Baby Steps

Baby Steps


For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.

There you have it, a story in six words. Who is selling these shoes-a grieving mother? A widower? Why were the shoes never worn? Was the mother unable to bear children? Did the baby pass away unexpectedly? Or is it something else entirely?

Sometimes attributed to Earnest Hemmingway, this brief story has characters, tension, and a climax. It evokes empathy and wonder in the reader. In just six short words, it SHOWS us a very human story, tugs at our heartstrings, and moves us. It engages. It makes us hungry for more information.

Draw people in using just a few words

While long copy is a proven effective way to reach your audience with storytelling, this tiny example shows us the power of brevity. Consider your ad headlines, taglines, and email subject lines. These should be concise stories that introduce a setting and characters, evoke emotions, create tension, and draw people in-using just a few words.

A case for storytelling headlines

John Caples’ famously effective ad headline from 1926 reads: “They laughed when I sat down at the piano but when I started to play!” While the full text of the ad tells the whole story of this piano player, in 15 words Caples gives us a lot of information: The speaker is a jokester. All he has to do is sit down and his audience is already laughing. The scene is a fun family or social gathering and offers the speaker the chance to amaze and impress with his secret musical talents. The headline leaves the reader wanting to know more. How did the speaker secretly learn how to play the piano? How might we, the reader, also impress others by learning piano? Most importantly, this headline is a human story, one that’s pretty easy for other humans to read and relate to.

Consider if the headline was written instead like this: “Impress your friends. Learn to play the piano in just 2 weeks.” This headline is specific and benefits-driven, but there’s no story. It doesn’t engage or inspire on a human level the same way the Caples headline does. It doesn’t make us feel connected or leave us wanting more.

Show, don’t tell, your short stories

Below are a few more examples you can use as inspiration for your short stories, headlines, taglines, etc. Notice how the words show instead of tell. Which ones make you feel something?

  • Email headline from in 2007: Shop now for Mother’s Day or pay until 2008.
  • Ad headline for Worst Salons: Where the women you hate have their hair done.
  • Quantum fishing gear ad headline: After thirty seconds you’re afraid your line might break. After thirty minutes you’re afraid it might not.
  • Ad for The Economist: Lose the ability to slip out of the office unnoticed.
  • Clairol hair color tagline: Does she or doesn’t she?
  • Las Vegas tagline: What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas.
What’s your short story? How might you tell a gripping story in just a few words?

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