“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Legend has it that Ernest Hemingway wrote these words on the back of a napkin after betting some fellow authors that he could write a complete short story in only six words. Now whether you think those six words actually fit the definition of a short story or not, you have to admit that they evoke a whole host of complex emotions that hint at events, characters and motivations that are nowhere to be found in the actual words.

When it comes to telling the story of your brand/organization/product/service in this age of 140-character posts, six-second video clips and prepackaged sound bites, the ability to concisely convey a compelling, fully realized message that cuts through the clutter and engages your audience is crucial. Too many organizations fall into the trap of trying to explain the benefits of their product in painstaking detail when they’d be better served whittling their message down to its sinewy essence.

The Attention Economy

The amount of information that we’re asked to process on a daily basis is staggering. Billboards, television, the Internet, water cooler conversations and even our own daydreams require our brains to work hard to understand the meaning behind the data that’s being broadcast to us.

Unfortunately, attention is a limited resource. We can’t process and retain every piece of information that we’re exposed to each day or we’d experience cognitive overload.

Thankfully, our brains have a way of prioritizing which pieces of information are more important to retain than others. For marketers, the challenge then becomes how to compete for the attention of consumers when there’s so little to go around.

Noted sociologist and economist Herbert A. Simon was one of the first people to describe the Attention Economy:

“…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”

There’s that word “efficient.” As information consumers, it makes sense that we’d try to be efficient with our attention in order to focus on the messages that are important to us. But in the cage match for attention between work, family, politics, brands, sports and pictures of cats, who inevitably gets thrown out of the ring? That’s right: brands.

That is, unless you’re able to tell a compelling story that quickly cuts through the noise and deserves, no demands, attention from your audience.


The idea of micro-storytelling is nothing new. Cave paintings are a perfect example of someone trying to communicate a complex storyline in a quick, easy-to-understand format. Product taglines like “Every kiss begins with Kay” and “Don’t get mad. Get Glad” tell mini-stories with a protagonist, conflict and resolution. Creative writers have been increasingly embracing “flash” fiction as a way to hone their creative chops and be more efficient with their narrative structure and language. But the one thing that’s done the most to bring the art of micro-storytelling to the forefront is the Internet.

cave paintings
The original Micro-Storytelling - credit Raveesh Vyas cc
These days, the king of micro-storytelling platforms is Twitter. Initial criticism of the site lamented the limited amount of characters it gave users to share their thoughts and opinions, but this self imposed limitation was actually the primary reason it became so popular. Blogging allowed people to share and consume information in a more convenient, easily digestible way, and Twitter took this a step further by decreasing the amount of effort it took to share your thoughts and stay informed even more.

But, as TechCrunch writer Drew Olanoff observed, in addition to making information sharing easier, it also started to help us understand the power of brevity:

“…the service forced me to introduce brevity into my arsenal. Yes, the fantastic world of keeping things short and compact… what I’ve noticed since the launch of services like Twitter and Facebook status updates, people are starting to communicate in a more compact and efficient way.”

Compact. Efficient. Why do we value those attributes so much?

While the answer may seem obvious to anyone in our hyper-connected, multi-tasking, sleep-deprived society, the reason behind this need for people to “get to the point” is actually rooted in the idea that attention is a scarce commodity. And as any economist will tell you, scarcity leads to an increase in demand (and value).

Using Micro-Storytelling to Tell Your Story

Whether you’re tweeting, posting, blogging, creating banner ads, email newsletters, press releases or any other form of public facing messaging, these tips will help you tighten up your story so that you have a better chance of getting your fair share of the attention economy:

  • Make every word count: Try to delete any word that doesn’t actively contribute to the message you’re trying to convey. Delete redundant modifiers (sudden crisis, important essentials, end result, etc.), use contractions whenever appropriate ( “it’s” instead of “it is”), use shorter, simpler words instead of longer ones (“expect” instead of “anticipate”) and use the active instead of the passive voice at all times.
    • Take advantage of the Zeigarnik Effect: Human beings are wired to want to complete tasks that they start. This fact, discovered by Russian psychologist Bluma W. Zeigarnik in 1927, helps explain why cliffhangers are so effective in marketing – because when a task is left unfinished, the brain feels uncomfortable until the task is complete or the question is answered. By leaving out the conclusion or payoff of your story, you not only shorten your message, you encourage your audience to engage with your brand and remember your message. This banner ad from Pringles is a perfect example of how this effect can be used to improve interaction.
    • Avoid Jargon: Every word should serve to clarify, not obscure. While it may be tempting to use the latest business buzzwords to make your message sound hip and relevant, they actually end up making your audience work to decode the real meaning of the word or phrase, which will distract them from processing your overall message.
    • You are not the hero of the story: It’s natural for brands to think of themselves as the hero of their story. But consumers don’t see it that way. For them, they are the hero and your product or service is the thing that helps them complete a task. By removing yourself from the message, you not only save words, you make it easier for your audience to see themselves as the hero. So, instead of “We help you save time and money,” it’d just be “Save time and money.”
  • Leave out key facts: The power of Hemingway’s six-word story isn’t in the words that he wrote, it’s in the details he leaves out. By leaving out key facts, he engages the reader in the storytelling process by asking them to fill in the blanks using their own experiences.

Yes, a lot of these are just good copywriting tips. But I think that as the amount of information we’re asked to consume keeps increasing and the amount of attention we have to spare stays the same (barring any leaps in human evolution), the need to focus on these principles is greater than ever.

So the next time you’re composing a tweet, shooting a video, writing a sales letter or composing any sort of brand-related messaging, stop and think about those baby shoes for sale and ask yourself if what you’re creating is going to get a share of the attention economy, or just get lost in all the noise.

Ernest Hemingway
And before you comment, know that I am aware of the irony of a post on micro storytelling that’s more than 1000 words :0