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The Six-word Story (May 2009 Commencement Address #3, Saturday Afternoon)

  • Date: 05/09/2009
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall, The University of Akron
  • Many of you have heard me say that The University of Akron is a place where you can dream and dare and do the things that it takes to change the world.  

    And I say this because that is what the magic of education is all about...that is the magic of what a university is all about.  It gives you the tools you need to transform opportunities into realities.

    In a moment, we will honor an alumnae who has experienced and helped create the magic that this University provides.  Judy Read's selfless dedication has made her an admired and respected community leader.  She has helped to create new and exciting opportunities for others in our community, and I'm pleased to say that this University is one of many proud beneficiaries of Judy's work.

    In today's fast-paced world, time is at a premium, the population is exploding... information is exploding, and everyone, it seems, is vying for our attention.  At the same time, the average attention span is shrinking. 

    Thus, one of your primary concerns must be the ability to convey your thoughts concisely and clearly.  In fact, you will find that in contrast to the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words, a few strategically placed words can be worth a thousand pictures.

    That communication approach is nothing new.  Some of the history's most far-reaching and influential documents are noted for their conciseness.  For example, rounded off, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is 260 words; the Declaration of Independence consists of 1300 words; and the Magna Carta, 2500 words.  By comparison, this year's Employer's Tax Guide from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service is approximately 37,000 words.  (And, the tax code probably is over 2-million words.)1

    However, brevity is not something that just happens; it requires work; it requires time and attention to detail.  Roman statesman Marcus T. Cicero once wrote to a colleague: "If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter."2

    One fairly well-known example of a clear and concise method of getting one's point across is the so-called "elevator speech." 

    The origin of the term comes from the notion that you meet important people in elevators - people who can help your career, improve your business and enrich your life.

    It also means that in an elevator you have, at least in principle, a captive audience to whom you can deliver a 15- to 30-second core message before the elevator reaches its destination, opens its doors and frees your captives. 

    A portrayal of the elevator speech was a key scene in the 1988 award-winning movie "Working Girl," starring Harrison Ford, Melanie Griffith and Sigourney Weaver.  After being fired from her secretarial job at a New York brokerage firm, the film's heroine, Tess McGill, jumps into the lobby elevator with the owner of one of the firm's biggest clients.  In a passionate 30-second sound bite, she presents her lucrative marketing plan to save his large company from a rival takeover, and immediately is offered an executive position with the client, all before they reach the top floor. 3

    While that elevator ride is fictional, the concept behind an elevator speech is very real...for an entrepreneur pitching an idea to a venture capitalist, or effectively marketing oneself to a potential employer, or maybe just the casual networking opportunities that each of you encounter every day. 

    In most instances, less can be more, and some of the greatest writers have recognized that. 

    In the 1920s, according to literary legend, Ernest Hemmingway was challenged to write a story in only six words.  Hemmingway wrote: "For sale: Baby shoes, never worn."  Some believe Hemingway considered that work among his most challenging; others say he did it on a whim.  Either way, the result was the birth of the six-word story, which over the years, has motivated others.4  

    The most recent twist was inspired by Smith Magazine.....an on-line platform for storytellers.  Founded by long-time editor Larry Smith, the user-generated website allows readers to share short stories and to participate in various writing contests, including Smith's challenge to write their memoirs in only six words.

    Smith Magazine received more than 15,000 entries from across the country.  Taking the best, they published the book, Not Quite What I Was Planning; Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure, which became a New York Times bestseller.  

    The challenging writing exercise, which already is being labeled as "American Haiku," is full of human drama, providing some of the funniest and most inspiring insights into life, and some of the most painful as well.  

    The book is full of well-known names, including novelist Dave Eggers who wrote:

    "Fifteen years since last professional haircut."5

    Singer Aimee Mann: "Couldn't cope so I wrote songs."6

    Comedian Stephen Colbert's contribution: "Well, I thought it was funny."7

    Yet some of the most clever contributions came from those who found themselves being published for the first time.  Here are some examples: 

    "One tooth, one cavity, life's cruel."8

    "Lived like no tomorrow; tomorrow came."9

    "Used to add.  Now I subtract."10

    "Woman with man's name - thanks, parents!"11

    "Found true love; married someone else."12

    "Aging late bloomer yearns for do-over."13

    And finally: "College was fun.  Damn student loans."14

    Smith Magazine describes the book as "...a glorious mishmash (and) a myriad (of) voices...a thousand little windows into humanity - six words at a time."15

    So, as you today are poised to open your own windows of opportunity, to follow your dream with its own magic....daring to accept its own challenges, think for a while about what you really want your six-word memoir to be.  Those six words can become your mantra and your guide to the future.

    And someday, when you reflect back on your life and career, I hope that you will remember your experience at The University of Akron as one that has enabled you to think more clearly and concisely, to dream more boldly and to pursue your dreams relentlessly. 

    And if you are ever inclined to accept the challenge of expressing your memoir in six dynamic words, I hope you can write: "I dreamed, I dared, I did!"

    * * *


    1. wiki.answers.com; chicagotribune.com; U.S. Internal Revenue Service,  "Employer's Tax Guide," 2009
    2. Compiled by Richard Zakia, Professor Emeritus, Rochester Institute of Technology
    3. 20th Century-Fox Film Corporation, Working Girl, New York, 1988
    4. Wikipedia.org
    5. Smith Magazine, editor, "Not Quite What I Was Planning, Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure," New York, 2008
    6. Smith Magazine, Ibid, p. 73
    7. Smith Magazine, Ibid, p. 137
    8. Smith Magazine, Ibid, p. 68
    9. Smith Magazine, Ibid, p. 139
    10. Smith Magazine, Ibid, p. 220
    11. Smith Magazine, Ibid, p. 133
    12. Smith Magazine, Ibid, p. 30
    13. Smith Magazine, Ibid, p. 81
    14. Smith Magazine, Ibid, p. 9
    15. Smith Magazine, Ibid, p. ix
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