How a shrunken vocabulary can grow your creativity

How a shrunken vocabulary can grow your creativity
November 30, 2021 Beth Nyland

My nephew texted me a few weeks ago: “Can I get your address? I’m getting you guys a game.”

This young man really gets me, my husband, and our six kids. We are an irreverent bunch, sharp of wit and often foul of mouth. At family gatherings (or any evening we feel like it), we clear the dinner mess and sit around the table, laughing and one-upping each other in a game. If Dr. Pepper happens to shoot out of someone’s nose, so much the better.

So without a second thought, I pinged my address back to my nephew. Two days later Ransom Notes arrived on my porch. Hilarity ensued.

The game is simple. You get a massive quantity of those little magnetic poetry tiles—random words just begging to be arranged for comedic effect. Also in the box is a hefty stack of prompt cards, each posing a situation that requires some kind of communication. “Write a missing cat poster.” “How do you explain trickle-down economics?” “Pitch a new movie plot to Disney executives.”

Once the prompt is revealed, each player has a minute or two to compose a message, using only the 75-or-so word magnets they’ve drawn from the box. You must “write” from an extremely limited vocabulary. It’s an exercise in speed and creativity.

Ransom Notes has been such a hit in our household, we’ve left it on the dining room table, ever ready for a pick-up game. So, when I found myself with a few quiet moments alone last Wednesday morning, I pulled the box open and sifted through the words, thinking, “This is what it means to Love the Limitations.

Love the Limitations is a core principle for Story Mode. Jill and I are constantly coaxing our clients to see boundaries as an asset. The more constrained your circumstances, the fewer decisions you have to make. This is true whether you’re scanning your fridge for leftovers, dressing from your suitcase, or furnishing your apartment with what’s in stock.

When you embrace the limitations, you can get down to the business of making something.

In celebration of creative possibilities, here is my treat for any reader who has scrolled this far into this article. I give you:

10 Business Messages Written from an Insanely Limited Vocabulary


What can we learn from all this nonsense?

Plenty! As a writer, I re-learned several valuable lessons while preparing this article for you. I hope you picked up a little encouragement as well. Namely:

1. You can say a lot with just a few words …

… even words that are foisted upon you by some silly game. Though most of these messages would benefit from the finesse of conjunctions, pronouns, and punctuation, they are expressive.

2. “The way we always say it” isn’t the only way to say it.

Scavenging for vocabulary forced me to choose and organize even predictable business words in new ways. The resulting phrases are blunt and choppy, but they are workable first drafts.

3. Good work happens when you’re having fun.

I thoroughly enjoyed the 15 minutes I spent arranging those 10 messages and mentally drafting this article. When I sat down to actually write this piece, the words came easily. I’m still smiling, and I hope you are too.


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