaking relevance! – John Sabo
“Believe you can lead; others do.” – Lisa Schulte-Moore
“Doing policy-relevant science? Hard. Leopold helps.” – Noelle Selin
“Weaving stories of ocean and ice” – Fiamma Straneo
“Now I understand ‘service above self’.” – Jennifer Tank
“Amazing things happen in gear four.” – Laura Taylor
“Intense communication experience, eyes opened wide.” – David Valentine
And my six-word memoir? After finally gaining back lost confidence: “Crushed relentless trepidation, intimidated no more.”
What insights would you capture in six words? As you contemplate this, here are some “anonymous” entries I received: “Holy shit, what was I thinking?” “WHAT did I sign up for?” “I didn’t know there was homework” and “Never a dull moment with leopoldites.”
Jill Caviglia-Harris, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a Professor of Economics in the Economics and Finance Department in the Franklin P. Perdue School of Business and the Environmental Studies Department in the Fulton School of Liberal Arts at Salisbury University.