Could you share your story in just six words? Thousands of people have been doing just that over the past seven years as a part of SMITH Magazine’s Six-Word Memoir Project. Today the first Six-Word Festival launched on Twitter and includes celebrity contributors such as Jason Biggs, Michael Ian Black, Jane Pratt and Tim Gunn. We asked Six-Word founder Larry Smith to fill us in on the Fest, the project and how Six Words can be used for a cause.
Ad Council: For our readers who may not be familiar with the project, how and why did you start Six-Word Memoirs?
Larry Smith: I launched Six-Word Memoirs as a personal storytelling challenge on a site I started as a passion project, called SMITH Magazine. The site was called SMITH both for the populist vibe of what is the most common surname in America, and as a tribute to my grandfather, who everyone called Smitty and was a wonderful storyteller.
Six-Word Memoirs was first launched as a one-month challenge with a newish company called…Twitter. The contest began right before Thanksgiving and back then all the submissions went straight to my inbox. I remember telling my family about it, and everyone at the table, from 6 years old to 80, totally got it and started swapping Six-Word Memoirs; sixes were flying across the table. And when I checked my in-box that Black Friday I had 2,000 messages waiting for me. That combination of events told me we were onto something big. More than six years, seven books, a board game, and more than 700,000 memoirs and many collaborations with companies and nonprofits later, the concept just gets bigger and more interesting in ways I could never have imagined.
We just unveiled a very cool new feature called Trending, a place to share your Six-Word reaction, summation or opinion on breaking news and popular culture from Syria, gun control, the end of Breaking Bad—any topic that’s part of the conversations of our day.
AC: Have you or others used Six-Word Memoirs for a cause or social good? If so, can you describe the campaign and its impact?
LS: At the heart of how we work with organizations is to spur engagement. Sometimes that’s helping people engage in the democratic process, as our collaboration with the National Constitution Center did as 25,000 people shared their “Six-Word Stump Speeches” online and in an onsite, interactive exhibit at the Center in Philly. At its core, I think Six Words has been compelling for causes and social good because the form does two important things: sparks you to talk about your own life, work and passions, and it also asks you to get to the essence of a topic — from faith to work to war. Whether it’s kids in a classroom sharing six-word stories of their lives or a company asking its customers to sum up a brand, we know this: six words works.
We’ve worked with Bono’s ONE.org on a campaign called “Six Words on Why Moms Matter” to raise awareness of the importance of mothers and the struggles many face every day around the globe and done a campaign with the Drug Policy Alliance timed to the 40th anniversary on the War on Drugs (among others).
Perhaps the partnership that’s closest to my heart is with To Write Love On Her Arms (TWLOHA), a nonprofit dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide. TWLOHA approached me and said: “We’re both in the self-expression business and believe in the power of words to engage people and maybe even help heal them—what can we do together?” We created a dedicated section on Six Word Memoirs called “Six Words on Pain and Hope” where people share six-word stories such as, “After years of chaos, finally peace,” and “I tore up my suicide letter.” We’ve received 20,000 (and counting) Six-Worders in our collaboration with TWLOHA, while offline at Meetups young people shares their sixes in person and then have larger conversations from there. We plan to turn a selection of the submissions into a book.
AC: What are your top 3 Six-Word Memoirs ever?
LS: That’s too hard! How about my favorite six?
• “Dad’s funeral. Daughter’s birth. Flowers everywhere.” – from Tiffany Shlain, who told the backstory at a live event in San Francisco
• “Ex-wife and contractor now have house,” from someone named Drew Peck, found in our Six Words on Love & Heartbreak book.
• “In and out of hot water,” –from Piper Kerman (I’m biased as I’m married to her, but it’s a great summation of her wild life)
• “Sixty. Single. Rich. Call me collect.” – from a guy who stood up and shared this six in front of 300 people during one of our “Six-Word Slams” at the end of a talk I gave at an AARP convention.
• “Life is better in soft pajamas.” – from a third-grader during a workshop in a classroom in the New Jersey.
• “Well, I thought it was funny.” – Stephen Colbert
AC: Tell us about SMITH Teens and what your plans are for that site.
LS: Teens are among our most passionate. I love SMITH Teens. Teens’ lives seem to change by the millisecond, as we see by so many “SMITHTeeners” (as they call themselves), some of who have written literally thousands of Six-Word Memoirs as they treat the platform as their own personal daily diary. Teens like that SMITH Teens is their place—no adults allowed, unlike on so many other social networks—and we simply try to make it a safe, fun playground for them to express themselves in a form they love. While words rule this playground, we’re in the process of making it easy to share six-word stories in images and video on SMITHTeens, because that’s one of the most powerful ways they know how to tell any type of a story.
AC: What is your vision for the upcoming Twitter festival and how can people participate?
LS: The Six-Word Twitter festival is going to be a beautiful mashup of celebrity, regular folks, and short creative storytelling—everything that makes Six Words so magical, inspired and addictive. From Sept. 24-26, we’ll have 12 prompts, led by some of our favorite celebrity tweeters, seeking responses in exactly six words. For example celebrity chef Todd English will ask, “Your secret ingredients to happiness are…?” seeking six word responses. Fashion maven Tim Gunn challenges us to come up with a six-word summation of our own personal style, via a six-word tweet or six-second Vine video. Jason Biggs and cast members from [the popular Netflix series] ‘Orange Is the New Black’ kick off the fest with a prompt that I think is perfect for that crew: “I will never do that again.” As is the six-word way, anyone can participate, all you need is a Twitter handle and a love of storytelling.