This Thursday, October 27, The Hired Guns Academy will be hosting “What’s Your Story?,” our popular class on storytelling and elevator pitches. Below, the class’s instructor and creator, Larry Smith, talks about when he first realized that limits and parameters are your friend when it comes to creating a powerful, authentic story about your work life.
I was at a wedding this past weekend. The happy couple kissed. The dancing began. And soon enough it was toast time. One by one friends and family took the microphone to pay tribute to the bride and groom. And one by one those loving tributes turned into rambling disasters — often with no end in sight. “Somebody needs to wrestle the mic from him,” I heard a guest say at one point, in a less-than-hushed tone. Still, everyone was in a good mood and laughed off the hot messes who were doing their best to fete the happy couple.
After all, you’re allowed a certain amount of slack at a wedding. But when you fail to get your story straight when the stakes are higher — at a job interview, for example — the consequences are often much worse.
As the editor of the online storytelling community at SMITH Magazine, I think a lot about what makes a good story. I launched SMITH in January 2006 with a simple motto: “Everyone has a story. What’s yours?” Story by story, SMITH grew into an interesting place to read about other people’s lives. In the months that followed, it became clear that good storytelling demanded more structure than SMITH offered. I started adding word limits to our sections: “Brushes With Fame,” about quirky celebrity encounters, is now capped at 500 words; “My Life So Far,” an area for personal essays and for sharing a piece of your memoir-in-progress, welcomes you to share up to 2,000 words. I noticed that the stories began to come into SMITH both with more frequency and more focus. It was a lightbulb moment, one that I thought about during the recent wedding: people need parameters.
It turns out that the tighter the parameter, the better the result. In November 2006, I started SMITH’s shortest story challenge yet, the Six-Word Memoir project, a place for people to write the story of their lives in exactly six words. This micro-story challenge has led to more than half a million Six-Word Memoirs on SMITH and SMITH Teens, a best-selling book series (including a recent Japanese translation), and a board game. It’s a phenomenon that’s spread to classrooms and boardrooms, veterans’ groups and speed-dating sessions. Above all, it’s the perfect tool to capture the essence of who you are.
In my class at The Hired Guns Academy, “What’s Your Story: Master the Art of the Elevator Pitch and Harness the Power of Short-Storytelling,” we’ll talk a lot about what makes a good story, and then work on harnessing your elevator pitch — the short, authentic story of your work life. And then we’ll keep drilling down until we get to just six words, writing Six-Word Memoirs about your whole life, work life, and the places where they intersect.
If you’re planning on taking my class, or just want to start thinking about getting your short story straight before your next job interview, here’s a homework assignment: write your own Six-Word Memoir. And here’s a bonus assignment: create a six-word resume, defining your career in a half-dozen well-chosen words.